The "Negro Question" and Oregon Politics

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Newspapers, such as Thomas Dryer's Weekly Oregonian, played central roles in Oregon politics and the debate about slavery during the 1850s.

Political leaders largely succeeded in marginalizing free blacks in everyday Oregon life and keeping the number of slaves in the territory to a minimum. But they couldn't withstand the tidal wave of bitter division sweeping through the nation in the 1850s. The national crisis became so overwhelming that it forced the Salem Clique political machine to respond to new fissures in the Democratic Party. And it compelled Oregonians to face what many perceived to be the real possibility of having slavery imposed on the territory. Debates ensued over the practicality of slavery in Oregon and whether citizens should vote for statehood as a way to protect their choice in the matter. As the tensions mounted, heated arguments erupted in newspapers over how to proceed.

Blatant Racism and Vitriol

Comments about race that would shock most modern readers were part of the normal political culture and debate in Oregon of the 1850s. It was accepted that Delazon Smith, the widely influential member of the Salem Clique, would comment that he disliked the black race because “his heels stick out too far; his forehead retreats too much; his smell too strong.” Even more forceful opinions could be found on the front pages of leading newspapers such as the following excerpt of an 1855 letter by N.V. Holmes to the Oregonian in which he argued that:

The Politics of Slavery

In addition to struggles with Joseph Lane and Democratic insurgents, a third and more complicated challenge to the dominant Salem Clique came from the poisonous debate within the Democratic Party over slavery. Since 1820 the Missouri Compromise had prohibited slavery north of latitude 36°30' north, thereby helping to avert a civil war. But the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 rendered the compromise "inoperative and void" by deeming that settlers could decide by popular vote whether to allow slavery. Even though most Oregonians appeared to oppose slavery in the territory, the new law removed a barrier to the institution in the territory and ignited debates about how the party would respond. The clique tried to buy time by composing a party platform in 1857 that allowed members to follow their individual convictions. But the splits over slavery weakened the party by adding yet another problem on top of the already ongoing tensions with Joseph Lane and increasing assaults by the "softs."

A portrait of President Buchanan
Many Oregonians feared President Buchanan would impose slavery in the Oregon Territory. Enlarge image.
While Democrats were drifting on the issue of slavery, the Dred Scott Decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in March 1857 had a sobering effect on Oregon. The court ruled, among other things, that Congress and territorial legislatures had no authority to prohibit slavery in federal territories—only sovereign states could decide the issue of slavery. Adding to the tension, many Oregonians wondered if President James Buchanan might actually impose it here. This was no idle concern since federal forces had intervened on the pro-slavery side when violence broke out in the Kansas Territory. Amid the political turmoil, the Salem Clique saw the development as an opportunity to improve its fortunes in the upcoming June vote on whether to hold a constitutional convention. Statehood could help the party take some of the focus off of its divisions on the slavery issue and give it a chance to capture most of the new state's elective offices.

Voters, scared off by fears of higher taxes, had rejected proposals to make Oregon a state three times in the previous years. But now statehood could protect Oregon from having slavery imposed. Even the anti-Democrats agreed that, in the wake of the Dred Scott Decision, Oregon needed the protections of statehood. Thomas Dryer, the most prominent anti-Democrat in his role as founder and editor of the Oregonian newspaper, summed up the reasoning that led more than 80 percent of voters to endorse a constitutional convention: "Let us have a state government and make the issue at once. If we are to have slavery forced upon us let it be by the people here and not by the slavery propagandists at Washington City." Leaders had finally found an issue to unite most Oregonians across much of the political spectrum, if only briefly. Once committed to statehood, the question became whether Oregonians should themselves decide in favor of becoming a free or slave state. Footnote 2

The "Free State Letter" 

A portrait of Dred Scott
The Dred Scott Decision led many Oregonians to change their minds about statehood.
Shortly before the scheduled start of the constitutional convention in August 1857, Territorial Supreme Court Chief Justice George Williams, who a few years before had underscored the illegality of slaveholding in his Holmes v. Ford ruling (see sidebar), spoke out against the prospect of slavery in Oregon. Williams wrote a long letter, published in Asahel Bush's Oregon Statesman, responding to what seemed to be a growing number of Democrats favoring slavery in Oregon. Bush had earlier declared that the sole question about slavery was, "Will it pay?" He elaborated that "we do not believe there are five hundred voters in Oregon, who, in exercising their suffrage upon this question, will be influenced by considerations of the morality or immorality, abstract justice or injustice, &c., &c., of enslaving the negro race. The only real questions here are, is the introduction of slavery in to Oregon practicable? and will it prove profitable?" Footnote 3 Bush also claimed that pro-slavery sentiment had risen sharply in recent months. Footnote 4 An apprehensive Williams used his "Free State Letter" to strongly argue that slavery was not not adaptable to Oregon's economy and to the contrary would be disastrous.

Williams established his credibility with his intended readers by declaring his hatred for abolitionism or black equality while affirming his belief that slavery should be left alone where it already existed. In fact, he considered southern slaveholders to be "as high minded, honorable, and humane a class of men as [could] be found in the world..." and maintained they were being persecuted by abolitionists. Footnote 5 He went on to argue that slavery would harm the existing labor force, writing that

Williams also argued that the cost of bringing slaves to Oregon and maintaining them would be prohibitively expensive. Only a handful of Oregon's farmers could afford the cost of buying, transporting and providing for slaves. Moreover, the territory's crops and economy generally were not suited for slavery or a plantation system such as was used with cotton in the South. And, Oregon's climate worked against the profitability of slavery. Williams contented that while white wage laborers could be hired and paid to work only for the period they were needed, such as planting and harvesting seasons, slaves would have to be supported by their master the entire year. This led to the question "what could a negro fitted by nature for the blazing sun of Africa, do in an Oregon winter?" Footnote 7 Williams also claimed southern slaveholders would only sell their most troublesome slaves. Would these slaves, once in Oregon, escape to the free state of California or the free territory of Washington? Or worse yet, would they flee to the refuge of hostile Indians, perhaps forming an alliance to attack isolated and poorly protected white settlements in Oregon?

Other Opinions

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Asahel Bush published numerous letters on the subject of slavery in the Oregon Statesman newspaper during the months before the constitutional convention in 1857.
These and other arguments, logically presented and documented, helped Williams reverse the previous rise in pro-slavery sentiment but his was far from the only voice on the subject. Two weeks before the convention, Asahel Bush echoed Williams' argument: "We believe that the African is destined to be the servant and subordinate of the superior white race...that the wisdom of man has not yet devised a system under which the negro is as well off as he is under that of American slavery. Still...our climate, soil, situation, population, &c., render impossible institution in Oregon." Footnote 8 Hoping to publish a range of Democratic opinions on the issue in the Oregon Statesman, Bush tried to convince Matthew Deady, who would soon preside over the convention, to write a pro-slavery argument but was refused. Deady did, however, boil the entire issue down to the coldly simple question of the portability of property rights in a letter to a friend: "If a citizen of Virginia can lawfully own a Negro...then I as a citizen of Oregon can obtain the same right of property in this Negro... and am entitled to the protection of the Government in Oregon as in Virginia." Footnote 9 He insisted any argument not related to the property issue was "begging the question or rather dodging it" since blacks were "just as much property as horse, cattle or land." Footnote 10

A drawing of Jacksonville
Jacksonville (shown here in ca. 1855) was at the heart of southern Oregon's pro-slavery movement. (Hutchings panoramic image courtesy Online Archive of California)
Bush tried to stick to the center of the debate in his party but there was no shortage of newspapers occupying the ends of the political spectrum on the issue. The Oregon Argus, which was published in Oregon City and had run letters to the editor against slavery since 1855, raucously conveyed the Republican Party's anti-slavery message. Most of its writers feared slavery would create a social caste system and discourage white settlers from coming to Oregon, leaving the state looking like some of the worst regions of the South. Although Thomas Dryer of the Oregonian hated slavery, he appeared to expend more energy dissecting the arguments and contradictions of Democrats than he did in espousing his views on the issue. Dryer claimed Democrats were trying to force slavery on Oregon, predicting that leaders would make sure the party apparatus was "whipped into line" on the issue. Footnote 11

Meanwhile, the Table Rock Sentinel, published in Jacksonville, forcefully represented southern Oregon's pro-slavery leanings. Likewise, the Occidental Messenger, published in Corvallis, argued strongly for slavery in Oregon. Historian Walter Woodward described the newspaper by writing that "more radical, vehement and defiant advocacy of the slavery dogma could hardly have been expected in South Carolina...." Looking forward to an election on the issue of slavery in Oregon, the editor of the Occidental Messenger hinted that, even if voters rejected slavery, their wishes would not be recognized: "Whether our principles triumph in the present election or not, so strong is our faith in the omnipotence of Truth, that we shall throw out upon our banner, to the pro-slavery men of Oregon, in whom we place our chief reliance, the consecrated words of [John] Paul Jones—'We have not yet begun to fight.'" Footnote 12 These were ominous words leading into the constitutional convention and indicative of a rising intransigence in the nation just a few years before the start of the Civil War.

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  1. Eugene H. Berwanger, The Frontier Against Slavery: Western Anti-Negro Prejudice and the Slavery Extension Controversy (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1967) 84.
  2. David Alan Johnson, Founding the Far West: California, Oregon, and Nevada, 1840-1890 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992) 65.
  3. Oregon Statesman, March 31, 1857.
  4. Walter Carleton Woodward, The Rise and Early History of Political Parties in Oregon, 1843-1868 (Portland: J.K. Gill Company, 1913) 112.
  5. Eugene H. Berwanger, The Frontier Against Slavery: Western Anti-Negro Prejudice and the Slavery Extension Controversy (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1967) 91.
  6. David Alan Johnson, Founding the Far West: California, Oregon, and Nevada, 1840-1890 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992) 151.
  7. Eugene H. Berwanger, The Frontier Against Slavery: Western Anti-Negro Prejudice and the Slavery Extension Controversy (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1967) 92.
  8. Malcolm Clark, Jr., Eden Seekers: The Settlement of Oregon, 1818-1862 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981) 290.
  9. Ibid., 289.
  10. Eugene H. Berwanger, The Frontier Against Slavery: Western Anti-Negro Prejudice and the Slavery Extension Controversy (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1967) 89.
  11. Ibid., 86.
  12. Walter Carleton Woodward, The Rise and Early History of Political Parties in Oregon, 1843-1868 (Portland: J.K. Gill Company, 1913) 114.
  13. Quintard Taylor, "Slaves and Free Men: Blacks in the Oregon Country, 1840-1860," Oregon Historical Society Quarterly 83 (Summer 1982): 167-168.