Pervasive Issues of Race

A drawing of a militia man
The convention debated who would serve in the Oregon Militia. Most delegates wanted only free white men to be eligible.
Attitudes about white foreign immigrants divided the convention, but the delegates were much more united in their animosity to people of color. The convention avoided discussion of slavery by planning to pass the issue to the voters, thereby giving its members the political cover of respecting the sovereignty of the electorate. This tacit agreement worked in direct relation to the slavery question, but did nothing to curb racist debates related to other issues. Thus, delegates spoke freely about people of color in relation to a number of subjects, including participation in the militia, voting rights and the upcoming election asking the question: "Do you vote for free Negroes in Oregon?"

A Free White Militia?

The question of who would be eligible to serve in the Oregon militia brought with it discussion of race and freedom. The original article reported by the military affairs committee made all "able-bodied free white citizens" subject to conscription. Thomas Dryer moved to strike the word "free" from the text since "there can be no white slaves here—all men here are free, and there are none else but free, white or black, thank God." But this triggered an obtuse concern from John Kelsay. He claimed that "every one who is from a slave state knows that there are slaves as white as any man in this house." If Oregon adopted slavery, he argued, "such slaves would be brought here. ...Then if we take [Dryer's] doctrine that all white men shall be soldiers...I am opposed to that. I want free men to stand by me whilst we have to fight the battles of the country." Dryer responded by ridiculing the argument as "very far-fetched" and stuck to his call for removing the word "free." Footnote 1

A Native American with full head dress
As debate escalated about who should be allowed to vote, Matthew Deady sought to exclude everyone other than white men. (Image courtesy National Park Service—Whitman Mission National Historic Site) Enlarge image.
But the debate quickly devolved into the esoterics of whether or not it was possible for any white man to be unfree. Dryer insisted on "plain, simple language so that everybody can understand it," explaining that "I go upon the hypothesis that all men are free in this country [Oregon], and therefore I want the word stricken out ...[otherwise] it is a libel upon the truth." He argued that naturally "a man called to bear arms is a free man.... If you want slaves to bear arms specify it in your article." After further discussion, the delegates distilled the language further to read only "able-bodied male citizens" with the unwritten but clear implication that members of the militia had to be both free and white. Matthew Deady summed up the reasoning: "If every free white person be the definition of citizens, and in the military bill all citizens shall be the persons to do military duty, it is understood what it means." Footnote 2

Race and Elections

A later debate sought to clarify the racial terms of who could vote in elections. The draft article reported from the suffrages and elections committee included a provision that only white male citizens could vote. Moreover, another section of the article further underscored the intent, specifying that no "negro or mulatto shall have the right of suffrage." But Matthew Deady rose to ask what the word "free" meant in the related provision that "all elections shall be free and equal," expressing concern that it could be misinterpreted. In response, Delazon Smith pronounced the term "sufficiently explicit" since he thought it was clear that "it did not mean Chinese or niggers." Just to make sure, La Fayette Grover moved to add the word "Chinamen" to the prohibition on negro and mulatto voting and it was adopted without any specific debate. Footnote 3

A cartoon about minorities
In a Thomas Nast cartoon from 1879, an Indian warns a Chinese immigrant about the white solutions to "the Chinese problem." Oregon convention delegates prohibited Chinese from voting and outlawed Chinese new to the state from owning property or mining claims. (Image courtesy Enlarge image.
However, rushing to ensure that no other people of color, such as Indians or Kanakas (Hawaiians), could be interpreted to have the right to vote, Deady sought to amend the text to read: "No persons, other than those of the white race, shall have the right to suffrage." David Logan then reminded delegates of John Kelsay's report that there were white slaves in Missouri, thus calling for the words "free white." But Thomas Dryer demanded some more precise definitions, saying that "if we were going into this question of color, he wanted some standard set up." The waters were further muddied by Logan's contention that the wording as proposed "would admit quarter-blood negroes—they had a predominance of white blood, and would be entitled to vote under Mr. Deady's proposal." Following an increasingly absurd racial path, Deady claimed that "the word white is well understood" but offered the further suggestion that the words read "pure white." Finally, Smith sought to bring the drifting debate back to the simplicity of the original text, remarking that "the moment we undertook to get something new, we found ourselves afloat." The final text returned to that originally proposed, with the additional prohibition on voting by "Chinamen." Footnote 4

Scheduling a Constitutional Vote

As the convention wound down to its final days, delegates met to decide the details of the three questions to be submitted to a vote of the people: 1.) whether to approve the constitution; 2.) whether to approve slavery in Oregon and; 3.) whether to allow free blacks in the state. The proposed voting date of the second Monday in November caused Paine Page Prim to worry that voters wouldn't have enough time to examine and understand the lengthy text: "The people in the distant counties would not see it at all. It looked like too great haste." He proposed postponing the vote to February. Others proposed even more delay until April or even June, when the roads would be more passable. Footnote 5

Uncle Sam holding a door in place
A cartoon shows Uncle Sam trying to keep Chinese immigrants out using the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1888. Some Oregon Constitutional Convention delegates tried to add "Chinamen" to the vote on excluding negroes and mulattoes in 1857. (Image courtesy Library of Congress) Enlarge image.
But many of the delegates opposed a delay. Thomas Dryer contended that "the people of Oregon would understand this constitution as well in two months as in two years. To say they could not was a reflection upon the thickness of their skulls." Once again, Dryer attributed political motives to the proposed delay, saying that the only argument he heard urged for extending the time, was that it did not give the pro-slavery Democrats a chance—they wanted to stump the territory in behalf of slavery." Others registered their opinions pro and con referring to the weather, the possible effect on the territorial legislature, and Dryer's accusation about pro-slavery efforts before voting to confirm the vote on the second Monday of November. The convention ordered that 5,000 copies were to be printed and mailed to county auditors and postmasters for distribution to as many voters as possible. And, it offered 50 dollars to each newspaper that would print the complete constitution in one issue to further disseminate the document. Footnote 6

The "Chinamen" Question

With the date of the election scheduled, the delegates moved to a debate of the wording of the ballot questions. L.J.C. Duncan led the call for amendments by moving to omit the question on the admission or exclusion of free blacks but the convention voted it down, apparently with no discussion. William Watkins then broadened the debate by seeking to add "Chinamen after free negroes" in the proposed text. He said that his white constituents in the mining areas of Jackson County needed help: "Chinamen in his county were practically slaves, they were bought and sold to one another, and to white men, as much as negroes were in the south. If Chinese emigration continued to come into that county, he predicted that in five years no white man would inhabit it. White men could not compete with them—they would work for $1.50 or $2.00 per day." Footnote 7

A portrait of Thomas Dryer
Thomas Dryer wanted to exclude all non-whites from Oregon, warning of the "demoralization" of whites.
The debate then turned to a comparison of the relative value of "Chinamen" and blacks, an exercise that prompted the delegates to share starkly candid observations. Pro-slavery delegate Matthew Deady said that "he saw no reason for making a difference between Chinamen and negroes. The negro was superior to the Chinaman, and would be more useful." William Watkins agreed that "the negroes far surpassed, morally and physically, the Chinamen; if there were any class of thieves who understood their profession thoroughly it was the Chinamen." William Packwood said that they [Chinese] were evil and "spent very little in the country." And Prim chimed in that "Chinamen were an evil in the mines, and were growing to be a greater one." Footnote 8

An Expanding Debate

Soon, the debate escalated as delegates proposed other people of color for exclusion. George Williams "believed that the state had the power to exclude from her borders all classes not competent to become citizens. And he was in favor of excluding both Chinamen and negroes. He would consecrate Oregon to the use of the white man, and exclude the negro, Chinaman, and every race of that character." Thomas Dryer looked to practicality as he suggested separating the vote on each race: "In this portion of the country [the Willamette Valley] Chinamen had not become an evil, and people might desire to vote to exclude negroes and not Chinamen." He then summed up his expansive views on race by declaring that "he would vote to exclude negroes, Chinamen, Kanakas, and even Indians. The association of those races with the white was the demoralization of the latter." Footnote 9

Some, however, counseled against adding "Chinamen" to the vote. La Fayette Grover thought that despite the uproar among whites in the southern counties about Chinese immigrants, "two-thirds [of the voters territory-wide] know nothing about it." Reuben Boise also advised caution, saying that "the most we should do was to give the legislature power over it." Meanwhile, Frederick Waymire doled out some backhanded compliments as he declared that

Ultimately, as the delegates' spasms of racial intolerance waned, Watkins withdrew his amendment and the convention sent the wording to the people as "Do you vote for free Negroes in Oregon? Yes or No." Footnote 10 They had flirted with expanding the question to other races but came back to the original idea of tying the vote on slavery with one on free blacks. Most of the delegates must have hoped for "no" votes on both questions, seeing this as Oregon's best hope to preserve the ideal of the white agrarian society. Finally, with their scheduling work complete, the delegates tied up the loose ends of the convention and looked forward to the public vote on the constitution and the promise of statehood.

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  1. Carey, Oregon Constitution, 174-178.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., 318-324.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., 359-361.
  6. Ibid.; Claudia Burton and Andrew Grade, "A Legislative History of the Oregon Constitution of 1857—Part I," Willamette Law Review 37 (2001): 474.
  7. Carey, Oregon Constitution, 361-362.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.