Joseph Lane standing
Joseph Lane played a leading role in Oregon politics in the 1850s. (Image no. cph 3a02863 courtesy Library of Congress)
This exhibit explores the development of the Oregon Constitution, particularly events surrounding the 1857 constitutional convention. In the process, it examines life, politics and important issues in the years before and after the convention. It also looks at how the constitution evolved during the more than 150 years since the convention. Generally, the exhibit follows the course of Oregon history chronologically from the era of the fur traders to the present.

About the Content

"Before the Convention" Section 

The 60 delegates who would craft the Oregon Constitution didn't just come out of nowhere to take their seats at the 1857 convention in Salem. They carried strong and often conflicting beliefs, experiences and aspirations into the room. Thus, it's important to set the context of their experiences in the decades before the convention in order to answer questions about why they acted as they did in writing the constitution. For example, why were attitudes and statements seen as racist today accepted as part of the normal political discourse in the 1850s? The Before the Convention section reviews key trends and events in Oregon and American history to help define the goals, fears and motivations of the delegates and the citizens they represented.

"During the Convention" Section

Whip marks on a man's back
Slavery, and its effect on society, was just below the surface of debates at the convention.
With the general context of society and politics established, the During the Convention section focuses on individual delegates, with their strengths and weaknesses. The section examines the central issues of the convention, often with the overriding question of the day—slavery—standing just off-stage. Delegates argued about who should be allowed to vote, what provisions should be included in the bill of rights, and how powerful corporations should be allowed to grow. Many issues of importance to them continue to resonate today. Their debates about separation of church and state, the limits of development, and acceptance of immigrants might relate to today's headlines.

"After the Convention" Section

The fitful process of winning ratification of the constitution by Oregon voters and especially by Congress opens the After the Convention section. Many observers predicted that the Oregon Constitution would never emerge from the sectional strife of Congress on the eve of the Civil War. But the clouds parted long enough to ensure statehood. The ensuing decades saw the growth of a political system based heavily on money and influence as railroads and other corporate interests controlled a corrupt process. Change came with the emergence of reformers such as William U'Ren, father of the Oregon System of initiative and referendum. That system of direct legislation continues today as constitutional amendments exert a profound influence on the day-to-day lives of Oregonians.

For more information about the constitution explore the Learn More section. It features games about the constitution—trivia, puzzles and quizzes—to test the reader's knowledge. Scanned images of the entire 1857 Oregon Constitution are included along with transcriptions of the text. Listings of all of the amendments from 1902 to present are available as well. Finally, links to other resources online offer more about the Oregon Constitution and the U.S. Constitution.

Exhibit Goals

The main goals for this exhibit are to educate and entertain. The exhibit quotes extensively from accounts of the constitutional convention as well as newspaper letters to the editors, reminiscences, and other sources to help tell the story in the words of the times. Images, in the form of photographs, drawings, cartoons, maps, and other resources, complement the text and join sidebars in highlighting important people, events, or concepts.

Content Note

A cartoon showing two minorities
Minorities often were portrayed stereotypically during the 1800s. This 1879 Thomas Nast cartoon poked fun at "The Chinese Problem." Many provisions of the Oregon Constitution of 1857 discriminated based on race. (Image courtesy assumption.edu)

Some subject matter and images include insensitive portrayals of racial groups such as African Americans, Native Americans, and Chinese. The statements, descriptions of attitudes and images are included in this exhibit because they play a vital part of conveying the context of the times accurately.

Sources Used

This exhibit is based on both primary and secondary sources. Primary sources include the original constitution and convention journal. The exhibit also includes information based on direct research in newspapers of the time. Secondary sources include books, journal articles and websites. The main source is Charles H. Carey's 1926 book entitled The Oregon Constitution and Proceedings and Debates of the Constitutional Convention of 1857. It includes transcriptions of the convention proceedings from two important newspapers of the time. Footnotes are used to refer readers to sources for further research.

About the Images

Images in this exhibit have been edited for display purposes. This may include cropping, coloration and other manipulations of the original images. Some images are from the records of the Oregon State Archives. These are supplemented by images from Internet sources. Most image captions include citations of the sources (e.g., Image courtesy Library of Congress). Please contact the sources cited for copies of images. Images lacking any citation are commonly available on the Internet.

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We welcome your comments, questions and suggestions. Please contact us.

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  1. David Alan Johnson, Founding the Far West: California, Oregon, and Nevada, 1840-1890 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992) 164-165, 425.