Oregon History: The Oregon System

photograph of William U'Ren
William U'Ren was determined to reform politics in Oregon. Learn more about U-Ren. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
William U'Ren was a quiet, contemplative man. Little in his countenance or demeanor betrayed the inner fire that drove his determination to change public participation in Oregon government. A single-tax advocate, U'Ren moved on to embrace the ideas of James W. Sullivan, author of Direct Legislation by the Citizenship Through the Initiative and Referendum (1892). If U'Ren could empower common citizens, he could wage war on vested interests, corruption, and the tensions that set classes against each other. U'Ren jettisoned the single tax, embraced Sullivan's philosophy, converted to populism, and in 1897 gained a seat in the legislature as a candidate of the People's Party. U'Ren was in a position to cut a deal because populists held 13 critical votes to swing power in the legislature.
The time for dealing was at hand. Senator John H. Mitchell, despised by many, came out firmly for the Republican platform and the gold standard. Jonathan Bourne, Jr., a Republican and silver mine owner, saw a chance to dump Mitchell, provided he could win populist votes. U'Ren set the price: initiative, referendum, voter registration, and an elections procedure law. Bourne bought the package but had to play a cat-and-mouse game in what was known as the "Holdup of '97." Bourne, U'Ren, and others forged a coalition and blocked the House from organizing. The Committee on Credentials declined to report, the anti-Mitchell representatives refused to take their oaths of office, and the Mitchell forces could not elect him, lacking a quorum in the House. U'Ren and Bourne pushed through each of the promised measures. By a cumbersome process, the legislature twice approved a constitutional amendment and, after ratification by a resounding public vote in 1902, Oregonians instituted the initiative and referendum, having amended the state constitution for the first time since 1859.
The combination of voter commitment to enact long-needed laws and the ability to do so with the initiative helped propel Oregon to national attention as a state leading in progressivism. The largely non-partisan Oregon System, as it was heralded, addressed the accumulated social evils that had grown in numbers and complexity. The means were at hand to make government more efficient, honest, and responsive to human need.
advertisement for Oregon Boot used to confine criminals
The infamous Oregon Boot, the "dread of the captured criminal," fell victim to a Progressive Era Oregon law that abolished its use. (Oregon State Archives Image) Enlarge image
Oregonians tallied important enactments: Direct Primary Law (1904), extension of initiative and referendum to local laws, city home rule, indictment by grand jury, taxes on telephone, telegraph, and railroad companies (all 1906), a recall amendment to the State Constitution, the Corrupt Practices Act (both 1908), three-fourths verdict in civil cases, employers' liability act (both 1910), women's suffrage, prohibition on private employment of convict labor, eight-hour day on public works (all 1912), presidential preference primary (1913), prohibition, and an eight-hour day and room ventilation for women workers (both 1914). Other laws abolished capital punishment, the infamous Oregon Boot, a heavy manacle attached to legs of prisoners, and required publication of the Oregon Blue Book.
The Oregon Land Fraud trials captured local and national interest. Francis Heney, special federal prosecutor, brought to justice 33 who had pillaged the federal lands, state school lands, and the timbered resources of the Siletz Indian Reservation. The kingpin of the Oregon Land Fraud Ring, Stephen A.D. Puter, penned in his prison cell Looters of the Public Domain (1908), a tell-all book with portraits of his co-conspirators and copies of documents confirming their criminal acts. Heney's prosecutions cleaned out many of the personnel of the General Land Office; twice indicted but failed to convict Binger Hermann, an Oregonian and former commissioner of the General Land Office in Washington, D.C.; and obtained prison sentences for Senator John H. Mitchell and Congressman John N. Williamson.
painting of Oswald West
Governor Oswald West used the initiative system when his progressive legislation failed in the Legislature. Learn more about West. (Oregon State Archives Photo)
Oregon governors George E. Chamberlain, who served from 1903 to 1909, and Oswald West, who served from 1911 to 1915, were in office during the era of progressivism and each, in a nonpartisan manner, helped facilitate the Oregon System. To persuade the legislature that he intended for progressive reform to prevail, in 1911 West vetoed 63 bills. When good legislation failed, he saw that it surfaced as initiative measures. As a consequence Oregonians gained a workers' compensation act, banking laws, and a Public Utility Commission. By executive order in 1913 West declared that Oregon beaches were public highways and set the precedent for the much-litigated but protected right of public access to the entire state shoreline. He gave full authority to his secretary, Fern Hobbs, and sent her with members of the National Guard to Copperfield, a notorious boom town on the railroad in Baker County. With a declaration of martial law on January 1, 1914, she closed all saloons and houses of prostitution. She left the guardsmen to monitor the situation. West never minced words. In his reminiscences he wrote about Oregon's land fraud ring: "These looters of the public domain--working with crooked federal and state officials--through rascality and fraud, gained title to thousands of acres of valuable, publicly-owned timber lands, and at minimum prices." West pounded them, even when penning his recollections in 1950.
Progressivism touched Oregon in another way. In 1907 Congress considered a crucial agricultural appropriations bill. Powerful lobbyists for timber companies persuaded Senator Charles Fulton from Astoria to attach to it an amendment rescinding presidential authority to create any more forest reserves in the Pacific Northwest under the Forest Reserve Act of 1891. In less than ten days Gifford Pinchot, new head of the U.S. Forest Service, and President Theodore Roosevelt poured over maps and identified millions of acres of critical forests. Roosevelt exercised the last hours of his executive authority and created the "Midnight Reserves." Oregon's national forests multiplied severalfold by the stroke of a pen and the willpower of two conservationists.
The Oregon System was the creative response to a mix of ideologies and discontents. It broke the power of many special interests and old political coalitions. It became a model for the rest of the country and was emulated in dozens of states and cities drawing inspiration from the power of a determined citizenry.