George H. Williams

George H. Williams

Free State Letter

Note: I have posted the following long letter known in Oregon history as the “Free State Letter’’ on my blog with this note of caution:

Because of its frequently racist content, the Free State Letter is not an easy letter to read. However, written by Judge George H. Williams in 1857, the letter is historically important. It was said by the late historian Walter Carlton Woodward to have proved pivotal in helping defeat a movement to make Oregon a slave state. The letter was printed on the front page of the influential Oregon Statesman prior to Oregon’s 1857 Constitutional Convention, which would submit a slavery measure to voters that November. Writing in 1910, Woodward said: “As pro-slavery had up to this time been steadily rising, from the publication of the Free State Letter on to the election in November, it seemed steadily to recede.’’ At the election on Nov. 9, 1857, slavery was defeated 7,727 to 2,645. It was at this same election, however, that voters—all white males—approved an exclusion clause for the Constitution banning African Americans from coming to Oregon, a clause not repealed until 1926. Readers will find much to which to object in the letter because of its racist content. But I post it here because it reflected events and sentiment in Oregon at the time. Williams would be quoted in later years as saying he had always opposed slavery on moral grounds, but he used a strictly economic argument because it would be more persuasive than an argument over morality. There is more about this letter on pages 116-121 in my book. Williams was the judge who ruled in favor of the former slave Robin Holmes in the 1852 slavery case, Holmes vs. Ford.

Greg Nokes
Nov. 25, 2013

Click here for the PDF: Free State Letter

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