Oregon seriously debated entering the Union as a slave state

THE NEWS-REGISTER — Most Oregonians today are probably unaware of how close Oregon came to becoming a slave state. Slavery was intensely debated at Oregon’s Constitutional Convention in 1857.

In fact, it was the overriding issue facing the 60 delegates gathered in the old wood-frame Marion County Courthouse in Salem.

Opposition toward Blacks was deep-seated in early Oregon, reflected in three exclusion laws. One voter-approved clause written into the Constitution prohibited Black immigrants, and it wasn’t removed until 1926.

That Oregon didn’t declare itself a slave state was partly due to the efforts of two early leaders, Jesse Applegate, a captain of the first major wagon train to Oregon in 1843, and George Williams, chief justice of the Territorial Supreme Court, who wrote what history has come to know as the Free State Letter.

Slavery was temporarily legalized in pre-statehood Oregon in 1844-1845. The move was instigated by Peter Burnett, a slaveholder from Missouri who was elected to Oregon’s 1844 provisional legislature, known as the Legislative Council.

I relate how this came about in my 2013 book, “Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory.” Briefly put, Burnett convinced the nine-member council to grant slaveholders a three-year grace period to free their slaves, reversing an earlier flat prohibition against slavery, which Burnett pronounced “unsatisfactory to many.”

Section 2 of the new law read:
“That in all cases where slaves have been, or shall hereafter be brought into Oregon, the owner of such slaves shall have the term of three years from the introduction of such slaves to remove them out of the country.”

In its original form, the measure also made any Black refusing to leave Oregon at the end of the three-year period subject to 39 lashes with a whip, leading it to be known as

“Peter Burnett’s lash law.” However, this element was rescinded before the law took effect.

Applegate, who succeeded Burnett on the council, engaged in some sleight-of-hand maneuvering to have Oregon’s prohibition against slavery restored at the polls in 1845.

It wasn’t a moot issue, as many of the early wagon trains brought a handful of slaves. There were probably no more than 100, if that, although no one kept track.

It appears most slaves received their freedom after helping their owners establish new farms. But not all.

Nathaniel Ford, a wagon train captain from Fayette, Missouri, brought six slaves — three adults and three children — over the Oregon Trail in 1844. He kept some of them on his Polk County farm until 1853, when Judge Williams ordered him to free them.

Elaborating on his decision in later years, Williams said, “I so held that without some positive legislative enactment establishing slavery here, it did not and could not exist in Oregon, and I awarded the colored people their freedom.”

Williams’ ruling in the case, Holmes v Ford, resolved any ambiguity as to whether slavery was lawful in Oregon. However,  those who held slaves had little to fear in the way of enforcement.

Two slave owners in Linn County openly declared two women and a child as slaves in the 1860 Census, although they were identified as “servants’’ in national Census figures.

Notwithstanding Williams’ ruling — and Applegate’s success in restoring the prohibition against slavery — pro-slavery sentiment did not go away. If anything, it actually intensified in the period leading up to Oregon’s month-long Constitutional Convention, which opened in Salem on August 17, 1857.

According to the late historian Charles Carey, “slavery overshadowed every other issue’’ at the convention, which was dominated by Democrats.

Judge Matthew Deady, originally from Maryland and an unapologetic advocate of slavery, was elected convention president.

In a letter to a friend on the eve of the convention, Deady left no doubt about his pro-slavery stand.

“If a citizen of Virginia can lawfully own a Negro (of which there is no doubt), then I as a citizen of Oregon can lawfully obtain the same right of property in this Negro by either purchase or inheritance,” he wrote.

Deady went on to help establish the University of Oregon’s law school. And his name was removed only last year from Deady Hall, where it is housed.

Another powerful voice favoring slavery was that of Joseph Lane, one of Oregon’s first U.S. senators.

He went on to run for vice president in 1860 on a slave state ticket with presidential candidate John Breckinridge of Kentucky. It was the same election in which Republican Abraham Lincoln of Illinois was elected president.

Jesse Applegate, who had led the effort to overturn Peter Burnett’s brief legalization of slavery in 1845, tried but failed to win convention support for an agreement to ban debate over slavery. Davenport said Applegate “feared a trick would be played . . . and slavery be forced upon the people of Oregon without their consent.”

Applegate walked out in disgust over the issue and refused to sign the new constitution.

His stand was one of principle. He had immigrated to Oregon to escape the slave economy of Missouri, joining many other settlers from the South also fleeing slave economies.

Even more important in rallying opposition to slavery was Williams’ 8,000-word Free State Letter, displayed across the front page of the Salem Statesman newspaper on July 28, 1857, three weeks before Deady would gavel the Salem convention to order.

Williams, originally from Massachusetts, said he decided to speak out when few other Democrats would.

“Whether Oregon should be a free or slave state had now become the paramount issue in our local politics . . . Many of the most influential Democrats, with General Lane their head, were active for slavery and there was little or nothing said or done among the Democrats on the other side of the question,” he said later.

In the Free State Letter, Williams wrote: “I know what siren song self-love sings for slavery; how pleasant it seems in prospect to have a slave to till our ground, to wait upon us while we wake, and fan us when we sleep. But are these the ideas to possess men whose business it is to lay the foundation of a State?”

Williams used an economic argument against slavery rather than a moral argument.

“Establish slavery here, and the effect will be as it has elsewhere,” he wrote. “You will turn aside that tide of free white labor, which has poured itself like a fertilizing flood across  the great States of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, and is now murmuring up the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains . . . ”

He was harsh, indeed insulting, in his assessment of Blacks, predicting they would take jobs from whites. Commenting in later years, he said he felt the only way to reverse the pro-slavery tide was to raise slavery as a pocket-book issue threatening the jobs and income of white workers.

According to historian Walter Carleton Woodward, writing in 1910, Williams’ letter came at a pivotal moment. “As pro-slavery sentiment 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.”

Following intense debate, the convention delegates decided to submit the decision to voters — white males only, of course. They rejected slavery by the decisive vote of 7,727 to 2,645 on Nov. 9, 1857.

At the same time, however, voters even more decisively approved Oregon’s third exclusion law as a clause in the Constitution. The vote was 8,640 to 1,081.

That left Section 35 of the Oregon Constitution reading: “No free negro or mulatto not residing in this state at the time of the adoption of this constitution shall come, reside or be within this state or hold any real estate, or make any contracts, or maintain any suit therein; and the legislative assembly shall provide by penal laws

for the removal by public officers of all such negroes and mulattoes, and for their effectual exclusion from state, and for the punishment of persons who shall bring them into the state, or employ or harbor them.” And it remained in the Constitution for almost 70 years.

Williams paid a political price for his outspoken opposition to slavery, as it probably prevented him from being elected to the U.S. Senate at the time. However, he later won election to a six-year term, and went on to serve as attorney general from 1865 to 1871 under President Ulysses Grant.

There were other vocal opponents to slavery in this period — and to laws discriminating against Blacks.

Among them was Oregonian Editor Thomas J. Dryer, a Republican convention delegate. He called exclusion laws “a disgrace to Oregon.”

Another was the Rev. Obed Dickinson, pastor of the Salem Congregational Church. He endured heated criticism for admitting three former slaves into church membership in 1861.

In the end, Oregon was admitted to the Union as a free state on Feb. 14, 1859.