The Beaver State
(Note: In honor of, and to get ready for, The Legal Genealogist‘s trip to the Genealogical Forum of Oregon, this weekend, here’s a reprise of this 2012 post about Oregon’s constitution!)
It was 1848 when it became a territory; nearly nine more years passed before it took the legal steps needed to allow it to become the 33rd state admitted to the union.
It gave up its original motto — “She Flies With Her Own Wings” or Alis Volat Propiis in Latin — in favor of “The Union” in 1957, but took it back as the official motto in 1987. It’s called the Beaver State and the beaver is even depicted on the reverse side of its state flag.
It is Oregon, the 9th largest state in size at 98,380 square miles and the 27th in population at 3.8 million in 2009. And, although the document has been amended many times, it’s had one — and only one — constitution for more than a century and a half.
The land that eventually became the State of Oregon was originally claimed by Great Britain, France, Spain and even Russia, based on early explorations in the area. Spanish claims over the area were relinquished to the United States by the early 1800s; Russia gave up its claims in separate treaties with Great Britain and the United States; France pretty much abandoned its North American claims after the Louisiana Purchase.
England and the United States — the two major players in the region — were the two most likely to come to blows over the territory and, by the Convention of 1818, agreed to share control over the area west of the Rocky Mountains while setting the northern border from Minnesota to the Rocky Mountains at the 49th parallel.
The agreement was less than a ringing success. Nobody — least of all the settlers flooding into the region after the opening of the Oregon Trail around 1840 — accepted it as a permanent solution. The settlers themselves formed a provisional government in 1843, and control over the region became a hot political issue when Democrats urged the American government to seize control north to Parallel 54°40′ — prompting the slogan “Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!”
In 1846, the issue was peacably settled by treaty between the United States and Great Britain that set the northern boundary between the United States and British Canada, for once and for all, at the 49th parallel.
Oregon Territory 1848
It still took two years and an intervening massacre of a missionary couple that roiled public opinion before a territorial government was initiated and the area officially called the Territory of Oregon, established as a free territory on 14 August 1848.
Originally, the Territory encompassed all of what is today Oregon, Washington and Idaho, and parts of what became Montana and Wyoming. In 1853, the Washington Territory was formed, taking with it what became Washington and parts of Idaho and Montana.
The Oregon Territorial Legislature considered the question of trying for statehood in 1854, 1855 and 1856, finally passing a bill authorizing a constitutional convention at the end of 1856. Voters approved the notion at an election in June 1857 where 60 delegates were selected for a constitutional convention.
Some 60 delegates met starting 17 August 1857 and agreed on a proposed constitution on 18 September. It was approved by popular vote on 9 November 1857 — and that was the legal step needed to ask for admission as a state. Congress then approved Oregon statehood on 14 February 1859, and that is when the one and only Constitution Oregon has ever had went into effect.
That Constitution, as it was originally adopted, is held by the Oregon State Archives, which has a terrific web exhibit called “Crafting the Oregon Constitution: Framework for a New State.” And the Oregon Historical Society’s copy of the draft of that 1857 constitution is online as a PDF file. The Oregon Bluebook has digital images of the 1857 Constitution online, and a print version is on Google Books as well.
The Constitution reflected the times in which it was written, and so it was decidedly anti-Negro and anti-foreigner and skeptical of both corporations and banks. It was ruthlessly penny-pinching, and rigorously separated church and state. Among its provisions:
• Six separate sections of Article I, the Bill of Rights, both protected the free exercise of religion and yet provided that public money couldn’t even be used to pay for religious services (such as a chaplain) in either house of the Legislature.
• Only “white foreigners” who were or thereafter became residents could have equal property rights as native-born citizens. No Chinaman who was not a resident of Oregon in 1857 could ever hold or work on a mining claim.
• Only white male citizens could vote and suffrage was expressly denied to any “negro, chinaman, or mulatto.” The Constitution required a census in 1865, but only of all the white population of the State and apportionment of the state legislature was based only on the white population.
• The Governor was elected for a four-year term and could only serve eight out of any 12 years. He was also to serve as the state’s school superintendent.
• The budget had to balance: if any year ended with the state in the red, a special tax had to be assessed the following year. Salaries were set for top state officials: $1500 for the Governor and Secretary of State, $800 for the Treasurer, and $2000 for the Supreme Court justices.
The very first amendment to the Oregon Constitution came in 1902, when the initiative and referendum process was approved. Since then, more than 200 amendments have been adopted, many by way of citizen initiatives. Among those resulting from initiative and referendum are the direct primary system (1904); authorizing recalls of elected officials (1908); requiring indictment by grand jury (1908); abolishing poll taxes (1910); allowing women to vote (1912); and abolishing the death penalty (1914). All of the remaining racial qualifications in the original constitution were deleted by initiative in 2002.
The current Constitution is online at the State Legislature’s website.
Note, by the way, that although the Constitution ratified in 1857 and effective in 1859 is the only Constitution Oregon has ever had, it’s not the only one ever presented to the voters. A draft new constitution was written in 1962, revised over the course of several years, and finally submitted to the voters in May 1970. It was overwhelmingly rejected.
Images via Creative Commons license
Oregon Country image: Wikimedia user Kmusser
Territory image: Wikimedia user Matthew Trump