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Yesterday’s laws inform today’s debates

The Legal Genealogist didn’t mean to pick on Montana yesterday in focusing on the fact that anti-immigrant sentiment is nothing new in American politics.

law booksThe point of yesterday’s blog was simply that attitudes that we are dealing with in today’s political scene are nothing new. In fact, looking at the laws of all of the jurisdictions where I’ll be headed just over the next two weeks shows that many issues we’re grappling with today have been with us for a long time.

And we have to look back at those laws — as distasteful as they sometimes are — to understand where we are today, as well as what our ancestors were struggling with.

In Montana, where I’ll be speaking this weekend with Amy Johnson Crow at the Montana State Genealogical Society’s 2016 fall conference, and where we both get to hear Prof. David M. Emmons of the University of Montana, a key issue in 1893 was immigration.1

But look also at Article IX of the Constitution of Montana, adopted in 1889 when Montana became a state. It provided, in section 2:

Every male person of the age of twenty-one years or over, possessing the following qualifications, shall be entitled to vote at all general elections and for all officers that now are, or hereafter may be, elective by the people and upon all questions which may be submitted to the vote of the people : First, he shall be a citizen of the United States; second, he shall have resided in this State one year immediately preceding the election at which he offers to vote, and in the town, county or precinct such time as may be prescribed by law; …2

Not exactly what we’d hope for in the West in 1889, is it? I mean, Wyoming gave women the right to vote in 1869 already yet.3 But no, the idea of women voting was still an anomaly even in the west 20 years later.

And after Montana, I’m headed to Oregon, to speak to the Rogue Valley Genealogical Society in Medford at its 50th Year celebration.

Oregon. The Pacific Northwest. The kind of place that a lot of today’s voters dismiss as the home of the treehuggers.

Oregon, where the first Constitution in 1857 provided, in section 1 of Article I that “all men, when they form a social compact, are equal in rights…”4

Oregon, where that same Constitution provided that the right to vote was limited to white males of the age of twenty-one years and upwards.5

Oregon, where that Constitution added: “No negro, Chinaman, or mulatto shall have the right of suffrage.”6

Oregon, where that Constitution added:

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 the State, and for the punishment of persons who shall bring them into the State, or employ or harbor them.7

Not exactly a bastion of abolitionist thinking there in 1857, was it?

And after Oregon, it’s off to Florida, where I’ll be speaking at the 2016 Fall Seminar of the Florida Genealogical Society (Tampa).

Florida, where as late as 1896, suffrage was still limited to “Every male person of the age of twenty-one years and upwards, that shall, at the time of registration, be a citizen of the United States…”8

And Florida, where as late as the Constitution of 1885, the law there provided that:

All marriages between a white person and a negro, or between a white person and a person of negro descent to the fourth generation, inclusive, are hereby forever prohibited.9

These are the kinds of provisions that we don’t always stop and think about when we’re doing our genealogical research — but we should. Because they often explain why our ancestors did what they did, when they did it, and where they did it.

And — sigh — they show us that we haven’t come nearly as far as we sometimes think we have…


  1. See Judy G. Russell, “Nothing new under the sun,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 20 Sep 2016 ( : accessed 21 Sep 2016).
  2. §2, Article IX, Montana Constitution of 1889, in Laws, Resolutions, and Memorials of the State of Montana … Second Regular Session (Helena, Mont. : Journal Publishing Co., 1891), 36; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 18 Sep 2016).
  3. See “1869: Wyoming grants women the vote,” This Day in History, ( : accessed 21 Sep 2016).
  4. §1, Article I, Oregon Constitution of 1857, in Francis Newton Thorpe, editor, The Federal and State Constitutions, Colonial Charters, and Other Organic Laws of the States, Territories, and Colonies Now or Heretofore Forming the United States of America, 7 vols. (Washington, D.C. : Government Printing Office, 1909), 5: 2998; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 20 Sep 2016).
  5. Ibid., §2, Article II, at 5: 3000.
  6. Ibid., §6, Article II, at 5: 3001.
  7. Ibid., §36, Article I, at 5: 3000.
  8. Ibid., 1896 amendment to Article VII, sec. 2, at 2: 763.
  9. §24, Article XVI, Florida Constitution of 1885, in ibid., at 2: 758.
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