Slavery Clouds Oregon’s Admission into the Union
Oregon’s admission into the Union as the 33rd state on Feb. 14, 1859, was both a proud advance of America’s “Manifest Destiny” and a complicated product of the slavery issue threatening to tear the country apart. After 28 years of joint occupancy, the Oregon Country had been wrested from Great Britain by the sheer number of American pioneers who poured into the area after braving the hazards of the Oregon Trail in the 1840s.
Along with California’s admission in 1850, Oregon’s statehood extended America from the Atlantic to the Pacific. However, Oregon’s admission was a messy affair complicated by slavery. While it avoided the violence raging in “Bleeding Kansas” over the slavery issue, Oregon’s statehood was controversial because its constitution upheld the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott Decision. This 1857 ruling held that people of African origin or ancestry—both freed slaves and their descendants—had no rights under the U.S. Constitution and could never be U.S. citizens. Even though it was coming into the Union as a free state, Oregon was opposed by Republicans because of this “whites only” clause in its state constitution. By contrast, Republicans strongly supported Kansas, which applied for statehood at the same time as Oregon—but its application was delayed by pro-slavery forces. In fact, Kansas was not admitted into the Union until ten days before the formation of the Confederate States of America.
The controversial admission of Oregon into the Union was reported in this article, published by the Albany Evening Journal (Albany, New York) on Feb. 14, 1859:
Another Free State Admitted
Oregon came into the Union on Saturday. We have now two states on the Pacific. Both are Free States; but the admission of Oregon has been opposed at every stop, by those Republican patriots who shrieked so loudly for freedom in Kansas.—Atlas.
Oregon held an election in 1857 to decide upon the question of a Constitutional Convention. The Convention was called, the Constitution framed and ratified, and a State Government elected in 1858.
Application was made to Congress for admission, simultaneously with the application in behalf of Kansas. Meanwhile, Oregon has been living under two Governments, neither of them entirely certain of their title to power. She had a State Governor issuing proclamations and a Territorial Governor performing official duties—a State Legislature making one set of Laws, and a Territorial Legislature enforcing another set; each looking anxiously for every mail from Washington to confirm their rights.
At Washington Gen. Lane has been sitting in the House as Territorial Delegate, with a commission in his pocket as State Senator. Another Senator (Smith) and a Representative (Grover) have been waiting outside the door, deriving patience from the assurance that their pay would commence from the date of their election, however distant might [be] their induction to office.
While the Republicans of the House were not only willing, but anxious, for the admission of Oregon as a Free State, they could not overlook a proscriptive clause in her Constitution, which endorses the Dred Scott Decision, by denying to free colored men any rights that a white man is bound to respect. Nor could they overlook the fact that another Free State, equally entitled to admission, was unjustly excluded by those who advocated it for Oregon. Kansas was to be kept out till after another Census, Oregon to be let in without any. Kansas was to be punished for having chosen Republican Representatives, Oregon to be rewarded for having chosen Democratic ones. A Democratic State was to be let in without hindrance, a Republican State was to be kept out by the English Lecompton Swindle.
They demanded, therefore, that the two new States should be placed on an equality, that the unjust restriction on Kansas should be removed, and both States admitted. But this the Democratic majority voted down, so that while Oregon comes in, Kansas, under circumstances precisely similar, is kept out.
For more information, visit the official Oregon website.
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