"Out of order": Pasting Together the Slavery Debate in the Oregon Constitution.

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Authors: Amy E. Platt and Laura Cray
Date: Spring 2019
From: Oregon Historical Quarterly(Vol. 120, Issue 1)
Publisher: Oregon Historical Society
Document Type: Article
Length: 9,339 words
Lexile Measure: 1450L

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IT MUST HAVE BEEN oppressively hot in the Marion County Courthouse on the first day of the Oregon Constitutional Convention, especially with the doors shut. The courthouse, a two-story frame building, forty feet wide and sixty-eight feet long, on the corner of Church and State Streets in Salem, was not large enough for the sixty delegates, but still they pushed in almost every day for a month, gavel to gavel, from August 17 to September 18, 1857.

Many of the men were lawyers, most were farmers, and a few were miners and newspapermen. (1) They brought with them their regional issues, about land and transportation and postal routes, and their strong opinions about national issues, namely slavery and religion. Perhaps most impressively, they embraced the tedium of procedure, spending the first day debating bureaucratic minutia and the purpose of the convention itself. Delegate Thomas Dryer, the Whig editor of the Oregonian and until 1856 a loudmouthed opponent of statehood, stood up early to propose the first, but not the last, Faustian solution to a series of existential problems:

We have no organization. We have done nothing. We have met here in obedience to a law convening a convention on this day, at this place, and before we do anything else it strikes me we must organize.... It may be, for aught that has yet appeared here, that I am an interloper, as I am a privileged character.... I do not object to the appointment of officers at the proper time, but I am now opposed to anything being done, except simply to begin by the recognition of the right of men to sit in this convention. I move that the resolution lie upon the table, and that we proceed to a temporary organization, prior to a permanent one. (2)

Dryer's call to organize before organizing, and to convene before convening, was rejected by the majority, after which Frederick Waymire wondered aloud how he had managed to find the proper place and the proper time of the convention if he was not meant to be present. One of the most time-consuming debates that morning concerned hiring a doorman. Procedure was important in government meetings. The delegates needed to know who could be on the floor when and during what discussion, when they could speak and for how long, and who was going to police it. The Oregon convention process followed a well-trod procedure, modeled after other states' conventions; but the burdens of legitimacy and legacy were new to the territorial delegates, and they fretted over the more perplexing rules and possible outcomes. So the men talked for some time about the doorman issue, and Dryer continued to indulge his skepticism at some length before offering, in possible exasperation, to manage the door himself. The first-day wearisomeness did not bode well for some. Delegate La Fayette Grover stood to face the room. "I see the convention is getting into a very bad habit," he said, "the habit of stringing out long speeches...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A641752617