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Free Soil And Free Men

March 2023
2min read

Oregon was not a land for Negro slaves. It was settled by a little bit of everybody—by northerners, by southerners, and by folk from the border states who could feel the emotional pull of both sides simultaneously—and by all ordinary logic it should have been the last part of the United States to feel the pulling and hauling of the slavery crisis during the 1850’s and 1860’s. But if it was remote it was still America—quintessential America, in a way, since it shared everything with everybody. Therefore it was an interesting battleground for the contest of pro- and antislavery forces during the years just preceding the outbreak of the Civil War.

Here, in other words, is another essential part of the story of the Oregon Country, a part usually overlooked but none the less vital in the telling of the story of how America grew and shaped itself.

By 1860 Oregon was a sovereign state, ranking (among the 33 states) twenty-second in wheat production; a predominantly middle western state, whose people wanted very much to govern themselves but who felt emotionally tied to the conflict that was dividing the country to which they gave allegiance. They had had trouble getting organized as a territory because of the slavery problem; hardly anyone supposed that slavery could ever really flourish in Oregon (although it was argued that slaves would be very useful in the wheat fields) but the issue of popular sovereignty struck home, and anyway nobody in Oregon had any use for colored folk. When an antislavery constitution was approved in 1857, the voters who adopted it voted even more strongly to exclude free Negroes from settlement, and the settlers who hated slavery seemed to hate the colored race still more. The question of statehood, when it finally reached Washington, got all entangled with the general argument over the admission of free and slave states, and Oregon was not admitted to the Union until 1859.

Frontier Politics and the Sectional Conflict: The Pacific Northwest on the Eve of the Civil War , by Robert W. Johannsen. University of Washington Press. 240 pp. $5.

At which time local politics in Oregon became national. Men do not always follow their own personal interests when they go to the polls; they feel themselves part of a larger organism than their own country or state, and—as in Oregon—they become embroiled in national issues with which they have very little immediate contact. It is the peculiar value of Mr. Johannsen’s book that it shows how this takes place. No state in the Union had less at stake, from an immediate dollars-and-cents viewpoint, in the slavery argument, than Oregon had. Nevertheless the burning issue of 1860 in Oregon, as elsewhere, was this same slavery issue, and if Oregon Republicans finally passed up the supposed radical William H. Seward in order to support the conservative Edward Bates of Missouri for the presidential nomination, they were at least following the main currents of American political feeling rather than expressing the isolationist feeling of a remote backwater which could not be immediately affected by the question that was dividing the nation.

So in 1860 Oregon sent the Republican Edward Baker to the United States Senate, through a fusion between Republican leaders and the Douglas Democrats, a clear indication that here on the northwest frontier southern sympathies had been swallowed by a dominant unionist nationalism. It was also an unmistakable sign that on the frontier people clung to the Douglas ideal of popular sovereignty—i.e., self-government within constitutional limits—and considered that the northern pro-Union, antislavery position somehow came a little closer to that ideal than the ultra pro-southern stand. In the end, Lincoln carried Oregon by the narrowest of margins—partly, at least, because Oregon Democrats resented what they held to have been the knifing of Douglas by the southern wing of the party.

All of this constitutes a close-range, highly detailed study of what may seem like an extremely unimportant section of the 1860 presidential race. Yet it is worth attention. In one way and another, national sentiment in 1860 decided that there would not be two nations between Canada and the Rio Grande. Part of that decision was reached on the far frontier. This book shows how and why it was reached—and, in showing it, tells a good deal, not only about the Pacific Northwest but also about the currents of feeling in America as a whole.

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