Oregon spent 11 years struggling for statehood. That pales in comparison with Puerto Rico, which has been a territory for over a century, but it was still a frustrating battle for the people of the Oregon Territory. Every state which used to be a territory had some anti-statehood factions, but each has its own specific issues.
For Oregon, as for many of the states in the West, the size of the population was a problem. They also got caught up in the battle over slavery, which affected so many territories seeking admittance in the 1800s. There were those who thought of Oregon as its own country and there were fears in the Republican-led Congress that the western territory might vote for Democrats, both issues that Puerto Rico has faced during its struggle for statehood. But Oregon’s biggest controversy was about civil rights.
The Senate approved Oregon’s constitution in 1857, two years before statehood. The House couldn’t get over one section of the constitution, which said this:
“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.”
It was a straightforward refusal to allow Black residents into the state. Oregon did not allow slavery and wanted to enter the Union as a free state, but it was certainly not ready to guarantee civil rights to all its people. From 1849 on, Black people were allowed to live in Oregon for no more than six months. At the time, there were just about 150 Black residents, some of whom had arrived as slaves to families migrating west. Slave holders were required by law to free their slaves and make sure they left Oregon.
Open Oregon suggests that many of the white settlers in the territory had been small farmers in slave states before traveling west. These individuals felt oppressed by the plantation system and did not favor slavery. But their objections to slavery had more to do with the power of the plantation owners than with a commitment to liberty. They share a quote from a Missouri man in 1844: “Unless a man keeps [slaves] he has no even chance; he cannot compete with the man who does…I’m going to Oregon where there’ll be no slaves, and we’ll all start even.”
The exclusion laws remained on the books until 1926. Oregon was the only state ever admitted with an exclusion clause in their constitution.
Why was Oregon admitted?
Congress held fast on its refusal to admit territories with laws that didn’t mesh with the U.S. Constitution. Utah, for example, could not gain admittance until they outlawed polygamy. So why did Oregon become a state?
Some members of Congress simply agreed with the racist rules. A congressman from Missouri said that the founding fathers “never meant to include slaves or Africans in the terms ‘people’ or ‘citizens.'”
Others considered it a matter of states’ rights. Under the 10th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, states have the right to make rules about anything not covered in the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution says nothing about race or racism. To these representatives, the strict letter of the law would allow states to make their own rules about these matters.
Oregon had taken up the Tennessee plan and worked for statehood for two years between voting for their constitution and gaining statehood.
In 1859, Oregon was finally admitted to the Union. The vote was very close, just 114 to 103. A simple majority is all that’s needed to admit a state, though. Oregon entered the Union on an equal footing with all the other states.