We are the political and social descendants and heirs of pioneers who had a passionate belief in the common man and in his ability to organize a society in which he could live a life free from restraint and intolerance, and enriched by all that his predecessors had found good.
--Cornelia Marvin Pierce, 1927
ONE OF THE MOST distinctive--and to my mind, attractive--qualities of Oregon politics historically has been the robust belief in the virtues of the common citizenry. Alas, the history of Oregon's unique strain of hyper-democracy in many ways remains to be written.
Fortunately, the contributors to the sesquicentennial series in this Fall issue of the Quarterly present a vivid and complex set of explorations of the fate of democracy (roughly defined as rule of the government by the whole people) in twentieth-century Oregon. Cheryl Gunselman takes on the life and politics of Cornelia Marvin Pierce, helping to show how the author of the forceful quotation above often, but by no means always, lived up to the best tendencies in her democratic ideology. The not-uncritical story that Gunselman tells is of a remarkable woman who, despite her frequently imperious character, played a significant role in defining and extending Oregon's democratic culture. Yet, if Gunselman's articles makes us feel at all self-congratulatory about such democratic vistas, Kimberly Jensen, in the first general scholarly exploration of women and citizenship in Oregon history, asks us to think about the many limits to democratic participation the state's women have experienced, and the halting nature of democratic advance along the gender line. In turn, Robert R. McCoy comes down in the middle. In his analysis of the politics of Walter Pierce--one of the state's most important political figures--McCoy argues that individuals who are impressively democratic at one moment can, without real contradiction in their own philosophies, be exclusionary and anti-democratic the next.
All three authors demonstrate that the democratic impulse, and progressive democratic rhetoric, can sometimes serve as a false--and even dangerous--mask behind which lies the face of racism, xenophobia, and even tyranny. Arguably, this continuous tension between democracy and equality, between inclusion and exclusion, while hardly unique to the state, is the special Burden of Oregon History. (1)
SERENDIPITY PLACES CORNELIA Marvin Pierce's birthplace in Monticello, Iowa. She was, in telling ways, quite like the famous eighteenth-century Virginian Thomas Jefferson, who named his home Monticello. Both were very sure of themselves and of the wisdom of the people. Both believed passionately in expanding public education for the common people in order to produce a more enlightened citizenry; Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, and Marvin Pierce was the architect of Oregon's public library system and as well as an important crusader for higher education. They both considered themselves modern, scientific, and enlightened--and believed that enlightened, scientific, modern life could best be served by democracy. At the same time, both had fundamental flaws in their democratic visions--Jefferson's, of course, was slavery, and Marvin Pierce's the eugenic idea of better breeding of humans in order to eliminate weak creatures from the populace.
There was also at least one major difference between Jefferson and Pierce: gender. The egalitarian political culture that Jefferson played such a crucial role in unleashing during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries offered almost no formal political roles for women.
Yet, throughout the nineteenth century, various radical women seized on the rhetoric in the Declaration of Independence to expand political opportunities for them and their sisters. Despite Marvin Pierce's own difficult-to-explain ambivalence about woman suffrage, she was as much a beneficiary of this other revolutionary tradition as she was of the Jeffersonian legacy. A proud Midwesterner who forged her professional and political philosophies in the crucible of progressive Wisconsin's "laboratory of democracy," Cornelia Marvin came to Oregon as a self-conscious pioneer and missionary. She signed on to build Oregon's public library system and then spent the next two decades literally creating the state's modern constellation of libraries. Following custom--and constraint--she resigned her high-profile position on her marriage to Walter Pierce. She then accepted an appointment to the newly restructured state Board of Higher Education, where she fought against compulsory military training for students and became a thorn in the side of the conservative governor. And, starting in 1930, she served as the backbone of her husband's progressive political career, scheduling campaign stops, writing speeches, and serving as chief publicist. Throughout, Marvin Pierce was animated by a faith in the profound political wisdom of the common people of Oregon--a fundamental belief in what we might call deep democracy.
Perhaps the quintessential dilemma of democratic activists comes when they know what is best for the masses--but the masses just do not get it. Small "d" democrats (that is, staunch believers in the democratic process but not necessarily the Democratic political party) have handled this dilemma in various ways. Some eventually have deferred to popular sentiment, recognizing that the masses may actually possess a wisdom that transcends those who claim to be wiser. Others have turned bitterly against the masses, finally coming to their senses and recognizing them as the ignorant, dangerous herd that anti-democrats since the time of Socrates and Plato have claimed they were. And others have continued cheerfully onward, not really recognizing the contradiction inherent in the dilemma at all. They have made it clear what is best for the masses and then moved forward to make sure the masses get what they deserve. This last path is the one traveled by Cornelia Marvin Pierce.
Marvin Pierce's correspondence, which Gunselman uses to excellent effect, makes it clear that the state's chief librarian possessed great certainty in all realms of her life. Her subordinates experienced this in their everyday dealings with her, and such self assurance easily spilled over into politics. Marvin Pierce had no qualms against launching a campaign against "vicious" popular literature and for "wholesome" material: after all, that is what missionaries do. Even more problematic in terms of today's vision of democratic equality, one of Marvin Pierce's most intense commitments was to the repugnant project of better breeding of human beings through contraception and forced eugenics. It is important to note that even more radical democrats than Marvin Pierce successfully fought off this piece of tyranny until 1917; progressives, in other words, were not of one mind on eugenics. (2) Still, Marvin Pierce's strutting pride in her eugenic mission still chills: "outside of the Library," she wrote, this was "my most important work."
Gunselman productively asks us to think through how "this phenomenon of simultaneously promoting such different causes as free public libraries and eugenic sterilization provides some of the most interesting questions for interpreting the activities of Progressive Era reformers." Marvin Pierce was a proud Progressive, viewing herself as part of a democratic vanguard that was leading society in a more liberal and democratic direction. Yet she was blinded to the fact that her progressivism was so enlightened that without a blink it supported--in the most full-throated fashion--in fact, in the spirit of "improvement"--the forced sterilization of the weakest and most vulnerable members of society.
Today, when many on the left side of the political spectrum call for a new wave of "progressivism," harkening back to heroes such as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, we do well to remember this dual edge of early twentieth-century reform. Our society faces plenty of problems, and the idea of improving society can easily lead in a truly democratic direction, but with the idea of improvement almost necessarily goes the idea that The Improver knows best. (3)
BUT TO WHAT EXTENT have Oregonians truly lived in a democracy in the first place? Placing this question into sharp relief is the fundamental implicit challenge of Kimberly Jensen's excellent overview of women and citizenship in Oregon history. On the one hand, Oregonians have consistently lived in a polity that vested political power in a theoretically equal mass of citizens, and over the decades those who have been excluded from the voting rolls (particularly non-whites and women) have been consistently brought into that polity.
On the other hand, Jensen presents Oregon history in a way that is quite different from this rosy picture, where we can simply slap the label "democracy" on the state's past and assume that all problems have over the course of time been progressively solved. Especially attentive to the exclusion of women from positions of full citizens, Jensen more generally asks us to consider how, throughout Oregon history, "gender, race, ethnicity, and gender identity all have been categories that actively privilege some and deny others civic power and authority." In this way, Jensen offers a powerful and refreshing challenge to a shallow vision of the Oregon past, going well beyond a history only of women to ask searching and profound questions about the entire history of the state.
Jensen begins with what is arguably the foundational document of Oregon economic history, the Donation Land Law of 1850. In the traditional telling of the tale, this territorial policy--while admittedly helping to dispossess Indians--granted generous amounts of land to pioneers, providing the foundation for an agrarian democracy of roughly equal landowners. Yet Jensen, drawing on the work of scholar Peggy Pascoe, takes a close look at the racial and gendered provisions of the law and demonstrates how women could hold property under the law "only as 'wives': their status derived from their marital relationship with a white man." A law that seemed to promise not only democracy but also female empowerment (the provisions of the law allowed a woman to own land "in her own right") in the end had the effect, according to historian Susan Armitage, of "increasing the 'family' (read male) claim to land without increasing female autonomy."
Jensen similarly turns Oregon history inside out when discussing expanded married women's property rights during the nineteenth century, the right of women to vote, and the quest of women for full "economic citizenship"--the right to be full public actors in the marketplace and on the job. At first glance, Oregon history reveals steady progress for women in these areas. But the closer and more nuanced look Jensen provides helps show how women's empowerment was fought in both overt and subtle ways. Even more important, Jensen emphasizes how measures designed to aid women, such as the maximum hours law that led to the famous case of Muller v. Oregon (1908), actually served to constrict women's opportunities (addressing the effects of the effort for protective labor legislation, rather than the process of its creation, as Janice Dilg does in her essay in the first issue of this sesquicentennial series). (4)
The highlight of Jensen's article, where she makes the most original contributions, comes in the area of female office-holding. Jensen surveys the women pioneers who took office during the early twentieth century, and she does especially well discussing Marian Towne, elected to the Oregon House from Jackson County in 1914 in the first election after the winning of woman suffrage. In this section, as well as in various places in the rest of the article, Jensen provides compelling portraits of individuals who really mattered. Moreover, Jensen does a particularly good job uncovering, or using to excellent effect, characters who rarely if ever have figured in the narrative of Oregon history. I am particularly intrigued by individuals such as Mary Beatty, an African American dressmaker who was one of Abigail Scott Duniway's allies in the woman suffrage movement, and Dr. Chan, who gave a fiery address to Portland's Chinese American Equal Suffrage Society.
One of the reasons why the discovery of figures such as Beatty and Chan is so important is because it shows that women really did exercise control over their lives, and in the process influenced history. In other words, their agency is made clear. Far too often in studies of oppressed groups--whether they be women or members of racial minorities--the emphasis is on structures of injustice. The people in these groups then become more done to than doers. While this is of course a valuable and important perspective, given the unequal structures of power that have decisively determined the life course of so many people in history, I find that the more we actually know about real people, the more we generally can restore agency to them. And precisely because so little work has, overall, been done in Oregon women's history, we do not yet know much of how women in the past have truly been agents of their own democratic destinies. As the project of deepening women's history continues, scholars should make a special effort to find and highlight this agency--not only because it leads to better history, but also because it provides us with a better sense that we can help determine our own futures now, in the present.
As the project of writing Oregon women's history continues, bringing men more into the picture will also be important. Although historians often represent men as primarily beneficiaries of male privilege and opponents of political progress for the opposite sex--and that is hardly inaccurate as the main story- there are complexities here that need to be researched and thought through more fully. Jensen, for example, points to the curious case of David Logan, who sought to enfranchise women as early as the state's 1857 constitutional convention. There were plenty of male supporters of woman suffrage--it was a basic component of political progressivism--and many of Oregon's most prominent female lawmakers have gotten their initial political connections from male relatives (Towne was an exception) (5)
I also remain intrigued by a highly unusual proposal put forth by William U'Ren, the chief architect of direct democracy in Oregon. In 1920, he proposed that voters elect the legislature not by political party but by occupation. "Housewives" would vote for housewives, and female wage laborers and business owners would vote for their fellow domestic workers, milliners, and the like. Under U'Ren's plan, women would constitute the majority of the legislature and would actively legislate on behalf of women and children and for the common good. Not surprisingly, this proposal ended up going nowhere, but it received substantial support from members of the People's Power League and the main labor organizations in Oregon. All the plan's supporters were male; indeed, as far as we can tell, there were no female fingerprints on U'Ren's radical dream. Almost two decades after discovering this proposal, I still wonder: just where did it come from? Bringing both men and women actively into our histories of gendered politics is necessary to fully answer such questions. (6)
Finally, it would be a great service to scholarship, as well as to civic discourse, if future work on Oregon women's history explicitly evaluates our history in terms of how much progress society has made in matters of gender equity. For a variety of reasons, scholars often emphasize the negative--perhaps above all, in the hope of acknowledging uncomfortable truths. Yet, when it comes to recognizing genuine progress, we seem to lack a language that can be affirming. To my mind, Jensen is surely right to argue that the "project for full citizenship is ongoing"; Oregon's status as a battleground state for gay marriage attests to this fact. Still, women are much better off politically in 2009 than they were in 1859, and we should be able to speak clearly to both the main contours of that progress and the continuing, often quite bitter and sharp, inequality that remains. Only when we do this kind of full and double-edged accounting will we be able to determine just how robust democracy has been in Oregon history.
As Jensen concludes, we still need a real "revolution" in our historical writing that places questions of gender at the center of Oregon history so that we can rethink the state's past in searching, fundamental ways. Her article is an extremely impressive start toward that crucial task.
DEMOCRACY AND ITS discontents come to play most explicitly in Robert R. McCoy's fine interpretation of the political life of Walter Marcus Pierce. Pierce, who was arguably the key political figure in Oregon during the period spanning the 19206 to the 1940s, has received considerable attention from previous scholars. Yet McCoy's analysis is fresh and significant not only because it effectively places Pierce in his historical context in a significant new way but also because it, like both the other sesquicentennial series articles in this issue, speaks powerfully to the matter of what history can tell us about the power of democracy in the Oregon tradition.
McCoy's article is both exciting and difficult for me to discuss, because he so wisely and respectfully engages my book The Radical Middle Class an analysis he included without discussion between us. It is also relevant to note here that such historiographical engagement, where scholars probe the limits of others' work, is itself a form of dialogue critical for democracies. In non-democracies, there tends to be one official version of history, and the contest of interpretation that is properly at the heart of the historical discipline has no chance to survive, much less thrive. Alas, there are plenty of signs that those in power in this country do not understand the contentious, vigorously argumentative nature of "history": perhaps the most recent telling example is the Florida legislature's mandate that public schools stop teaching interpretation in history classrooms. Only the facts" are allowed. (7)
Walter Pierce served in various political offices, but he was best known for his one term in office as governor (1923 to 1927) and, during his septuagenarian years, his five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. Pierce was a staunch Democrat who avidly supported progressive political movements in the first two decades of the twentieth century and who became one of the West's bedrock supporters of the New Deal during the 1930s. He retired at age eighty-one, after a bitter defeat in his 1942 campaign for reelection. Following their marriage in 1928, Cornelia Marvin Pierce was his chief political partner and inspiration.
If so much has been written about Pierce, why is he worth revisiting? McCoy's argument is that Pierce represents in an almost exquisite form the two faces of the populist tradition in Oregon (and American) history. Populism has been one of the most important political forces throughout American history, from the time of the Anti-Federalists until the present day. Because of populism's enduring power, figuring out its character and meaning is one of political historians' most important scholarly tasks. This is not an easy responsibility, because populism comes in such a wide variety of flavors. If we roughly characterize as populist anyone who attacks The Elite and speaks for The People, then figures as diverse as William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long, and Joseph McCarthy can all be considered populists. Also consider studies of the year 1968 alone, in which scholars have applied this label to George Wallace and Martin Luther King, Jr., to Richard Nixon and Robert Kennedy. Today, perhaps the most influential populists are two quite different individuals: Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader. (8)
It is tempting to argue that such a category loses all meaning when it can be stretched to cover such wide and diverse figures, but McCoy demonstrates well that the term does retain important meaning. He argues that populism has always had both a radical democratic and a reactionary side. The radical democratic tradition of populism has been open, exclusive, and genuinely democratic in matters ranging from the electoral process to the economy. Pierce, with his hatred of special interests, his championing of the income tax and public power, and his advocacy for direct democracy and public education, was without a doubt such a radical democratic populist. Yet Pierce, with his hatred of those of Asian ancestry, his championing (along with Cornelia) of eugenic sterilization, and his advocacy of birth control because it would help purify the white race, was without a doubt also a reactionary populist. Indeed, it is not stretching matters to say that Walter Pierce was Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader together.
In my own historical work, I am a full-throated champion of radical populism. I believe that such a tradition provides the best opportunity for genuinely democratic civic engagement. McCoy quite kindly takes my work as a springboard to explore the political life of Walter Pierce, and he accepts my judgments on some rather controversial matters in Oregon history, such as how to characterize what I consider to be the pseudo-populism of the 1920s Ku Klux Klan (with whose white hoods and fiery crosses Pierce actively collaborated before turning against the organization). At the same time, McCoy goes beyond my work, forcing us to consider just how fully and easily radical populism can be intertwined with its ugly, bigoted twin. This is a crucial historical and civic lesson.
McCoy's analysis is also valuable because he refrains from taking the next step that far too many scholars do when exploring this thorny issue. Seeing how closely the radical and reactionary sides of populism have come together in our past has tempted some scholars--the best example is historian Nancy MacLean, who McCoy relies on for his concept of reactionary populism--to see populism as inherently flawed. According to this argument, once you start stirring up the anti-elitist resentments of the middle-class masses, you are automatically going to see xenophobia against immigrants, racism against minorities, and hatred of sexual minorities. Populism may have had a few virtuous moments, but ultimately it is a tradition that radicals and democrats best stay away from.
Despite plenty of sad history that supports this interpretation, I continue to reject this reasoning. As McCoy notes in his conclusion, these strands of populism have been and can be separated--and, indeed, progressives in the present should actively work to do so. Again, perhaps the chief inspiration in this regard can be William U'Ren. Beyond his career as an avid direct democrat and campaigner for women's takeover the legislature, U'Ren was a staunch civil libertarian (as was Pierce)--and an active opponent of eugenic sterilization. Nor was U'Ren alone; while one of the most distinctive characteristics of Oregon history is its long populist tradition, one of the most distinctive qualities of the state's populist tradition has been the strength of its radical democratic wing.
McCoy's powerful article, however, warns against such self-congratulatory cheerleading. Taking one very important figure, he shows us plenty of hope--but, in the end, far too much of the dark side for us to ever remain complacent about the democratic qualities of our commonwealth.
SOME, PERHAPS MANY, readers will find Cornelia Marvin Pierce's statement that serves as this essay's epigraph embarrassingly naive in today's complex society, where we seem to face new dangers around every corner. But I also believe that a good number of us still might secretly thrill to the embrace of ordinary people and their democratic wisdom. After all, such sentiments are quite an exception in the entire history of humanity, and it remains exciting and inspiring to be living in a country that at least rhetorically takes these ideas seriously--and in a state like Oregon, where the political institutions at least partially attempt to lodge genuine power in The People.
Despite the Pierces' imperfections, I refuse to believe that "a passionate belief in the common man and in his ability to organize a society in which he could live a life free from restraint and intolerance" is a delusion. If all of us believed just a bit more strongly in Marvin Pierce's basic faith in democracy--if we continued to think of ourselves as democratic pioneers, while also using history to keep our eyes wide open--we might be able to build the kind of commonwealth "enriched by all that [our] predecessors had found good." And that we find good in them.
(1.) See C. Vann Woodward, The Burden of Southern History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008 ); Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: Norton, 1987) (on "the burden of western history"); and Gordon Dodds, "The Burden of Oregon History," talk to the Washington County Historical Society, January 21,1988, cited in John P. Rosenberg, "The Burden of Oregon History: The Historian as Prophet," Metroscape (Summer 2005), 6-12.
(2.) Robert D. Johnston, The Radical Middle Class: Populist Democracy and the Question of Capitalism in Progressive Era Portland, Oregon (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 202-203
(3.) My thoughts on improvement, reform, liberalism, and democracy have been deeply informed by Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics (New York: Norton, 1991).
(4.) Janice Dilg, "'For Working Women in Oregon': Caroline Gleason/Sister Miriam Theresa and Oregon's Minimum Wage Law" Oregon Historical Quarterly 110:1 (Spring 2009): 96-129.
(5.) Jensen effectively highlights male participation in the woman suffrage campaign in "'Neither Head nor Tail to the Campaign': Esther Pohl Lovejoy and the Oregon Woman Suffrage Victory of 1912," Oregon Historical Quarterly 108:3 (Fall 2007): 350-83.
(6.) See Johnston, Radical Middle Class, 152-56.
(7.) Mary Beth Norton, "History Under Construction in Florida," New York Times, July 2, 2006.
(8.) The best survey of this tradition is Michael Kazin, The Populist Persuasion: An American History (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998 [rev. ed.]). See also David A. Horowitz, Beyond Left and Right: Insurgency and the Establishment (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996).…