Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

The Paradox of Oregon's Progressive Politics: The Political Career of Walter Marcus Pierce

Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

The Paradox of Oregon's Progressive Politics: The Political Career of Walter Marcus Pierce

Article excerpt

IF ASKED TO NAME INFLUENTIAL state politicians, Oregonians might mention the names of Harry Lane, Charles McNary, William U'Ren, or Tom McCall. Walter M. Pierce, however, would likely not be on the list. As an undergraduate, I spent many hours at the card catalog and in the book stacks of Eastern Oregon State College's Pierce Library, named after Cornelia Marvin Pierce and her husband Walter Marcus Pierce. Despite being a history major, I knew little about either Pierce--only that Walter was the one-time governor of Oregon and, rumor had it, an active Ku Klux Klan member during his lifetime. Later, I learned about Pierce's complex political life and the many legacies left by this consummate Oregon politician.

Walter M. Pierce's political career spanned fifty-six years, from 1886 to 1942. Over those decades, he held numerous elected offices in Oregon: county recorder, state legislator, governor, and U.S. congressman. In addition to his wide-ranging experience as a politician, Pierce participated in some of the most influential political and social movements of his time, ranging from Populism and Progressivism to eugenics and prohibition. Much debate has surrounded Pierce's political career, especially concerning his connections to the Ku Klux Klan, because his life and political activities illuminate the contradictions that existed within the liberal-progressive political tradition in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (1) These contradictions are mainly products of late twentieth and twenty-first century interpretive stances, created as we try to understand how people could have supported efforts to democratize the political process and limit the excesses of the marketplace while at the same time working to curb the political and economic rights of African Americans and Japanese and Chinese immigrants, exerting a paternalistic moral vision of reform through the implementation of prohibition, and seeking to create a racially pure society through eugenics. Governor of Oregon, New Deal Democrat, populist and progressive, advocate of eugenics and birth control, prohibitionist, and ardent racist, Pierce exemplifies a period of political and social movements that sought to reshape the American Republic.

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Perhaps the best way to understand these contradictions is through the category of populist politics as defined by historians Robert Johnston and Nancy MacLean. Johnston describes one side of the coin, asserting that the middle class during the Progressive Era created a "radical democratic populism" that propelled much progressive political change in Oregon and the United States. (2) Describing the other side of the coin, MacLean uses the term "reactionary populism" to understand the enormous middle class attraction to the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s. (3) Individuals like Pierce, who was of the middle class, existed in both categories, often simultaneously supporting democratization and economic equality alongside limitations on certain groups' access to such enfranchisement.

My understanding of Pierce's middle-class radical-democratic populism and reactionary populism is based on Johnston's interpretation of the middle class in early twentieth century Portland. He contends that historical scholarship has consistently constructed the middle class "as a unitary and ahistorical category or entity instead of a product of constant political and cultural struggle." For Johnston, there is "no such entity as the American middle class." Instead, contrary to the portrayal of "middling folks" as conservative and monolithic, Johnston asserts that "people in the middle have created one of America's most democratic political traditions, a populism that has often represented a radical challenge to the authority of economic, political, and cultural elites and that has called into question many of the fundamental assumptions of a capitalist society. …

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