Oregon Democracy: Asahel Bush, Slavery, and the Statehood Debate
Mahoney, Barbara, Oregon Historical Quarterly
As editor of the Oregon Statesman, Asahel Bush guided Oregon's political leaders through the greatest challenge of the times--successfully negotiating statehood within the tense national debates on slavery that led up to the Civil War. Bush's use of his newspaper as an overt political tool was not so uncommon for the times. The Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University recently wrote of the nineteenth century as a time when journalism was a "branch of politics." (1) Another journalism scholar states the case even more strongly: "The newspaper press was the political system's central institution, not simply a forum or atmosphere in which politics took place. Instead, newspapers and their editors were purposeful actors in the political process linking parties, voters, and the government together, and pursuing specific political goals." (2) Through the territorial period and into statehood, Oregon demonstrated precisely that reality. Editors identified the issues, set the political agenda, and dominated the players.
Because of its distance from the power center of the United States, one might assume that the controversy over slavery was irrelevant to Oregon. It was, however, inextricably bound to Oregon's move toward statehood during the 1850s. The question of whether Oregon would be a slave or free state was widely argued and divided the political leadership of the territory. After settlers in the Oregon Territory had voted to seek statehood, admission to the Union was delayed because the pro-slavery faction at the national level feared that Oregon's entering the Union as a free state would affect the balance of power in Congress. The newspapers and private correspondence of the era paint a vivid picture of the dispute and its consequences and demonstrate Bush's central role in its outcome.
The institution of slavery was well established by the time America achieved independence from England. As the country grew, the question of slavery's expansion shaped the debate over the admission of new states and spurred a series of congressional mandates. The Ordinance of 1787 banned slavery in the newly acquired Northwest Territory, which included the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota, effectively setting the Ohio River as the northern boundary for slavery. In 1820, the Missouri Compromise set a boundary between slave and free states within the lands of the Louisiana Purchase. Similarly, Congress applied the painstakingly constructed Compromise of 1850 to the lands won by the United States in the Mexican War. Finally, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, fashioned by Illinois Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas, abolished the Missouri Compromise and established "squatter sovereignty," whereby the inhabitants of a territory or state could decide whether or not to allow slavery. When American settlers created a provisional government in the Oregon Territory through the Organic Act of 1843, they approved an anti-slavery law on the basis of the Ordinance of 1787 and its prohibition of slavery in the northern territories. (3)
Meanwhile, the allure of the north Pacific coast attracted more and more immigrants. As the population grew, the British and American governments reached an agreement, in 1846, ending their joint occupation of the area. In 1848, the Congress established Oregon as a territory of the United States. By 1850, approximately twelve thousand people had immigrated to Oregon from the East, mostly from the Ohio and Mississippi valleys. (4) They shared common life experiences and aspirations and differed markedly from the California pioneers in that they sought promising farmland rather than gold. Their ambitions were addressed in a provision of the Organic Act, giving any man in the territory the right to 640 acres without having to pay for them. While successful in attracting new settlers, the provision created numerous uncertainties until it was confirmed by the Oregon Donation Land Law, passed by Congress in 1850. …