Democracy and Its Discontents in Oregon Political History

By Johnston, Robert D. | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Democracy and Its Discontents in Oregon Political History


Johnston, Robert D., Oregon Historical Quarterly


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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. …

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