Oregon Politics, Oregon Families, and the End of the Sesquicentennial

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

Oregon Politics, Oregon Families, and the End of the Sesquicentennial


Johnston, Robert D., Oregon Historical Quarterly


THIS ISSUE CONCLUDES the Oregon Historical Quarterly's formal consideration of the sesquicentennial of Oregon statehood.

In some ways, 2009 was simply another year in the saga of our history. Even with the continuation of two wars and the inauguration of our first African American president, future scholars will almost certainly consider the intense economic crisis as this year's most important event. Yet, while these matters feel acute to us right now, they do not fall significantly outside the overall rhythms of the past--which easily include deep conflict and intense crisis. In that way, 2009 has been an ordinary year for Oregon history.

The sesquicentennial, however, has made the year rather different--and perhaps even extraordinary. Scholars have deliberated on the meaning of the 150th anniversary of Oregon joining the United States, and politicians have invoked the glories of the state's traditions. From my perch in exile in Chicago, what appears most unusual about Oregon history during this banner anniversary year is the outpouring of sentiment and activity from ordinary citizens. Oregonians put together a sesquicentennial film festival (leading to the question: what exactly is an "Oregon film"?), staged a revival of 1959's musical comedy Oregon! Oregon! (starring the famed explorers Harry and David), and created a sesquicentennial Facebook page (with a rather snow-bereft Mount Hood as the featured photo). Some of this activity was at least partially whimsical. For example, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, replete with rainbow-colored eye shadow, participated in a (quite serious) cleanup of the Portland Park Blocks by HIV-positive citizens as part of Project 150+. And don't forget the beer: several breweries produced special ales and IPAs in honor of the grand event. (1)

While the sesquicentennial inspired much valuable and virtuous citizen action--indeed a rather massive outpouring of volunteerism--the anniversary did not seem to inspire much considered rethinking of the state's distinctive political traditions. The Secretary of State did put on display the original version of the state's constitution, but the state government did not, for example, host any kind of civic fair where Oregonians of different kinds of political stripes and perspectives could come together to reflect on what the fundamentally political event of statehood means to us today in the civic realm. (2)

In many ways, that has been our job here at the Quarterly. In the previous three issues of OHQ in 2009, we have explored the political consequences of Oregon's changing demography, as a once overwhelmingly rural state became urban, then suburban. We have examined the contours of women's political participation in and exclusion from the nineteenth century to the present, and we have looked at the rise and decline of different patterns of partisan affiliation. We have also seen introductions to, or reconsiderations of, key individuals in Oregon's political past, ranging from pioneer editor Asahel Bush and early twentieth-century labor reformer Caroline Gleason/Sister Miriam Theresa to the populist duo of Cornelia Marvin Pierce and Walter Pierce to the conservative mid twentieth-century senator Guy Cordon.

This issue's primary contribution to a reconsideration of the Oregon political tradition is Lawrence M. Lipin and William Lunch's "Moralistic Direct Democracy: Political Insurgents, Religion, and the State in Twentieth-Century Oregon." A product of a fruitful (and unfortunately all-too-unusual) collaboration between a historian and a political scientist, Lipin and Lunch's article is in many ways the most provocative article in OHQ's sesquicentennial series. The authors seek to explain the most unusual--and arguably the most important--feature in Oregon politics: the state's vesting of substantial political power directly in the hands of ordinary citizens through the initiative and referendum process. …

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