Happy Birthday, Oregon!

Draft of Oregon State Constitution // Mss 1227

  Draft of Oregon State Constitution // Mss 1227


"We the People of the state of Oregon, to the end that justice be established, order maintained, and liberty perpetuated, do ordain this Constitution."


These words, written in 1857, anticipated Oregon's admission to the Union and marked the beginning of a two-year debate over statehood in the Unites States Congress.  Oregon's Constitution was accepted by Congress almost immediately, but statehood proved more elusive.


Statehood had been on the minds of Oregon settlers for a long time.  In 1838, Methodist missionary Jason Lee traveled to Washington D.C from Oregon Country with a petition calling for statehood signed by most of the male settlers in the Willamette Valley.  “We flatter ourselves,” the petition stated, “that we are the germe of a great state.”


But the political environment at the time put Oregon at the center of the most contentious partisan fracturing in the country's history.  The main argument opposing its statehood centered on slavery—an issue that influenced the creation of all new states in the 1840s and 1850s.  Oregon Territory was a free territory, although many emigrants brought slaves with them from the south.  The Missouri Compromise of 1820 divided the west into slave and non-slave states, a division that was reflected in the United States Senate.  The admission of new states was almost always highly contentious because it meant that new senators would be added to Congress, possibly upsetting the balance between slave and non-slave power in the Senate.


As a result, Senators from around the country had a stake in Oregon's political fate, and so the debate began in earnest.  Anti-slavery Republicans objected to the exclusion laws banning black settlement; pro-slavery Democrats objected to Oregon’s free-state status.  Oregon's champions took the floor, remarking on the will of the people to draft an Oregon constitution:


I urge that Oregon ought to be admitted...because she had a

right to believe she would be admitted, from the fact that the Government proposed that she should form a constitution.


At last on February 12, 1859, Congress voted 114-108 to admit Oregon to the Union.  Two days later, on February 14, President James Buchanan signed the bill into law and Oregon became the 33rd state.

Mark O. Hatfield Distinguished Historians Forum
Past Programs
Tom McCall
Oral Histories
Oregon History Project
Oregon History Day
Traveling Trunk Program
Focus on Oregon History