Sunday, February 4, 2018

New Book on Salem Clique needs more on Slavery

Matthew Deady, c1859
Oregon Historical Society
OrHi 63119
In the last couple of years the University of Oregon conducted a thorough reassessment of the legacy of Mathew Deady. Students had called for renaming historic Deady Hall on campus. In announcing the final decision not to rename Deady Hall, University President Michael Schill wrote:
Deady was...a deeply flawed man. He held racist views which I find abhorrent and contrary to the principles of our university. His support of slavery prior to the Civil War cannot be excused....Although Deady’s racist views did not abate after the Civil War, he fully embraced the new constitutional order....Deady supported the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which guarantee to all equal protection under the US Constitution....Deady does not represent an example of an egregious case justifying overturning the presumption against denaming...[and] I will not recommend that the Board of Trustees dename Deady Hall.
In the same decision, Schill ruled that Frederic Dunn, an Exalted Cyclops in the second KKK of the 1920s, and who had taught at Willamette University between 1895-1898 previous to his time at the University of Oregon, was in fact an example of such "an egregious case." His name was removed from his namesake building, and it has been renamed Unthank Hall.

Matthew Deady was at the center of the "Salem Clique," the name of a small Democratic party machine mostly headed by Asahel Bush during the run up to Statehood in the 1850s, opposed first to a Whig coalition headed by Thomas Dryer of the Oregonian in Portland, to the Know-Nothing party, and then to the early Republican Party in the later 1850s.

Asahel Bush was almost certainly more racist than Matthew Deady, and it does not appear his views evolved the way Deady's changed. We know, for example, about his scorn for the efforts of Rev. Obed Dickinson and his wife Charlotte later in the 1850s and 60s.

Time to think more about Asahel Bush

A reassessment of the legacy of Asahel Bush is overdue. (We also need to know more about his real estate, investing, and banking activities later in the 19th century! He is such a key Salem figure, but hardly known in detail.)

In her new book, The Salem Clique: Oregon's Founding Brothers, Barbara Mahoney leans away from such a reassessment, and without denying the way race and slavery was implicated in our Territorial government and then the debate and drive to Statehood, she may not center it enough. Of Bush in 1862 she writes:
Writing in the third person...[he said] he was "in favor of maintaining the Government at every hazard and to the last extremity. He wouldn't destroy the Government either to enslave or liberate [yes, that word*]; he believes it to be a Government of white men, and if the liberties of that race can be preserved, he regards it of comparatively little consequence what fate betides [the same word]."
Rather than providing the central thesis and focus, this is an ancillary moment.

It seems instead like the machinations of the Salem Clique, starting with sending out Bush to organize the Democratic party from the very start, have at their basis the perpetuation of slavery in the South as supported by the Democratic party of the time, and arranging in Oregon a "Government of white men." Race and slavery are absolutely central here, both in our local politics and in the national political wrangling involved in admitting a new state to the Union.

Slavery isn't backstory or side story, it's absolutely central to the main story, and may indeed be the essence of the main story. (You might recall "Oregon Was Founded As a Racist Utopia," a Gizmodo piece from a few years back that pushes this argument.)

All this is a matter of emphasis and not a matter of fact, it should be said. And Salem Clique never sets out explicitly to be an assessment of Asahel Bush. It's about a group, not one person. Mahoney takes pains to show ways that Bush was not the sole leader of the Clique and the ways other people and centers of power challenged his power.

So you may say, and fairly so, that this is at least partially criticism of the book for something it does not aim to be. But at this moment in our history and politics, with so much unfinished business around slavery all too shockingly evident, it is clear that when it is implicated, we should center slavery and race in our analysis. And Bush should be at the center of that.

It was there from the start. Writing about the adoption on July 5th, 1843 of the first Organic Act, Mahoney writes:
It banned slavery throughout the territory, a measure that was soon supplemented by the legislative committee with an amendment "requiring all persons who had brought slaves into the country to remove them within three years, and providing that free negroes should leave within two years, under penalty of being flogged by the constable."
The Oregon territory was not unique in this: she notes Indiana, Illinois, and the territory that become Iowa also had similar Exclusion laws. But it was central here. A few years later during the first attempt at official Territorial status back in Washington
Senator Calhoun led the opposition, convinced that if Congress outlawed slavery in Oregon it was declaring slavery wrong, and claiming the right to address that wrong anywhere in the country. [link added]
Once the bill was passed Calhoun still lobbied for a veto, but President Polk signed it.

Shortly thereafter Samuel Thurston was elected Delegate to Congress (a non-voting position), and while he was working on a Land Act to ratify land squatting (dispossession is also a theme that might benefit from greater emphasis), he maintained
The people of Oregon were not pro-slavery men, nor were they pro-negro men; there were but few negroes in the territory and he hoped there never would be more; the people themselves had excluded them and he trusted that Congress would not introduced them in violation of their wishes.
Before Asahel Bush moved out to Oregon, he had printed these words on not a side issue but, as Mahoney says, "the most contentious issue confronting the country," in his Massachusetts newspaper. Shortly thereafter he and Thurston reached agreement on organizing a Democratic newspaper in the Oregon Territory, and Bush moved out here with a printing press. This phase of journalism was intensely partisan, not at all impartial or striving for objectivity!

Our own understanding of Oregon history sits generally in a comfortable alignment with the North and with the Union. "She flies with her own wings" and we like to think of the wings as virtuous ones. But this alignment with the North was deeply contested, far from certain, and more fragile than we would like to think. In Portland at the Whig paper, The Oregonian, Thomas Dryer said - polemically, but also with more than a passing glance at truth - that, "We have ever regarded the Statesman as a pro-slavery paper." Later Mahoney cites historian Leslie Scott that Bush "was more potent than...any other man in holding Oregon to the Union." That, of course, means holding it to the Union was in real doubt. William Ferrar could say "there really is a stronger secession sentiment and element in Oregon than in any other state yet adhering to the Union." Since there were many settlers from northern Mississippi, Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee, we might do well to think of Oregon as a "border state," rather than one firmly of the North. (Maybe this is a commonplace among professional historians, but it certainly is not in the popular imagination.)

Joseph Lane, Library of Congress
At the election of 1860, the southern and pro-slavery Democratic ticket with John Breckenridge and Joseph Lane came in second behind Republican Abraham Lincoln. But the margin was only a 2% difference, 36% to 34%, and together the two Democratic tickets got 62% - so it's not like the support for Lincoln was overwhelming. Joseph Lane's son, Lafayette Lane, was said to have joined the pro-Confederacy paramilitary Knights of the Golden Circle.

And of course Oregon did not ratify the 15th Amendment guaranteeing the right to vote until 1959.

Again, this is a matter of emphasis, not of fact, but if history writing is always engaged with the present, indirectly or directly, the present facts of our political and cultural moment call for more attention to questions about slavery and race, which have generally been minimized in expressions of home-state pride.

Sometimes Hard to Follow

For a non-specialist audience, the book might also have benefited from a clearer organization and plan. It's hard to say whether the book needed a stronger editorial hand or whether this is a comment about the state of small press book publishing. Mostly the book proceeds chronologically from the 1840s to 1860s.

More biography and personality? (cover detail)
From its subtitle "Oregon's Founding Brothers" and all the thumbnail headshots on the cover, it seemed reasonable to expect biography and personality to drive more of the narrative and organize the plan. But as you can see from the table of contents, a bare chapter listing, there's little in the way of signposting or overt outline. Mostly it just marches along in time, stitching together citations from letters and newspapers, and occasionally engaging in the argument of previous historians.

Salem Clique table of contents
The other book I'm working through, on Chicago's development of transportation policy and politics from 1900-1930, a similarly narrow monograph, but published in 1980, offers a plan much easier to grasp for a non-specialist. If a second edition of Salem Clique is ever in the works, a beefed up outline and table of contents with chapter headings and subheads might be my first request.
The Automobile and Public Transit TOC
Additionally, a book about the "Oregon Style" of newspaper polemic and invective ought to have more verve! I found it drier than I was expecting, not willing to relish the creativity in all the insults and overheated rhetoric. There's more entertainment to be mined here!

But of course there are lots of new and interesting details in the book.

Bush's farmhand and driver, Jacob Amsler circa 1904
He bought the Harding house in 1903
Most immediately, even though it's not like the information is hidden, it had just never registered that the Benjamin Harding House of 1884 on High Street, basically across the Street from the Bush House, had links to the pre-Statehood heyday of the Salem Clique. Harding was a member. It's remarkable that just a couple years before and after 1880, two key members of the Salem Clique built in what was then suburban south Salem. 30 years later! So it was interesting to learn a little more about Harding. He'd also married into the Bush family with his second wife, so maybe it's not so surprising he'd build then nearby - though his wife had died by then.

About him the National Register nomination for the house says:
On his arrival in Oregon in 1850, Benjamin F. Harding became clerk of the House of the Oregon Territorial Legislature. He was Speaker of the House from Marion County in 1852 and 1853 and a member for the State Legislature in 1859 and 1860. He was Speaker of the House in 1860. He was Secretary of the Territory from 1855 to 1859 by appointment of President Pierce, and served as acting Governor in 1856 in the absence of Governor Curry....After the death of Colonel E. D. Baker of the United States Senate at the battle of Ball's Bluff, Harding was elected to fill the unexpired term and served in the United States Senate from September 12, 1863 to March 3, 1865. This was his final official service for the people and the Democratic party...

His donation land claim south of Salem, near the present-day Jefferson interchange on Interstate Highway 5, was next to that of his first father-in-law, Thomas Cox, Salem's first merchant...Ben moved to French Prairie in the 1860s, acquiring land near Fairfield (now a ghost town) on the west bank of the Willamette River. He lived there until after the death of his second wife, Sally M. (Bush) Harding, in 1873....In December 1883 he acquired a full block across High Street from the holdings of his second father-in-law and political ally, Asahel Bush....In 1888 the elder Harding left Salem to be near his son in the Cottage Grove vicinity....
That listing calls him an ally of Bush in Democratic party politics, but it does not specifically call out the "Salem Clique." Maybe this is evidence for a shift in historiography and naming conventions, and that our generation will find new prominence for the notion and significance of the Clique - something the book at least partially answers; it uses the name "the Clique" throughout, and treats it like a well-defined and real thing, not merely a nickname bestowed by Dryer.

It was also good to learn more about Joseph Lane, who cycled through a number of important elected positions, and was one of the first Senators after Statehood.

There's tons of early Oregon history here that is not widely known or known well enough.

In the end, though, I wanted to be able to give The Salem Clique a stronger recommendation, and I have a hard time seeing it finding a general audience. It's the kind of book around which the library ought to be able to structure a reading club event here in Salem. You know, Asahel Bush and the Origin of Oregon! But it's not that kind of book I don't think. Instead it will mainly be of interest to students and to specialists.**

Have you read it? What did you think?


* Bowdlerizing seemed best. As appropriate for a scholarly work, she includes the word, but here online, where too often tone becomes wildly intemperate, it does not seem necessary to include such an offensive emblem of hate and scorn. I'm not sure this is the best way to manage it, but I can't see any other way.

** For a contrasting and more positive appreciation, see the Oregonian from last summer:
In this clearly written, thoroughly documented and revealing narrative, historian Barbara J. Mahoney describes the origins of the Salem Clique, measures its impact and evaluates its members' ideas and actions. She addresses a major Oregon political topic in an interestingly presented and readable book. Residents of the state should know about this subject....

Mahoney draws extensively on a rich gathering of personal correspondence among these political leaders to spice her story. She mines, particularly, the letters of Bush, Deady, Nesmith and Lane. No one previously had utilized as extensively as this author these revealing sources of information. No one has told the story of these fractious political clashes as well as this writer.
For more on the history of the Clique and the Oregon Constitution, see the Secretary of State's online exhibit, "Crafting the Oregon Constitution: Framework for a New State," and in particular these chapters touching on slavery and race:
And just announced at State Archives, "Black in Oregon, 1840-1870" opens February 5th.
Black in Oregon, 1840-1870 is open to the public Monday – Friday, 8am-4:45pm and will run from February 5 - August 24, 2018

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There will be a talk later this month!

OSCF Speaker Series Presents: Barbara S. Mahoney

Thursday, February 22, Noon, Hearing Room C, Free

Join author Barbara S. Mahoney and learn about the Salem Clique. During the decade of the 1850s, the Oregon Territory progressed toward statehood in an atmosphere of intense political passion and conflict. Editors of rival newspapers blamed a group of young men whom they named the “Salem Clique” for the bitter party struggles of the time. Led by Asahel Bush, editor of the Oregon Statesman, the Salem Clique was accused of dictatorship, corruption, and the intention of imposing slavery on the Territory. This is free and open event sponsored by the Capitol History Gateway, a project of the Oregon State Capitol Foundation.