Oregon’s Constitution

Draft version of the Oregon State Constitution’s preamble and bill of rights, 1857. Mss 1227

July 17 – September 3, 2018

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Oregon Historical Society
1200 SW Park Ave
Portland, Oregon 97205
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“Gentlemen, for the purpose of organization it will be necessary to have a secretary pro tem.”

Asa Lovejoy’s bureaucratic announcement officially opened the Oregon Constitutional Convention on August 17, 1857, where sixty elected delegates—all white men—built a state government. Their work was philosophical and mundane, fascinating and meticulously detailed.

The document was modeled after hundreds of founding documents created to answer the questions “why” make a government, and “how” to make a government. The why of the Oregon Constitution is documented in its Bill of Rights as a set of principles for Oregonians to aspire to—a balance of individual interests against the collective interests of “the people.” The how creates the systems, or bureaucracies, that put those principles to work.

But put to work for whom? The settlement of Oregon Country during the 1840s and 1850s had been violent. While Oregon Trail pioneers, merchants, and statesmen were building communities and changing the landscape into profitable, familiar places for themselves, Native people were losing their homelands, immigrant groups were being targeted, and women were being subjugated. Oregon’s constitutional delegates intended to protect their economic and cultural interests with a document based on representative democracy; but they also guaranteed their control of the land, the resources, and the government by denying entire groups of people a voice in that democracy. It is a contradiction embedded in the Constitution.

“We declare that all men, when they form a social compact are equal in right; that all power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority.”

“No Negro, Chinaman, or Mulatto shall have the right of suffrage”

That is the legacy of the Oregon Constitutional Convention.

Oregon Constitution

Timeline

For more information on the history of Oregon’s constitution, visit Crafting the Oregon Constitution, an online exhibit by the Oregon State Archives.

Conservation of the Original Oregon Constitution

The Oregon Secretary of State’s office and the Oregon State Archives Division led a fundraising drive to restore, preserve and exhibit the original 1857 Oregon Constitution. The fundraising goal of $100,000 was to provide for professional restoration of the historic document. This goal was surpassed by $3,630, thanks to the generous support of Oregonians statewide. The Oregon Historical Society contributed to this effort, and is proud to host this display of the restored document.