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Background photo of the beach at Whale Cove was made by Bryce Buchanan in 2004. (Via WikiMedia Commons, cc/by/SA)
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UPON ARRIVING IN the Capitol in full control of the works, the new Democratic majority announced three main goals: (1) to force the state’s U.S. Senators, Republicans Henry Corbett and George Williams, to resign so that they could be replaced with Democrats; (2) to redistrict the state in such a way as to, as historian Frances Fuller Victor put it, “increase the Democratic representation in certain sections and decrease the Republican representation in others”; and (3) to rescind the state’s ratification of the 14th Amendment.
It was an ambitious agenda. Corbett and Williams, of course, declined to comply with the demand for resignations — although in 1870 Williams came up for re-appointment and could be, and was, replaced then.
One assumes the jerrymandering went according to plan, as it usually does; but it couldn’t have offered them too much protection, since the Republicans were back in power again four years later.
But the rescission of the state’s approval of the 14th Amendment: that was the big one. The Democrats were basing their move on the claim that the amendment had never been legitimately ratified. The defeated Southern states had all voted for it; but doing so had been a condition of readmission to the union. The Democrats felt that this was like enforcing a contract that had been signed at gunpoint. As far as they were concerned, the amendment had not yet been legitimately ratified, and until it was, anyone who wished to do so could withdraw their consent.
So, just a day or two into the session, Sen. Victor Trevitt of Wasco County proposed the bill.
“The legislatures … of the states of Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina, Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia [were] usurpations, unconstitutional, revolutionary, and void,” the bill asserts — referring, of course, to the “carpetbagger” legislatures in those states just after the war. “Until such ratification is completed, any state has a right to withdraw its assent to any proposed amendment.”
The redoubtable Republican Harvey Scott, editor of the Portland Oregonian, was neither slow nor subtle in his response to all this.
“In making a raid on the Fourteenth Amendment, Sen. Tappertit Trevitt’s evident object is to strike a blow at ‘[slur deleted] equality,’” he wrote on Sept. 24.
In the same article, Scott also claimed that Trevitt had obtained his seat through “fraud and rascality.” (This may have been a reference to Trevitt’s having many years before reneged on a “gentlemen’s agreement” with his opponent in which each had promised to vote for the other. Trevitt’s opponent did so, but Trevitt, when he saw how close the tally was, voted for himself, and in the end won his seat by two votes.)
On Sept. 28, Scott wrote a sarcastic article urging the Democrats to go ahead and abrogate the United States Constitution. “Let them come out squarely for nullification,” he wrote. “Elected by the votes of Democrats from the Southern army, it is fit that they should perpetrate this act of rebellion.”
Beriah Brown, editor of the staunchly Democratic Portland Herald, responded the very next day with what has to be one of the most ironic statements ever to appear on a newspaper editorial page. He acknowledged that the vote wouldn’t likely change anything; but, he added, it would put Oregon on the right side of history, “as favoring a white man’s government.”
THOUGH IN A TINY minority, the Republicans managed to delay the vote on this box of dynamite for a week or so. But finally, on October 6, it passed on a straight party-line vote.
Scott was ready for them, and unleashed a five-deck headline on the second page:
“THE ACT CONSUMMATED! / Passage of the Secession Ordinance by the Oregon Senate! / The Democratic Party Repudiate the Constitution! / OREGON OUT OF THE UNION!”
The act directed that Oregon’s rescission be forwarded to the President and Secretary of State, and presumably this was done, although historian Johannsen was unable to find any documentation of it. Harvey Scott suggested that President Grant would “probably use it to light a cigar, while the copy sent to Congress either go under the table or on file as a curiosity in the room kept for the rebel archives.”
In the end, Herald editor Beriah Brown was right. The passage of Oregon’s rescission act had no effect at all, other than to sully Oregon’s reputation.