“Who is White?” Oregon’s 1857 Constitutional Convention

In 1857, as Oregon’s White legislators crafted their State’s Constitution, they discovered that restricting the vote to White citizens only, as they intended to do, posed a tricky wordsmithing problem.

The Oregon Statesman printed the transcript of the entire Constitutional Convention, preserving even the laugh lines as the men bantered over the laws of their land. The newspaper records each comment in third person past-tense, as in, “He did not like… he was informed… he moved… he opposed.” I have shifted the dialogue to first-person, present-tense for the sake of readability. Otherwise, everything that follows comes from the September 15, 1857 edition of the Oregon Statesman.

The conversation begins with a proposal from one Matthew Deady, President of the Constitutional Convention. Deady had worked as a blacksmith, teacher, and lawyer before crossing the Oregon Trail. In Oregon, he was named a district Judge.

“I move to strike out all preceding language,” Deady proposed, “and insert, ‘No persons other than those of the white race shall have the right of suffrage.’” A building on the University of Oregon campus was named Deady Hall until June 2020.

“I move ‘free white,’” replies the future Portland Mayor David Logan, “since Mr. Kelsay says there are white slaves in Missouri.” 

“I oppose adding the word ‘free,’” interjects Thomas Dryer, the editor of the Oregonian newspaper. “I don’t like the insinuation that white men are not free, even if Mr. Kelsay does say there are white negroes where he comes from. If we are going into this question of color, I want some standard setup. I’ve been informed that Mr. Kelsay occupies a seat in this house by voting for himself. I want it settled, who is white?”

Here Kelsay and Dryer erupt into an argument. Kelsay accuses Dryer of “cutting at him” all day. John Kelsay, a lawyer who was born in Kentucky and later lived in Missouri, came from a family steeped in violence toward Native Americans. His grandfather had fought against the Shawnee and Mingo people in the 1774 Dunmore’s War, a fierce battle which ended with Natives ceding the lands in present-day West Virginia and Kentucky. A 1916 biographer wrote of Kelsay’s uncle James Allen that he “lived to an extreme old age, in the midst of broad acres his rifle had helped to redeem from the Indians.” John Kelsay himself had recently fought as a colonel in the battle against the Rogue River Tribe in Southern Oregon.

“Mr. Dryer accuses me of being a fugitive slave!” Kelsay objects. “I expect Dryer is the fugitive slave, and that’s why he carries a cane: to defend himself against U.S. officers! Maybe that’s why he objects to this word, ‘free’—he wants to get to vote himself!”

“It’s uncertain who is free,” William Farrar observes. “That requirement might exclude the countrymen of Mr. Deady and his friend, McCormick. Irishmen are not free at home. They live under the worst slavery in the world.” Farrar would be named by the Portland Mercury in 2012 as Portland’s “Worst Mayor Ever.” Shortly after his election, he took a three-month leave of absence and never returned.

“But this would admit quarter-blood negroes,” Logan protests. “They have a predominance of white blood, and would be entitled to vote under Mr. Deady’s amendment.”

“The word white is well understood!” Deady is exasperated. “But I would move to make it ‘pure white.’”

“I’m opposed to all these amendments,” Delazon Smith breaks in. Smith had been expelled from Oberlin College, excommunicated from his local church, and would later serve one of the shortest terms—one month—in the history of the United States Senate. “The section as it stands was copied from other constitutions, and is well understood. But the moment we undertake to get something new, we find ourselves all afloat.”

“It is hard to determine who is pure white,” Dryer concedes. “There is my friend Kelsay, who is not as white as my friend Burch, and Mr. Waymire’s nose is not as sharp as mine is.”

“I’m for ‘free white,’” Kelsay insists. “I’ll risk it.”

“I move we insert ‘Simon’ before pure,” says William Bristow, who has up to now remained quiet. The room erupts into laughter. 

Why did the mention of the word “Simon” cause the room to burst out laughing? “Simon-pure,” it turns out, was an eighteenth- and nineteenth-century slang term based on a character in a 1717 play. Simon Pure had been impersonated by someone else, and struggled to prove that he was who he said he was. The word came to mean “absolutely genuine, quite authentic,” but also, “pretentiously or hypocritically pure.” The joke lands because the men in the room recognize the truth of it. In their efforts to prove themselves absolutely, genuinely, quite authentically White, they are pretentious and hypocritical.

Finally, William Watkins says, “I am opposed to ‘pure white.’ It would exclude two men of doubtful white color in my county.” Watkins later went on record opposing the exclusion clause, saying he could not support legislation “that would place other human beings so completely outside the protection of the law.” In the end, Watkins refused to vote for, or sign, the final version of the Oregon Constitution.

With that, “the committee rose and the house adjourned.” 

The language the group eventually settled on for the Oregon State Constitution extended the right to vote to “every white male citizen.” “No idiot or insane person” could vote; neither could any “Negro, Chinaman, or Mulatto.” These provisions would remain in force, in some cases, for over a century. Women received the right to vote in Oregon in 1912. Although the United States extended suffrage to people of all races with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, the state of Oregon did not ratify the amendment until 1959. Oregon disbarred its mentally disabled citizens from voting until 1980. 

The casualness of the White supremacy on display here is breathtaking. So, too, is the absurdity of it. The men in the room can’t even determine or prove whether they themselves are White. The idea that some people born into slavery in Missouri might be so phenotypically White—because of generations of rapes by White masters—as to be indistinguishable from any of the rest of them has them all wondering whether everyone else in the room might be a fugitive slave. But even though the legislators are aware of the absurdity of scrutinizing one another’s skin tone and nose shape to determine each other’s value, they remain deeply convinced of the necessity of extending full voting rights only to some human beings and not to others. They can’t bear the thought of accidentally excluding the Irish, but they are horrified by the idea of accidentally including an American with one Black grandparent.

Truly, as Junot Diaz writes of the argument Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields make in their book Racecraft, “Race is a monstrous fiction, racism a monstrous crime.”

By Sarah Sanderson


Weekly Oregon Statesman, September 15, 1857, https://www.newspapers.com/image/114362724/




Junot Diaz, Cover of Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life by Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields (London: Verso).

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