Nathaniel Robbins and Oregon’s Constitutional Convention

On February 14, 1859, Oregon was admitted to the Union as the 33rd state.  Two years before, a Constitutional Convention was held in Salem, the state capitol of Oregon Territory, to write a constitution for the new state.  Nathaniel Robbins, son of William and Bethiah (Vickrey) Robbins, born in Virginia, raised in Kentucky, living his adult life in Decatur Co., Indiana, before emigrating to Oregon in 1852, was the oldest member of the Constitutional Convention at 64-years of age.

Nathaniel was elected with 169 votes to represent Clackamas County at Oregon’s Constitutional Convention in June of 1857.  He had been nominated by the Clackamas County Democratic Party in April.

Nathaniel Robbins (1793-1863)

At this time newspapers were strongly associated with particular political parties, so while the Salem Oregon Statesman was a Democratic party newspaper, the Oregon City Argus was a Republican one.  This explains why some news was reported in one newspaper and not the other;  it depended on the political persuasion of the individual(s) involved.  The Argus would sometimes report that Nathaniel Robbins was a member of the “locofoco” party, which was a derogatory term at that time for the Democratic party.  When Nathaniel and others were nominated by the Democratic party the Argus had this to say:  “Upon the whole, we think this is about as good a ticket as could have been manufactured out of the material of this miserable party, although some of it could have been bettered a good deal.”

And it seems that there was some negative campaigning during the election, and Nathaniel Robbins, as an apparent “free-thinker”, came in for his share as the Oregon Statesman reported:

“BIGOTRY PROPERLY REWARDED—We are told that an opponent of Mr. Robbins, who was running on the democratic ticket of Clackamas for the Constitutional Convention, electioneered against Mr. R. on the ground that the latter was an infidel.  In one precinct where he urged this objection were quite a number of liberalists, politically opposed to Mr. Robbins, intending to vote against him, but who changed and voted for him, when they heard him opposed on account of his religious belief, actually giving him more votes than he received majority, and electing him.  When a man, competent and worthy, is opposed on account of his belief upon the subject of religion, we hope it will ever be with the same success as in Mr. Robbins’ case.”

The constitutional convention had been called by the people as the first step to statehood.  The convention convened on 18 August 1857 in Salem; presiding was Judge Matthew P. Deady.  On August 20th Dr. Robbins was appointed to the Education Committee, serving with delegates Peebles, Boise, Maple, Shattuck, Starkweather and Kinney.  This committee drafted the portion of the Oregon Constitution dealing with education and school lands (Article VIII, which can be viewed online, in its original handwriting).  This article was passed by the Convention on September 15th.  Three days later the Convention voted to adopt the new Constitution, it was signed by the delegates, and the Convention adjourned.  Later that fall the Constitution was accepted by the voters of Oregon.

Debates about education reveal a few general characteristics about the convention: Its delegates favored a solid fund to pay for a basic system of common schools; many wanted to exclude non-whites from attending school; and they were deeply ambivalent about the value of higher education and the wisdom of providing state support for it. The delegates made “liberal and abundant provision for the education of the rising generation” by setting up a common school fund. The fund would be based on the sale of public land as well as other money that accrued to the state in the form of forfeitures and escheated property such as estates without heirs. The interest and other revenues from the fund would be distributed to school districts around the state. These provisions caused no significant debate.

However, disagreements soon arose over who should attend the public schools. The committee draft simply referred to “children.” David Logan objected, worrying that someone could “wring in a nigger or an Indian under the provision as it stood.” He wanted the text to read “white children.” But the realities of living in a frontier territory led others to oppose banning non-whites. John White of Washington County noted that “there were many half-breed children in his county.” J.C. Peebles from Marion County agreed, adding that “there were many voters in his county whose children had Indian blood—half-blood or less. They paid taxes, and their children ought to enjoy the benefits of common schools.” The final version of the constitution referred only to “children.”

Another debate centered on funding higher education, especially in relation to religious influence. In the 1850s, a university education was very uncommon, usually associated with a religious denomination, and often seen as a symbol of elitism. Nathaniel Robbins, who was a country doctor, “read” medicine with a local physician in Indiana to learn about doctoring – he did not go to school for a medical education.  Many delegates distrusted higher education and thought it was unnecessary for building the mostly agrarian society they envisioned for the state.

Others supported a university, saying that “children wanted to learn more than was taught in common schools.” Likewise, one delegate said there was enough money for both common schools and a university and claimed that “it was the poor who wanted the university, not the rich. The rich could send their children anywhere.” In the end, the delegates postponed the decision on founding a state university until ten years after the passage of the constitution.  It is not known what Nathaniel Robbins views on these issues were – there are no records kept of how individual delegates voted.

Sadly, and to Oregon’s dishonor, the Convention passed to the voters the choice of (1) allowing or disallowing slavery and (2) allowing or disallowing free blacks to reside in Oregon.  Oregonians voted strongly against slavery, but they voted more strongly against allowing free blacks to live in the state.  Free African-Americans would have to look north, to the Puget Sound region in Washington State, for a place to reside.  That part of the Constitution wasn’t removed until 1926.

(Family line:  Jacob Robbins-William Robbins-Nathaniel Robbins)