Pacific Historical Review/Volume 31/Political Censorship in the Oregon Spectator

Pacific Historical Review, Volume 31
Political Censorship in the Oregon Spectator by Warren J. Brier
4115217Pacific Historical Review, Volume 31 — Political Censorship in the Oregon SpectatorWarren J. Brier

Political Censorship in the Oregon Spectator


[Warren J. Brier is assistant professor of journalism in the University of Southern California. His dissertation at the University of Iowa was on the history of newspapers in the Pacific Northwest, 1846-1896.]

The first printed English-language newspaper in the eleven far western states, the Oregon City Oregon Spectator, was begun as a nonpartisan publication in perhaps the most fervid political epoch in Pacific Northwest history.[1]

Of international concern was the question whether the United States or Britain would obtain control of the region. Wilderness Oregon was attempting to expand and crystallize its experiment in provisional government into a system meriting territorial status, and the first echoes of national politics were being heard in the isolated area.

The Spectator was begun on February 5, 1846, by the Oregon Printing Association, a group of seven prominent citizens who acquired type and a Washington hand press from the East and sold $10.00 shares to raise sufficient funds. The newspaper's motto, carried on page 1, proclaimed, "Westward the Star of Empire takes its way."

That six of the members of the association held posts in the provisional government indicates the close relationship between the Spectator and the politics of the moment. William G. T'Vault, president of the organization and first editor, was prosecuting attorney and postmaster general. The treasurer, George Abernethy, was provisional governor in Oregon.[2] However, the owners of the Spectator maintained for four years a strict ban on political discussion. One of the association's first acts was formulation of a constitution, which stated in Article 8: "The press owned by or in connection with this association, shall never be used by any party for the purpose of propagating sectarian principles or doctrines, nor for the discussion of exclusive party politics."[3]

T'Vault, a lawyer who had worked on newspapers in Arkansas, recognized in his first editorial the restriction of the association. He said, in part:

The Spectator will have to keep within the pale of that constitution. . . . It might be expected . . . that the Oregon Spectator would be a political paper; but reason and good sense argue differently. Situated as we are—remote from the civilized settlements of the United States, and at this time having no protection but that which is afforded us by the provisional government of Oregon, and having but one interest to represent, and that interest the welfare of Oregon . . . it would be bad policy to break open old wounds, and in doing so, create new ones, to discuss politics in the columns of the Spectator.[4]

But instead of ending his salutatory in a neutral tone, T'Vault added wryly: "Notwithstanding we are now, as we have always been, and ever shall be, a democrat of the Jefferson school. Believing the principles taught by that great apostle of liberty, are the true principles of a republican government."[5] Thus, his final self-assertive, half-defiant declaration violated the spirit and letter of the association's constitution. One reader asked: "Will you please inform a subscriber in what way he can obtain the privilege you have taken, as I am not certain that you intend to exclude the discussion of politics altogether?"[6]

In subsequent issues, T'Vault followed the dictate of the association, albeit reluctantly. Occasionally he would note a communication was not printed because of political overtones.

Six weeks after he became editor, T'Vault published a short editorial supporting an A. L. Lovejoy in a local election.[7] He was promptly fired. In his valedictory in the next issue, T'Vault explained that the excuse given for his discharge was faulty syntax and orthography. But the real reason, he said, was that his political sentiments "were at variance" with the persons who controlled the newspaper. He claimed that two distinct parties existed in Oregon, and he told of difficulties in editing a non-partisan newspaper under such conditions.[8]

The second editor, Henry A. G. Lee, a Virginian who had prepared for the ministry, took over on April 16, 1846. He announced that columns of the Spectator would be open for "prudent discussion" of politics, except for "purely sectarian and uncalled-for and unprofitable partyism."[9] He stated:

We are aware that many will look with surprise, and perhaps suspicion, too, at the word "politics" . . . [in] the subjects to be discussed in the Spectator, from the fact, that heretofore, the privileges of the paper have been closed against politics entirely. We understand the 8th article of the constitution of the Oregon Printing Association . . . to exclude ex parte politics only. . . . Politics, as we understand the term, means the science of government, and not the effervescence of fermenting partyism, or the noisy froth of spouting demogogues.[10]

In following weeks, Lee engaged in his "prudent discussion," apparently to the dismay of the association which dismissed him on August 6, 1846.[11] In the next issue, an announcement by the association said: "Our paper will yet be edited to the satisfaction of at least a majority of the subscribers."[12]

Until another editor could be hired, John Fleming, the printer, conducted the Spectator. Then on October 1, 1846, George L. Curry, later governor of Oregon Territory, became the third editor in eight months. He commented:

Our columns will be closed to none, all being equally welcome to use them for the dissemination of opinion upon all subjects excepting sectism and exclusive party politics, the editor, of course, exercising his right of supervision.[13]

Curry was fired on January 20, 1848. He had defied the association by publishing certain secret resolutions, introduced in the legislature, denouncing an appointment by Governor Abernethy.[14]

In his final editorial, Curry vehemently reproved the association and its treasurer, Governor Abernethy, saying: "It [The Spectator] . . . has become the property of one individual, subject to his will, pleasure and dictation and intended to be made the advocate of his peculiar doctrines and opinions—the instrument of his petty ambition."[15] He declared that "since the censorship of the press in Oregon" he had lost all desire to edit the Spectator, preferring to "wait until the time shall come when the truth shall not be interdicted, nor the press muzzled."[16]

Three months later Curry established the second printed English-language newspaper in the Pacific Northwest—named, significantly, the Oregon City Oregon Free Press.[17] It soon adopted a motto: "Here shall the Press the people's rights maintain, Unawed by influence and unbribed by gain."[18] Curry's first editorial in the Free Press presented his views about the dismissal:

Some two months ago, when we were so unceremoniously deprived of the honor of editing the Governor's paper—the Oregon Spectator—and no longer permitted to bask in the sunshine of official favor, we were, of course, dreadfully cast down, and being so "cut off from the grace," had no idea, at the time, of coming before the public so soon again in our editorial capacity.

In reference to that expulsion, it may not be amiss here to remark, in passing, that we have been misrepresented and abused by a few miserable scribblers, who scarcely know how to spell their own names correctly (to say nothing about writing the English language correctly), and after their abortions have been published by the only press, at that time, in the country, that press has been closed upon us, and ourself denied the privilege of occupying even a space of ten lines in its columns, in reply.[19]

The Spectator, in its next edition, ignored Curry's comments.[20]

Until August 14, 1848, when the Oregon Country became a Territory, the Free Press served as a mouthpiece for opposition to the provisional government. The newspaper was discontinued on December 16, 1848, when its printer left for the California gold fields, and Curry's health, in his words, had reached a "wretched condition."[21]

Meanwhile, a third newspaper had been founded in Oregon, the Tualatin Plains Oregon American and Evangelical Unionist. Established June 7, 1848, it was continued irregularly until May 25, 1849, when its printer also departed for the mine fields. As its name implies, the newspaper was not concerned with politics.[22]

With the discontinuance of the Oregon American and the Oregon Free Press, the Spectator, again, was the only newspaper being published in the Pacific Northwest.

The final two editors of the Spectator—while it was owned by the association—did not violate the group's constitution. Aaron E. Wait, an attorney and former newspaper man from Michigan, succeeded Curry. Wait promised to make the newspaper "a medium of communication acceptable to all of whatever political or sectarian preferences."[23] When he quit one year later, he thanked the officers of the association for "their uniform kindness and courtesy towards us."[24]

Wait was replaced in 1849 by Rev. Wilson Blain of the United Presbyterian Church. In his first issue, Blain asked, "why should it [the Spectator] tarnish its glorious lustre by pandering to party strife?" He promised not to "sow the seeds of discord and political contention."[25] After a few months under Blain's editorship, the Spectator was sold by the association, ending a four-year reign of censorship. The new owner, Robert Moore, retained Blain for a time, then appointed D. J. Schnebly, who soon became proprietor as well as editor.[26]

Political events of historic importance had occurred since 1846, yet the association steadfastly had forbidden partisan discussions. Oregon had became a United States Territory, comprising the present states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and the western part of Montana. With its new status, it was plunged into national political controversies. Party lines were drawn quickly between Whigs and Democrats. In 1850-1851, three other newspapers founded in the territory immediately declared their political affiliations.[27]

Free of the association's constitution, the Spectator gradually entered the political fray. The Oregon City Oregon Statesman notices the Spectator's trend away from neutrality in 1851 and charged that it indirectly expressed opposition to Democratic candidates.[28] Early in 1852, the Spectator became a distinctively political journal publicly behind the Whig Party.[29] For the next three years, it supported all Whig candidates "with our pen and vote."[30]

The Spectator's late entrance into the political arena was one cause for its demise on March 10, 1855.[31] It had lost the public printing contract to the Democratic Oregon Statesman. And the Portland Weekly Oregonian, begun in 1850, quickly had become regional spokesman for the Whig Party.

The turbulent life of the Spectator resulted, in large measure, from the effort to publish a nonpartisan newspaper for pioneers who voiced strong political convictions. The American settler was the heir of generations whose shibboleth of freedom firmly embraced public exchange of ideas in the press. The very beginnings of government in the Far West were made in Oregon, yet the divergent opinions about this critical development found no outlet in the only newspaper issued for much of the period from 1846 to 1850.

In the decade after 1850, newspapers founded in the Pacific Northwest were dedicated to political causes. The "Oregon Style" of journalism, characterized by vituperative editorial feuds, soon emerged from the keen rivalries that existed.

Two headlines in the final Spectator symbolized the newspaper's paradoxical career: One, saying that the publication would not reappear, read, "Adieu!! Adieu!!"; the other said, "Oregon To Be A State."[32]

  1. News publications preceding the Spectator in the Far West were foreign-language newspapers or manuscript editions. These were the Taos (N.M.) El Crepusculo de la Libertad, 1834; Santa Fe (N.M.) La Verdad, 1844; Santa Fe (N.M.) El Payo de Nuevo Mejico, 1845, and the Oregon City (Ore.) Flumgudgeon Gazette and Bumble Bee Budget, 1845.
  2. Other members and their provisional government positions were: John E. Long, secretary; John H. Couch, treasurer; J. W. Nesmith, circuit court judge; Robert Newell, who served on various legislative committees. The seventh member was John P. Brooks.
  3. Oregon Spectator, Feb. 5, 1846, 2:2-3.
  4. Ibid., 2:2.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., Feb. 19, 1846, 3:2.
  7. Ibid., March 19, 1846, 2:1.
  8. Ibid., April 2, 1846, 2:1-2. George S. Turnbull, a student of Oregon newspapers for more than thirty years, suggests that T'Vault's editorial eulogy of Andrew Jackson may have irritated Governor Abernethy, a Whig. George S. Turnbull, History of Oregon Newspapers (Portland, 1939), 41. T'Vault later served in the Territorial Legislature. From 1855 to 1863 he periodically edited other Oregon newspapers. He died of smallpox in 1869. George W. Himes, "History of the Press of Oregon, 1839-1850," Oregon Historical Quarterly, III (1902), 341.
  9. Oregon Spectator, April 16, 1846, 2:2.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid., Aug. 6, 1846, 2:3.
  12. Ibid., Aug. 20, 1846, 2:1. Lee later participated in the Indian Wars, rising to the rank of colonel. He died in about 1850 of Panama fever, having served as superintendent of Indian affairs for the region. Himes, op. cit., 344. On Aug. 15, 1846, the Monterey Californian was founded as the first newspaper in California, ending the Oregon Spectator's news monopoly in the Far West.
  13. Oregon Spectator, Oct. 1, 1846, 2:2.
  14. Oregon City Oregon Free Press, July 8, 1848, 2:1; Walter Woodward, The Rise and Early History of Political Parties in Oregon, 1843-1868 (Portland, 1913), 34.
  15. Oregon Spectator, Jan. 20, 1848, 2:2.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Oregon Free Press, April 8, 1848.
  18. Ibid., June 10, 1848.
  19. Ibid., April 8, 1848, 2:2.
  20. Oregon Spectator, April 20, 1848.
  21. Oregon Free Press, Dec. 16, 1848, 2:1.
  22. Tualatin Plains Oregon American and Evangelical Unionist, June 7, 1848, to May 25, 1849.
  23. Oregon Spectator, Feb. 10, 1848, 2:1.
  24. Ibid., Feb. 22, 1849, 2:3. Wait served for four years as chief justice of the state of Oregon. He died in 1898 at age 85. Himes, op. cit., 353.
  25. Oregon Spectator, Oct. 4, 1849, 2:3. The newspaper was not printed until Blain was hired in October.
  26. Ibid., Sept. 5, 12, 1850.
  27. The Milwaukee Western Star and the Oregon City Oregon Statesman were Democratic; the Portland Weekly Oregonian, Whig.
  28. Oregon City Oregon Statesman, July 15, 1851, 2:2.
  29. "We shall, therefore, in the future conduct of the Spectator, firmly and zealously maintain those principles of public policy which are held by the great Whig party of the United States." Oregon Spectator, Feb. 3, 1852, 2:1.
  30. Ibid., May 26, 1854, 2:1.
  31. The final editor, C. L. Goodrich, replaced Schnebly on March 4, 1854.
  32. Oregon Spectator, March 10, 1855, 2:1; 2:4.