The Men Behind the Machine

| tralev | salem | books |

An Oregon historian explores the complexities of creating a state.

During the 19th Century, as cities across the United States grew rapidly, powerful political machines emerged to fill the void created by inefficient government. These machines, and their bosses, had complete control over the majority of the electorate and were able to significantly influence policy. In “Salem Clique: Oregon’s Founding Brothers”, Barbara Mahoney documents the rise of such a machine, known as “The Salem Clique” in the Oregon territory.


THE SALEM CLIQUE: OREGON’S FOUNDING BROTHERS By Barbara S. Mahoney 224 pp. Oregon State University Press $23


Using well researched primary and secondary sources, Mahoney takes us on a journey spanning nearly half a century to discover the story of who these men were and what role they played in the transition period from territorial government to statehood. Mahoney imposes little of her own opinion in this book. Instead, in true historical fashion, she presents the ideas of the period and allows us make our own judgements.

Mahoney does an exceptional job distilling decades worth of history into succinct chapters that cover a wide range of topics including: western migration, territorial struggles, slavery, Civil War, nationalism, and the role of newspapers as blatant political vehicles.

Reading American history can cause cognitive dissonance. The same men that are celebrated, and have monuments built after them, are revealed to be terrible people from the modern perspective of equality and justice. For instance, Mahoney compares other political machines to the Salem Clique to show how it was subjectively better due to a lack of corruption and the desire of its members to do what was best for their community. She then describes their views and actions toward Native Americans, Chinese immigrants, and African Americans, which, at least in my mind, erases whatever good will they may have had.

The perspective of early Oregonians concurs with other historical writing, which concludes that abolition was an afterthought of the Civil War. Most had a negative view toward abolitionists and only fought to preserve the Union. Mahoney illustrates this by quoting William S. Ladd, a prominent Portland banker, as claiming that he “Would as soon vote for Jeff Davis as an abolitionist.” Oregon did not allow slavery, not because they believed it was fundamentally immoral, but because they didn’t want any non-white people living in Oregon.

The issue of slavery along with other themes covered in the book are complex. In the epilogue, Mahoney poses several questions for the reader to reflect on. While stressing the impact that the Salem Clique had on Oregon politics, for better or worse, she asks us to consider what might have been without the Clique’s involvement. One question that really stands out in light of all that we learn is “would Oregon have remained committed to the Union had the Clique supported the Confederacy?”

The role of history is to teach us about our past so that we can create a better future. It is easy to dismiss antiquated views as immoral. It is more difficult to reflect on our own views and actions and consider how future generations will regard our shortcomings.

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