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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 992

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This is the grave of Joseph Dolph.

Born in 1835 in Dolphsburg, New York (guess it was a family town), Dolph grew up in a reasonably prominent family where the siblings were expected to go to college. Dolph attended Genesse Wesleyan Seminary in Lima, New York. He then passed the bar in 1861 and started a law practice. I assume Dolph bought himself out of the war because he did not serve in it. Hardly an uncommon thing among rich people. He was practicing but like a lot of young men was bored. Now, he could have solved his boredom by joining the cause to defeat treason in defense of slavery, but no no. He wanted to go West. He and his brother decided to join something called the Oregon Escort, which was supposed to guide settlers out to Oregon so the tribes wouldn’t attack them. Not sure how effective that was, but Dolph ended up in the new state.

Dolph started practicing law in Portland. A big part of the reason for a guy like Dolph to move to a place like Oregon is that it didn’t take much to become a person that mattered. Such a thing was much harder in the small-town western New York where he came from. Of course lots of people failed at this, but it was still a possible avenue to success and it paid off for Dolph. By 1866, he was already elected to the Oregon legislature. A Republican, natch. He just served one term, which was super common at the time. He was more interested in the law anyway, and it was also just a normal thing for people to cycle in and out of these offices. He returned to the statehouse in Salem in 1872, this time in the state Senate and this time served two two-year terms. Generally, he was just a rich guy, a railroad lawyer deeply involved with local powers such as Henry Villard in land and transportation schemes. He supposedly introduced the Queen Anne’s style of home to Portland, though I always find this sort of claim a little questionable and not particularly important even if true.

In 1882, Oregon needed to name a new senator. Of course this all happened in the state legislature. Oregon was a super Republican state. But it was sharply divided between two different factions, who hated each other. So they couldn’t name a successor because of course the few Democrats were not going to help them. After some ridiculous number of ballots, the factions finally got together to figure out someone no one hated. And that person was Joseph Dolph.

Well, like Plumb yesterday, Dolph was a guy. He was a minor player in his two terms. He held relatively minor committee chair positions such as the Committee on Coast Defenses. U.S. definitely had a lot of naval threats at its shore during the Gilded Age….. In his last two years, he managed to rise up to become chair of the Committee on Public Lands. Dolph was a big early player in the protection of Crater Lake, which would become a national park under Theodore Roosevelt. Dolph was also the kind of guy who had some shady dealings and was furious when the press reported on them, attacking journalists for leaks on the Senate floor and demanding to know who the leakers were. Reminds me of another sketchy Republican. This led the New York Times to attack Dolph in an editorial, writing, “It is possible that Dolph expects to lead a successful fight against the newspapers, the result of which is to so terrify them that there shall be no more criticism of the Senate.”

But he at least had some good positions. For example, we all know that Oregon had in its state constitution a provision excluding Blacks. The attention this gets somewhat annoys me today, not because Oregon wasn’t racist–oh it most certainly was–but because it is used to say that Oregon was especially racist, compared to other states. And that wasn’t true–all the western states were built on white supremacy and Oregon wasn’t even the only that excluded Black Americans. In any case though, it’s a shameful part of American history. Fast forward to 1891. This provision is still in the Oregon Constitution. Meanwhile, Mississippi and Alabama and the rest of the South was trying to deny Blacks the right to vote and used the constitutions of states such as Oregon as evidence as to why this was OK. On the Senate floor, Dolph did not deny that Oregon had this. He said rather that it was a relic of the shameful early days of the state when it was under the political dominance of Joseph Lane (who was also John C. Breckinridge’s VP candidate) and that it should be copied by no one. But there’s no question that Oregon’s law gave space for southern racists to operate. It’s not Dolph’s fault per se that this was still on the books in Oregon. But it was. Dolph’s major role in the Senate actually ended up being trolling the South. He was known as the leader of waving the bloody shirt on the Senate floor and annoying Democrats by talking about them as a party of treasonous racists. He also was a big supporter of women’s suffrage in the Senate, one of the first.

On the other hand, like so many abolitionists, Dolph completely opposed Chinese immigration to the United States. There were all sorts of hoops people who supported Black rights jumped through to get to this point, from the Knights of Labor to the Farmers Alliance to people such as Dolph. Basically, he said that they weren’t citizens and couldn’t be assimilated as citizens, unlike Black Americans who had been here for a long time. It wasn’t a good argument. It’s also at least possible that Dolph wasn’t overly concerned with this issue but knew that nothing drove his constituents in Oregon like hating Asians.

Dolph did not get a third term. Another faction of Republicans got the legislature to choose George McBride instead. So Dolph returned to Portland to pick up his law practice in what was now probably the leading firm in the state. He did a lot of railroad work, like any good Gilded Age hack. But not for long. He died in 1897, at the age of 61.

Joseph Dolph is buried in River View Cemetery, Portland, Oregon.

If you would like this series to visit other senators appointed in 1882 (saying “elected” isn’t accurate at this time), you can donate to cover the required expenses here. I’m presently mucking around this nation to extend this series so the donations go straight to covering the costs of this ridiculousness. Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar is in Oxford, Mississippi and Augustus Garland is in Little Rock, Arkansas. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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