Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,479

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,479


This is the grave of James Slater.

Born in 1826 outside of Springfield, Illinois, Slater grew up in Illinois, attended the local public schools, and was not particularly exceptional. He didn’t come from huge money or anything so he was like a lot of other young people on the frontier, which was looking for the next opportunity. That opportunity happened in 1849 with the California gold rush. Slater headed across the Plains like thousands of other Americans, not to mention all the people from Mexico, Peru, Chile, Hawaii, Australia, China, France, and Germany who headed there too, shocking the Americans who were not used to diversity and very much did not like it. But Slater didn’t last long in the diggings. It was pretty clear to anyone with half a brain that the money was not to be made in the creeks panning for gold. Some went into other things, others left pretty quickly.

Slater was among the latter. He headed north into Oregon Territory in 1850. He lived in the small town of Corvallis, studied for the law, and passed the bar in 1854. This was a fast track for someone with ambition in a place like Oregon, where it did not take much to be among the most educated people around and which did not have a preexisting political elite. So that worked out very well for Slater. He became clerk of the District Court for the Territory of Oregon for Benton County in 1853 and stayed in that role for the next four years. He then ran for territorial assembly in 1857 and won, serving a one-year term. Then he ran for the state house when Oregon became a state in 1859 and won that election too, serving another year. By this time, he ran a newspaper called the Corvallis Union, which promoted his ambitions and policies. He was a Democrat so was a very harsh critic of Abraham Lincoln and anything that might stop slavery’s expansion. Benton County was always a home of Confederate sympathizers anyway.

But in 1863, Slater left Corvallis. Not sure if this was the shift of the region to the Republicans or what exactly. He moved to Walla Walla, in Washington Territory, then to the little town of Auburn, Oregon and then to the larger town of La Grande in 1866, where he would base himself for the rest of his life. He went right back into politics when he got himself set up in La Grande. He became district attorney for a judicial circuit in 1868 and was an elector for the extremely racist ticket of the Democrat Horatio Seymour in 1868. He then served a term in Congress after winning a seat in 1870. He did not win reelection and went to his law practice. He remained a major figure in the state Democratic Party. Oregon was the one non-southern state involved with the disputed election of 1876 and Slater was a huge supporter of Samuel Tilden and continued to say that the election was stolen from the Democrats. In fact, he would push this line for the rest of his life. In 1879, with Democrats having taking the state legislature, he was sent to Washington to be a senator. That lasted one term before Republicans, not dominating again in 1884, kicked him out.

But honestly, there is almost no public information about Slater out there. Even the Oregon Encyclopedia, which has all sorts of entries on extremely obscure things, does not have an entry on one of its own senators. However, looking for him under the S category did lead to me to discover that fantastic jazz bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding is from Portland, so that’s pretty cool. But as for Slater, nada. Oh well, he mostly sounds like a hack anyway. So this means I don’t know anything he actually did as a senator. As a Democratic senator in the post-Reconstruction era, I have a very strong sense of his belief system though, which would have been low tariffs and white supremacy.

I do know Slater was beating the bush hard for Chinese Exclusion. He knew that the Chinese Exclusion Act was an international relations problem, but he also said that this was a nation for white Americans and white Americans only and anything that got in the way of the inherent whiteness of America was to be ignored. He stated on the Senate floor that the Chinese would “bring with them their filth and frightful and nameless diseases and contagions.” Another just lovely Slater quote about the matter tried to use historical justification: “It is a conflict between different races, between different and antagonistic civilizations, and is as irrepressible as that other conflict (white/black) which has caused so much trouble in this country.” Instead, Chinese in the U.S. would lead to the “antagonism of race and civilization” that would lead to racial intermixing and thus “irritation and discontent.” Somewhat oddly, Slater responded to the actual death of Chinese with some disgust. When white miners along the Snake River entered a Chinese camp in 1887 to just kill them all, leading to the death about at least 34 Chinese miners, who were then thrown into the river and weren’t discovered until they floated all the way north to Lewiston, 60 miles away on the Washington/Idaho border, Slater actually called for an investigation into “a most daring outrage on a camp of unoffending Chinamen.” That response actually surprised me.

Slater also was anti-indigenous, as one would expect. He was a big supporter of the Dawes Act to allot reservation land and allow a new era of stealing that land for whites. He focused heavily on allotting the Umatilla’s land, which included part of the Lewis and Clark Trail that Slater believed should belong to whites, plus good agricultural land at the base of the Blue Mountains. He also was a big supporter of civil service reform and tried to push for bans on political contributions to demonstrate that the Pendleton Civil Service Act had real teeth, but that evidently didn’t succeed.

But this is a nearly unknown figure for a senator, in a way that you don’t actually ever see. Most of what is above are things I was able to glean from a few books that mention him in passing, but for a guy who served a full term, I don’t ever think I’ve seen so little information on a senator.

After his term in the Senate, Slater came back to La Grande and was a member of the Oregon railroad commission from 1889 to 1981. He died in 1899, at the age of 72.

James Slater is buried in Masonic Cemetery, La Grande, Oregon.

If you would like this series to visit other senators sent to Washington in the 1878-79 cycle, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. William Allison is in Dubuque, Iowa and Matthew Carpenter is in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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