After a facelift, Oregon’s 1857 constitution on display at Capitol

Mary Beth Herkert holds the 1857 Oregon Constitution in the Oregon Capitol galleria on Monday, Feb. 3, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Mary Beth Herkert starts her day walking down Summer Street carrying an unremarkable bag at her side.

Inside is perhaps the most important document in Oregon: the original 1857 state constitution, a leather-bound volume recently restored so it can remain on display for Oregonians.

Herkert, the former state archivist who now directs civics education programs for the Secretary of State, is the document’s caretaker during the weeks leading up to Oregon’s 161st birthday, Feb. 14.

Each morning, she walks the constitution to the Oregon Capitol, placing it on display in a case in the galleria. Around 4 p.m., she dons a pair of white cotton gloves, removes the book from its display stand, packs it into an acid-free holder and places it back in her bag for its journey to the archives.

This year’s display began Feb. 3 and will continue through a state birthday celebration on Saturday, Feb. 15.

For Herkert, it’s an opportunity for Oregonians to better understand the state’s founding and the basic institutions of government the constitutional convention created.

“When you read it and read it and read it, you kind of get the sense of what they were thinking,” she said. “For me it’s history coming alive.”

Several signatures in the 1857 Oregon Constitution were taped into the book after the fact. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

One of the first things many people say after seeing the historical document is that the date on its cover, 1857, must be wrong because it’s two years before Oregon became a state. Herkert has to explain Oregon needed a ratified constitution before it could enter the union as the 33rd state in 1859.

Herkert led a state effort to restore the constitution in 2017 so it could withstand being on display. After a century and a half, the document was showing its age, with ink eroding the paper. Pages were becoming detached and the binding had worn.

The signature page was a particular challenge. Several delegates signed in pencil, and a few signed in absentia and had their signatures glued in.

Herkert said she didn’t want to ask the Legislature for money because the constitution is the people’s document. After talking with former Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, they decided to launch a crowdfunding campaign, raising $100,000 for the restoration.

Herkert personally flew the constitution to the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, Massachusetts. Richardson spoke with TSA so the volume could clear security without going through an x-ray.

“I wanted as little fanfare as possible,” Herkert said.

On the plane, she stowed the book under the seat in front of her during takeoff, then held onto it for the rest of the flight. Normally, Herkert said she sleeps on planes, but that trip, she stayed awake, half-watching movies on the screen in front of her while holding the constitution in her lap.

“It was nerve-racking,” she said.

Several months later, she repeated the process in reverse, bringing the restored constitution home to Oregon.

“It was really emotional for me because the difference was just unbelievable,” she said. Pages were reattached, and the text was easier to read.

Herkert hopes the project will give Oregonians a better understanding of the basics of state government, like how delegates initially mapped out a system with a relatively weak governor and a more powerful Legislature not unlike the federal system.

“They were so afraid of a monarchy and I think the states followed suit,” she said. Over time, the executive branch’s power has grown on both a state and federal level.

Mary Beth Herkert prepares to walk the original Oregon Constitution back to the State Archives building after displaying it in the Oregon Capitol (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Herkert, who believes in teaching history “warts and all,” also hopes people become more familiar with the document’s darker parts.

There’s been more discussion recently of the section forbidding African-Americans from living in Oregon, which wasn’t removed until a 1926 ballot measure. But the racism in the original document goes beyond that, explicitly barring “Negro, Chinaman or Mulatto” residents from voting.

Article XV stipulates, “No Chinaman, not a resident of the state at the adoption of this constitution, shall ever hold any real estate, or mining claim, or work any mining claim therein.”

“You’d be hard-pressed to say it wasn’t a racist document,” she said. Many of those provisions are “appalling in this day and age, but in that day and age weren’t that far out of the norm.”

For the first time this year, copies of the state constitution are on sale at the Capitol store. The book contains the transcribed text of the 1857 constitution alongside scans of the original pages so people can see what the handwritten document looks like.

One of her goals is to bring the document to every county in the state, especially eastern Oregon, where residents are less likely to be able to make the trip to Salem.

Last October, Herkert took the Constitution to Baker County. It was the first time it had ever been east of the Cascades.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.