Guest Essayist: Wilfred M. McClay

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The area of North America that we now call Oklahoma had a lengthy prehistory.  Its aboriginal inhabitants, known collectively as the First People, probably came to the Western Hemisphere from Asia some twenty to forty thousand years ago, crossing over into the unsettled continent over a land bridge between Russia and Alaska. They went on to establish themselves on the land thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans, settling in villages along the Arkansas, Canadian, Washita, and Red rivers, and engaging in farming, hunting, and trade. After Columbus’s voyages the region drew the interest of Europeans, particularly wandering Spanish explorers who were driven by the hope of discovering fabulous gold wealth comparable to what had been found by the Spanish soldier Hernán Cortés in his conquest of the Aztec Empire in Mexico. These adventurers merely passed through quickly, though, and did not stay and settle. Neither did the French, who were primarily interested in the riches to be derived from fur trading with the native inhabitants, and had little interest in establishing permanent settlements.

Matters changed dramatically with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, when Oklahoma became a possession of the newly independent and rapidly growing United States, under the leadership of its third President, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson and other leaders hoped the Purchase could provide room for an “Indian colonization zone” to solve the endemic problem of conflicts between the Native populations and the pressures exerted by expansion-minded European settlers. The concept of such a zone gradually gained favor, and a region thought of as “the Indian country” was specified in 1825 as all the land lying west of the Mississippi. Eventually, the Indian country or Indian Territory would encompass the present states of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and part of Iowa.

In the meantime, the process of removing the Native population from the eastern woodland areas began, and accelerated with the passage in 1830 of the Indian Removal Act. A European traveler, the great French writer Alexis de Tocqueville witnessed the effects of the removal firsthand, as he happened by chance upon a westward-bound group of Choctaws crossing the Mississippi River at Memphis in December 1831. “One cannot imagine the frightful evils that accompany these forced migrations,” he remarked, and he went on to describe in compelling detail the frigid winter scene, the ground hardened with snow and enormous pieces of ice drifting down the river, as the Indian families gathered in silent and sorrowful resignation on the east bank of the river, proceeding without tears or complaints to cross over into what they knew to be an erasure of their past. It was, Tocqueville said, a “solemn spectacle that will never leave my memory.” Most of these migrants in that “Trail of Tears,” those who survived, would end up living in Oklahoma.

Eventually even this designated Indian “zone” could not withstand the pressures of land-hungry expansionists. Area after area was opened to non-Native settlement, the territory moved inexorably toward statehood. There was considerable sentiment favoring the creation of a separate “Indian” state of Sequoyah, but in the end that effort would fail, and a single state would be formed in 1907, combining Native and non-Native elements.

Even so, as the forty-sixth state in the Union, Oklahoma possesses a name that is derived from the Choctaw words okla and humma, meaning “red people,” and that name fittingly signifies the uniquely enduring importance of the Native population to the state’s identity. In no other state of the Union is the Native presence more important, more indelible, more enduring—and arguably, more honored in the state’s politics and culture. Yet the achievement of that relatively harmonious state of affairs was bitter and difficult, particularly for the Native population, which had to accept betrayals and abrogation of agreements at every step of the way.

Once a state, though, Oklahoma quickly took its place as an important center of the burgeoning petroleum industry, with the city of Tulsa being labeled “The Oil Capital of the World,” and the oil industry serving as a primary driver of the entire state’s booming economy. From the moment that Oklahoma had become part of the United States in 1803, growth had become its byword. It had gone in just a few years from being a raw and forbidding frontier to being a leading force in the growth of the world’s economy, a force now moving into higher and higher gear.

For better or worse, and despite the state’s deep commitment to agriculture as a component of its economy, the state’s general economic fortunes have generally turned upon the rising and falling fortunes of the oil industry. That is its strength, and its weakness. Its well-being in the future, particular that phases out or dramatically deemphasizes the use of fossil fuels, will hinge on its ability to develop a more diversified economy.

One factor that many observers believe holds Oklahoma back in the quest for self-improvement is its massive and antiquated state constitution. At the time of its adoption in 1907, it was the lengthiest state constitution ever written, over 250,000 words long. Strongly influenced in its drafting by the leadership of fiery populist William “Alfalfa Bill” Murray, the document went into obsessive detail, spelling out regulations, safeguards, rights, obligations, and precise instructions in ways that were more appropriate to statutory law than the freer generalities of constitutional law.

Such specificity is a sure path to obsolescence. A great many of the Oklahoma constitution’s provisions are the product of a bygone era, the Progressivism of a hundred years ago encased in constitutional amber, relevant to the past but no longer relevant to the present day. Such a hidebound constitution stands in ironic contrast to the wide-open and pioneering spirit of the state whose political life it seeks to organize. Accordingly, some of the state’s most far-sighted individuals have argued for the necessity of adopting a new state constitution. But that is easier said than done, and the chances are very good that the current constitution will remain in place for the foreseeable future.

Wilfred M. McClay is the G. T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma, and the Director of the Center for the History of Liberty. In the 2019-20 academic year he is serving as the Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy. He served from 2002 to 2013 on the National Council on the Humanities, the advisory board for the National Endowment for the Humanities, and is currently serving on the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission, which is planning for the 250th anniversary of the United States, to be observed in 2026. He has been the recipient of fellowships from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Academy of Education, among others. His book The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America won the 1995 Merle Curti Award of the Organization of American Historians for the best book in American intellectual history. Among his other books are The Student’s Guide to U.S. History, Religion Returns to the Public Square: Faith and Policy in America, Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past, Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Public Life in Modern America, and most recently Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story. He was educated at St. John’s College (Annapolis) and received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1987.

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For Additional Reading:

W. David Baird and Danney Goble, Oklahoma: A History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.

David R. Morgan, et al., Oklahoma Politics and Policies: Governing the Sooner State. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991.

The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, Oklahoma Historical Society, accessible online at https://www.okhistory.org/publications/encyclopediaonline.php.

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