Single Vote Robbed Vancouver of State Capitol

But for a single vote of the Territorial Supreme Court 100 years ago, press correspondents now might be filing their stories on the state legislature with a Vancouver dateline.

Ambitious Vancouverites almost succeded a century ago in uprooting the capital of what was then Washington Territory and moving it to the banks of the Columbia River.

It all started in December, 1860, when a bill authorizing the transfer was somehow maneuvered through the territorial legislature.

During most of 1861, the Vancouver faction alternately tried to cajole and coerce territorial agencies into complying with the legislature’s directive.

Vancouver was even the scene of a rump session of the territorial legislature — attended by only a handful of legislators from Southwest Washington — but nonetheless conducted with all due ceremony in December, 1861.

But in all their pushing and hauling, Vancouverites overlooked a seemingly innocent legal technicality that ultimately spelled disaster for the scheme.

The wording of the legislature’s act was clear and undisputed: “From and after passage of this act, the seat of government for the territory of Washington shall be and remain at the city of Vancouver in Clarke County.”

A following section was equally explicit: “The Capitol commissioners are hereby empowered and directed to locate the grounds and erect the Capitol building thereon at the city of Vancouver, according to the instructions from the government of the United States and the laws of this Territory in relation thereto.”

Someone, however, neglected to date the act, identify it as a statute of the Washington Territory and preface it with the words “Be it enacted …”

The oversight (some said later it was a deliberate omission) proved fatal.

In a 2-1 decision in December, 1861, the Supreme Court voided the act on the grounds that according to tradition, an enabling clause was required to validate a piece of legislation.

Words Crcuial

Justice Ethelbert P. Oliphant, author of the majority opinion, ruled that “where enacting words are prescribed, nothing can be law which is not introduced by these very words.”

In what a Clark County chronicler was later to describe as a “long, able and convincing opinion,”

Justice James E. Wyche dissented from the majority view of Justices Oliphant and Christopher C. Hewitt. Justice Wyche maintained the intent of the legislature was clear and held that neither legal precedent nor the Organic Act for Washington Territory required an “enacting style” to make a law valid.

Although rivalry between Olympia and Vancouver undoubtedly played a part in the court’s decision, Justice Oliphant loftily disclaimed any partiality.

Wrote he in the orotund phrases of his day: “As individuals it is a matter of indifference to us whether the seat of government for Washington be located on the banks of the Columbia River of fame historic, the Cowlitz, Chehalis or the golden regions beyond the Cascade Mountains or on the shores washed by the waves of the ocean.”

Not Happy!

Reaction to the court’s decision among Clark County residents was one of dissapointment mixed with indignation.”

As is natural to suppose,” a local historian wrote later, “this decision aroused a feeling of deep indignation in the hearts of the people of Clarke County and rge residents generally along the Coulmbia … They stigmatized the enacting clause in their wrath as a silly quibble and looked upon such an objection as unworthy of the dignity of a dispute.”

Today, Vancouver’s ill-fated bid to become Washington’s political hub perhaps seems more remarkable for its near success than for its failure.

How was the legislature ever persuaded to move the capitol out of the Puget Sound area in the first place?

What little evidence remains points to fast political footwork on the part of the Vancouver delegation.

Henry Caples, a member of the territorial council in 1860 and grandfather of Vancouver attorney D. Elwood Caples, is reported to have remarked afterward that “much underhanded work prevailed at the session.”

Judge William Ranck, Clark County representative in the territorial House of Representatives, also may have had something to do with piloting the bill to final enactment.

At any rate, once the act was on the books, Clark County residents went to work with a will to bring the capital south.

According to one account, Clark County citizens offered to foot the bill for moving territorial agencies and records.

But territorial officials, firmly ensconced in Olympia, refused to budge.

Legal action against J.C. Head, territorial librarian, for failing to comply with the legislature’s directive to move to Vancouver was thrown out by the Supreme Court — in Olympia.

Despite strenuous efforts, no progress had been made by December, 1861, when the fifth territorial legislature convened in Olympia — and Vancouver.

According to the late Glenn Ranck, former city treasurer and local historian, the “legislature” met in Vancouver at Brant’s Hall, now the site of the Ford Building at Sixth and Main Streets.

It was a great event.

Judge Ranck and a few representatives attended — all those for whom it was easiest to come to Vancouver. Henry Caples was present as the sole member of the territorial council which corresponded to the present-day Senate. The house elected first.

Then it adjourned itself and came in along with as many others as could find room to watch Henry Caples elect presiding officers.

According to Ranck’s account, Caples did a good job of it.

Perfectly serious, he called himself to order, called for nominations, nominated himself, closed nominations, held an election, installed himself and presently adjourned himself.

For a week or more, the two rump legislatures met, one in Olympia and one in Vancouver.

Before the Supreme Court in Olympia, meanwhile, representatives of the Vancouver delegation challenged the high court’s authority to hear the case anywhere but Vancouver.

After all, argued the Vancouverites, hadn’t the legislature already transferred the seat of government to Vancouver and wasn’t the court required by law to assemble at the legally constituted capital, namely Vancouver?

No, said the justices. They had convened at Olympia, a few days later the court handed down the Seat of Government decision, thus ending Vancouver’s bid for a place in the sun.

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