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Alaska Statehood

Alaska Statehood Act

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The Alaska Statehood Act was signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on July 7, 1958, allowing Alaska to become the 49th U.S. state on January 3, 1959.

Signing of the Alaska Statehood Act (Eisenhower and Nixon)



[edit] History: the road to Statehood

From 1867 to 1884 Alaska was considered to be a military district of the United States of America under the control of the federal government. Alaskans had sought statehood since as early as the 1920s though this vision was not realized until the decade after World War II.

[edit] The First Organic Act

In 1884, the government passed the Organic Act which allowed for Alaska to become a judicial district as well as a civil one, with judges, clerks, marshals, and limited government officials appointed by the federal government to run the territory. Furthermore, during the Gold Rush Era (1890–1900), over 30,000 people traveled north into the Yukon Territory and Alaska in search of gold. Several industries flourished as a result, such as fishing, trapping, mining and mineral production. Alaska's resources were depleted to the extent that it came to be considered a "colonial economy." Alaska was still just a district, however, and the local government had little control over local affairs.

[edit] The Second Organic Act

Several issues arose that made it much more difficult for Alaska to push towards self-government. One of which was the forming of the "Alaska Syndicate" in 1906 by the two barons J. P. Morgan and Simon Guggenheim. Their influence spread and they came to control the Kennecott copper mine, steamship and railroad companies, and salmon packing. The influence of the Syndicate in Washington D.C. opposed any further movement towards Alaskan home rule. James Wickersham, however, grew increasingly concerned over the exploitation of Alaska for personal and corporate interests and took it upon himself to fight for Alaskan self-rule. He used the Ballinger-Pinchot affair in order to help achieve this. As a result of the affair, Alaska was on the national headlines, and President Taft was forced to send a message to Congress on February 2, 1912, insisting that they listen to Wickersham. In April 1912 Congress passed the Second Organic Act which turned Alaska into a US territory with an elected legislature. The federal government still retained much of the control over laws regarding fishing, gaming, and natural resources and the governor was also still appointed by the President. In 1916, Wickersham, who was now a delegate to Congress, proposed the first bill for Alaskan statehood. The bill, however, failed, partly due to domestic disinterest among Alaskans in gaining statehood.

[edit] National and Congressional discrimination

Discrimination against the Alaskan Territory made it difficult for Congress to get much done. Discussion of revising the Second Organic Act took up much time but came to no avail. Instead Congress passed the Jones Act (also known as the U.S. Maritime Act of 1920) and the White Act of 1924 both of which made the fishing problem worse for Alaskans rather than better. Alaskans were angered by these two acts and felt they were discriminatory. Matters were made worse by regional conflicts which drew attention away from the issue of statehood. In the 1930s Alaska was plagued by the Depression. During this time, FDR did two significant things for Alaska. First he allowed for 1,000 selected farmers hurt by the depression to move to Alaska and colonize the Matanuska-Susitna region, being given a second chance at agricultural success. Second and more importantly, Roosevelt appointed Ernest Gruening as governor of Alaska in 1939. Edward Lewis "Bob" Bartlett, who was one of Alaska's territorial delegates to Congress from 1944 to 1958 when he became a US senator representing Alaska, would become one of Gruening's most important allies in supporting the cause for Alaskan statehood.

[edit] Breaking down the barriers toward Statehood

Alaska's desire for statehood was much aided by the amount of attention it received during WWII and the Cold War years. As it became an important strategic military base and a key to the Pacific, its population increased with the number of soldiers sent there and its situation gained nation-wide attention. Yet even so, many barriers stood between Alaska and statehood. Many Alaskans like the Lomen brothers of Nome and Austin E. "Cap" Lathrop, who benefited largely from Alaska's small tax base did not want themselves or their businesses to be hurt financially by the increase in taxes that would result from statehood. Other Alaskans feared that statehood would result in a flood of more people coming to Alaska, which they didn't want. There was enough of a majority, though, that did want statehood so as to be able to pass a Referendum for statehood in Alaska in 1946 by a 3:2 vote.

[edit] The opposition

With the help of the Referendum, Bartlett was able to introduce a bill to Congress. The bill, however, was immediately shot down by a coalition of Democrats and Republicans. (Republicans feared that Alaska would be unable to raise enough taxes due to its small population, and end up as a welfare state. The Southern Democrats feared more pro-civil rights congressmen.) To retaliate, Gruening established the "Alaska Statehood Committee" in 1949. He encouraged journalists, newspaper editors, politicians, and members of national and labor organizations to help use their positions and power to make the issue of Alaskan statehood more known. He gathered a group of 100 prominent figures, including Eleanor Roosevelt, actor James Cagney, Pearl Buck, John Gunther, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Reinhold Niebuhr, who all stood for the Alaskan cause. Another bill was introduced to Congress in 1949 and passed in the House by a 186 to 146 vote in 1950. However, the bill was then shot down in the Senate, again for fear of adding more Democrats to the 81st Congress (1949–1951) Democrat (54 seats) Republican (42 seats).[1] February 27, 1952, Senate on one vote margin (45-44) kills statehood bill for another year. Southern Democrats had threatened a filibuster to delay consideration. By 1954 In the State of the Union address, Eisenhower refers to Statehood for Hawaii (then a Republican territory) but not Alaska (then a Democratic territory). By March Frustrated by Eisenhower refusal to support statehood for Alaska, a Senate coalition led by Democrats ties the fate of Alaska and Hawaii Statehood together as one package. The parliamentary move is backed by some Southern Democrats, concerned about the addition of new votes in the civil rights for blacks movement, in the hope of defeating both measures.[2]

[edit] Things begin to turn around

Six Senators from the Senate Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, including Senator Butler went to Alaska in order to hold public hearings and see for themselves what the public sentiment was in Alaska. In response to the visit, Alaskans would not let Americans forget the cause. Citizens sent Christmas cards reading "Make [Alaskans] future bright/Ask your Senator for statehood/And start the New Year right." Women made bouquets of Alaska's flower, the Forget-Me-Not and sent them to members of Congress. Movements such as "Operation Statehood" also put increasing pressure on Congress. "Lack of public interest" could no longer be used as a feasible excuse to prevent statehood.

[edit] Gruening and the Constitutional Convention

In interest of the growing fervor and enthusiasm towards the cause, a Constitutional Convention was held at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks in 1955. During this convention, Gruening gave a very powerful speech which compared Alaska's situation to the American struggle for independence. The famous speech was entitled "Let Us End American Colonialism" and had a very influential impact. The Convention was highly praised and very emotional. The Constitution for Alaska was written up and Alaskans voted and passed the Alaska Constitution in 1956 with overwhelming approval. The Constitution was named "one of the best, if not the best, state constitutions ever written" by the National Municipal League.

[edit] The Tennessee Plan

Another step forward for the cause was taken by the Alaskan adoption of the "Tennessee Plan" which allowed them to elect their delegates to Congress without having to wait for an official act from Congress. Alaskans therefore elected to Congress Senators Ernest Gruening and William Egan and Representative to the House Ralph J. Rivers. Gruening, Egan, and Rivers attended Congress and were politely received, though they were not officially seated or recognized in any way. The Alaskan delegation did not give up, however, and worked hard with Bartlett to pressure the Congress into action.

[edit] Members of Congress finally change their minds

Eventually, with the help of Bartlett's influence, the Speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, who up until 1957 had been an ardent opponent of the Alaskan statehood cause, changed his mind and when Congress reconvened in January 1958, President Eisenhower fully endorsed the bill for the first time. Senator Lyndon B. Johnson promised his commitment to the bill but others still stood in the way, such as Representative Howard W. Smith of Virginia, Chairman of the powerful Rules Committee, and Thomas Pelly of Washington State who wanted the Alaskan waters to be open to use by Washingtonians. Eventually, though, such resistance was able to be bypassed and the House passed the statehood bill. The senate, which had had its own version of the bill as well as the House's version, finally managed to pass the House's bill through the fervent urging of Bartlett by a 64-20 vote. On January 3, 1959, after much struggle and through the efforts of many, Alaska finally became the 49th state of the United States of America after President Eisenhower's signing of the official declaration.

The Drive Toward Statehood: Legislative and Populist Efforts

Historian Claus Naske divides the statehood movement in Alaska into two phases.11 First, between 1943 and 1953, Alaska's governor (Gruening), the delegate to Congress (Bartlett), and a cross-section of the territory's established business and professional men and women engineered numerous legislative efforts to achieve statehood for Alaska. Gruening was frustrated by the fact that after three decades under the American flag, Alaska was still without adequate roads, airfields, tuberculosis hospitals, and dependable shipping at reasonable cost. What was more, the aboriginal rights issue had not yet been settled, and homesteaders were not yet legally able to acquire land from the federal government. He felt that the only tools by which Alaskans could amend their plight were two United States senators and a Representative in the House, each with a vote.

The 3:2 passage of a 1946 referendum in favor of statehood led to the formation of the Alaska Statehood Association--an ad hoc group of concerned citizens--later that year. Meanwhile, Gruening lobbied hard in Washington with the members of the influential Senate Public Lands Committee, especially Senator Hugh Butler of Nebraska. Delegate Bartlett introduced a statehood bill in April, 1948 which was corralled in the Rules Committee by Senator Butler. It never came up for debate, but many Alaskans had testified to their desire for statehood and the interest of numerous others was aroused as the possibility of statehood became more plausible. Furthermore, Alaskan voters decided that year to reform the territory's tax structure to loosen the hold of the special interests.

The Alaska Statehood Committee was formed in 1949 to intensify efforts toward statehood, calling on national and labor organizations, newspaper editors, and state governors to support and publicize Alaska's situation. Gruening himself compiled a "committee of one-hundred" prominent Americans who supported Alaska's aspirations, including Eleanor Roosevelt, actor James Cagney, Pearl S. Buck, John Gunther, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. 1949 was a watershed year for the statehood movement, as it received growing attention both in Alaska and in the nation at large. A bill for statehood passed the House by a vote of 186-146 early in 1950, but was killed in the Senate by a coalition of conservative Republicans and southern Democrats, backed tacitly by President Eisenhower. This coalition wanted to preserve the tenuous Republican majority in Congress, and opposed Alaska's entry into the Union for fear that its congressional voice would be Democratic. The Korean War, which began in June of 1950 and lasted into 1952, effectively put concerns about Alaska statehood on the back burner.

The second, or "populist" phase in Naske's analysis, involved the efforts of thousands of regular Alaskans to foment popular interest in the statehood drive. The New York Journal-American put the situation dramatically:


Alaska wants statehood with the fervor men and women give to a transcendent cause. An overwhelming number of men and women voters in the United States want statehood for Alaska. This Nation needs Alaskan statehood to advance her defense, sustain her security, and discharge her deep moral obligation.12

Such enthusiasm served as a counterweight to the typical arguments made against Alaska statehood: noncontiguity with the rest of the country, lack of population, inadequate political maturity, and meager financial resources. Senator Butler and five members of the Senate Interior and Insular Affairs Committee decided to hold hearings in Alaska on a statehood bill; they wanted to hear the "reaction of the "little people" of Alaska. The Butler committee heard testimony in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and Ketchikan. The visit of Butler's committee brought together many Alaskans sympathetic to the statehood cause, and popular publicity movements such as "Operation Statehood" put increased pressure on Congress for Alaska statehood. Women in the committee, for example, made artificial bouquets out of the Forget-me-Not, Alaska's official flower, and mailed them to members of Congress prior to the consideration of statehood legislation. The citizens of Alaska sent Christmas cards to friends in the contiguous U. S. which urged: "Make [Alaskans] future bright/Ask your Senator for statehood/And start the New Year right."13 Members of Congress could no longer invoke "lack of public interest" as an argument against Alaska Statehood.

President Eisenhower, in his 1954 State of the Union address, requested the immediate admission of Hawaii into the Union but did not mention Alaska. The editor of the Washington Post wrote of a "murky cloud of politics" surrounding such a position, as it was becoming evident that the Republican administration thought Hawaii would come into the Union as a Republican state, while Alaska would come in favoring the Democrats. Eventually the Senate put together a combination statehood bill, which provided for the admission first of Hawaii and then of Alaska. This bill immediately became the centerpiece of Congressional partisan wrangling. Operation Statehood swamped the White House with telegrams asking for "statehood now." A delegation of Operation Statehood's members flew to Washington, D. C. to meet with President Eisenhower, and they made a dramatic impression. John Butrovich, a Fairbanks insurance agent and senior Republican in the territorial legislature, told Eisenhower:


We feel that you are a great American. But we are shocked to come down here and find that a bill which concerns the rights of American citizens is bottled up in a committee when you have the power to bring it out on the House floor. 14

Eisenhower reddened as Butrovich banged his fists on the Chief Executive's desk to emphasize his dissatisfaction. The President denied that any partisanship played a role in the Alaska statehood issue and assured the members that Alaska statehood posed many problems which needed attention. He was most likely concerned, however, with preserving the narrow Republican margin in Congress.

The next effort to derail the statehood cause came in the form of a Senate proposal to make Alaska and Hawaii "commonwealths" of the U. S., with elective governorships. National columnists such as Walter Lippmann and Richard Strout favored this step, but the interest of the people of Alaska was not swayed from statehood. No one savored the prospect of paying federal taxes yet remaining, in effect, a stranger to the Union. Another series of Congressional hearings about Alaska's situation instilled in many Alaskans an interest in more aggressive action. Such enthusiasm ultimately brought about the 1955 Constitutional Convention, held in the newly appointed "Constitution Hall" on the grounds of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. It was here that Senator Ernest Gruening delivered his galvanizing "Let Us End American Colonialism" address. The convention received phenomenal national exposure and was praised by numerous journalists for its idealistic attention to "the good of Alaska" rather than partisan politics. The convention was an intensely emotional event for all involved, as passions about the future of Alaska ran strong and deep among convention members. In 1956, the resulting Constitution--which the National Municipal League called "one of the best, if not the best, state constitutions ever written"--was overwhelmingly accepted by Alaskans. 15

Another crucial maneuver toward statehood was the adoption of the Tennessee Plan, proposed by George H. Lehleitner, an ex-Navy commander. The plan, which had been used successfully by Tennessee, Michigan, California, Oregon, Kansas, and Iowa, involved electing a Congressional delegation without waiting for an enabling act from Congress. In the spring of 1956, Alaskans elected Ernest Gruening and William Egan as Senators-elect and Ralph J. Rivers as House Representative-elect. With support for statehood firmly established in Alaska, the stage was now set for reinvigorated efforts in the nation's Congress. Egan, Gruening, and Rivers were received with much fanfare, but were not officially seated or recognized by Congress.

Working together with Delegate Bob Bartlett, the Tennessee Plan delegation lobbied hard in the Senate and the House. Influential House Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas, until the summer of 1957 a foe of statehood, changed his mind and promised to give the territory a chance to be heard. Rayburn, when asked about his change in view, answered "I can tell you in two words, 'Bob Bartlett'." 16


Statehood Achieved

With sectional conflicts breaking down and the power of the "Dixiecrats" diminishing, Congress reconvened in January 1958 to the sounds of President Eisenhower fully endorsing Alaska statehood for the first time. Senator Lyndon B. Johnson assured Bartlett that the southern Senators would not filibuster the Alaska bill. Johnson's was an important commitment, yet Representative Howard W. Smith of Virginia, Chairman of the powerful Rules Committee, stepped in to obstruct the statehood bill. Life magazine tartly characterized Smith as a "Virginia gentleman whose impeccable manners include little real respect for either free enterprise or democracy." 17 Additionally, Representative Thomas Pelly of Washington state demanded the right for his constituents to fish Alaskan waters on the same basis as residents. An amendment was subsequently drafted seeking retention of federal jurisdiction over Alaska's fish and game resources until the secretary of the interior certified to Congress that the state met provisions for their conservation and nonresident access. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner responded to Pelly's petulance by printing excerpts from Edna Ferber's impassioned novel Ice Palace. The passages featured the character of Thor Storm, the grizzled Nordic pioneer, informing his granddaughter, Christine, about the legacy of Seattle and San Francisco cannery operators' unmerciful exploitation of Alaska's fisheries. Ferber's book had sold well and widely. Ice Palace had such an educative effect on the nation's populace that one critic was moved to refer to it as "the Uncle Tom's Cabin of Alaska Statehood."

After some maneuvering, the effort to bypass Representative Smith's Rules Committee succeeded when the statehood bill was brought up on "privileged status" by a roll-call vote of 217-172. The Senate, which had before it both its own version of the statehood bill and the House version, passed the House version at the urging of Delegate Bartlett by a 64-20 margin. The House then passed the bill by a vote of 210-166. New York Representative Leo W. O' Brien, when asked about the almost miraculous materialization of needed Congressional support for the statehood bill, considered a key factor to be the friendship so many lawmakers felt for Bob Bartlett.

Through the combined efforts of Ernest Gruening, Bob Bartlett, and many other unacknowledged Alaskans, the statehood cause was finally victorious. On January 3, 1959, President Eisenhower signed the official declaration which made Alaska the 49th state. The new American flag featured seven rows of seven stars each.

Return to Home Page | Senator Ernest Gruening's "Let Us End American Colonialism" Speech

Admitted: June 1, 1796
Population: 77,262
Prior time as territory: 6 years
Journey to statehood: Took place without congressionally approved "enabling act," and in so doing blazed a trail for six future states that would similarly barge into the Union without first being invited. Tennessee's first two "senators" were denied entry to Congress, but the territory later lobbied successfully for admission. Its first officially recognized congressman, Andrew Jackson, was elected in August 1796.


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