Alaska Statehood Act

The Alaska Statehood Act (Pub.L. 85–508, 72 Stat. 339, enacted July 7, 1958) 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).


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.

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.[1] 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.

The Second Organic Act

Several issues arose that made it 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.[2] 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.

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 Merchant Marine 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, President Roosevelt 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 Valley, 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.

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 nationwide 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.

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 S. Buck, John Gunther, historian Arthur M. 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).[3] On February 27, 1952, the Senate by a one-vote margin (45-44) killed the statehood bill for another year. Southern Democrats had threatened a filibuster to delay consideration. In the 1954 State of the Union address, Eisenhower referred to statehood for Hawaii (then a Republican territory) but not Alaska (then a Democratic territory). By March, frustrated by Eisenhower's refusal to support statehood for Alaska, a Senate coalition led by Democrats tied the fates of Alaska and Hawaii statehood together as one package. The procedural move was 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.[4]

Increasing public interest

Six members of 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.

In 1954 territorial governor B. Frank Heintzleman proposed that Alaska be divided at the 156th meridian west. Most Alaskans opposed his proposal.[5]

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.

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 A. 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.

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.

Civil rights, Alaska, & Hawaii

In the late 1950s civil rights bills were being introduced in Congress. To overcome the Southern Democrats’ suppression of the pro-Republican African-American vote, then-Republican Hawaii’s prospects for statehood were tied to Alaska’s, which many thought would be more Democratic.[6] Hawaii statehood was expected to result in the addition of two pro-civil-rights senators from a state which would be the first to have majority non-white population. This would endanger the Southern minority segregationist Democrat Senate by providing two more Republican votes to invoke cloture and halt a Senate filibuster. The Congressional vote totals show a proportionally larger support for the 1964 Civil Rights Act by the Republican Party. The House of Representatives’ vote by party was 136 to 35 (80% support) by Republicans, but only 153 to 91 (63% support) by Democrats.[7]

Opponents of Alaska statehood

Proponents of Alaska statehood

See also

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