Alaskan Statehood

One of the most important and reoccurring themes in Alaskan history is the long struggle for its inhabitants to achieve control of their own destiny through territorial self-rule, national representation, and eventually full-fledged statehood. Though it achieved the status of an organized territory in 1912 after nearly fifty years under American control, Alaska still remained more of a colonial possession than a state. Alaska was officially ruled from Washington D.C. as its inhabitants lacked the ability to choose their own governor. They also still lacked basic representation in the federal Congress, having only a non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives. Moreover mining and fishing interests from other states held more sway over Alaskan markets than the people living there.

Alaska's modern statehood movement was
vigorously supported by Ernest Gruening
who served as Territorial Governor from
1939 to 1953. Achieving statehood, he
believed, would "end American colonialism"
in Alaska. This bust of Gruening sits in
the Anchorage Museum.
Early efforts for Alaskan statehood via legislation were unsuccessful and the movement was largely stagnant even in Alaska itself. It was not until after World War II that the movement was energized. Not only had the nation become more aware about the strategic importance of a strong American presence in the Arctic, but Alaskans themselves had new and lively leadership leading the charge for statehood from within, including their congressional delegate and territorial governor.

As the movement grew in the early 1950s, significant external opposition arose to a proposed new state. Some were icy to the idea of admitting two new members from Alaska into the U.S. Senate. Southern politicians in particular opposed Alaskan statehood out of fear that it would further the growing clout of the western states at the expense of their own political power. Louisiana Governor Earl Long remarked in March 1959 that he would rather the United States annex Canada and Mexico before Alaska. (Earl’s nephew, Senator Russell Long, did however support statehood efforts). Though by then the overwhelming majority of Alaskans hoped to achieve state status, there were some who opposed the notion because of the inevitable imposition of federal taxes.

Nevertheless Alaskans trudged on and, in true American fashion of republicanism, convened a convention to draft a state constitution. Despite recent sobering news of their pacific neighbors to the south having received a rejection by Congress concerning a vote for Hawaiian statehood, Alaskans remained hopeful and sent 55 constitutional delegates to Fairbanks, Alaska in November 1955. There they began a three month task of mapping out a proposed state government which they hoped would signal Washington D.C. that the territory was ready to rule itself. Surprisingly one of the influential speakers who addressed the members of the convention was a man from New Orleans with a proposal to expedite their cause.

George Lehleitner, a civic-minded businessman, veteran, and spokesman for democracy hailed from New Orleans, Louisiana and was instrumental in the final push for statehood. After serving in the Navy during WWII Lehleitner selflessly devoted many of his post-war years serving as an advocate for the admission of not only Alaska as a state but another of America’s far-flung possessions as well, Hawaii. He firmly believed the United States government was unjustly treating these territories. When visiting Hawaii in the late 1940s Lehleitner was introduced to the “realities of territorialism” which left its tax-paying citizens without their due rights or representation or and relegated them to a subjugated second-class status. Even after World War II had ended Hawaii still lacked voting power in Washington and remained under martial law. He believed this situation had to be adjusted if American wanted to retain its post-war image of defenders of democracy. He spent over a decade speaking out and lobbying Congress for the 49th and 50th stars for Old Glory.
George Lehleitner (1906-1992)
at the convention.

Lehleitner strongly helped the Alaskan campaign in particular through the use of careful historical research. Building upon a study conducted by political scientist in Hawaii, he added the weight of precedent to his principled arguments for statehood. Delving into America's past he discovered specifics about how many former territories had been admitted to the Union since its founding. He found that Americans of the nineteenth century, unlike many of his contemporary countrymen, did not share the reluctance of creating new states that were non-contiguous; indeed, Louisiana and California are two prime examples of states that were far-removed from the whole of the country and were admitted without having another state as a direct neighbor.
More importantly was the fact that seven states had used a distinct, but long-forgotten, final stage advocacy tool for persuading Congress to make their states’ admissions become realities. Lehleitner pitched his idea to the Alaska Constitutional Convention in January 1956. He proposed that once Alaskans finalized and ratified their new state constitution they should implement what he had come to call the “Tennessee Plan.” Named after the first state to use such a tactic, the plan called for Alaskans to elect two senators and one representative even before the federal congress admitted or rejected admission. Dispatched to Washington the delegates would lobby Congress face-to-face for admission. His plan was unanimously supported by the delegates. Thus the “Alaska-Tennessee Plan” was added as Ordinance Number 2 to the new constitution. Alaskans promptly elected Senators Ernest Gruening and William Egan and Representative Ralph Rivers.

Despite being refused admittance to the 85th Congress, the efforts of Grurning, Egan, and Rivers in Washington, D.C. eventually proved successful. After They persuaded enough members of Congress to support admitting the first new state since Arizona in 1912. Statehood was all but done in July 1958 when President Eisenhower signed into law legislation that enrolled Alaska into the Union. On January 3, 1959 Alaska was proclaimed the 49th state.

A newsreel about Alaska's victory.

Silent footage of statehood celebrations in Alaska.

-Mike Uhl

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