To begin at the beginning, the Treaty of Cession by which Alaska was annexed, contained a solemn and specific commitment: "The inhabitants of the ceded territory . . . shall be admitted to the enjoyment of all rights, advantages and immunities of citizens of the United States. . . . The treaty obligation of 1867 is an obligation to grant us the full equality of statehood, for which Alaskans did not press in the first eighty years of their subordination, but which now, overdue, they demand as their right.
- Ernest Gruening, former Territorial Governor,
addressing Alaska Constitutional Convention delegates, 1955
the full text of Gruening's speech
Former territorial Gov. Ernest Gruening was a frustrated man when he spoke these words in his April 11, 1955, Keynote Address to the Alaska Constitutional Convention. In fact, he had titled his impassioned speech, "Let Us Now End American Colonialism!" In it, Gruening reviewed the history of Alaska's second-class status, beginning with the sale of Alaska to the United States, and the government's immediate lack of interest in its new acquisition, which was then classified as merely a Customs District. In 1884, with passage of the First Organic Act, it received the rank of civil and judicial district, but still its people could not vote or even marry. Territorial status was conferred in 1912 with the Second Organic Act, and the earliest statehood bill was introduced in 1916 when Judge James Wickersham was Alaska's congressional delegate. Those who voted it down claimed that it failed because of lack of support from within the Territory, but Wickersham still railed against what he called "a congressional government in Alaska more offensively bureaucratic in its basic principles and practices than that which existed here during the 70 years of Russian rule under the Czar."
With the flood of military families into Alaska during World War II, statehood loomed again. Among those who settled in the Territory, living in Alaska meant forfeiting their rights of American citizenship. In 1946, concerned citizens formed the Alaska Statehood Association.
Within two years, Alaska Delegate E. L. "Bob" Bartlett introduced a statehood bill, but it never reached the floor. Nebraska Sen. Hugh Butler, an opponent, trapped it in the Rules Committee. But support in Alaska was growing, and in 1949, the Alaska Statehood Committee was formed in an effort to galvanize influential people all over the country. Ernest Gruening was foremost among the lobbyists, and a statehood bill passed the House by a narrow margin in early 1950, but failed in the Senate. Partisan politics apparently were to blame, as Republicans held a weak majority, and some feared Alaska would come in as a Democratic state.
The growing debate at the national level sparked Alaskans in 1955 to convene for the purpose of writing a Constitution. Delegates from all over the state met on the campus of the University of Alaska in Fairbanks and in 75 days hammered out a document they could be proud of -- one that the National Municipal League would term "one of the best, if not the best state constitutions ever written."
On February 5, 1956, the 55 convention delegates voted to adopt the newly minted Constitution; on April 24, 1956, Alaskans overwhelmingly voted to ratify it.
Statehood supporter George H. Lehleitner of Louisiana had addressed the Constitutional Convention weeks earlier, recounting the success of Tennessee and several other states that had followed the "Tennessee Plan" in their path to statehood. Lehleitner urged them to use the same strategy. In brief, territorial voters elected representatives and simply sent them to Washington, even though they had no seats in Congress, demonstrating the territory's unwavering desire for statehood. The convention had adopted the "Alaska-Tennessee Plan" as Ordinance No. 2 in its Constitution.
For Alaska's unofficial congressional delegation, voters elected former territorial governor Gruening, a Juneau resident, and William Egan, of Valdez, as Senators-elect, and Ralph J. Rivers, of Fairbanks, as House Representative-elect. Alaska had selected powerful men, and statehood advocates paid for a brilliant public relations campaign to gain press attention across the country. The delegation drove from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Washington, D.C. in white automobiles -- a rarity for that day -- and stopped for photographs and interviews as they traveled south and east. They had begun their journey in winter, enduring temperatures down to 60 degrees below zero, and driving with snow tires, but without chains.
On January 14, 1957, the delegation and their families were seated in the Senate spectators' section and introduced to the U.S. Senate by Sen. Spessard Holland of Florida, who also spoke on behalf of supporter Sen. Long of Louisana, who was absent that day.
Sen. Holland, in addressing Vice President Richard M. Nixon, said, " . . . at this time, for the information of the Senate, I send to the desk and ask to have read by the clerk, a memorial dated December 9, 1956, from the Alaska Constitutional Convention, signed by the Honorable William A. Egan, president of the convention, and attested by the Honorable B. Frank Heintzleman, Governor of Alaska, and the Honorable Waino E. Hendrickson, Secretary of Alaska."
Click here for full text of the memorial.
In turn, senators representing Montana, California, Tennessee, and Wyoming took the floor to applaud the Territory for crafting a Constitution and electing and sending their unofficial delegates.
Although they were not seated, members of the Alaska delegation lobbied hard throughout the following months and developed alliances in Washington, especially through E. L. "Bob" Bartlett, Alaska's voteless delegate from 1944-1958, and a friend to many in the capital. His relentless pursuit of the cause later earned him the title "Architect of Alaska Statehood." Influential allies in the media, such as C. W. Snedden in Fairbanks and Robert Atwood in Anchorage, also helped with the cause. However, they weren't without foes even within Alaska. Powerful businessmen, such as Austin "Cap" Lathrop and other shipping executives who enjoyed virtual monopolies with minimal taxation, were strongly anti-statehood.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who in his 1954 inauguration speech urged admission for Hawaii (with no mention of Alaska), was openly supporting Alaska by January 1958. Also that spring, Edna Ferber's novel Ice Palace reached readers all over the country and effectively swayed them to contact their congressmen in favor of statehood. Although Ferber had fictionalized her characters, she had captured the spirit of Alaska's people and the desire for full equality as a state. Later Ernest Gruening would write about Ferber's now-classic novel in An Alaskan Reader: "The book had a markedly beneficial impact on the cause. . . . Indeed, Ice Palace was referred to by one of the newspaper reviewers as the Uncle Tom's Cabin of the statehood struggle."
Despite various roadblocks and threats of filibuster, masterful political maneuvering brought Alaska statehood legislation before Congress again in the late spring and early summer of 1958 and ultimately led to a vote. Although the Senate was considering two versions of the statehood bill -- its own and that of the House -- it passed the House version, 64-20. In the House, the bill passed with a vote of 210-166. The bill was signed on June 30, 1958.
President Eisenhower made statehood official on January 3, 1959, when he signed the declaration, and a new American flag with seven rows of seven stars each flew over the nation's Capitol on July 4, 1959 -- but not for long. When Hawaii became the 50th state on August 21, 1959, the 50-star flag we know today was adopted. William Egan was elected first governor of the new State of Alaska.
On January 23, 1956, George H. Lehleitner, referring to himself as "a private citizen of New Orleans, Louisiana," spoke to the delegates of the Alaska Constitutional Convention and urged them to adopt the "Tennessee Plan" as the roadmap for pursuing statehood. He had written to the delegates in advance of his speech, too, detailing the aggressive plan in which a Territory, after writing and gaining voter approval for its Constitution, elects and sends a congressional delegation to Washington, D.C., even though the delegation is as yet unseated. The strategy had worked before, 100 percent of the time in fact, first for Tennessee and then for Michigan, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, California and Oregon. An ex-Navy commander with a passion for his subject, Lehleitner wrote:
Because this approach to statehood was first conceived and executed by the Territory of Tennessee, I shall take the liberty of referring to it as the "Tennessee Plan." The life-giving clause which the members of the Tennessee Convention wrote into their Constitution was simply the proviso that all state officials called for by that document were to be elected immediately following ratification. Because the Federal Constitution at that time provided for the choosing of U.S. Senators by the various state legislatures, Tennessee's Senators were selected by the Tennessee General Assembly which convened initially for that purpose March 28, 1796, or about one month following the election of that body's membership.
Shortly after their designation as such, Senators-elect William Cocke and William Blount departed for Washington with their credentials. Although the Senate, understandably, refused to seat them prior to Tennessee's formal admission, they must, indeed, have done an admirable job of lobbying their "State's" case as Congress, which previously had refused to consider an enabling act for this Territory, completed passage of an admission bill on May 31, 1796! President Washington signed the bill the following day, and Tennessee became our 16th State . . . less than four months following the spirited action of these pioneer Americans in THEMSELVES setting into motion the events that brought them statehood! . . .
. . . The deeper this researcher has probed into the subject during the past eight years, the stronger his convictions have become that the "Tennessee Plan" offers Alaskans their most logical avenue to statehood. . . .
. . . Principally, however, the "Tennessee Plan" would provide a vehicle for an aggressive attack. No people in history ever accomplished anything worthwhile without making a commensurate effort. No nation has ever won a war by remaining on the defensive. Deeds win wars . . . and achieve ideals! . . .
. . . You have already seen that it is NOT irregular. Nor is it illegal. For the very first Article of our Bill of Rights, you will recall, guarantees that "Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
In its very essence the "Tennessee Plan" is a forthright and logical form in which to petition the Government for the redress of a monstrous grievance. Because the grievance is real and stubborn the petition for its correction must be vigorous and dramatic. For these reasons the "Tennessee Plan" has ALWAYS succeeded in the past.
I firmly believe that it can succeed again - for Alaska.
Two weeks after Lehleitner addressed the delegation, on February 5, 1956, the final text of the Constitution of the State of Alaska was adopted by the Constitutional Convention, with statehood advocates in agreement to follow The Tennessee Plan.