Alaska and Hawaii Gain Statehood

The United States grew not only politically but also economically, socially, and culturally with the addition of two Pacific Rim states and new ethnic cultures.

Summary of Event

The admission of Alaska and Hawaii into the Union in 1959 vastly extended the physical boundaries of the United States, adding considerably to U.S. influence throughout the Pacific. Alaska’s 586,000 square miles of tundra, mountains, and lakes added an extraordinary wilderness to the lower forty-eight states, as well as rich fishing grounds, oil and gas reserves, and a strategic defense perimeter in both the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. Hawaii, a far-flung archipelago of astonishing tropical beauty, added a predominantly Asian American and Polynesian population and culture to the social fabric of the United States’ mainland civilization. United States;expansion
[kw]Alaska and Hawaii Gain Statehood (Jan. 3 and Aug. 21, 1959)
[kw]Hawaii Gain Statehood, Alaska and (Jan. 3 and Aug. 21, 1959)
[kw]Statehood, Alaska and Hawaii Gain (Jan. 3 and Aug. 21, 1959)
United States;expansion
[g]North America;Jan. 3 and Aug. 21, 1959: Alaska and Hawaii Gain Statehood[06050]
[g]United States;Jan. 3 and Aug. 21, 1959: Alaska and Hawaii Gain Statehood[06050]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;Jan. 3 and Aug. 21, 1959: Alaska and Hawaii Gain Statehood[06050]
[c]Government and politics;Jan. 3 and Aug. 21, 1959: Alaska and Hawaii Gain Statehood[06050]
Burns, John Anthony
Gruening, Ernest H.
Eisenhower, Dwight D.
[p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;Hawaiian and Alaskan statehood
Seward, William H.
Baranov, Aleksandr
Dole, Sanford Ballard
Stoeckl, Edouard de
Kamehameha I[Kamehameha 01]

The protracted struggle for admission represented a triumph of tolerance and assimilation over the xenophobic objections of some members of Congress who feared that “racial impurity” would result from granting citizenship to Alaska’s Native Americans;Alaska Aleuts, Tlingits, and Eskimos, and especially to the Japanese, Chinese, and Filipinos of Hawaii. By granting statehood to Alaska and Hawaii, the United States extended its borders to noncontiguous territories originally peopled by ancient migrations of Asians and Polynesians.

Anthropologists widely concur that people migrated from Asia to Alaska across a land bridge spanning the Bering Strait before the end of the last ice age. Alaska’s permanent native settlers comprise four major groups: Eskimos, Aleuts, Athabascans, and northwest coast Indians. The name Alaska comes from an Aleut word meaning “great land.”

Western settlement of Alaska began when the Russian czar, Peter the Great, dispatched Vitus Bering, a Danish sea captain, to explore the land east of Siberia. Following Bering’s expeditions of 1728 and 1740, Russian fur traders established settlements along Alaska’s coast. They conquered the Aleuts, made war on Alaska’s Indians, and nearly exterminated the sea otter. In 1799, the Russian American Company, chartered by the czar, curtailed the wholesale slaughter of Alaska’s natives while promoting commerce and the spread of the Russian Orthodox Church. Aleksandr Baranov, an early director of the company, established Sitka as the Russian capital of Alaska. Under his firm authority, Sitka became a successful trading center and cosmopolitan town.

Russian interest in Alaska waned in the mid-nineteenth century, however. Fearing an English takeover of Alaska during the Crimean War, Russia attempted to sell Alaska to the United States as early as 1855. Soon after the U.S. Civil War, the Russian diplomat Baron Edouard de Stoeckl went to Washington to negotiate the sale of Alaskan territory. On March 30, 1867, the baron and his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State William H. Seward, signed a treaty specifying the purchase of Alaska for $7.2 million.

On October 18, 1867, the U.S. flag was hoisted over the Great Land, although Congress paid little attention to the new possession. Seward’s now-recognized foresight drew scant praise in his own day. Critics called the treaty “Seward’s Folly” and believed that the purchase price—two cents an acre for a vast wilderness—was a worthless investment. Unexplored and largely ignored, Alaska languished as a possession governed variously by the Army, the Navy, and the Treasury Department.

Lacking civil government, Alaskans lived in a virtual state of anarchy. People in Alaska could not own property nor assure their inheritance nor marry. Alaskan delegations journeyed to Washington to request any form of self-government. In 1884, Congress finally passed a law for the governance of Alaska, but it proved woefully inadequate.

The discovery of gold in the Canadian Klondike region in 1898 triggered new interest in Alaska. Before the Klondike strike subsided, a new gold rush began in Nome, Alaska, where eighteen thousand miners converged in a feverish scramble. In 1902, a fresh strike in Fairbanks sparked another rush of “sourdough” prospectors to the Alaskan interior. During this era, miners, adventurers, gamblers, and opportunists of all sorts journeyed to Alaska. Quick fortunes, high prices, and frontier violence made Alaska as rough-and-ready as any region of the Wild West. Few women attempted the trip north; the men who stampeded to Alaska lived an often-undisciplined bachelor existence made tolerable by drink and card playing. The poems of Robert Service and the stories of Jack London celebrated this rugged, pioneer life, making it the stuff of legend.

In 1906, Congress permitted Alaska to send a nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives. In 1912, the Organic Act Organic Act (1912) granted Alaska territorial status under a governor appointed by the president. The bicameral legislature established by the act had no authority to pass laws dealing with excise, game, or fur, however. Congress reserved the right to veto Alaskan legislation.

Alaskans bristled at Washington’s distant authoritarian rule and lackluster stewardship. Increasingly, statehood was seen as necessary to enable home rule and to secure voting representation in Congress. On March 30, 1916, Alaskan delegate James Wickersham Wickersham, James introduced the first of many statehood bills in Congress. It was referred to committee and died.

Opponents contended that the territory was not ready for self-rule due to its small, migratory population and its meager resources and revenue base. These perceptions were reinforced when Alaskan salmon packers argued in court that the territorial legislature had no authority to levy taxes on the fishing and mining industries. While the territorial tax was upheld, the opposition of the salmon industry stalled Alaska’s halting steps toward self-government.

During the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Alaskans launched a new movement for statehood in order to rid themselves of the rule-making authority of Roosevelt’s secretary of the interior, Harold Ickes Ickes, Harold . When Ickes, who had already restricted the private ownership of land in Alaska, proposed an 8 percent tax on gold mines, the Anchorage Pioneer Lodge called for a legislative committee to study statehood. Alaska’s territorial governor, Ernest Gruening, whose presidential appointment had been opposed by Ickes, led the chorus advocating statehood.

The statehood movement accelerated during World War II. The military launched a crash buildup of roads, airports, docks, and housing. The strategic Alaska Highway was built by the United States and Canada during 1942-1943. By 1944, both Democrats and Republicans supported statehood for Alaska and Hawaii in their party platforms. Thereafter, the progress and fortunes of Alaska’s statehood initiative remained closely linked to Hawaii’s own statehood drive, up to the final Senate vote for approval in 1958.

Like Alaska, Hawaii experienced a long association with the United States before attaining statehood. The original settlement of the Hawaiian islands, believed to have occurred between 400 and 750 c.e., was undertaken by accomplished Polynesian navigators who voyaged more than two thousand miles from the Marquesas Islands. During the twelfth century, an exodus of warlike Tahitians arrived and conquered the settled islanders. After the voyages between Tahiti and Hawaii ended, Hawaiian society flourished during a long era of isolation. When the English explorer Captain James Cook arrived at Hawaii in 1778, the population of the islands was estimated to be three hundred thousand, although more recent estimates range as high as seven hundred thousand.

In 1795, a warrior chief named Kamehameha began a campaign of military conquest, leading to the consolidation of all the Hawaiian islands and the establishment of a hereditary monarchy that reigned until 1893. During the reign of Kamehameha I, English and U.S. trading ships began to anchor in Hawaii. Contact with visiting seamen introduced Western diseases to the islands. Syphilis, smallpox, gonorrhea, cholera, and “black plague” took a catastrophic toll; a study commissioned in 1823 reported that the indigenous Hawaiian population had fallen to 140,000.

Western ways also proved fatal to many Hawaiian religious and social customs. Under Kamehameha Kamehameha II[Kamehameha 02] II, Hawaiian culture succumbed to the inducements of mercantilism and New England Congregationalism. The thirty-year trade in sandalwood to China stripped Hawaiian forests and left many Hawaiians debtors. The kapu system of traditional strictures and penalties was abandoned by Hawaiian royalty in 1819. In 1820, the first missionaries arrived from Boston. So thoroughgoing were the conversions wrought by the missionaries that, by the mid-nineteenth century, very little remained of native Hawaiian beliefs. By 1846, during the height of the whaling industry, six hundred ships, of which 90 percent flew the U.S. flag, docked in Hawaiian ports. Two years later, pressure applied by U.S. traders and merchants led Kamehameha III Kamehameha III[Kamehameha 03] to abolish the traditional feudal land system and permit the private purchase of land in fee.

The emergence of the sugar industry accelerated the U.S. quest for Hawaiian land and cheap immigrant labor. From 1852 until 1930, approximately 400,000 foreign men, women, and children—primarily Chinese, Japanese, Okinawan, Korean, Puerto Rican, Portuguese, and Filipino, as well as lesser numbers of northern Europeans—were recruited to Hawaii’s sugar and pineapple plantations. A Reciprocity Treaty signed by Hawaii’s King David Kalakaua and the United States in 1876 allowed Hawaiian sugar to enter U.S. ports free of customs duties. The sugar industry created fortunes and a new oligarchy in Hawaii. From the sons and daughters of the missionaries came the Doles and Cookes, who would create the Big Five corporations that have continued to control much of Hawaii’s land.

During the 1880’s, haole (non-native) U.S. businessmen, alarmed by the extravagant spending and nativistic inclinations of King Kalakaua Kalakaua , armed and outfitted rifle clubs and demanded a new constitution. With Kalakaua’s assent, a new constitution Constitutions;Hawaii established steep income and property requirements for voters, barred the Japanese and Chinese from voting, and allowed the legislature to override the king’s previously absolute veto by a two-thirds vote. Disenfranchised Hawaiians protested this 1887 “Bayonet Constitution.” Counterrevolutionary fervor grew.

Following Kalakaua’s death, Queen Liliuokalani appointed only trusted Hawaiians to key government posts. When she attempted to draft a new constitution to abolish the restrictions placed upon the monarchy, a haole-organized Committee of Safety, Committee of Safety, Hawaiian supported by a force of U.S. Marines from the USS Boston, Boston (ship) seized control of Honolulu on January 16, 1893. The queen was deposed, the monarchy abolished, and a provisional government was organized the next day.

The newly elected U.S. president, Grover Cleveland Cleveland, Grover , denounced the takeover and demanded the restoration of the queen. Cleveland’s investigative emissary, John L. Blount Blount, John L. , reported that the coup had been accomplished by force with U.S. complicity, contrary to the wishes of an overwhelming Hawaiian majority. When Cleveland rejected a draft Senate treaty for the annexation of Hawaii, the Committee of Safety proceeded to draft a new constitution establishing the Republic of Hawaii. On July 4, 1894, the new republic was proclaimed, with Sanford Ballard Dole, the son of missionary parents, as president.

After the election of President William McKinley, negotiations for the annexation of Hawaii resumed. On July 7, 1898, an annexation treaty was endorsed by a joint resolution of Congress. On August 12, 1898, the U.S. flag was raised over Honolulu’s Executive Building, the former palace of the Hawaiian kingdom. In 1900, passage of the Organic Act established Hawaii’s territorial government and conferred citizenship to all Hawaiians. Dole was appointed governor of the Territory of Hawaii. In his inaugural address, he predicted eventual statehood for Hawaii.

Hawaiian congressional delegate Jonah Kuhio Kuhio, Jonah submitted the first bill for statehood in 1919. The haole oligarchy of Hawaii was slow to warm to the cause of statehood, however. The Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association was content with existing protective tariffs supporting Hawaiian sugar prices and feared the potential vote of the vast Japanese plantation workforce. When the Jones-Costigan Act Jones-Costigan Act (1934)[Jones Costigan Act] of 1934 cut Hawaii’s sugar quota to 10 percent, however, the sugar industry threw its support behind a statehood bill in 1935.

In 1935, the territorial legislature created the Hawaii Equal Rights Commission to examine putting the issue of statehood to a plebiscite. That year, Congress conducted its first hearings on Hawaiian statehood. Between 1935 and 1958, twenty congressional hearings on statehood were conducted, gathering testimony from more than a thousand witnesses. In 1940, one year before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii’s plebiscite voters affirmed their support for statehood by a two-to-one margin.

The outbreak of war in the Pacific lent new potency to the arguments for Alaskan and Hawaiian statehood. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and invasion of the Aleutian Islands the following year irrefutably established the strategic importance of the United States’ Pacific territories. During the war, Alaskans noted, their territory proved nearly as valuable a base for Army and Navy operations as Hawaii had been. Postwar tensions with Russia further underscored Alaska’s value as a defense perimeter and early warning outpost in an age of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Following World War II, thousands of veterans swelled Alaska’s population. In Hawaii, the highly decorated Nisei (second-generation Japanese American) veterans returned home determined to pursue education and political office as full-fledged U.S. citizens. In 1947, the House of Representatives cast its first vote favoring statehood for Hawaii. Meanwhile, Alaskans formed a statehood association, conducted a plebiscite favoring statehood, and rallied national public opinion to their cause. In 1950, the House voted 186 to 146 in favor of Alaska statehood, but the bill foundered in the Senate.

Senate opponents of Hawaii’s statehood initiative pointed McCarthyism[Maccarthyism] to the influence of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union in island politics and suggested that a Hawaiian delegation would be tantamount to seating “four Soviet agents” in Congress. A secondary and perhaps more insidious objection was the belief that Hawaii’s largely Asian population would never assimilate fully into U.S. society.

Following the defeat of a number of statehood planks in Washington, Alaskans held their own constitutional convention in the winter of 1955-1956. Alaska’s voters boldly elected two “provisional” senators and a representative to be seated in Congress.

After a succession of Alaska-Hawaii statehood bills were stalled or defeated in Congress, Hawaii delegate John Anthony Burns devised the “Alaska First” strategy for winning congressional approval. Burns, a protégé of House Speaker Sam Rayburn and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, had concluded that a joint statehood bill invited too much antagonism from detractors of either territory. Convinced that Hawaii’s bid would be irresistible once Alaska achieved statehood, Burns’s strategy was validated when both houses of Congress supported separate statehood acts in 1958 and 1959. The principled support of President Dwight D. Eisenhower was also crucial to the winning strategy; Eisenhower won over Republican doubters concerned that both states would elect Democrats to Congress.

Voting in record numbers, Alaskans overwhelmingly ratified their statehood act on August 26, 1958, and on January 3, 1959, Alaska officially became the forty-ninth state to enter the Union. Hawaii’s voters endorsed their statehood act in a June, 1959, election by a seventeen-to-one margin. On August 21, 1959, Hawaii officially became the nation’s fiftieth state.


The elation felt by the citizens of Alaska and Hawaii was nearly rivaled by the enthusiasm of their fellow U.S. tourists and immigrants who, borne by the new jet age, rushed to explore and settle in the new states. Federal spending and mounting tourism prompted an economic boom in both states. The discovery of vast North Slope oil reserves in 1969 further hastened development in Alaska. The political life of both states has continued to dwell on themes of local control of land and resources versus environmental protection and the dynamics of boom-and-bust economics versus sustainability. As the drive for statehood demonstrated, determined social mobility and vigorous debate have remained vital to the future of the United States’ newest states. United States;expansion

Further Reading

  • Cooper, George, and Gavan Daws. Land and Power in Hawaii. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990. A meticulously cross-referenced study of land-use policies, real estate deals, and Hawaiian politics from 1955 to 1985.
  • Daws, Gavan. Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands. New York: Macmillan, 1968. A scholarly, highly readable general history of Hawaii.
  • Fuchs, Lawrence H. Hawaii Pono: An Ethnic and Political History. Rev. ed. Honolulu: Bess Press, 1992. A superb social history of Hawaii’s ethnic groups.
  • Gruening, Ernest. The Battle for Alaska Statehood. College: University of Alaska Press, 1967. A detailed and personal account of Alaska’s struggle for statehood.
  • Lineberry, William P., ed. The New States: Alaska and Hawaii. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1963. An excellent collection of essays and reprinted articles on the statehood drives and prospects of Alaska and Hawaii.
  • Whitehead, John S. Completing the Union: The Alaska and Hawaii Statehood Movements. Anchorage: Alaska Historical Commission, 1986. A political review of the Alaskan and Hawaiian statehood movements.
  • _______. Completing the Union: Alaska, Hawai’i, and the Battle for Statehood. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2004. Based on Whitehead’s earlier book, this text is three hundred pages longer, delving in great detail into each stage of the statehood battles. Includes a 50-page bibliography and an index.

Bombing of Pearl Harbor

Alaska Highway Is Completed

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