What it was like the last time the US admitted new states

Utah Digital Newspapers

What it was like the last time the US admitted new states

By Carter Williams, KSL.com | Posted - Apr. 22, 2021 at 9:26 p.m.



Editor's note: This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah and U.S. history for KSL.com's Historic section.

SALT LAKE CITY — The House of Representatives on Thursday passed a bill that would pave the way for District of Columbia statehood.

If approved by Congress, the United States would gain its first state since Hawaii joined the Union in August 1959. It would also be the first state added within the Continental U.S. since Arizona more than a century ago.

The reaction the last year statehood was granted

Up until 1912, the U.S. had been adding states on a pretty regular basis. Before that year, the longest gap between news states occurred shortly after the Civil War: the gap between the 38th state (Colorado) and the 39th state (North Dakota) was a little more than 23 years. That stretch ended when North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Washington state were all admitted into the Union within two weeks of each other.

Of course, the additions of Arizona and New Mexico in 1912 essentially filled in the continental U.S. so it wasn't exactly clear when the U.S. would expand, statehood-wise. By that point, the District of Columbia was the largest area in the country not considered a state.

It took nearly another 47 years until the U.S. expanded. So what was it like in 1959, when the U.S. territories of Alaska and Hawaii were admitted into the U.S.?

By 1959, it was already a forgone conclusion that the U.S. was getting at least one new state. A bill to make Alaska the 49th state cleared the Congress and was even signed by President Dwight Eisenhower in the summer of 1958 and eventually ratified by Alaska residents.

Alaska's story is interesting because it shows what it was like to break what was then the longest pause between new U.S. states additions. It's also a story similar to many of the final states admitted into the Union, like Utah, and territories that have attempted statehood since 1959.

There were several attempts for Alaska statehood dating back to before the first 48 states had all joined. For instance, the Salt Lake Herald-Republican published an article titled "Alaska and its possibilities" in 1910 that referenced a bill to make Alaska a state.

"It may surprise many people that Alaska has aspirations in this direction, but for some time this country has been dissatisfied with its form of government, and felt it did not have proper understanding at Washington," the article stated.

As the Anchorage Daily News explained in a 2019 article about statehood, the push for Alaska statehood continued throughout the 1910s. But the biggest push came shortly after World War II. Bob Bartlett, who would go on to serve as one of Alaska's first senators, introduced a bill for statehood in 1947.

One of the main reasons for this push was that residents had grown tired of being treated as "second-class citizens," historian Donald Moberg wrote, in a paper about the push for Alaska statehood.

On May 28, 1958, the House of Representatives finally approved a bill to make Alaska a state. The United Press International wrote in a wire story printed in a copy of the Daily Herald in Provo at the time that it was a "hotly contested measure." Previous stories indicated large-scale disagreements in the House despite Eisenhower's push for Alaska statehood.

One of the biggest controversies in Alaska early on, according to the Daily Herald, is what that meant for Native American land with the territory boundaries. Moberg wrote that there were controversies about Alaskan statehood, including what it would mean for the U.S. to have states outside of the contiguous U.S.

"Some alarmists opponents of statehood had argued that this would set a dangerous precedent which could include the addition of any number of sovereign nation-states," he wrote.

Republicans and Democrats were split on the prospect of statehood for Alaska and Hawaii, the National Constitution Center pointed out in an article earlier this year. Democrats at the time favored Alaska, while Republicans favored Hawaii. Ultimately, World War II and post-war tensions led to an agreement that both were geographically important for the U.S., the nonprofit organization wrote.

There was enough support for the House to pass the bill to make Alaska a state. It made it through the Senate relatively quickly afterward and Eisenhower signed it in July 1958. When he signed, he reportedly said "now we have 49 states" before quickly remembering there would be a referendum later that year to finalize it.

So by the time the U.S. formally added Alaska as a state in January 1959, it wasn't much of a surprise to anyone. A Jan. 4, 1959, edition of the Daily Herald captured the moment Alaska became the 49th state, which seemed to pay more attention to a completely different detail with a new state in the country: the U.S. would get a new flag.

In addition to signing a proclamation making Alaska a state, President Dwight Eisenhower revealed a new national flag featuring 49 stars. The biggest change, a United Press International story printed in the paper pointed out, is that it was the first time an American flag needed a seventh row of stars.

"The stars were not arranged in an even rectangular pattern. Instead the second, fourth and sixth rows of stars were indented from the left and thus projected father to the right than the first, third, fifth and seventh rows," the article stated.

The story added the flag would become official on July 4 that year. Of course, that flag didn't last long. By the time it became the new U.S. flag, the wheels to make Hawaii a state were already in motion in Washington.

Alaska joining the Union evidently sped up the process to grant Hawaii statehood, the National Constitution Center wrote. In fact, the nonprofit pointed out that Eisenhower had publicly supported the idea of Hawaii statehood well before he had publicly endorsed Alaska statehood.

A photo of the 50-star U.S. flag after it was unveiled for the first time on Aug. 21, 1959. It has been the official U.S. flag design since July 4, 1960.
A photo of the 50-star U.S. flag after it was unveiled for the first time on Aug. 21, 1959. It has been the official U.S. flag design since July 4, 1960. (Photo: Deseret News Archives)

Hawaii would go on to become the 50th — and most recent — state on Aug. 21, 1959. Again, the feature of the news that seemed to gain the most interest that day was the flag, per a Deseret News edition printed that day. A new flag with 50 stars was revealed and it became official on July 4, 1960.

A rekindled debate

Now, more than six decades later, the debate about statehood has returned in earnest.

It's obviously still unclear if the District of Columbia will be the 51st state. One of the key reasons why it remains unclear is that the U.S. House vote Thursday came down to a narrow, partisan vote. The Senate is split 50-50 with Vice President Kamala Harris, a Democrat, the deciding factor.

The District of Columbia statehood debate has included some of the same talking points as the Alaska and Hawaii debate, even though it is a part of the continental U.S. That is, the debates have centered around proper representation versus the merits of statehood.

The Democratic Party has championed the idea of D.C. statehood many times since the 1970s, according to a history of the movement compiled by the District of Columbia. The party argued at times that the district should have "full and equal congressional rights and the right to have the laws and budget of a local government without congressional interference" and granting representation with taxation.

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The district points out the Republican Party supported the idea in the 1970s, as well, before it was dropped by the party platform in the 1980s. In the 1990s, the GOP began its opposition stating that the idea was "inconsistent with the original intent of the Framers of the Constitution and with the need for a federal city as the nation's capital."

Some may argue the biggest reason for the polarization, however, is likely what statehood would mean on a federal scale. The Democrat candidate has received at least 85% of the vote in the District of Columbia over every presidential election since 2000. Statehood would result in two new Senate seats likely to go toward Democrats.

As you may remember from your grade school history class, the District of Columbia dates back to an early period in the founding of the country as a compromise over where the national capital should be.

George Washington was the one who decided on the compromise with a site along the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, the district wrote. It was established in the summer of 1790, when the only states at that point were the original 13 colonies.

If made a state, the District of Columbia would be the smallest in size but not the least-populated. At a little more than 68 square miles in land area, it's more than 18 times smaller than Rhode Island, the smallest state in the U.S. today.

The Census Bureau estimated that almost 706,000 people lived in the District of Columbia in 2019, which makes it more populated than Wyoming and Vermont.

It's also not alone in statehood arguments. Much like how Alaska and Hawaii were intertwined in the 1950s, there have also been several pushes over the decades for Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, to gain statehood during the District of Columbia debate.

The case for Puerto Rico statehood became more serious as early as the 1940s, according to the National Constitution Center.

Again, it's difficult to tell if the U.S. will get a 51st — or 52nd — state any time soon. But the debate goes to show the parallels to the last time statehood expanded in the United States.

Correction: A previous version of this story said Delaware is the smallest state in the United States; Rhode Island is the smallest by area.

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