Accumulated Fragments: Gruening and Bartlett walk the long road to statehood

Senator Bob Bartlett, center, points to an arrow on a map of Alaska and the USSR with United States Senator Ernest Gruening, left, and Representative Ralph Rivers.

There are few politicians in this state, or any other, who have become giants in history like the two men who represented the people of Alaska as it worked toward statehood. I don’t think either saw himself as particularly special, yet each was the right guy at the right time, with the right knowledge and honest intentions. Neither man was born in this state but both were buried here. Their names were Ernest Gruening and E.L. (Bob) Bartlett.


To get a clearer view of the big picture we need to look back at a bit of Alaska history:

From Seward’s Folly in 1867 to statehood in 1959, the history of the contiguous United States was marred by actions or non-actions concerning Alaska. Initially, the results of American colonialism created an economy in which much of the territory’s natural wealth — minerals, furs, salmon and timber — was extracted from the region and used elsewhere for profit of absentee business interests. The 40th Congress (1867-1869) had passed a law which made Alaska a customs district of the U.S., but because of apathy toward Alaska, they made no other efforts to establish a civil infrastructure.

The passage of the first Organic Act (1884) made Alaska a civil and judicial district and provided the territory with judges, clerks and marshals. The general legal code of the state of Oregon was adopted and a total of thirteen officials were made responsible for a population of 32,000 people, of which approximately 430 were white settlers. Alaska was consigned to a territorial status much like that of the Newfoundland fisheries of the 17th-century British Empire. The U.S. Government asserted imperial administrative control over the territory but, other than the above, did not demonstrate any real interest in Alaska.

The attitude about the territory’s purchase was summed up in the New York Herald by James Gordon Bennett, who suggested that any impoverished European monarchs who wanted to sell worthless territory should apply to W.H. Seward, State Department, Washington, D.C.

At the beginning of the 20th century an article for the Atlantic Monthly called “Colonial Lessons of Alaska,” by David S. Jordon declared that the disarray in Alaska could be attributed to four sources, “lack of centralization of power and authority, lack of scientific knowledge, lack of personal and public interest, and the use of offices as political patronage.”

Could the U.S. in good conscience hoist its flag over a colony if it was not prepared to care for it?

That question came to the attention of President McKinley and he acknowledged the urgent need for further civil organization in Alaska and called for legislative relief to address Alaska’s bulky backlog of civil and criminal cases. In 1900, Congress passed an official code of civil and criminal procedure, appointed more judges, and put in place a system of taxation. Further, the duty-free exchange of goods with Canada was established and construction was approved for a railroad between the port city of Seward and the city of Fairbanks to aid in the distribution of goods.

An “Alaska Syndicate” was formed in 1906 by JP Morgan and the Guggenheim brothers. The syndicate was developed to build a railroad to the copper claims. Its members were involved in the biggest shipping firm in the north, the Alaska Steamship Company and rail transportation, the Kennicott-Bonanza copper mine, and had large holdings in the Alaska salmon canning industry, gold mines and gold dredges. The Syndicate lobby in Washington had successfully opposed any further extension of Alaskan home rule. James Wickersham, a judge appointed by Pres. McKinley, was extremely concerned about the influence of incorporated interests in the territory.

He argued that Alaska’s resources should be used for the good of the entire country rather than exploited by a select group of large absentee-controlled interests. Home rule, he claimed, would assure a more just utilization of the territory’s natural wealth.

The 1910 Ballinger-Pinchot affair, which involved the illegal distribution of 33 federal government Alaskan coal land claims to the Guggenheim interests, culminated in a Congressional investigation and brought Alaska directly into the national headlines. Wickersham, surveying the fallout of the affair, determined that it destroyed the friendship between Theodore Roosevelt and President Taft; split the Republican party into two great factions; defeated Taft for re-election in 1912; elected Woodrow Wilson President of the U. S.; and changed the course of history of our country.

Taft, in a special message to Congress on Feb. 2, 1912, urged the enactment of legislation to help Alaska develop its resources along the lines that Wickersham had urged. In April of 1912 the Second Organic Act was passed by the Legislature conferring official territory status upon Alaska and providing for an elected legislature of eight senatorss and 16 house members. Congress refused to give significant power to the legislature or make the position of Gov. of the territory a popularly elected one.

Everything the local legislature did was subject to the approval — or disapproval — of Congress. The federal government retained the power to regulate the territory’s fish, game and fur resources, a function no organized territory had been denied at that point.

As far as statehood was concerned, Congress was uncertain about Alaska’s population of non-white indigenous people, its small total population and the fact that Alaska was non-contiguous.

By 1916, Wickersham had become a delegate to Congress and had introduced Alaska’s first statehood bill. Due to a lack of interest by the majority of Alaskans the bill failed.

In 1923 President Harding visited Alaska but again there seemed to be little interest in statehood. Two extremely discriminatory actions via Congressional legislation were passed during the 1920s that created bad blood between Alaska and Washington State, in particular the city of Seattle, such that even to this day those feelings are still just under the surface.

The U.S. Maritime Act of 1920 — commonly referred to as the Jones Act after its sponsor, Sen. Wesley Jones of Seattle — stipulated that all commercial ships traveling between American ports had to be American-owned and American-built. Thus, all merchandise entering or leaving Alaska had to be transported by American carriers, which meant that all shipping had to go through Seattle.

The Supreme Court ruled that, because Alaska was not officially a state, the Constitution’s provision that one state should not hold sway over the commerce of another did not protect Alaska. Routing ships through the Canadian ports of Vancouver and Prince Rupert would have been much cheaper for Alaskans. Under the court’s ruling, the Jones Act allowed Seattle business interests to charge much higher than average prices for shipping. This, in turn, raised the cost of living in Alaska and funneled Alaskan dollars out of the territory and into the pockets of Washington businessmen.

The second piece of legislation was the White Act of 1924. This act was supposedly a fishery conservation act but, in fact, was an act favoring big companies’ fish traps and worked against the development of small operators in Alaska.

Alaska was hit hard by the depression in 1929, mainly because the prices for copper and fish declined significantly. There were various New Deal efforts that helped some; one of the most famous and successful was the 1935 Matanuska Valley colonization scheme by President Franklin Roosevelt. He believed that people in the depressed agricultural areas of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota could be transplanted into the Matanuska-Susitna region and given a fresh chance at agricultural self-sustainment. Around 1,000 colonists were selected from 15,000 applicants.

In 1933, delegate Anthony J. Dimond recognized Japan as a threat to America’s security and requested Congress provide for military airfields and planes, a highway to link the territory to the United States and Army garrisons. He told the House of Representatives that Japanese fishermen off Alaska’s coast were actually disguised military personnel scouting out information on Alaska’s harbors. By 1940, Congress had appropriated money for military installations but it wasn’t until Pearl Harbor was bombed on Dec. 7, 1941 and the occupation of Attu and Kiska islands on the Aleutian Chain in 1942 that military mobilization begin.

In 1939 both Ernest Gruening and Bob Bartlett entered the picture. I will include a short biography of each before I finish the history:

Ernest Gruening was born in New York City, Feb. 6, 1887. He attended Drisler School and Sachs School; graduated from Hotchkiss School in 1903, Harvard College in 1907, and Harvard Medical School in 1912. Gruening gave up the practice of medicine to enter journalism, working as a reporter for the Boston American in 1912. After a variety of jobs with several newspapers, Gruening became managing editor of the New York Tribune in 1917. He served in the Field Artillery Corps in 1918. After the WW1, he was editor of The Nation (1920-1923) and the New York Post (1932-1933).

Gruening served as an adviser to the United States delegation to the Seventh Inter-American Conference, Montevideo, Chile, in 1933. He was director of the Division of Territories and Island Possessions of the Department of Interior (1934-1939); administrator of the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration (1935-1937), and a member of the Alaska International Highway Commission (1938-1942). Gruening was appointed Territorial Gov. of Alaska by Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 and was reappointed twice, serving until 1953.

Edward Lewis (Bob) Bartlett was born in Seattle, Wash. on April 20, 1904. He attended the University of Washington (1922-1924) and the University of Alaska (1924-1925). Bartlett was a reporter for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner from 1925 to 1933 and became the secretary to Delegate Dimond of Alaska (1933-1934). For a few years, until 1939, he worked as a gold miner, but in 1937 he also became chairman of the Alaska Unemployment Compensation Commission.

You can see that both men had accumulated a lot of experience in the politics of the time. Roosevelt noticed that also.

In 1939 he selected Gruening as Gov. of Alaska and Bartlett as Secretary of Alaska. Gruening was reappointed twice and served until 1953. He was elected to the United States Senate October 6, 1955, from the Territory of Alaska as an advocate of Alaska statehood but did not take the oath of office and was not accorded Sen.ial privileges.

In 1944 Bartlett ran for and won the position of Territorial Delegate to Congress as a Democrat. This was the same position that Wickersham and Dimond had held. So, beginning in 1945, Delegate Bartlett acted as Alaska’s only representative in the halls of Congress. He remained in office for six succeeding congressional sessions, until Jan. 3, 1959.

The national press increasingly raised awareness about Alaska’s situation, described by Richard L. Neuberger in Newsweek as a “feudal barony” where the absentee-owned mining and fishing corporations took out millions in natural resources and left next to nothing behind in the form of social and economic benefits — a “looted land”.

It became increasingly obvious that keeping territorial government and tax structures to a minimum benefitted Seattle-area interests such as the Alaska Steamship Company and the Northland Transportation Company, who enjoyed an effective monopoly on steamship travel and shipping and charged unusually high rates. Alaskan businessmen such as Austin E. “Cap” Lathrop — Alaska’s premier “capitalist” — were able to benefit greatly from minimal taxes and argued against statehood for fear that its stricter tax laws might diminish their position. The anti-statehood faction had a powerful hold in the Territory, and might have quelled the statehood issue were it not for Ernest Gruening and E.L. “Bob” Bartlett.

Gov. Gruening and delegate Bartlett, plus a cross-section of the territory’s established business and professional men and women, engineered numerous legislative efforts to achieve statehood for Alaska. Gruening was frustrated by the fact that after three decades under the American flag, Alaska was still without adequate roads, airfields, tuberculosis hospitals and dependable shipping at a reasonable cost. Also, the indigenous rights issue had not yet been settled and homesteaders were not yet legally able to acquire land from the federal government.

Statehood was the solution. Gruening lobbied hard in Washington with the members of the influential Senate Public Lands Committee, especially Sen. Hugh Butler of Nebraska. Delegate Bartlett introduced a statehood bill in April, 1948 which was corralled in the Rules Committee by Sen. Butler. It never came up for debate. Alaska voters decided that year to reform the territory’s tax structure to loosen the hold of special interests.

1949 was a watershed year for the statehood movement, as it received growing attention both in Alaska and in the nation at large. Gov. Gruening compiled a committee of 100 prominent Americans who supported Alaska’s aspirations, including Eleanor Roosevelt, actor James Cagney, Pearl S. Buck, John Gunther, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. A bill for statehood passed the House by a vote of 186-146 early in 1950 but was killed in the Senate by a coalition of conservative Republicans and southern Democrats, backed by Pres. Eisenhower. This coalition wanted to preserve the tenuous Republican majority in Congress, and opposed Alaska’s entry into the Union for fear that its congressional voice would be Democratic. The Korean War (1950-1952) effectively put concerns about Alaska statehood on the back burner.

In 1953 Sen. Butler and five members of the Senate Interior and Insular Affairs Committee decided to hold hearings in Alaska on a statehood bill; they wanted to hear the reaction of the “little people” of Alaska. The Butler committee heard testimony in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and Ketchikan. The visit of Butler’s committee brought together many Alaskans sympathetic to the statehood cause, and popular publicity movements such as “Operation Statehood” put increased pressure on Congress for Alaska statehood. The end result was members of Congress could no longer invoke “lack of public interest” as an argument against Alaska statehood.

In President Eisenhower’s 1954 State of the Union address, he requested the immediate admission of Hawaii into the Union but did not mention Alaska. The Senate put together a combination statehood bill which provided for the admission first of Hawaii and then of Alaska. This bill was immediately bottled up. A delegation of Operation Statehood’s members flew to Washington, D.C. to meet with the President and they made a dramatic impression. John Butrovich, a Fairbanks insurance agent and senior Republican in the territorial legislature told Eisenhower “We feel that you are a great American. But we are shocked to come down here and find that a bill which concerns the rights of American citizens is bottled up in a committee when you have the power to bring it out on the House floor.” Eisenhower became obviously upset when Butrovich banged his fists on the Chief Executive’s desk to emphasize his dissatisfaction.

The next effort to derail the statehood cause came in the form of a Senate proposal to make Alaska and Hawaii “commonwealths” of the U.S., with elective Governorships. Few were in favor of this. Another series of Congressional hearings about Alaska’s situation instilled in many Alaskans an interest in more aggressive action. Such enthusiasm ultimately brought about the 1955 Constitutional Convention, held in the newly appointed “Constitution Hall” on the grounds of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. It was here that the recently elected Sen. Ernest Gruening delivered his galvanizing “Let Us End American Colonialism” address — a scathing indictment of Alaska’s neglect by the federal government and subjugation to business interests in the contiguous states . (The complete speech can be found on the internet at I believe it is well worth reading.) In 1956, the resulting Constitution—which the National Municipal League called “one of the best, if not the best, state constitutions ever written”—was overwhelmingly accepted by Alaskans.

A crucial maneuver toward statehood was the adoption of the Tennessee Plan. The plan had been used successfully by Tennessee, Michigan, California, Oregon, Kansas, and Iowa. It involved electing a Congressional delegation without waiting for an enabling act from Congress. In the spring of 1956, Alaskans elected Ernest Gruening and William Egan as Senators-elect and Ralph J. Rivers as House Representative-elect. With support for statehood firmly established in Alaska, the stage was now set for reinvigorated efforts in the nation’s Congress.

Working together with Delegate Bob Bartlett, the Tennessee Plan delegation lobbied hard in the Senate and House. Influential House Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas, until the summer of 1957 a foe of statehood, changed his mind and promised to give the territory a chance to be heard. Rayburn, when asked about his change in view, answered “I can tell you in two words, ‘Bob Bartlett’.”

In January of 1958 Congress reconvened and Pres. Eisenhower fully endorsed Alaska statehood. Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson assured Bartlett that the southern Senators would not filibuster the Alaska bill. But it wasn’t a smooth road — Representative Howard W. Smith of Virginia, Chairman of the powerful Rules Committee, stepped in to obstruct the statehood bill. Additionally, Representative Thomas Pelly of Washington demanded the right for his constituents to fish Alaskan waters on the same basis as residents. An amendment was subsequently drafted seeking retention of federal jurisdiction over Alaska’s fish and game resources until the secretary of interior certified to Congress that the state met provisions for their conservation and nonresident access.

A powerful and dramatic novel had recently been written by Edna Ferber called Ice Palace. The book achieved increased national visibility for Alaska statehood and caught the imagination of the public. The story centered on Alaska and had an educational and pro-statehood effect among thousands of readers in the “lower 48.” One critic was moved to refer to it as “the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of Alaska Statehood.”

After some maneuvering, the effort to bypass Representative Smith’s Rules Committee succeeded when the statehood bill was brought up on “privileged status” by roll-call vote of 217-172. The Senate, which had before it both its own version of the statehood bill and the House version, passed the House version at the urging of Delegate Bartlett by a 64-20 margin. The House then passed the bill by a vote of 210-166. On Jan. 3, 1959,. Eisenhower signed the official declaration making Alaska the 49th state. The new American flag featured seven rows of seven stars each.

On Nov. 25, 1958, both Bartlett and Gruening were elected as Democrats to the United States Senate. Bartlett and Gruening, upon admission of Alaska as a State into the Union on Jan. 3, 1959, drew a two-year term and a four-year term respectively, starting that day. Bartlett served until his death on Dec. 11, 1968 and is buried in Fairbanks. He is known as the Architect of Alaska Statehood and, in 1971, the state of Alaska donated a bronze statue of Bartlett to the National Statuary Hall Collection at the United States Capital. Gruening served until Jan. 3, 1969. He died in Washington, D.C. on June 26, 1974. He was cremated and his ashes scattered over Mt. Ernest Gruening, north of Juneau. He is known as the Father of Alaska Statehood and, in 1977, the state of Alaska donated a bronze statue of Gruening to the National Statuary Hall Collection at the United States Capital. The National Statuary Hall Collection in the United States Capitol is comprised of statues donated by individual states to honor persons notable in their history. The entire collection now consists of 100 statues contributed by 50 states. All 50 states have contributed only two statues each.


• Jewish Virtual Library — A Division of the American-Israeli Cooperation Enterprise

• Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774-Present

• A Brief History of Alaska Statehood (1867-!959) by Eric Gislason

• Sen. E.L. “Bob” Bartlett: Architect of Alaska Statehood by Eric Gislason


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