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The Path to Statehood: Hawaii and Alaska

erupting lava during daytime
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by Rick Bretz

The Hawaiian Islands’ volcanic eruptions generating the long stream of hot lava is analogous to the extended years and upheaval it took to join America as a 50th state.   As the lava flows in nature’s effort to reclaim territory, many of its citizens and towns are seeing their houses and roads taken over.  This island paradise that has become a vacation spot and tourist destination surrounded by the Pacific Ocean is a stark contrast to Alaska, a frosty, just as remote scenic territory due north.

 

Alaska was a state that nobody wanted and many government administrators and elected officials  thought Secretary of State William Seward’s venture to purchase the Alaska territory was ill-advised at best.  The newspapers at the time called it “Seward’s Folly.”

snow light sky winter
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Hawaii, in contrast, was not only wanted, but literally taken over with the Island Queen Liliuokalani under house arrest in the palace.

Why would the American government want the territory and the Islands as part of our eventual United States?  The answer is found in that both were sought after for the same purpose and yet for a couple of different motivations.  The United States government purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867 for 7.2 million dollars.  At the time, the treaty to purchase Alaska seemed like wasted money but the purchase ended the presence of Russian influence  in North America at the time.  Russian influence allegedly would revisit us later in the form of hacking, spying and social media posts during our 2016 elections.

Later, the 1896 discovery of Gold in the Yukon and its strategic importance during World War II in the Pacific Theater vindicated William Seward’s push to purchase the territory which began before the civil war.  Alaska became the 49th state a few months before Hawaii on January 3rd, 1959.

Alaska’s significance remains strategically important but today the state is well known for the large number of reality shows situated there from “Deadliest Catch”, “Gold Rush” and “Ice Road Truckers” to “Alaska State Troopers”. Who knew when Congress approved the purchase of the Alaskan territory that it would be a boon to the television entertainment industry in the 21st Century and make several Alaskan citizens relatively wealthy from something other than gold mining?

Hawaii took a divergent path that centered on what can be called, “the protection of the good old American dollar.”  Specifically, the influence of plantation owners and their wanting to protect their financial interests from the rise of the Hawaiian Monarchy.  The United States annexed the Hawaiian Islands in 1897 at the urging of the American plantation owners.  This annexation was in the form of a takeover as the Queen Liliuokalani was put on trial before a military tribunal, forced to relinquish all claims to the Monarchy and imprisoned her.  This just because she wanted to exert some power as as a monarch. This power threatened European and American land owner however so these men literally asked the United States government representatives to call in the Marines.

https://www.iolanipalace.org/history/queens-imprisonment/

The financial interest was the primary reason for the forced annexation of Hawaii but it also served a military strategic importance for naval bases.  Along with several other islands, such as Guam, the Philippines, the Kwajalein Atoll and Alaska, the annexation gave the United States a presence in the Asian theater.  This first line of defense proved vital at the outset of World War II.  The Hawaiian Islands had citizens that came from many countries other than the United States, like Japan and Portugal.  Hawaii became the 50th state a few months after Alaska on August 21st, 1959.

Why so long of a wait for Alaska and Hawaii statehood?  As with everything that the government does, it comes down to power and what the current political landscape at a particular time, as in Southern Democrats who didn’t want civil rights legislation passed. The number of democratic and republican votes in congress figured in the decision.  The racial mixture of each state and Alaska’s low population figured in the long wait.  The economic advantages with Alaskan oil reserves and Hawaii’s tourist industry added to the attractiveness of having them as states.  In the end, the political issues and resistance from certain groups in Hawaii were overcome and the territories became states.

Becoming a state can take a long circuitous route as the Puerto Rico effort to become one shows to everyone following it. The status of statehood depends just as much on political concerns as the financial ones.  The original 13 colonies had a  significant issue to overcome on their path to become a member the select group of the United States of America-the war to gain independence from the crown.

Notable Links:

https://www.alaska.edu/creatingalaska/downloads/Statehood-for-Alaska.pdf

http://teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/25769

https://history.state.gov/milestones/1866-1898/alaska-purchase

https://www.english-online.at/history/alaska-and-hawaii-at-50/alaska-hawaii-at-50.htm

http://statehoodhawaii.org/2009/05/12/the-statehood-plebiscite/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hawaii

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/what-puerto-rico-learn-hawaii-180963690/