The Constitutional Convention
Envisioning the future
Fifty-five delegates gathered in Fairbanks on November. 8, 1955 to begin drafting a constitution for a state that didn't exist.
The decision to hold a convention had not been an easy one. Pro-statehood forces believed in the early 1950s that a convention might delay the victory they wanted. They changed their minds when Congress failed to act.
The Territorial Legislature approved the plan to have Alaskans draft a model constitution for the proposed state. Delegates ran for seats at the convention. The 55 delegates matched the size of the group that drafted the United States Constitution in 1787.
Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks sent 31 delegates, leaving 24 to represent other communities from Kotzebue to Ketchikan. The mix included 20 business people, along with 13 lawyers and miners, fishermen, professionals and homemakers. There was one homesteader, Yule Kilcher of Homer, and one Alaska Native, Frank Peratrovich, a Tlinglit merchant from Klawock.
Congressional delegate E.L. "Bob" Bartlett said the blame for the constant "boom and bust" cycle in Alaska "is due in no small measure to the hard, cold fact that mineral development was solely for the purpose of exploitation with no concern for permanent and legitimate growth." He said a similar misguided approach had governed another key Alaska industry -"The decline of Alaska's once-great fisheries is traceable in great degree to this same attitude with its concept of ruthless plundering of a great natural resource without regard to the welfare of the mass of average citizens who make their living from the sea."
The convention and the statehood debate of the 1950s had the spirit of a moral crusade, focused on a single goal.
As the convention delegates prepared to settle into their work at the university, they heard from the president of the student body , Ken Carson. He expressed the hope of young Alaskans that "now is the proper time for Alaska to become a state and for us to govern ourselves. Today we are students, but tomorrow we hope to be citizens of the state of Alaska and with this thought in mind we sincerely welcome you, you who will build a solid foundation upon which a state government must stand."
Nearly all of the delegates made their support for statehood clear when they ran for convention seats. Forty-seven wanted statehood immediately, while seven favored it with some qualifications. Delegate Peter Reader, a gold miner from Nome, was the one and only opponent.
The delegates chose William A. Egan as convention president. Egan was a territorial senator, former Speaker of the House and former mayor of Valdez. Hewas well-liked and was able to bring people together through consensus. Never a pretentious man, he arrived in Fairbanks for the convention by hitching a ride on a truck from Valdez.
During their discussions , the delegates carefully examined every aspect of how to construct an ideal government for Alaska
The delegates met from November until early February, crafting a 14,400-word document described as "more distinctly appropriate to its time and place than any other state constitution."
It gave the vote to 19-year-olds at a time when the standard age was 21, delayed action on Native land claims, called for a strong governor and declared that resources were to be managed and developed for the benefit of all people.
The delegates signed the constitution at a ceremony witnessed by about 1,000 people in the university gym on February 5, 1956. In spring the territory's voters approved the constitution by better than a two-to-one margin..
It became the law of the land three years later when Alaska, the 49th state, entered the Union.
Higher Education for Delegates
The idea of escaping the normal political arena and using a university campus to draft a state constitution was the idea of attorney Tom Stewart of Juneau. He thoughthat the University of Alaska in Fairbanks would be the ideal setting to plan Alaska's future government. Stewart, a legislator who helped draft the bill authorizing the constitutional convention, won the support of his fellow legislators.
As historian and constitutional convention delegate Victor Fischer has written, Juneau had the meeting rooms and housing, "but it also had the unsavory reputation that often goes with legislative politics: special interest lobbying, heavy drinking and the like."
The decision turned out to be a good one, as the convention that met during the winter of 1955-56 remained remarkably free of partisan politics and back-room dealing. Delegates said that the powerful canned salmon industry never took the convention all that seriously. The campus setting contributed to a spirit of camaraderie and helped build consensus.
"Delegates were viewed as a group of idealists working for a great cause and dealing with issues that generated, with few exceptions, no pressures from those lobbies and special interests that regularly pursue their interests at legislative sessions," Fischer wrote.
Democrats outnumbered Republicans in the gathering, but elections to the convention were conducted on a nonpartisan basis and most delegates, put "the good of Alaska" ahead of everything else. The delegates wanted to prove to Congress and the rest of the country that Alaska was mature enough to govern itself. It was important that the convention took place before statehood, and that it was held in the university setting, so that people were free to be creatve and philosophical in designing the new state government.
Another unifying factor was the Fairbanks weather. On opening day the temperature was 16 below zero and the low that winter was 53 below. Just before midnight one evening , Egan had to interrupt a heated floor debate and call for immediate action of a different sort. "The Chair would like to announce that the temperature is now about forty below and if the delegates have their cars out there, they probably should start them in order that they will start."
Fischer said that after the delegates warmed up their cars and returned to the hall, "tempers had appreciably cooled." In their last few weeks the delegates worked late into the night, always striving fo working toward compromise on the issues that divided them.
The Alaska-Tennessee Plan
While serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, George Lehleitner of Louisiana read a book about how the democracies of the world could join together to deal with political extremism.
Upon his return to the States, he developed the belief that the United States could help lead the way by admitting Alaska and Hawaii to the Union. This act would show how it is possible to get along with people who are separated by great distances.
Lehleitner went on to devote more than a dozen years to a personal crusade to help win statehood for Alaska and Hawaii. He traveled at his own expense to Alaska, Hawaii and Washington, D.C. and spread his message with speeches, letters and personal contacts.
As part of his research, he learned about a technique that Tennessee had used to win admission to the Union. The basic idea was to elect a Congressional delegation and send its members to Washington, D.C., hoping for recognition by Congress. Southeast Alaskans had made similar efforts in the late 19th century, choosing unofficial delegates to Congress.
Lehleitner drove to Fairbanks to pitch his idea and found a willing ally in C.W. Snedden, publisher of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, who played up the so-called "Alaska-Tennessee Plan." Through Lehleitner's work, the delegates unanimously approved the idea of electing an unofficial representative and two senators.
The voters of the territory endorsed the idea l and chose Democrats Ralph Rivers, William Egan and Ernest Gruening as the Alaska-Tennessee Plan delegation. They brought gifts for President Eisenhower and his wife that included ivory carvings, smoked salmon and "Arctic Scent" cologne. They began to lobby Congress and the press.
A friendly senator introduced them in the Senate gallery on January 14, 1957. A dozen senators spoke in favor of statehood for Alaska, leading Gruening to write that the events of that day "far exceeded our hopes and expectations."
One Congressional statehood opponent , termed the election of the three men as illegal, presumptuous and "a brazen attempt to coerce Congress," but most of the reaction was not so negative. "We were early informed, however, that if we got statehood, we would have to run again," Gruening wrote in his autobiography. "As all three of the men Alaska sent to Washington were Democrats, the Republicans understandably took that position, although that had not been required of earlier 'Tennessee Plan' states. But as insistence on maintaining our status would have jeopardized our objective, we agreed that statehood legislation would so provide."
While Rivers would go on to be Alaska's first member of the U.S. House and Gruening won election to the U.S. Senate, Egan became Alaska's first elected governor. Joining Gruening in the Senate would be Bartlett, the other leading advocate for statehood. A coin toss determined that Bartlett would be addressed as the "senior" senator and Gruening would be known as the junior, though at age 71 he was 17 years older than Bartlett.