Alaska – Graduate Studies in Patience   Leave a comment

Ernest Gruening, Governor of the Territory of Alaska, thanks President Harry S Truman for his support of the statehood cause. Truman backed the drive beginning in 1946 , the first President to do so explicitly. Although a statehood bill was passed by the House in 1950, it was killed in the Senate.

Truman’s successor, President Eisenhower, did not support statehood, and almost a decade after Truman’s initial declaration of support, Ernest Gruening was still campaigning on behalf of Alaska. He gave the following address on April 11, 1955 at the Alaska Constitutional Convention. [“Let Us Now End American Colonialism” is excerpted from Ernest Gruening’s memoir The Battle For Alaska Statehood.]

It’s important to note that Alaska was not yet a state when we wrote the constitution in an attempt to force the United States Congress to vote on statehood. Not only had Congress not voted to advance us to statehood status, Alaska had not yet held a plebiscite on the issue.

Some have characterized this speech as the Declaration of Independence for Alaska, but statehood didn’t grant us independence. It didn’t even make us a full-fledged state like California, New Jersey or Texas. The arguments made by Gruening in the speech are important because they explain some of the remaining anger Alaskans have toward the Lower 48. We are no different in our attitude toward the federal government as the United States was in its attitude toward its former colonial master, England, and with good reason, for we were treated in much the same unjust way.

So, this is a really long speech. I’m going to break it up to make it “bite-sized”.
Let Us Now End American Colonialism
We meet to validate the most basic of American principles, the principle of “government by consent of the governed.” We take this historic step because the people of Alaska who elected you, have come to see that their long standing and unceasing protests against the restrictions, discriminations and exclusions to which we are subject have been unheeded by the colonialism that has ruled Alaska for 88 years. The people of Alaska have never ceased to object to these impositions even though they may not have realized that such were part and parcel of their colonial status. Indeed the full realization that Alaska is a colony may not yet have come to many Alaskans, nor may it be even faintly appreciated by those in power who perpetuate our colonial servitude.

Half a century ago, a governor of Alaska, John Green-Brady, contemplating the vain efforts of Alaskans for nearly forty years to secure even a modicum of workable self-government, declared:

“We are graduates of the school of patience.”

Since that time Alaskans have continued to take post-graduate courses. Today, in 1955, sorely tried through 88 years of step-childhood, and matured to step-adulthood, Alaskans have come to the time when patience has ceased to be a virtue. But our faith in American institutions, our reverence for American traditions, are not only undimmed but intensified by our continuing deprivation of them. Our cause is not merely Alaskans’; it is the cause of all Americans. So we are gathered here, following action by our elected representatives who provided this Constitutional Convention, to do our part to “show the world that America practices what it preaches.”

These words are not original with me. But they remain as valued and as valid as when they were uttered five years ago. They remain no less valid even if their noble purpose is as yet unfulfilled. We are here to do what lies within our power to hasten their fulfillment.

We meet in a time singularly appropriate. Not that there is ever a greater or lesser timeliness for the application by Americans of American principles. Those principles are as enduring and as eternally timely as the Golden Rule. Indeed democracy is nothing less than the application of the Golden Rule to the Great Society. I mean, of course, democracy of deeds, not of lip-service; democracy that is faithful to its professions; democracy that matches its pledges with its performance. But there is nevertheless, a peculiar timeliness to this Alaskans’ enterprise to keep our nation’s democracy true to its ideals. For right now that the United States has assumed world leadership, it has shown through the expressions of its leaders its distaste for colonialism. And this antipathy to colonialism–wherever such colonialism may be found–reflects a deep-seated sentiment among Americans.

For our nation was born of revolt against colonialism. Our charters of liberty–the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution– embody America’s opposition to colonialism and to colonialism’s inevitable abuses. It is therefore natural and proper that American leadership should set its face against the absenteeism, the discriminations and the oppressions of colonialism. It is natural and proper that American leadership should lend such aid and comfort as it may to other peoples striving for self-determination and for that universally applicable tenet of American faith–government by consent of the governed. Indeed, as we shall see, we are pledged to do this by recent treaty commitments.
What more ironical, then, what more paradoxical, than that very same leadership maintains Alaska as a colony?

What could be more destructive of American purpose in the world? And what could be more helpful to that mission of our nation than to rid America of its last blot of colonialism by admitting our only two incorporated territories–Alaska and Hawaii–to the equality they seek, the equality provided by the long-established and only possible formula, namely statehood?

America does not, alas, practice what it preaches, as long as it retains Alaska in colonial vassalage.

Is there any doubt that Alaska is a colony? Is there any question that in its maintenance of Alaska as a territory against the expressed will of its inhabitants, and subject to the accompanying political and economic disadvantages, the United States has been and is guilty of colonialism?

Lest there be such doubt, lest there be those who would deny this indictment, let the facts be submitted to a candid world.

You will note that this last sentence is borrowed from that immortal document, the Declaration of Independence. It is wholly appropriate to do this. For, in relation to their time, viewed in the light of mankind’s progress in the 180 years since the revolt of the thirteen original American colonies, the “abuses and usurpations” –to use again the language of the Declaration–against which we protest today, are as great, if not greater, than those our revolutionary forbears suffered and against which they revolted.

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