Archive for the ‘progressive era’ Tag

Avalanches Start Small   2 comments

The federal government is a perfect example of piling mistakes upon errors. Like two parallel lines which diverge only slightly, the passage of time demonstrates that a jog of only a half-degree will, over time, create a yawning gap.

To see this, we need to investigate a fundamental constitutional error that affects Alaska, creating its own tradition and momentum lasting well over a century, to the point where few even bother to investigate the merits of the controversy: federal property.

Article I, Section 8, clause 17 of the U.S. Constitution gives very lmited license to the federal government’s possession of real property:

To exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over such district (not exceeding ten miles square) as may, by cession of particular states, and acceptance of Congress, become the seat of government of the United States, and to exercise like authority over all places purchased by the consent of the legislature of the state in which the same shall be, for the erection of forts, magazines, arsenals, dockyards, and other needful buildings.

Many constitutional scholars maintain that the federal government can only own the District of Columbia, post offices, federal buildings, military docks, factories and storage warehouses. The debate over “loose” versus “strict” construction of the Constitution often comes into play here. The 9th Amendment to the federal constitution interprets this clause “loosely” in regards to individual liberty while the 10th Amendment interprets it “strictly” in regards to federal power. For clarity in such constitutional balancing acts, we usually look at the Federalist Papers to assist us. James Madison, known as “The Father of the Constitution,” confirmed this in Federalist #45 when he stated that federal powers were to be “few and defined”.

Then how did the federal government come to own the millions of acres in national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, monuments, battlefields, wild and scenic rivers, and the like? That certainly doesn’t sound “few or defined”.

History – we should know it, so we can learn from it.

In 1872, Yellowstone was created as the world’s first national park. Yes, the world’s FIRST national park! It was the middle of Reconstruction, just seven years after the end of the American Civil War, which subjugated not only states rights, but also much of the Constitution. Prior to the war, the government never would have attempted such a blatant violation of Article 1, Sec. 8, Cl. 17 of the US Constitution. The people would have been up in arms. The fact that national parks became and remain popular is beside the point that they are and always were unconstitutional.

Having established this beachhead while the states and the people were thoroughly cowed by the outcome of the Civil War and a large percentage of the country remained under martial law, the Progressive Era commenced to build new parks, the National Forest system, and then wildlife refuges and monuments. Western states were delivered increasingly into federal control, making the development of resources a matter of corporate influence in Congress. Individual citizens had no voice whatsoever against such power and the states had been muzzled. It took time, of course, to change the system, to do away with the gold and silver standards, the Homestead Act, ranching and the industrialization of America. During that transition time, prospectors, merchants, settlers and entrepreneurs were able to gain property in the West in a meaningful way, temporarily obscuring the long-term effects of the policy.

We didn’t see it coming and because we don’t study history, we don’t understand what we’ve lost … unless you live some place like Alaska where the industrialization of American never came about — then you see the long-term effects and wonder …

Whatever happened to America?

Achieving Territorial Status – Kinda   5 comments

The Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-98 was the first event to garner significant exposure for the great, white North. From 1890 to1900, more than 30, 000 people surged into the Yukon Territory and Alaska when gold was discovered in places like Dawson, Central and Nome. In 1902, there were additional discoveries in Fairbanks, and Ester. Mining, fishing, trapping, and mineral production flourished and a true “colonial economy” developed, in which outside interests exploited the material resources of Alaska and took the profits elsewhere. Journalist David S. Jordan declared in an article for the Atlantic Monthly called “Colonial Lessons of Alaska,” 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
  • the use of offices as political patronage

Jordan demanded to know if the U. S. could, in good conscience, hoist its flag over a colony if it was not prepared to care for it.

I have to point out that his “problems” don’t all look like problems to me. A lack of centralization of power and authority would be a good thing, in my opinion. In fact, as the Alaska colonial period wore on, we found that many of our problems were caused by the centralization of authority in Washington DC and Juneau.

President McKinley acknowledged the urgent need for further civil organization in Alaska and called for legislative relief which would 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. A 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, in the Interior, to aid in the distribution of goods … and the extraction of gold.

Efforts toward self-government were complicated by the influence in Washingon of the “Alaska Syndicate,” formed in 1906 by J. P. Morgan and the Guggenheim brothers under the persuasion of mining engineer Stephen Birch, who operated the Alaska Steamship Company and had large holdings in Alaska canneries, gold mines and gold dredges. The Syndicate had purchased the huge Kennicott-Bonanza copper mine, controlled much of Alaskan steamship and rail transportation and owned/controlled a major part of the salmon canning industry. The Syndicate lobby in Washingon had successfully opposed any further extension of Alaskan home rule.

James Wickersham, who had been appointed to an Alaskan judgeship in 1900 by President McKinley, became alarmed by the potential influence of incorporated interests in the territory and took up the struggle for Alaskan self-government. Wickersham 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 Alaska coal land leases to the Guggenheim interests, culminated in a Congressional investigation and brought Alaska squarely 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 President Taft for re-election in 1912
  • elected Woodrow Wilson President of the United States
  • changed the course of history of our country

A chastened lame-duck President Taft, in a special message to Congress on February 2, 1912, urged the enactment of legislation which would help Alaska develop its resources along the lines that Wickersham had urged.

Wickersham may well have been right about it changing the course of national history. Although there were certainly progressive voices operating in the United States prior to the 1912 election, Theodore Roosevelt was America’s first progressive president. If he had not won … who knows the course the country might have taken.

The Second Organic Act, passed by the U. S. Congress in April 1912, conferred official territorial status upon Alaska and provided for an elected legislature of eight senators and 16 house members. After 45 years as a non-entity, Alaska was finally a territory. Sounds good, right? Not really! Congress refused to give significant power to the territorial legislature or make the position of governor of the Territory a popularly elected one. Everything the local legislature did was subject to the (dis)approval of Congress. The federal government retained the power to regulate the territory’s fish, game, and fur resources. So?

No organized territory had ever been denied that authority before. These restrictions would chafe Alaskans and eventually lead to efforts to amend and change the Second Organic Act. For the most part, this official act of incorporation as a territory by Congress did little more than bind the region more firmly to the United States. We moved from being an economic possession to being an official colony.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had provided the framework for the territorial system and had, for over a century, well served the purposes of expansion. The last two contiguous U. S. territories, New Mexico and Arizona, had become states in 1912. But Alaska (like Hawaii and Puerto Rico) is non-contiguous and was sparsely populated. Fully one-half of Alaska’s population at the time were indigenous, non-white Aleuts, Indians, and Eskimos and Congress really wasn’t sure what they wanted or should do about them. Bigotry and logistics admittedly complicated Alaska statehood.

It’s important to recognize that political considerations often took part in statehood determinations. It’s easy for us – so far in the future — to skip over that, but Nevada only had 20,000 people when it was elevated from a territory to a state in 1864. Alaska had three times that population during most of our territory era, but half of them were Natives which the United States really didn’t want, and those 20,000 Nevadan voters gave Abraham Lincoln a narrow re-election and helped ratify the 13th Amendment. What might Alaska have done for some population? Well, in the 1950s, we were courted on both sides of the civil rights fight in Congress.

The United States government should perhaps apologize to Nevada for some of its dealings with that worthy state, but it owes Alaska a great deal more explanation for its refusal to treat us in a similar manner.

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