Establishment of territorial government a key milestone

CommentJune 28, 2012 

2012 marks 100th anniversary of the establishing of Alaska's bicameral Territorial Legislature. While Congress passed the legislation earlier that year, President William Taft signed the act on Aug. 24 that year, the birthday of Alaska's lone delegate to Congress, James Wickersham. For the first time, Alaska citizens would have some direct effect on their civil circumstances by voting for their territorial representatives. Some background will establish context for this signal development.

There wasn't anything new in Congress's approach to civil government for a territory in 1912. Congress had laid out the system of governing newly acquired territories back at the beginning of national government, mostly at the urging of Thomas Jefferson. The occasion was the first major territorial acquisition by the new United States beyond the original 13 colonies, which was, generally speaking, the land between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. That land was acquired as a provision of the official treaty with Great Britain ending the Revolutionary War, in 1783. The question for Congress was what to do with and about that land.

Two years earlier the Confederation Congress, the national government at the time, had resolved a long debate over ratifying the Articles of Confederation by accepting Virginia's proposal that states with former colonial land grants west of the Appalachians should surrender those to the national government. This was the beginning of the public lands of the United States; title for all new land acquisitions would reside in the federal government, unless Congress should decide otherwise, which wasn't often.

But this raised the issue of the indigenous inhabitants, the Indians, who were viewed as conquered people. First, the Confederation Congress prohibited individual citizens and states from acquiring land from Indians; all such acquisitions would be by the federal government only. In regard to residence by Indians, to 18th-century Americans there was no question of preserving Indian land rights or of entrusting them with governance of the region. As a people, Indians were considered inefficient users of land; for the most part they did not cultivate it. In addition, they were considered incapable of the responsibilities of self-government. The initial U.S. Indian policy was removal of the Indians from their ancestral lands, first implicitly, later by explicit legislation.

Next Congress addressed the question of the nationals or immigrants who might leave the states and settle on the newly acquired land, the westering pioneers. In 1785 Congress decided it would provide for an orderly survey of certain portions of newly acquired lands which would be offered for sale in 640-acre parcels at a uniform price: $1 an acre. With variations, including homestead laws and preemption for squatters, this method would be used for all subsequent territorial acquisitions.

Now Congress could deal with the matter of civil government, what came to be called the territorial system. In 1787 the Confederation Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance (eventually the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin) for this purpose. The procedure laid out in that act would be followed in virtually all other territories, including the Louisiana Purchase, parts of Texas, the Oregon Country (Pacific Northwest), the Southwest, and Alaska. Initially, Congress would name the territory and set its geographic limits, and the president would appoint a governor, judge and minor civil officials, such as marshals and recording clerks. When the territory counted 5,000 white, adult, male, free citizens, Congress might authorize the biennial election of a bicameral legislature. But Congress could disallow any action that legislature might take, including its laws. Congress might also, should it deem it appropriate, authorize the biennial election of a delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. But the delegate would have no vote. Finally, when the territory counted 60,000 residents of any sort, they could draft a constitution and apply for statehood. While the numbers weren't always followed exactly, the procedure generally was. After 1788 the government under the new Constitution re-authorized both the land and civil government laws.

Congress created this second-class system of civil government for territories because it did not trust that the settlers would be mature enough to provide stability within and consistency beyond, with the nation. Next column will review the implementation of that system in Alaska.


Stephen Haycox is a professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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