Share this article

print logo

FABULOUS AT FIFTY A series of accidents helped shape our nation

Round. Symmetrical. Elegant, and maybe even sexy. But indisputably American.

The number of states in our union has become a staple of Americana, from sea to shining sea, and many young people couldn't envision a nation without 50 states. But that number hasn't been static.

Fifty-two years ago today, Aug. 21, 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Hawaii Admission Act making the Aloha State the 50th state in the union.

For more than a half-century now, 50 has become deeply imbued in the American narrative and fabric. Many of us irregularly, if ever, contemplate the fact that when Eisenhower entered the White House, we were only 48.

"It's a nice, big, even number, but we often forget it got there by a series of accidents," Walter Nugent, professor emeritus of history at Notre Dame University, explained in an interview.

While we haven't annexed or approved statehood for any new territories since 1959, Nugent doesn't see that as "going against any grain."

"I don't know where else we would go," he said, "especially with the efforts to pull back commitments overseas."

Alan Taylor, a professor of history at the University of California-Davis, said the notion that the United States "stopped expanding because they stopped acquiring states is not true."

"The U.S. still has much more of a global presence than in 1959. Once the United States stopped expanding its settler population, the great majority of [the] country lost interest in integrating overseas territories," Taylor added.

But as recent news shows us, we could add or scale back states within our own back yard.

Since President Obama's election, conservative presidential candidate and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, beloved in the tea party community, promised secession "if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people."

In July, natives of Riverside, Calif., approved a measure to break off from the state into a 51st state of "South California." Spearheaded by the county's executive, Jeff Stone, the effort won unanimous approval by the council.

"I am tired of California being the laughingstock of late-night jokes. We must change course immediately or create a new state," Stone told the New York Times.

But a spokesman for California Gov. Jerry Brown wants none of it. He says Stone's campaign is "an escapist fantasy of someone more interested in a political stunt than focusing on his job."

Before 50, we were once a modest nation along the Eastern Seaboard -- until President Thomas Jefferson deployed American explorers Lewis and Clark to survey the Western frontier in our first rendezvous with expansion. This journey and the subsequent Louisiana Purchase would foretell decades, in fact centuries, of Manifest Destiny. Orchestrated by Robert Livingston, who sat on the committee charged with writing the Declaration of Independence, we paid some $15 million for the Northwestern lands.

But Peter Onuf, a historian and Jefferson expert at the University of Virginia, said the acquisition was not in the spirit of later Manifest Destiny. Instead, it was Jefferson's fear that European powers in the region threatened American stability. "If he doesn't act expeditiously, Jefferson thought he risked the entire future of the union."

Jefferson's purchase, in his eyes, was a defensive mechanism before anything else, according to Onuf. Nonetheless, he did "realize he was setting a precedent for pre-emptive or defensive expansion." Onuf added that Jefferson wouldn't be surprised that America wrapped up such expansion only when it reached the Pacific Coast.

As the United States grew, it was not free of controversy or contentious battles over the admission of free and slave states. Despite the Missouri Compromise outlawing slavery north of the 36th parallel and the subsequent agreement of 1850, antagonism about which territories and respective policies should constitute the union ultimately triggered the bloodiest war in American history.

Our two oddball cases, each in a sense outside of what we typically conceive as the territorial United States, were Alaska and Hawaii. In what Americans deemed a futile folly, President Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of State William Seward bought the Alaskan territory from Russia for $7.2 million. Hawaii, in contrast, became U.S.-owned less quickly. When Queen Liliuokalani tried to exclude U.S. representation in the new constitution of 1893, Americans overthrew her.

But President Grover Cleveland disowned the territory, and even when the McKinley administration officially annexed the territory, President William McKinley, a bona fide racist, ostracized the land's "little brown brothers."

Favoring Hawaii's statehood first, Eisenhower initially resisted statehood for Alaska fearing that it would stymie administration efforts to install and monitor defense instruments in the territory near the former Soviet Union. At the time, Hawaii was the great outlier in the nation's continental expansion, and its candidacy was bolstered enormously by the attacks on Pearl Harbor.

But Congress pushed for Alaska first for its natural resources, and Ike ultimately dealt on Alaska in return for pledges from congressional officials opposed to Hawaii on the grounds of its non-white concentrated population that they would give the islands a second chance. Eisenhower ultimately overcame opposition from Southern Democrats, and Hawaii joined the union eight months later.

Indeed, Americans were likely able to forgo a trail of xenophobia, even during the McCarthy crusade against the threat of inbred communism, because of America's military connection to the islands.

So what are the all-powerful forces keeping us steady at 50 today? First, there is the obvious territorial argument. We've pretty much exhausted the continent.

Second, it's largely out of sight and out of mind because there are few viable candidates among our already annexed territories. Puerto Rico, perhaps the most Americanized among the nation's foreign territories, is split itself on remaining a territory or joining the union.

After the mother county's overseas efforts blew up in flames, quite literally, we've learned a basic lesson: pragmatic empire-building avoids unmanageable territories -- at least official ones.

Since the Great War, but especially since World War II, the United States has transitioned from an expansionist to a more protectionist or national security-oriented foreign policy. With this, xenophobic tides have undoubtedly continued to sweep parts of the nation.

Richard Immerman, director of the Center for the Study of Force and Diplomacy at Temple University, said Americans historically are "never comfortable about significant racial issues."

Finally, in our current environment of political stalemate, it would be pretty hard to pull off.

Gary Lawson, a constitutional law scholar at Boston University, wrote in an email: "The Constitution's Admissions Clause (article IV, section 3, clause 1) provides that New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union," a power granted to Congress through ordinary legislation.

"History and practice have also correctly determined that the Admissions Clause is the exclusive mechanism for admitting new states; territory can be acquired by treaty, but treaties cannot grant that territory statehood," he added.

Despite the unlikely odds of a change to 50, Immerman says it would be "terrific" if Americans contemplated why and how we have arrived at that number. "In the long run, it would be an extremely beneficial thing to look in the mirror, and see who we are and what we've become."

At a minimum, maybe we can accept 50 as more of an enigma than we do today.

Alexander Heffner, a freelance journalist, has written for the Washington Post, Boston Globe and Newsday.