"Meeting the Challenge"
A Speech by
E.L. "Bob" Bartlett
Delegate to Congress
Delivered to the Delegates of the Alaska Constitutional Convention
November 8, 1955
On an autumn day in 1787, the Delegates to the national Constitutional Convention met to sign the product of their minds and hands. Faces were grave as they approached the final act of the historic gathering. The document had been hammered out in the fires of great controversy. There were those who had serious objection to many portions of it.
The oldest member of the Convention, a printer by trade and a statesman by avocation, rose to address the meeting in this solemn moment. His body trembled, for his 82 years were bearing heavily upon him. He had seldom spoken during the months the group was in session, though his counsel had been evident in informal conversation. But now Benjamin Franklin felt compelled to offer some small advice to his colleagues. In a voice quivering with emotion, he urged that all the Delegates affix their signatures to the document, whether they approved all its individual features or not. The instrument of government was not perfect, he said for “when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected? It ... astonishes me to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded like those of the Builders of Babel and that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another’s throats. Thus I consent to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best. The opinions I have of its errors I sacrifice to the public good.’ And so saying the Dean of the American Revolution urged unanimity in support of the principles of the new government.
The Delegates to the national Constitutional Convention met during a hot summer in Philadelphia. They came to that city by water, by stage, and by horseback. Washington broke two axles on his coach traveling to the City of Brotherly Love. The Delegates to the national convention were meeting to establish a government for a fledgling nation.
The Delegates to the Alaska Constitutional Convention meet under far different circumstances. The weather is colder; the means of transportation so different that the men of Philadelphia could never have envisioned it in the most lofty flights of their imagination. It is significant too that while the 55 who met there were men, the democratic process has been extended through the years so this, the latest and perhaps the last American constitutional gathering of its kind is made up of 49 men and 6 women. Yet the burning desire of men to be free and to govern themselves is present at both of these historic meetings so otherwise separated in time and circumstances. Benjamin Franklin’s eloquent plea for the democratic process echoes down through the years to the 8th of November 1955. You are men and women determined to meet the challenge of formulating a Constitution for a new member of the American Federal Union.
As Delegates to the Convention which will write the fundamental law for the State of Alaska, you have been told and will be told many times of the responsibilities and problems which face you and which you alone can solve. Many different persons and groups will be interested in seeing that you incorporate their views and ideas into the Alaska Constitution. You, as Delegates to this Convention, must judge the merits of the numerous proposals which are presented for your consideration.
In your individual capacities as Delegates and in your collective capacity as a Convention you are charged with the writing of a document and the establishment of a state government, which will, insofar as fallible human beings are capable, be in the interests of all the people of Alaska. This is the challenge, which confronts you; this is the challenge you must meet; here you are, each and every one of you, marked out by destiny not only to confront the judgment of your peers, your fellow citizens, but to have your names inscribed forever in Alaska history. I congratulate you upon the honor, which is yours as the ones chosen to accomplish this difficult task. I know you enter upon it with a deep sense of humility.
The answer to the many problems and issues which face you will be forged in the tradition of American democratic government. These answers are seldom of the type which are obvious, or which are all black or all white. The issues which face a democratic people are only occasionally susceptible of solutions satisfactory to each and every one of the citizens of a state. Men of good will may differ in many substantial respects on any given question of governmental organization or powers.
The answers which are reached usually represent compromises between extreme positions. The answers appear in varying shades of gray, rather than in stark blacks and whites. Here, in this element of compromise, is the very essence of the democratic process. Men covenant together that they will abide by the decisions of the majority and support those decisions even though they may have considerable misgivings about some of them.
You are very much aware of the problems which face you. You know, and you have already discussed some of them previously with your friends and neighbors. You, as Delegates, cannot escape the responsibility of establishing the broad structure and powers of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of our proposed government. The issue of the basic composition of local government is a thorny one which must be met. You must write a charter of fundamental liberties. These are important and vital issues. You will discuss them at length, and you will, after mature consideration, reach conclusions regarding them. At least two of these issues—the structure of the legislature and the form of local government—may well consume endless hours of time in order that you may arrive at the best solutions of which you are capable.
There is another problem of consequence to which I desire to direct myself principally today. It is an issue which has not been much in the public eye. There was almost no pre-Convention talk in Alaska about it. Yet fifty years from now, the people of Alaska may very well judge the product of this Convention not by the decisions taken upon issues like local government, apportionment, and the structure and powers of the three branches of government, but rather by the decision taken upon the vital issue of resources policy.
The various bills for statehood enabling legislation which have been introduced in the Congress in recent years have uniformly called for large grants of land from the United States public domain to be made to the State of Alaska. The figure mentioned has been in excess of 100 million acres, an area roughly equal to the total land area of the State of California. The 100 million acre figure would appear to be approximately the figure which will finally be adopted.
The State of Alaska would choose almost all this acreage from the lands not included in present federal reservations and withdrawals, or which is otherwise unappropriated. The 100 million plus acres represent a veritable empire, a wealth of land and resources never before conferred on any state, saving only Texas, which, upon its entry into the Union, was allowed to retain all its public lands. Alaska will receive also, in addition to the 100 million acre plus grant, an uncounted but tremendous acreage of submerged lands, land which under decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States have been held in trust for the future state. These submerged lands include lands under the beds of navigable rivers, lakes, and streams; the tidelands proper; and the submerged soils of the marginal sea out to the three-mile limit.
These grants are to be conferred upon the new state in order that it may be provided with a sound economic base for its future operations and activities. The last states to enter the American Union did so in 1912. Government was far simpler in those relatively uncomplicated times. The services provided by state governments for the people were not so expensive as they are now and did not require the large administrative staffs needed today. State governments in 1955 must provide a wide variety and array of services. Today’s citizen expects and demands that government be not only a policeman but a service agency as well. One may disagree with this philosophy but its existence and the extent of its influence is an unarguable fact of modern life. So, extensive land grants to the State of Alaska will be made in order that this new member of the United States may start off in a sound fiscal position, capable of meeting the requirements of service placed upon it by its citizens.
The story of Alaska natural resources has too often been one of exploitation with very little of the great wealth extracted going to pay for necessary governmental services and for the permanent development of a sound economy for the people. The Kennecott Copper operation was typical of a 19th century Robber Baron philosophy which still has its few advocates today. Copper in the value of over $200 million was removed from the Chitina District; the area was high-graded with ores of lesser value disregarded. The operation was shut down in 1938. The tremendous production and investment left absolutely nothing of enduring value for the Territory and its citizens except a small ghost town, which has become a minor tourist attraction.
Alaska’s tradition of “boom and bust” communities 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. The decline of Alaska’s once great fisheries industry 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.
Practically all of the states which entered the Union after the original Thirteen have received grants of land from the federal domain. These grants were made primarily in aid of the support of the common schools of the new states. It is a sad but true fact of history that time and again these lands have been disposed of at ridiculously low prices or have been the object of outright fraud and corruption in government. The history of the land policy of the federal government, too, is replete with incidents of speculation and peculation.
Alaska has experienced exploitation in the past, exploitation on a grand scale. But the possibilities of future exploitation in the field of natural resources are infinitely greater than any in times gone. All Alaskans are aware of the great natural resource potential of this treasure house of nature. Upon assuming statehood, Alaska becomes heir to 100 million acres of land and an additional undetermined acreage of submerged lands. A very high percentage of these lands will contain mineral resources of one kind and another.
Where such vast resources potential exists one need not be clairvoyant to foresee an influx of interests wanting to develop these resources. Unfortunately some of these interests will not be scrupulous in the choice of measures to achieve their ends. Alaska is not unfamiliar with the activities and importance of lobbies. But it is important to bear in mind that lobbying activity on a scale never before seen will take place in the capital when Alaska becomes a state.
This moment will be a critical one in Alaska’s future history. Development must not be confused with exploitation at this time. The financial welfare of the future state and the well being of its present and unborn citizens depend upon the wise administration and oversight of these developmental activities. Two very real dangers are present. The first, and most obvious, danger is that of exploitation under the thin disguise of development. The taking of Alaska’s mineral resources without leaving some reasonable return for the support of Alaska governmental services and the use of all the people of Alaska will mean a betrayal in the administration of the people’s wealth. The second danger is that outside interests, determined to stifle any development in Alaska which might compete with their activities elsewhere, will attempt to acquire great areas of Alaska’s public lands in order NOT to develop them until such time as, in their omnipotence and the pursuance of their own interests, they see fit. If large areas of Alaska’s patrimony are turned over to such corporations the people of Alaska may be even more the losers than if the lands had been exploited.
There will be a perfectly normal and healthy desire, upon the assumption of statehood, to get resources development going rapidly at any and all costs. Reaction against the years of red tape imposed by the federal bureaucracy which stifled development is quite natural and understandable. But in their eagerness to get resources development, the people of Alaska should not lose sight of the absolute necessity for long-range policy in the resources field. A degree of caution and judgment exercised at the early stages of Alaska statehood, which includes most basically the deliberations of this Convention, will be repaid many-fold in true future development—not exploitation or non-use. If the public domain of Alaska is frittered away without adequate safeguards, the State of Alaska will wend a precarious way along the road that leads eventually to financial insolvency.
The question of resources policy is not to be confined, of course, solely to the issue of mineral policy. Upon statehood, Alaska becomes the master of her own destiny on controlling the fisheries resources within her waters. Slavish adherence to old concepts, concepts which have brought only depletion and portents of ruin, will result only in the complete destruction of a once mighty industry. While the major future wealth of Alaska may be underground, the fisheries and marine resources of this area are matters of the highest importance and deserve the most careful consideration by this Convention and by future state legislatures.
The water power potential of the State of Alaska is almost incalculable. Cheap electricity is possible and with it broad scale development in industry and minerals recovery. It is true that the federal government, because of its authority over navigable waters, exercises a very great influence over policy in the development of water power. Nevertheless, the new state must take account of its interest in this important area of natural resources.
We must not forget to include the other resources of the soil. While agriculture will probably never be as relatively important in the economy of the State of Alaska as it has been in the economy of many of the states of the United States, the pioneers of the plow have played a truly significant role in Alaska’s growth in the past and will do so in the future. An important percentage of the land, which Alaska will receive upon statehood, will be located in areas where climate and soil, combined with hardy farmers, will produce agricultural commodities for consumption in Alaska.
Forests, too, will be a part of Alaska’s patrimony. It is true that much of the best commercial timberland is presently located in the Tongass and Chugach National Forests. Such lands will not, with limited exceptions, be available for choice by the new State of Alaska. Yet there are some limited areas where the timber could be utilized for pulp wood or even, in some instances, for saw timber.
Many states have included in their constitutions statements that the natural resources of the state should be “developed for the benefit of the people” of the state. Such pious generalities, without further concrete policy statements, have proved wholly inadequate as effective barriers against dissipation of resources, fraud, and corruption. Alaskans will not want, and above all else do not need, a resources policy which will prevent orderly development of the great treasures which will be theirs. But they will want, and demand, effective safeguards against the exploitation of the heritage by persons and corporations whose only aim is to skim the gravy and get out, leaving nothing that is permanent to the new state except, perhaps, a few scars in the earth which can never be healed.
This Convention is charged, and is chargeable by future generations, with the establishment of basic policy in the natural resources field. Such a responsibility does not carry with it the duty of writing a resources code. Far from it. The Convention would be doing itself’ and the people of Alaska a gross disservice were it to undertake such a task. But the Convention should be aware that the wealth of the future state, which is the means of its attaining greatness, is in the hands of you, the Delegates. A failure to write into fundamental law basic barriers to minimize fraud, corruption, non-development, and exploitation may well be viewed fifty years from now as this Convention’s greatest omission. No perfect system of safeguards can be devised. The ingeniousness of man in interpreting constitutions and statutes to his own ends can never be completely limited.
In the drafting of resources policy the Convention should not fear to consider and adopt bold courses of action. No other state entering the Federal Union has ever been so dependent upon its water and mineral resources. Never has the issue of resources policy been so vital. Devising basic policy suitable to the demand of this and future times may well require that older conceptions of resources policy be drastically revised or even discarded.
We write on a clean slate in the field of resources policy. Only a minute fraction of the land area is owned by private persons or corporations. Never before in the history of the United States has there been so great an opportunity to establish resources policy geared to the growth of a magnificent economy and the welfare of a people.
There are those in Alaska and in the United States who have argued that Alaska is not yet ready for statehood because its people lack “political maturity”. I have not yet settled in my own mind that it is capable of precise definition. But I do know that one aspect of maturity is the ability to manage one’s resources. This Convention can demonstrate to the Congress and the people of the United States at least this aspect of political maturity by giving notice that Alaska’s resources will be administered, within the bounds of human limitations and shortcomings, for the benefit of all of the people.
Difficult though your task may be, you are particularly fortunate in that you are the inheritors of an accumulated experience and wisdom in the production of written constitutions not matched by any other nation in history.
Above all, you will have before you always the shining and stellar example of our Federal Constitution.
They—its authors—resolutely refrained from legislating for the generations to come; instead, they threw out the guidelines which have served ever since as such perfect markers.
Noting the perfection of the first American constitution you the delegates may surely draw inspiring guidance from the greatness of our past.
It was long ago, in 1819, that Chief Justice John Marshall wrote those words whose common sense is as persuasive now as then: “A constitution, to contain an accurate detail of all subdivisions of which its great powers will admit, and all the means by which they may be carried into execution, would partake of the prolixity of a legal code, and could scarcely be embraced by the human mind. It probably would never be understood by the public. Its nature, therefore, requires that only its great outlines should be marked, its important objects designated, and the minor ingredients which composed those objects be deduced from the nature of the objects themselves.”
And as you the delegates seek to establish here in Alaska those great outlines we the people will hope and pray for your success. We know you assemble here not as partisans in any cause except that of writing the very best constitution of which you are capable. It may be—and probably will be -the last American constitution to be written in the creation of a new state. Let it be informed by man’s noblest instincts and let it be seen by all the world as a demonstration of democracy’s intellectual as well as moral superiority over any other form of government on this earth.