The "Unveiling"
of Senator Bartlett

Author: Eric Gislason

The "Architect of Alaska Statehood"

Senator Bartlett's statue was unveiled in the Capitol Rotunda on Tuesday, March 27, 1971. Felix de Weldon, the Viennese-born artist who sculpted the Iwo Jima Memorial, had worked with Bartlett's widow, Vide, to create the likeness. Alaska Senator Ted Stevens opened the proceedings and the Rev. Edward Elson, Chaplain for the U. S. Senate, provided the invocation. Alaska Senator Mike Gravel, Alaska Representative Nick Begich, Washington Senator Warren G. Magnuson, and Alaska Lieutenant Governor "Red" Boucher also spoke in Bartlett's honor. Rev. Elson closed the ceremony with a benediction.

Lieutenant Governor Boucher, presenting the statue to the Nation, announced that "as representatives of the people, the Alaska Legislature authorized that Alaska's first hero in Statuary Hall be Bob Bartlett. His place in history was now inscribed in the halls of the nation's Capitol, the building in which he worked for fourteen long years to achieve statehood for Alaska. "The millions who will visit this statue this year and in the years to come," Boucher concluded, will see in the statue of Bob Bartlett "the face of a man who gave his service and life to Alaska."

Rev. Elson praised Bartlett's "high vision, lofty idealism, prodigious energy and sacrificial devotion;" he lauded Senator Bartlett's legislative and executive talents and "enduring statesmanship," but also spoke of his "selfless labor for others," the "warmth of his friendship," and his gentle and human graces which endeared him to the multitudes of his fellow citizens." "Statehood," Senator Gravel said of Bartlett, "is his monument." He referred to the statue as "a small tribute, but it is one [Alaskans] offer with love and respect." Congressman Begich then introduced Bartlett's wife, Vide, and Hugh Wade, Alaska's Secretary of State, who unveiled the statue. Senator Magnuson of Washington, who had worked with Bartlett since Bartlett's arrival as a Territorial Delegate to the U. S. Senate in 1945, recounted Bartlett's life and work.

Bob Bartlett was born in Seattle, Washington in 1904. His parents, Klondike pioneers, brought him to the Alaskan mining town of Fairbanks the next year, and when he was only two years old Congress passed the bill which gave Alaska an elected delegate to Congress. The second Organic Act of 1912 revised Alaska's relation to the United States but still made no provision for statehood, an elected governor, or tax reform. Bartlett was, however, growing up along with the Territory.

After graduating from Fairbanks High School in 1922, Bartlett attended the University of Washington and then the University of Alaska before taking up a position as staff reporter for the Fairbanks News-Miner. He earned a reputation as an astute commentator on the Alaskan political scene, and as Associate Editor supported Anthony J. Dimond's successful 1932 candidacy for Territorial Delegate to Congress. Bartlett came to Washington, D. C. as part of Delegate Dimond's staff just as the New Deal was getting underway. Bartlett's considerable knowledge of Territorial problems earned him an eventual appointment as Secretary of Alaska in 1939. During his tenure as Secretary, Bartlett served as Acting Governor on numerous occasions, including the opening of the Alaska-Canada Highway and as a member of the Alaska War Council. When Delegate Dimond resigned in 1944, Bartlett was elected as his successor.

In Congress, Bartlett showed extraordinary prowess for writing and successfully promoting bills which brought Federal money into Alaska. Bartlett served on the Committee on Public Lands, the Agriculture committee, and the Armed Services Committee, writing more successful bills than any other Member (thirteen of his measures became law). In 1947, he introduced a statehood bill and urged hearings to be held in Alaska. The importance of statehood to the natural resources of Alaska and her citizens was discussed throughout the state: meetings were held in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Seward, Kodiak, Nome, Barrow, Cordova, Juneau, Petersburg, Wrangell, and Ketchikan. Many forces testified against statehood, among them Alaskan businessmen--who feared an influx of economic competition under statehood--and lobbyists for the canned salmon industry--who hoped to thwart the implementation of Federal conservation laws for their fish traps in Alaskan waters. Congressional opposition usually fretted about Alaska's non-contiguity with the continental states, dwelt on the difficulty of defending Alaska, and expressed insecurity about the racial diversity of the region's population.

Though hotly debated, the bill was never voted on. But in 1949 Bartlett ushered in the Alaskan Public Works Act, which made available some $70 million in Federal matching funds for reconstruction and rehabilitation of community facilities. In 1950, a bill for Alaska Statehood passed the House by a 40-vote margin but was stifled in committee hearings by the Senate. Unfazed, Bartlett continued to speak in favor of statehood, invoking the support of the people--both in Alaska and the United States--and calling on them to get involved in the battle for statehood. Alaskans responded with the 1955 Constitutional Convention and elected a "Tennessee Plan" delegation to Congress: Senators-elect Ernest Gruening and William Egan and Representative-elect Ralph Rivers were sent to Washington to solicit statehood in 1956. These populist efforts showed lawmakers in the Capitol that Bartlett's proposals had widespread support.

In April 1958, both houses of Congress passed a resolution of statehood for Alaska, and on January 3, 1959, President Eisenhower signed the bill into law. Alaska was now the 49th state, and, in Senator Warren Magnuson's phrase, Bartlett might rightly be called its "Founding Father." Alaskans demonstrated their gratitude by electing Bartlett as its first Senator, a position he maintained from 1958 until his death in 1969. The following obituaries from Alaskan newspapers best sum up Bartlett's relation to his constituents:

The people of this state who loved him are known for their individualism, divisiveness, sectionalism, arrogance, and clannishness. Yet [Bartlett] held them united behind him for 24 years--a longevity in public office that is unequaled in Alaska. On ten different occasions the stubborn, unmanageable, belligerent, and politically erratic populace of Alaska handed him the crown with election returns as much as 81 percent in his favor. No one in all the states' history has ever enjoyed such frequent and solid support from Alaskans. 1

A second obituary referred to Bartlett as a paradoxical man:

He was a humble man, but one who was terribly proud--of his state, his friends, of the loyalty he felt to those who had earned his respect. He was nonpolitical, but a master politician. He was sensitive and shy, but practical and bold. He was quite, yet with gifted wit. He was no great orator, but a charming public speaker who could enthrall an audience.2

In closing, Senator Ted Stevens spoke of Bartlett's self-effacing nature, his friendship with the elevator operators and maintenance men, and his unforced geniality. Bartlett was not just a social success, however, as the Library of Congress estimates that he had more bills passed into law than any other Member in the history of Congress. The success of statehood was just a beginning for Bartlett's efforts. New battles to be fought included the infant mortality rate, the irradication of tuberculosis and ear disease, the poverty of Alaska's native population, the high rate of unemployment and the vulnerability of Alaska defenses. Senator Bartlett labored to make life better for Alaskans until his death in December 11, 1968. When he was buried in Fairbanks, his favorite poem was read:

"Under the wide and starry sky, dig the grave and let me lie. Glad did I live and gladly die, and I layed me down with a will.
"This be the verse you gave: Here I lie where I long to be; home is the sailor, home from sea, and the hunter home from the hill."

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