Hawaii joined the Union on this day in 1959, an act that remains historically significant but not without controversy.
The Admission Act was enacted on March 18, 1959, by Congress, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower then signed a proclamation naming Hawaii as the 50th state on August 21, 1959.
Since then, there have been few attempts to add a 51st state, although Puerto Rico has considered a referendum to become a state.
Hawaii received a big assist from Alaska in its drive toward statehood.
It took Alaska 13 years to become a state, with the approval of Congress, after it passed its referendum in the wake of World War II. That came only after Hawaii, which was seen as a GOP-leaning state, was added to the bargain.
Hawaii took a different path because it had a tradition of independence and a Republican presence. There were also southern politicians who were concerned about adding the territory’s multiethnic population to the Union.
The Democrats during the 1950s favored Alaska as the 49th state, while the Republicans wanted Hawaii admitted by itself. The reason for this political investment in the issue of statehood was the face that each new state gets two U.S. senators and at least one new House member, and the admission of a new state can swing votes in Congress.
Two powerful Democratic politicians, Lyndon Johnson and Sam Rayburn, adopted a strategy to get Alaska admitted first, which led to the Republicans to lobby for Hawaii as the 50th state.
The Constitution is vague about the whole process of how a territory becomes a state, delegating the task to Congress. In Article IV, Section 3, Congress is given the power to decide what states and territories are, but state legislatures would have to approve any act that would combine two existing states or form a new state from parts of other states. (So reuniting Pennsylvania and New Jersey, or Virginia and West Virginia, would be a difficult task.)
After Hawaii became the 50th state in August 1959, the controversy over its admission didn’t go away; there are still those in Hawaii who want to see the state become an independent nation again.