It’s not easy to become a state. Sure, the 13 colonies got a head start and were all admitted by 1790. But it took 168 years for the remaining 37 states to be welcomed to the Fourth of July party. The most recent of the 50, Hawaii, got its official invitation 60 years ago on March 18, 1959, when president Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Hawaii Admission Act (formally titled An Act to Provide for the Admission of the State of Hawaii into the Union). We look back at how the Territory of Hawaii made the jump to statehood and see exactly how many official territories remain.
The Territory of Hawaii came into being in 1898 when the U.S. annexed the Republic of Hawaii. The Republic had only existed for about four years; it had emerged from the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, which had been established when Kamehameha I unified Hawaii, Oahu, Maui, Molokai, and Lanai under one rule in 1795. The annexation was hastened by the Spanish-American War, and the U.S. wanted to be certain it controlled the strategically significant location. In fact, Japan was also interested, and the U.S. felt that it needed Hawaii to assert itself in the Pacific while also having an outpost from which it could defend the west coast.
This rather prophetic vision of Hawaii’s role came to fruition in 1941 when the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor came under attack by Japan, ushering America into World War II. Pearl Harbor became the main staging ground for the Navy in the Pacific; Japan attempted to take the islands in 1942, but were defeated by the Allies at the Battle of Midway. After the war, there was turnover in the legislature of the territory. By 1954, the newly enshrined Democratic majority was lobbying the U.S. for statehood.
Opposition to statehood came from a few different quarters. There were native Hawaiians who feared losing self-rule (they were fairly autonomous despite being a U.S. territory). Others thought that the islands might be locked in particular voting patterns by an Asian-American ethnic majority. Mainland U.S. Senators, primarily members of the southern Democratic party, also objected. Nevertheless, President Eisenhower would sign the act into law.
The Act itself didn’t finalize the admission. The citizens themselves had to vote, and they certainly did. Out of 155,000 registered voters at the time, 140,000 voted for statehood — a 93 percent margin. Statehood became effective on August 21, 1959.
Although Hawaii is the last state to be admitted to the Union as of this writing, the United States still has 14 territories, some with a better chance of achieving statehood than others. Of course, the most frequently discussed is Puerto Rico, which has been an official part of the U.S. since 1899. It’s one of the five “permanently inhabited territories,” along with Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The remaining territories fall under the title of United States Minor Outlying Islands, most of which are uninhabited except for a few government and military personnel. These islands are Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, Midway Atoll, Navassa Island, Palmyra Atoll, and Wake Island. The U.S.’s ownership of Navassa and Wake are disputed by Haiti and the Marshall Islands, respectively, while the Tokelau territory of New Zealand disputes Swains Island, which is part of American Samoa.
Whether it remains the final state or not, Hawaii maintains a unique presence in country. It’s the only U.S. state outside of North America. It’s also the only state made up of islands. Hawaii maintains ties to its own ancient cultures even as it belongs firmly to the modern United States. That rich identity supports the idea that if Hawaii is indeed the final addition, it was, at least, a great addition.