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History Minute: Arkansas marking 185th anniversary of statehood this month

by Dr. Ken Bridges | June 9, 2021 at 12:00 a.m.

For 185 years, Arkansas has been a state. While Arkansans have long enjoyed their status as the twenty-fifth state, Arkansas had to jump over many political hurdles to reach statehood.

In the 1830s, Arkansas was still the Far West and was still a border territory. The 1830 census showed that the territory’s population had more than doubled since 1820, now to 30,388. Arkansans were excited about the future and many wanted the territory to make the jump into statehood.

Since the 1790s, territories had followed the same paths to statehood. Once a territory was established by Congress, a territory had to have a voting population of 5,000 adult men to form a territorial legislature. Once territories had a total population of 40,000, they could begin the process of drafting a state constitution, which Congress would have to approve before statehood was granted.

Slavery was a major factor. To maintain the delicate balance between free states and slave states, northern and southern territories were paired with each other for admission, such as Alabama with Indiana, Mississippi with Illinois, and so on. While the North had a larger population than the South, the number of free and slave states were kept even. Abolitionists in Congress were reluctant to add another slave state to the Union. And by the 1830s, two southern territories were at the doorstep of statehood, Arkansas and Florida. For the North, only the Michigan Territory was ready for statehood.

Presidential politics also played a role in the statehood question. Members of the opposition Whig Party were reluctant admit either Michigan or Arkansas. An election loomed in 1836, and Whigs feared that admitting either could tip the election to President Andrew Jackson’s hand-picked successor, Vice-President Martin Van Buren. Both territories were poised to be strongly Democratic in their political leanings.

Not everyone in Arkansas was supportive of the idea of statehood. Many had questions about the territory’s financial strength. As a territory, government positions except for the territorial legislature were federally appointed and financed by the federal government. As a state, Arkansas would be entirely on its own for its own finances. Arkansas encompassed a large amount of territory compared to the other states and had few roads and little infrastructure. While the population was growing, Arkansas was still mostly a frontier area with people few and far between. Opponents of statehood argued that Arkansas needed time to build and develop. Even the territorial governor, William Fulton, believed it was not time. Statehood supporters, on the other hand, argued that statehood would lead to more settlers moving to Arkansas, increasing its economic fortunes.

In 1834, Territorial Delegate Ambrose Sevier saw a political opening. With the Michigan Territory under consideration for statehood, a southern balance was needed. With Florida’s territorial delegate absent, Sevier presented a resolution to the House Committee on Territories asking that Arkansas be considered for statehood. Congress ordered a special census and found that Arkansas now had 52,240 residents.

Once the question was introduced in Congress, pride took control of the debate. Arkansans demanded their place in the Union. In 1835, the territorial legislature called for elections of delegates to a state constitutional convention, the next step. By January 30, 1836, the state constitution was completed and sent to Washington, DC, for consideration. Though last-minute attempts to derail statehood were attempted by Whigs, Congress approved the new Arkansas constitution and approved statehood on June 13.

President Jackson signed the bill supporting Arkansas statehood into law on June 15, 1836, officially making Arkansas the twenty-fifth state admitted into the Union. Michigan was admitted as the twenty-sixth state on January 26, 1837. Florida was not admitted until 1845. Arkansas became only the third state west of the Mississippi River, following Louisiana and Missouri. This month, Arkansas marks its statehood anniversary.

Dr. Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado and a resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society. Bridges can be reached by email at [email protected] southark.edu.

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