One of the most common reasons given for rejecting or delaying statehood for Puerto Rico is that the residents of Puerto Rico do not all agree that statehood is the best choice.
“That’s not how democracy works,” Pedro Pierluisi pointed out. We don’t wait around for everyone to agree on issues. We vote, and the option with the largest number of votes wins. In 2012 and in 2017, statehood was the clear winner.
But there are anti-statehood factions in Puerto Rico. Some still dream of “enhanced commonwealth” or some other special arrangement, even though the federal government has said over and over that this will not happen. A few want independence. Some resist any change.
Were there anti-statehood movements in the former territories that are now states? Yes there were.
Alaska’s anti-statehood movement
Alaska’s anti-statehood faction was worried about the cost of being a state. The federal government covered all the costs of the territorial government, but as a state Alaska figured they’d have to pay for courts and jails. They worried that the cost of education, health care, and so forth for the Native Americans of Alaska would also have to be paid for by the new state of Alaska. “The vast natural resources about which we have heard so much and know so little,” they wrote, “will not stimulate settlement nor produce tax revenue unless someone finds them and develops them.”
Alaska does in fact have oil, but before statehood the naysayers worried that they wouldn’t be able to cover the costs of statehood. Some said that being a territory was like being a teenager, and that “Alaskans have not grown up to the point of showing willingness to accept a proper share of the cost and responsibility of maintaining desirable governmental services.”
There was also the surprising idea that being a territory was “special”: “The matter of being something a little bit special – of being one of only two or three territories instead of one of 49 or 50 states – brings Alaska extra attention in other ways and has advertising value.”
Colorado’s anti-statehood movement
Colorado’s territorial government sent a message to the president saying, “Resolved by the house of representatives of the Territory , That, representing, as we do, the last and only legal expression of public opinion on this question, we earnestly protest against the passage of a law admitting the State without first having the question submitted to a vote of the people, for the reasons, first, that we have a right to a voice in the selection of the character of our government; second, that we have not a sufficient population to support the expenses of a State government. For these reasons we trust that Congress will not force upon us a government against our will.”
Sure enough, Congress didn’t force Colorado into statehood. Colorado was tentative about statehood even when they came up with a constitution. Their constitution called for free education for children, for colleges, for care of the mentally ill and disabled — all sorts of things they didn’t have as a territory. But the territorial government was known for corruption and not for service to Colorado. Life was hard in Colorado at the time and the settlers didn’t trust their government. The anti-statehood movement seems to have been mostly inside the government, but it took a long time for the people of Colorado to speak up for themselves.
New Mexico’s anti-statehood movement
New Mexico was strongly in favor of statehood. The governor at the time wrote about statehood in these words: “”The people of New Mexico were no longer serfs but Freemen; no longer subjects but Citizens; no longer to be treated as aliens but as Americans. HALLELUJAH!”
Still, there was an anti-statehood movement. Some of the new settlers who had come from the States worried that they would lose their influence if New Mexico became a state. As a minority in the territory, they could still count on getting attention from appointed leaders.
When New Mexico became a state, however, the majority of the people would have the power to vote for their own leaders. Statements against statehood talked about how the majority of the people of New Mexico didn’t speak English, and could be easily led by a few families who had been important in the territory since it was part of Mexico. Modern readers see a white minority trying to hold onto their power, which they would lose once the people of the state could elect their own leaders.
Puerto Rico’s future
The anti-statehood movements of the former territories are all but forgotten. When we read what they wrote at the time, they seem self-serving, nervous, and unwilling to work together for the good things that statehood eventually brought.
When we look back at Puerto Rico’s anti-statehood factions after Puerto Rico becomes a state, we will probably see much the same kind of motivation.