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Anti-statehood Arguments against Arkansas

Every U.S. territory that has become a state faced anti-statehood movements before admission. Arkansas, home of Rep. Bruce Westerman, the current chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee which is currently considering  Puerto Rico statehood legislation, was no exception.

Arkansas was under Spanish control, then French, then became a Spanish colony again. It was part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, but the people of Arkansas didn’t get the word that they had become a possession of the United States until 1804.

Arkansas became a U.S. territory in 1819 and began agitating for statehood soon after. In 1834, the territory applied for admission repeatedly but could not persuade Congress to pass an enabling act. Territorial leaders decided to hold a constitutional convention and present a state constitution to Congress in hopes of speeding up the process. However, there were strong anti-statehood factions as well as concerns about statehood for Arkansas in Congress.

A wild and lawless place

Arkansas was the frontier in those days, and was well known for its violence and lawlessness. Duels were not uncommon among members of the government, and a murder was actually committed during a session of the legislature. The killer was not punished. He had stabbed a rival legislator during a debate on wolf pelt bounties, using a Bowie knife. These weapons were commonly called “Arkansas toothpicks” in those days, and men in Arkansas typically owned both a plain one for everyday use and a fancy one for special occasions.

Events like these made it clear that Arkansas was still fairly unsettled. A census showed that Arkansas had fewer than the 60,000 inhabitants traditionally required for statehood. Many inhabitants questioned whether Arkansas had enough people to support its government, as a state would have to do.

However, Michigan was working to enter the Union as a free state and it was the custom of the time to admit a slave state alongside a free state. Arkansas had very few slaves; most of the northern part of the territory was settled by small farmers who did not own slaves, and many Arkansans did not support slavery. A few large plantations in the southeast relied on slavery.

However, the territory’s delegate was present in Congress when the delegate from another growing southern territory, Florida, was absent. He seized his chance, approached the committee that oversaw territories, and asked that Arkansas be admitted ahead of Florida. He emphasized the need to have a slave state to match up with Michigan, which was a free state, pointing out that admitting Michigan on its own would stir up trouble.

Arkansas had not held a referendum at that point but that is not a requirement; Congress can admit a territory as a state without consulting the people of the territory at all.


Arkansas was divided on the question of slavery. Entering as a slave state seemed more likely to lead to statehood, so the leaders of the territory went in that direction. However, members of Congress who opposed slavery did not want to admit another slave state, and the national disagreement over slavery slowed the admission of Arkansas as it did other territories.

John Quincy Adams was a strong abolitionist. “I disapproved, as I now disapprove of Slavery as a civil institution,” he said. “As a citizen, and as a man therefore, I disapproved of that Article in the Constitution of Arkansas, the object of which is to perpetuate Slavery.”

In fact, Arkansas’s admission became tangled with the question of slavery in general. For one thing, the Arkansas Constitution required the consent of slave owners before slavery could be outlawed in the state. For another, the pro-slavery part of the government had set a gag rule that forbade any discussions of anti-slavery in Congress, which made it difficult for Congress to deal with either that section of the Arkansas Constitution or the question of whether to admit Arkansas as a slave state.

The outcome

The congressional debate over Arkansas statehood went on for so long and with such strong feelings that members asked for a break. Eventually, however, Arkansas was admitted. Arkansas became a state in 1836.

Puerto Rico now has a similar population size as Arkansas, but is far more settled and populous than Arkansas was in 1836. Slavery is no longer an issue. Yet Puerto Rico struggles, as Arkansas did, with those who suggest that the territory is not wealthy enough to become a state. Puerto Rico has, as Arkansas did, internal disagreements about the best course of action for the future. Yet from a 2023 vantage point, it appears that Statehood has been good for Arkansas.

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