the District of Columbia the 51st State!
Under the Tennessee Plan, a prospective state’s electorate votes on statehood and ratifies a constitution, without an enabling act, and then uses this as a basis to petition Congress for admission to the Union. This approach – including electing two “shadow” senators – was pioneered by Tennessee in 1796 and then used by Michigan, California, Minnesota, Oregon and Alaska to gain admission as a state. The position of United States “Shadow” Senator is not unique to the District of Columbia, where voters elected their first two United States Senators and one United States Representative in 1990.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE SHADOW SENATORS OF THE UNITED STATES
From the earliest days of the republic, those areas desirous of statehood have elected two United States Senators prior to their admission to the Union. Of the 12 shadow senators elected prior to their state’s admission, all but one of them were eventually seated as full voting senators.
In 1795, the settlers of the Southwest Territory, which eventually became the state of Tennessee, desired admission to the Union. The Territorial Governor William Blount and the members of the constitutional convention, which met in 1795, lacked a clear precedent setting forth the procedures for admitting a territory into the Union as a state. Accordingly, the convention authorized elections, which were held in March 1796, and the newly elected Tennessee legislature elected Blount and William Cocke to the Senate without any authority from the Senate to do so.
Historical records indicate that on May 9, 1796, the Senate received “a paper purporting to be the appointment” of the Tennessee senators-elect. On May 23, the Senate approved a resolution stating that “Mr. Blount and Mr. Cocke, who claim to be Senators of the United States, be received as spectators, and that chairs be provided for that purpose until the final decision of the Senate shall be given on the bill proposing to admit the Southwestern Territory into the Union.” On June 1, 1796, the final day of the first session of the Fourth Congress, Tennessee became a state. Blount and Cocke were sworn in and took their seats on December 6, 1796. It is not known whether either man spoke on the Senate floor prior to that date.
Michigan’s quest for statehood was delayed pending the settlement of boundary disputes with Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, and by the opposition of southern senators reluctant to admit another non-slave state. Michigan elected Lucius Lyon and John Norvell on November 10, 1835. When Sen. Thomas Hart Benton presented the credentials of Lyon and Norvell to the Senate a month later, his motion that they be assigned seats on the Senate floor “until the decision of the question of their admission as Senators” was tabled “with a view of looking into precedents.” Benton subsequently called the Senate’s attention to the courtesy it had extended to the Tennessee senators-elect in 1796, and submitted a motion similar to the one that had been formerly adopted in the Senate on a like occasion, that Lyon and Norvell “be received as spectators, and that chairs be provided for that purpose on the floor of the Senate, until the final decision of the Senate shall be given on the application to admit Michigan into the Union.”
After heated debate, the Senate amended Benton’s motion to provide that “the same privileges be extended to the Hon. John Norvell as is extended to Delegates from States or Territories to the House of Representatives in Congress generally.” The amendment was offered by Sen. William Hendricks of Indiana, who explained that, as Michigan’s territorial delegate to the House of Representatives, Lyon was already entitled to sit in one of the “privileged seats;” the amendment would extend similar privileges to Norvell. Benton opposed Hendricks’ amendment on the grounds that “under the rule lately adopted, more were entitled to occupy the privileged seats than they would hold,” and urged the Senate to accord Lyon and Norvell the “sole right” to assigned chairs on the floor. Notwithstanding Benton’s argument, the Senate adopted the amended motion on December 16, 1835.
In the interim between Lyon’s election in 1835 and his admission to the Senate in 1837, he served as an advocate of Michigan statehood. Historical records indicate that on January 26, 1936, the U.S. Senate received and considered a letter from “the honorable Lucius Lyon, on of the Senators-elect from Michigan, enclosing a memorial from the Legislature of that State on the subject of her admission into the Union.”
On March 13, 1850, Senator Stephan A. Douglas of Illinois laid California’s petition for admission to the Union before the Senate, together with a copy of the California constitution, and the credentials of Senators-elect William M. Gwin and John C. Frémont, which the senator ordered to lie on the table and be printed. California’s petition sparked a bitter and protracted debate, in which senators from slave states vehemently opposed the admission of California as a free state.
California’s status was ultimately resolved by the Compromise of 1850, and it was admitted to the Union on September 9, 1850. On the following day, Gwin’s and Frémont’s credentials on the ground were again presented to the Senate. Although some senators questioned the validity of the credentials on the ground that Gwin and Frémont had been elected as shadow senators before California became a state, a motion by Jefferson Davis of Mississippi to refer the matter to the Judiciary Committee failed by vote of 12 to 36, and Gwin and Frémont were permitted to take their seats.
On February 25, 1858, John J. Crittenden of Kentucky presented the credentials of James Shields, elected to Senate from Minnesota on December 19, 1857, together with a letter from Shields which argued that, having satisfied the terms of an 1857 enabling act, Minnesota was entitled to immediate admission. Shield’s letter prompted a debate over the necessity of a congressional act of admission, and the Senate ultimately referred the question of Shield’s admission to the Judiciary Committee with instructions to inquire whether or not Minnesota is a state of the Union, under the Constitution and laws. The committee reported on March 4, 1858 that Minnesota was admitted and his colleague Henry M. Rice submitted his credentials. When Albert Brown of Mississippi challenged Shield’s credentials on the grounds that Minnesota had not been a state at the time of his 1857 election, Senator William Seward of New York dismissed the argument as “metaphysical.” Crittenden then reminded the Senate that Shield’s credentials had been some time ago presented…and laid on the table, and urged that they be taken up and read. Senator Shields took his seat on May 12, 1858.
The Oregon legislature elected Joseph Lane and Delazon Smith to the Senate in July, 1858. Two months earlier. Alfred Iverson of Georgia, speaking in support of Lylman Trumbull’s motion to postpone consideration of Oregon statehood until the following session, suggested that the state may, if she has the requisite number of people, go on and elect her senators and representatives to Congress in advance of her admission, as Minnesota did, and has been done here to for by other states, and we could finally admit the state at the next session… and we could permit her senators and representatives to take their seats. The election of Lane Smith occurred after the close of the first session of the 35th Congress, and they did not present their credentials until Oregon joined the Union on February 14, 1859. The admission of the senators elected from Oregon generated no apparent controversy or debate, and took the oath of office the same day.
The first bill to admit Alaska as a state was introduced in Congress in 1912. More than 40 years later, relying on the prior examples, Alaska also elected its U.S. Senators prior to its admission to the Union, as well as a Shadow U.S. Representative. Ernest Gruening and William A. Egan were elected as senators on October 6, 1956. Ralph J. Rivers was elected as the Shadow U.S. Representative. Alaska’s Shadow Senators were admitted to the diplomatic gallery of the Senate as spectators on January 14, 1957, but were not accorded the privilege of the floor.
Sen. Gruening was re-elected to the Senate on November 25, 1958. Joining Gruening in the Senate was Alaska’s the Delegate to the House of Representatives, Edward Lewis “Bob” Bartlett. Shadow Senator Egan, chose not to run for the Senate, but was subsequently elected Governor of Alaska. Alaska joined the Union on January 3, 1959; Gruening and Bartlett took their seats on January 7, 1959.
Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey speaking about his Alaska Senate colleagues commented that “they have … behaved with tact, with consideration, of the commitments of the senators … never intruding or obtruding themselves at inconvenient moments and qualifying themselves as fully worthy of the posts to which they were elected.”
District of Columbia / New Columbia / Douglass Commonwealth (1990-present)
Voters in Washington, D.C. approved the District of Columbia Statehood Constitutional Convention Initiative of 1979. Pursuant to that act, D.C. voters elected their first Shadow Congressional Delegation in 1990. Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr. and Florence Howard Pendleton were elected as United States Senators and Charles J. Moreland became the District’s first U.S. Representative.
U.S. Senator Paul Strauss, U.S. Senator Michael D. Brown and U.S. Representative Dr. Adeoye I. Yakubu Owolewa are the current members of the D.C. Congressional Statehood Delegation.
Eleanor Holmes Norton has served as the District of Columbia’s nonvoting Delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives since 1991.
Read more about the District of Columbia’s Delegates, U.S. Senators and Representatives.