It took New Mexico more than half a century to shed its territorial status and
become a state. New Mexico's citizens first attempted to gain statehood in 1850,
when local officials drafted a state constitution which was overwhelmingly approved
by voters. A legislature and executive officers were elected. That same summer,
however, this statehood plan was nullified when Congress passed the Compromise Bill
of 1850 which granted New Mexico territorial status. Other attempts to develop and
implement a state constitution followed, including proposed constitutions which
were defeated at the polls in 1872 and 1889. There was even an effort at joint statehood
with Arizona in 1906, but this too was defeated by the voters.
Many reasons have been suggested why it took New Mexico so long to become a
state. Early efforts were hampered, in part, by a general ignorance about the territory
and suspicions towards its people. Statehood was opposed by those who felt that
New Mexico's predominantly Hispanic and Indian population was too foreign and too
Catholic for admission to the American Union. There was even periodic debate as
to whether a new name for the territory would help the cause of statehood. Names
such as Navajo and Lincoln were suggested and seriously considered.
There were also questions about the loyalty these recently conquered people
had for their new country. This issue was slowly laid to rest by the honorable service
of New Mexico's citizens in the Union cause during the Civil War and later in the
Spanish American War. But a different racial issue, however, figured significantly
into the delay. During the reconstruction period following the Civil War, New Mexico's
chances for statehood seemed assured. In 1876 however , that chance was destroyed
by one inadvertent handshake.
During an 1876 Congressional debate, Michigan Representative Julius Caesar Burrows,
an admired orator, rose to speak in favor of a bill designed to protect the civil
rights of freed Negroes. Stephen B. Elkins, New Mexico's delegate to Congress, was
not present for most of the speech, but entered the House chamber just as Burrows
was bringing his rousing oration to a close. Unaware of the full nature of Burrows'
speech, Elkins shook his colleague's hand in congratulations, a gesture many Southern
Congressmen interpreted as support for the civil rights legislation. Elkins' handshake
is blamed for costing New Mexico several Southern votes it needed for passage of
the statehood bill, and while Colorado was voted into the Union in 1876, New Mexico
remained a territory for another 36 years.
Despite the myriad racial, religious, political, and economic issues which delayed
every attempt at statehood, New Mexico's efforts never ceased. Finally, on June
20, 1910, President William H. Taft signed an Enabling Act which authorized the
territory to call a constitutional convention in preparation for being admitted
as a state. On October 3 of that year, one hundred delegates elected from every
county in the territory, convened at Santa Fe and drafted a constitution which was
approved by voters on January 21, 1911. New Mexico had taken the final step in its
long journey towards becoming a full part of the United States of America.
A proud and distinguished delegation from New Mexico was present in Washington,
D.C. when President Taft signed the proclamation admitting New Mexico as the 47th
state. After signing the long-awaited document at I :35 P.M., January 6,1912, the
President turned to the delegation and said, "Well, it is all over. I am glad
to give you life. I hope you will be healthy." New Mexico's long struggle for
statehood was finally over.
A few days later, on January 15, 1912, William C. McDonald stood on the steps
of the capitol building in Santa Fe, and was inaugurated as the first Governor of
the State of New Mexico. Our state then began the on-going struggle to prove itself
a worthy addition to the Union. Two world wars, innumerable economic and political
changes, and the relentless march of progress have made New Mexico a place which
would have been beyond the imagination of our aboriginal ancestors, the Spanish
conquistadores, Mexican farmers, French trappers, American soldiers, Jewish merchants,
and all those who came to this place and made it their home.
As we commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Juan de Oñate expedition
which brought Spanish settlement to New Mexico in 1598, we continue to recognize
all the men and women who came to New Mexico during the past four centuries who
have contributed to make our state a unique place; a place where scientists such
as those at the National Laboratories in Los Alamos, one of New Mexico's youngest
cities, pioneer uses of nuclear fission; while an hour's drive away, the residents
of Acoma and Taos Pueblo maintain traditions of great antiquity, and choose to live
in two of North America's oldest continuously occupied communities without electricity
or other modern conveniences.
Truly an enchanted land.