Statehood and Admission

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The early years of the new nation saw the United States grow from the original thirteen eastern seaboard colonies to, by 1821, a sprawling Republic of twenty-four states that extended beyond the Mississippi River. The principle that new states could join the Union on an equal footing was an important, if problematic, facet of republican political theory in America. The reality of westward expansion made debates over statehood one of the key political battlegrounds of the early national era. The statehood question became, increasingly, the site of the growing sectional conflict over slavery. The Missouri crisis of 1819–1821 over the admission of a new slave state was the first of the major crises that foreshadowed the Civil War.

After the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the original thirteen Atlantic colonies considered themselves to be independent states. During the Revolution each state but Rhode Island and Connecticut enacted its own state constitution. The Articles of Confederation treated the states as sovereign republics, loosely allied but under a weak national government. The framers of the U.S. Constitution of 1787 provided for a union with a more powerful central government, with the thirteen original states to become full members by ratifying the Constitution. In Article IV, section 3, the Constitution gave Congress the power to regulate the admission of new states into the federal Union. This acknowledged implicitly the principle that the new nation would allow its territories outside the original states to become full and equal members of the Union—in contrast to the British colonial system from which the Americans had broken away.

concerns over expansion

From the beginning of the Republic, the notion that the federal Union would continue to admit new states in addition to the original thirteen had caused concern among some who opposed an increase in the power of the central government at the expense of the original states—especially those states such as Virginia that had extensive claims in the western lands. But Virginia in 1784 and the other states agreed to cede their western claims to the national government, opening the way for the creation of new states. Another problematic matter regarding the admission of new states was the idea that an expansive national republic conflicted in part with the traditional republican theory that had influenced many in the founding generation. That theory, articulated by British opposition thinkers and Enlightenment philosophers such as Montesquieu, generally held that the republican form of government worked best only on a small scale, in societies small in physical size and culturally homogenous. But James Madison's essays in the The Federalist (1787–1788) addressed and sought to allay these concerns by arguing in favor of an extensive republic in North America tied together by commerce and common political beliefs.

Most Americans, however, had never been bothered by these considerations; from the founding of the Republic they had supported the concept of adding new states on an equal footing. Also, the reality of western expansion made the question of new states a pressing issue. Having been prevented from settling west of the Appalachian Mountains by the British Proclamation of 1763, American settlers after the Revolution began to pour into the western territories. Just a few years after the Constitution was ratified, the first new states of Vermont (1791), Kentucky (1792), and Tennessee (1796) were added to the Union.

equality for new states

In fact, before the Constitution was even drafted, the principle of adding new states on equal footing had been determined by the Continental Congress. The question of how to dispose of the western territories was influenced by the need to pay off the vast Revolutionary War debt, in part by the sale of land; by the desire to provide an orderly process for settling the territories through provision of security, the rule of law, and protection of property rights for U.S. citizens who migrated west; and by the pragmatic reality presented by the speedy westward migration after the Revolution. Shortly after Virginia's land cession, Congress in April 1784 approved an ordinance designed by Thomas Jefferson for settlement and state formation in the territories north of the Ohio River, with the new states to be equal to the old ones. That ordinance was superseded by the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The Northwest Ordinance set forth provisions for interim territorial governments as well as a specific process for achieving statehood, based on the criteria of reaching a certain level of population and self-government. Reenacted by the new federal Congress in 1789, the ordinance explicitly enshrined as national law the principle that new states could join the Union on an equal footing. Ohio (1803), Indiana (1816), Illinois (1818), and later Michigan (1837) and Wisconsin (1848) were admitted to the Union under the terms of the Northwest Ordinance.

new states and slavery

Sectional politics began to play a major role in considerations of state formation in the early 1800s. The Constitution had brokered an uneasy compromise on slavery, permitting the southern states to protect the institution. Because each new state would add two voting members to the U.S. Senate as well as members of the House of Representatives, whether new states would be slave or free would affect national policy. With the admission of Louisiana (1812), Mississippi (1817), and Alabama (1819), all slave states, the issue gained nationwide attention. The balance of slave and free states in the Senate remained equal. When Missouri applied for statehood in 1819, it launched the first of the sectional crises that preceded the Civil War.

Missouri at the time of its application for statehood already had thousands of slaves. But Republican representative James Tallmadge of New York in 1819 introduced in Congress two amendments to the Missouri statehood bill that would ban the importation of new slaves into the state. These amendments galvanized northern antislavery sentiment and rallied northern congressmen of both parties to vote against the admission of Missouri to the Union. In 1821 the two houses of Congress compromised by admitting Missouri as a slave state on certain conditions, while also admitting Maine, previously a part of Massachusetts, as a free state. While the Missouri Compromise defused the sectional crisis temporarily by preserving the free state-slave state balance, it only delayed the eventual reckoning of the slavery issue in the new nation, which led ultimately to the Civil War.

The process of state making and state formation occupied a prominent place in the political discourse of the new nation. It made important contributions to the history of the United States by establishing the principle of admitting new states on an equal footing, by regulating the expansion of the Union, and by foreshadowing the coming sectional crisis.

See alsoMissouri Compromise; Northwest and Southwest Ordinances .


Onuf, Peter S. Statehood and Union: A History of the Northwest Ordinance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Wilentz, Sean. "Jeffersonian Democracy and the Origins of Political Antislavery in the United States: The Missouri Crisis Revisited." Journal of the Historical Society 4 (2004): 375–401.

Matthew J. Festa

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Statehood and Admission

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Statehood and Admission