All States Are Equal, But Some Are More Equal Than Others

One of the factors that has given the United States more stability than many other empires was its insistence that new states be placed on a condition of equality with other states.  Formally speaking, at least, there is no superiority that a state like Pennsylvania or Delaware (the first two states to ratify the Constitution) has over a state like Alaska or Hawaii (the two most recent states to date).  Once a state has been admitted into the Union, with its own bill that deals with whatever issues the other states might have, the fact that it has its own representatives and especially senators allows it to deal with neighboring states on an equal and generally level playing field.  Where we find issues about territories, they generally exist on the territorial level and not the state level.  This is not to say that the relationship between states exists on a level of permit comity, but rather that the equal number of Senators regardless of the size of state or the order in which a state entered the Union tends to create a generally level playing field for the interests of states to be addressed by people who are willing and able to defend those interests.  Where interests are not defended, it is generally in the case of those people and those areas who do not have an official and voting spot in Congress.

The admission of states into the Union has generally been a case where various tensions have entered into public knowledge and awareness.  By granting a given area of statehood, Congress is accepting another chair into the cool kids’ table, and this is not a decision that is made lightly.  Hawaii long struggled to be accepted because of the ethnic composition of its region, something that has been a problem as well for Puerto Rico [1].  Similarly, the debates over the admission of Missouri and Nebraska as well as that of California brought out problems of the rights of free blacks as well as the existence of slavery and the balance of power within the Senate between free state representatives and slave state representatives.  The declining power of slave states within the Senate during the course of the 1850’s as free states continued to be admitted (first California, then Minnesota and Oregon, and then Kansas after that) without slave states to counterct them was at least one of the major contributing factors into the feeling of being under siege that led the South to take the fatal step of rebellion after Lincoln’s election.  The admission of Utah into the United States was long delayed because of problems that the United States as a whole had with some of the more distinctive areas of Mormon family life concerning polygamy.  It is entirely the prerogative of a group to decide on what conditions it will accept others as an equal, and that decision is not made flippantly, but rather after a lot of thought.

But while states are equal, territories are manifestly not equal to states in their power.  And the order of admission on states has demonstrated the way in which the interests of states admitted first could cause a cascading effect onto states admitted later.  The borders of American states are an example of this.  Kentucky was admitted into the Union in 1792, and as part of its borders it was given the full span of the Ohio River as part of its territory.  When Ohio was admitted about a decade later, the borders of Kentucky were not revised (as they could not be without its consent under the U.S. Constitution).  That said, Ohio did get a worthwhile territorial adjustment in its favor when it received the Toledo strip as additional territory beyond what it had been originally allotted, taking this slice of land away from the territory of Michigan.  While this issue led to armed conflict between the two neighbors (a rivalry which remains potent at least in college football), Michigan itself was compensated for the loss of the Toledo strip of territory from its southern border by the addition of the Upper Peninsula, which had originally been allotted to the territory of Wisconsin.  Wisconsin, coming in towards the end of the chain of states from the Northwest Territories, did not receive any such compensation for the loss of its land.

From this we can see that while the states of Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin are all equal, their territorial extent was not conducted based on issues of equality, but rather based on the interests of the states in order of the time in which they entered the Union.  As new states were admitted with various existing border grievances against their neighbors, those states were fobbed off by creating further grievances against others until there was no extra land to hand out that had not already been given to someone else.  Only rarely is this process reversed in any meaningful fashion, as in a recent Supreme Court case decided 5-4 where it was decided that large swaths of Oklahoma would be subject to tribal law not based on current tribal boundaries but based on the borders of tribal boundaries established in the aftermath of the removal of the civilized tribes of the South to what is now Oklahoma in the 1820’s and 1830’s.  It is not as if Connecticut is going to get back its part of Long Island, after all, or that Utah is going to regain the land lopped off and given to Nevada, or that Florida is going to be given back the portions of East Florida there were given to Alabama and Mississippi.

Indeed, the borders of Florida itself serve as a reminder of the hazards that exist to being the last particular area of a region to be settled.  During the time that the original thirteen colonies were rebelling against Great Britain, Florida remained loyal to the British until it was taken over by a Spanish army.  By the time that Florida was purchased by the United States in the Adams-Onis treaty of 1819, which also settled the boundary between Louisiana and Texas and extinguished Spanish claims to Oregon Country, large parts of West Florida had already been occupied and ceded to various American territories, and the new territory of Florida did not get the land back, which would have made Florida the proud holder of the entire Redneck Riviera all the way to the borders of Louisiana.  Alas, it was not to be.  The fact that Alabama and Mississippi had been organized before Florida was a part of the Union meant that Florida’s land could be given bit by bit to other regions until West Florida made up only a small part of the contemporary state of Florida, the part in a different time zone.  And so it goes.  The last person who comes to the table is the one who gets the worst deal.

[1] See, for example:


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, History, Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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