Territories and new states Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Land belonging to the United States that has not become a state and defined areas that just gained statehood.

The Treaty of Paris, by which England recognized the independence of the United States, gave to the Americans not only the territories of the thirteen states but also the lands east of the Mississippi and north of Florida. The Continental Congress passed the Northwest OrdinanceNorthwest Ordinance in 1787, which established the precedent not only of the disposition of territories claimed by the United States but also of the form the Union would take. The ordinance authorized the creation of three to five states from the territory and set up a procedure for gaining statehood.

The U.S. government’s inability under the Articles of Confederation to govern the territories effectively became one of the reasons for the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1789. The Constitution gave the federal government the means to enforce the Northwest Ordinance through its provision for a standing army. In addition, Article IV, section 3, of the Constitution gave Congress the authority to develop laws governing the federal territories and to provide for the entrance of new states.

In 1803 President Thomas Jefferson purchased Louisiana from Napoleon, who was aware that the territory, which included the entire area drained by the Mississippi, west of the main channel, could not be defended by France from the British. Although Jefferson could find nothing in the Constitution that authorized him to buy land for territorial expansion, he made the purchase, adding considerable territory to the nation.

The Slave Question

In the decades before the Civil War (1861-1865), the creation of new states depended on balancing slaveSlavery labor and free labor interests. Already outvoted in the House of Representatives, citizens from slave states feared being outnumbered in the Senate. Protest first arose over the admittance of Missouri. Missouri was the first state to be created from the Louisiana Purchase, and many free-staters feared the precedent of territorial expansion for slavery. Slavery in the territories would mean more economic and political power for slave owners. The Missouri Compromise (1820) allowed Missouri to enter as a slave state, Maine to enter as a free state, and no further slave states to be admitted with territory north of the southern border of Missouri. The Compromise submerged the slavery question for a generation, but the problem remained. The nation contained much more territory north of the Missouri Compromise line.

The admittance of Texas, the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), and the subsequent Mexican cession returned slavery to the forefront of political debate. The Wilmot Proviso of 1846 was an attempt by free-state congressmen to ban slavery in the territories taken from Mexico. Southern senators defeated the proviso, but the debate over slavery in the territories came to dominate politics. The Compromise of 1850 only delayed southern secession for a decade. Under the Compromise, California entered as a free state, while the status of slavery in the other territories remained ambiguous. In Scott v. Sandford[case]Scott v. Sandford[Scott v. Sandford] (1857), the Supreme Court ruled that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional, and Congress had no power to forbid slavery in the territories.

A New Perspective

After the Civil War, the process for new states entering the Union became less political. The system depended on territories becoming populated by a majority of white settlers, displacing or outnumbering Native American or Hispanic residents. In Coyle v. Smith[case]Coyle v. Smith[Coyle v. Smith] (1911), the Court expanded its authority over territories and their governments with a ruling that recognized the equality of new states.

The Supreme Court ruled on questions regarding the conversion of public lands into for-sale properties as the territories became states. In 1911 the government converted American Indian Lands to public lands, then sold them on the market.

(Library of Congress)

The system for statehood was tested by the annexation of the Philippines.Philippines, annexation of Unlike earlier acquisitions, the Philippines were separated from the rest of the United States by almost eight thousand miles and were already heavily populated. Few Americans foresaw a day when white Americans would become a majority on the islands, and fewer would accept the islands entering the Union as a state or as several states. The annexation of the archipelago changed traditional methods of dealing with new territories into something that resembled European-style colonialism. In a political compromise, the United States acquired the Philippines with the eventual goal of granting the islands independence, which occurred in 1946.

The last state to enter the Union, Hawaii, did so in 1959 after long debate. President Dwight D. Eisenhower remained leery of the influence of communism in the islands and of admitting a state where white people were not in the majority. In the 1970’s, Congress began changing the relationship between the territories and the federal government. American Samoa, Guam, and the Virgin Islands began to elect their own governors. The former United Nations Trust of the Northern Mariana Islands became a commonwealth of the United States in 1986, with a status similar to that of Puerto Rico, and Guam also began seeking commonwealth status. The territories and the District of Columbia each elect a member to the House of Representatives, who can vote in committees and speak on the floor but cannot vote on the floor. Only in Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia have serious movements toward statehood occurred.

Civil War


Northwest Ordinance

Scott v. Sandford


Categories: History