The United States began with 13 colonies that turned into states. Since then, 37 more states have been admitted. The U.S. Constitution doesn’t go into a lot of detail on the process for admitting states. It simply says that Congress can make new states as long as any other states affected by that decision agree. That is, Congress couldn’t divide California into Northern and Southern sections on a whim or let part of Oregon join Idaho without getting the agreement of the state legislatures. Otherwise, it’s fairly flexible, as a new report from the Congressional Research Service shows.
The details listed below may surprise you — or help you win a trivia contest some day.
37 states but just 32 territories
Of the 37 states that have joined the Union since the first 13 were established, only 32 were initially territories. Most states were territories belonging to the United States for a while, like Puerto Rico, but some states were never territories at all:
- Mexico ceded California to the United States by treaty…right about the same time gold was found at Sutter’s Mill. California got started on a territorial government but the delegates voted to skip the territorial period and go straight to statehood. Congress, presumably wanting the U.S. to get in on the Gold Rush, agrees with a large majority.
- West Virginia had been part of Virginia before becoming a state.
- Texas was briefly a nation after leaving Mexico. Texas became a state without becoming a territory first.
- Most of Maine was part of Massachusetts until Maine became a state, but the border with Canada remained fluid. Whether parts of Maine were owned by France, England, or the United States was a point of contention until 1842.
- Kentucky was also part of Virginia before becoming a state. It was briefly part of the Southwest Territory, but there was never a Kentucky Territory.
How big were the majorities?
Congress can admit states with a simple majority. Some votes have been closer than others. Indiana was approved unanimously and Idaho had just one “nay” vote, but Missouri squeaked through with just 6 more “yea” than “nay” votes. Oregon got in on a 114-103 vote. West Virginia’s Senate vote was 23-17. Nearly every state had some negative votes.
Modern custom uses filibuster and cloture to require a supermajority rather than a simple majority. Many bills are never even voted on because the leadership is not confident of getting that supermajority. Quite a few of the current states would not have been admitted if that custom had held when they applied for statehood.
What about the referenda?
Most states had a vote among the residents on whether or not to become a state, but not all did. Alabama never held a referendum. The leaders of the territory wrote a letter asking to become a state and Congress obliged.
Illinois did the same. So did Indiana.
Some states didn’t vote on statehood, but did vote to ratify a state constitution drawn up by delegates.
Iowa voted 6,976 to 4,181 to write a state constitution, but then voted twice not to accept the constitution the delegates created. The president had already signed a statehood bill for Iowa when those votes took place. Finally, on the third try, the constitution passed on a 9,492 to 9,036 vote, and Iowa was admitted.
Alaska and Hawaii both voted directly for statehood, but Tennessee held the most unusual referendum with the question, “Is it your wish if, on taking the enumeration, there should prove to be less than sixty thousand inhabitants, that the Territory shall be admitted as a State in to the Federal Union with such less number or not?”
Becoming a state
One thing the report makes clear: there has been a wide range of processes in admitting the current states of the Union. There are at present two candidates for the 51st state of the Union. Both Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia have officially requested statehood.