Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

How to make a state? Three ways to redraw the U.S.A.

August 21, 2012 by Holly Munson


Fifty is such a nice, round number. You can arrange fifty stars into neat, alternating rows. It’s bold, familiar, satisfying—the big 5-0.


What if every separatist movement succeeded? The map would look like this. Credit: Matthew White

But for some people, 50 just isn’t enough. For some people, 51 is the magic number. They want to be that 51: the fifty-first state of the United States of America.


In March 2011, a group of residents of Pima County, Arizona, launched a campaign to break away from Arizona and become the fifty-first state. (Their aim, according to the group’s website, is to separate themselves from the “extreme aspects” of the political agenda in neighboring Maricopa County.) But theirs is only the most recent in a long line of campaigns for statehood.

This process has been used successfully to create five states.

The drive to shape a new state seems to be a natural fit in the landscape of American history. America’s founders sought to separate from their existing government because they felt they were inadequately represented. Similarly, many new-state movements have been prompted by concerns about taxation without representation. If we don’t get our way, they say, we’ll simply strike out on our own. For example, in 1919 a state representative in Massachusetts, upset about a $600,000 tax on the city, sought to turn Boston into a state. Other tax-related movements have arisen in Chicago, southwestern Kansas, and Long Island, N.Y., to name a few.


So what does it take to make a state? And what would the nation’s map look like if those new-state wannabes were actually successful?


We all know it’s not constitutional for a state to secede from the Union—that was made pretty clear with the Civil War. (If secession were legal, though, North America might look a lot different, as this map shows.) But it is constitutional to create a new state out of an existing state—that is, with the approval of the state legislature and of Congress. The process for carving out a new state is outlined in Article IV, Section 3 of the Constitution:


“New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.


“The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.”


This process has been used successfully to create five states: Vermont (from New York, in 1791); Kentucky (from Virginia, in 1792); Tennessee (from North Carolina, in 1796); Maine (from Massachusetts, in 1820); and West Virginia (from Virginia, in 1863). (For more details on Article IV, see the National Constitution Center’s Interactive Constitution online.)


In addition to the handful of success stories, though, there are scores of failed attempts at statehood—“lost states,” as author Michael J. Trinklein classifies them. His book, “Lost States,” chronicles seventy-five almost-states, from Absaroka to Yucatan. For these lost states, the reasons for failure vary: poor timing, unappealing name choice (would you want to live in a state called Cherronesus?), lack of public support, or distraction from more pressing matters, like a struggling economy. Sometimes patience doesn’t even pay off, as has been the case with Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico—they’re still hoping for their day to come.


Want to learn more about the states that could have been? This interactive graphic by the Wall Street Journal provides a glimpse of past tried-and-failed statehood campaigns. And the Lost States blog is filled with interesting tidbits about geographical oddities.


From the beginning, the founders were concerned about creating states of equal size to ensure as equal representation as possible. The original thirteen states came “as is,” but they hoped to even things out with subsequently added states. For example, Thomas Jefferson wrote a report to Congress recommending that all states have two degrees of height and four degrees of width. But for all their efforts, the U.S. map has evolved into quite a jigsaw puzzle.


Although few have been successful, efforts to carve out new states do raise valid questions about the lines on the U.S. map. In his book “How the States Got Their Shapes,” author Mark Stein illuminates the twists and turns in history that have molded the twists and turns in our state borders. Some of the resulting borders make sense—and some of them don’t. Is it worthwhile to consider redrawing state lines? If so, what would the U.S. map look like?


A 1981 book called “The Nine Nations of North America” suggested that regions in North America should be divided to reflect economic and cultural similarities. Here is what that map would look like:



Or, perhaps we could take a linguistic approach and create borders based on the pop vs. soda debate:



Or we could get into the spirit of the baseball season:



What do you think? How can we draw the lines on the U.S. map to create a more perfect union?


Until we figure it out, let’s stick with fifty. It’s such a nice, round number.


Holly Munson is a programs coordinator at the National Constitution Center and the assistant editor of Constitution Daily.


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