Guest Essayist: Tom Morain


Early in its history the U.S. Congress set up an orderly way for western lands to become states with status equal to the Original Thirteen. Senators and representatives in Congress remembered how unhappy the American colonists were under Great Britain’s rule, so unhappy in fact that they fought the American Revolution to become free of Great Britain.  One of the most important acts that Congress passed was the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 that set up a system of government for the territory north of the Ohio River that became the states of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. It was a model for other U.S. territories to follow when they wanted to become states.

When the American Revolution ended, the United States owned the land east of the Mississippi River and south of the Great Lakes to Spanish lands that bordered the Gulf of Mexico. Because this area was beyond the borders of the original 13 states, it became the responsibility of the federal government. The Trans-Appalachian was small but rapidly growing. It needed a way to deal with Native American populations and a defense against British threats to the north and Spanish ones from the south. Congress knew that the settlers would eventually need much more local government.

In 1803, the United States more than doubled its original size with the purchase from France of all the lands drained by the western tributaries of the Mississippi River, the Louisiana Purchase. Settlement in the region would wait until Native American titles to an area were removed and the land was surveyed in preparation for sale to private owners. Nevertheless, before pioneers crossing onto the western prairies ever decided to move west, they knew 1) they would one day have the full rights of citizens living in the East, and 2) what the steps necessary to attain full statehood were. Congress established a formula for promoting self-governance in the western land in stages. Until the population of an area reached 5,000 voters, the region was a district. (At this time, only free white males were voters.) A district was governed by a governor and three judges appointed by the President. When the population reached 5,000 the settlers could elect their own legislature. The area was called a territory. The governor, however, was still appointed, not elected by the voters. The territory could also elect a representative to Congress who could speak on issues in Congress but had no vote. When the population reached 60,000 the territory could apply for full statehood.

Iowa’s path to statehood followed the steps laid out in the Northwest Ordinance. In 1834 the land that would become Iowa was attached to the Michigan Territory. In 1836 as Michigan prepared for its own admission as a state, Iowa was transferred to the Wisconsin Territory.  With more and more settlers crossing the Mississippi River, a separate Iowa Territory was formed on July 4, 1838. Its boundaries stretched far north of the current border into Minnesota and the Dakotas. Because the population had already reached 22,859, the settlers had the right to elect their own legislature.  President Martin Van Buren, a Democrat, appointed Robert Lucas as Iowa’s first territorial governor. Burlington became the first capital. In 1840 William Henry Harrison, a member of the Whig Party, became president. He appointed another Whig, John Chambers, Iowa’s second territorial governor. The territorial capital was moved to Iowa City.

While both Lucas and Chambers urged Iowans to push for full statehood, many settlers were in no hurry. As long as Iowa was a territory, the federal government paid the costs of much of the government. If Iowa became a state, the settlers’ taxes would pick up the tab, and early settlers did not want to see their tax bills increase.  Iowans in the Whig party were happy to have a Whig president appoint the governor. They feared that the Democrats would win an election for governor if Iowa became a state. In 1844 the nation elected James K. Polk president. Because Polk was a Democrat, Iowa soon got a new territorial governor, James Clarke, a Democrat. By this time the population had increased to over 75,000. There was growing interest in the statehood question. With more people to share the cost of government, fears of rising tax bills were not such an issue.

During these years the issue of slavery was deeply dividing the United States. Slavery was forbidden in the Iowa territory, but Iowans could not escape the national debate. A plan in the United States Senate had been worked out in the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that would keep the Senate balanced between sectional interests on slavery. With the exception of Missouri itself, all western lands north of the southern border of Missouri, would prohibit slavery. Those south of the line could permit it. To maintain an equal number of senators from the free states in the North and the slave states in the South, every time a new slave state was added, a new free state had to be admitted, and vice versa for the addition of free states. That meant that when Iowa entered the Union as a free state, it would need to find a slave state partner. When Florida became a state in 1845, the pressure was on Iowa. If Iowa waited too long, some other Northern state might partner with Florida, and there might not be another slave state available for some time.

Slavery shaped the debate over Iowa statehood in a second and more direct way. In the constitutional convention that drew up the required structure of the new state, delegates proposed borders for Iowa that made it larger than it is today. The northern border stretched up to include Minneapolis/St. Paul in Minnesota. However, when the proposed constitution reached Congress, representatives of northern states amended it with borders making Iowa much smaller. Iowa was the first free state west of the Mississippi, and free state Congressmen were looking ahead. A smaller Iowa would leave more land for additional “free” states in the Louisiana Purchase. They wanted a western border for Iowa about 60 miles east of the Missouri River and only slightly north of the current Minnesota border. Iowans rejected the change and voted against statehood in the required referendum. The issue went back to Congress who proposed the borders we know today as a compromise, the shape we know today, from the Mississippi on the east to the Missouri River in the west. Iowa voters and Congress approved the new boundaries. On December 28, 1846, President James K. Polk signed a bill  making Iowa the 29th state.

Almost 60 years after the passage of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, Iowa completed all the requirements for statehood. Iowa citizens could now vote for president. They could elect senators and representatives to Congress. They had a state legislature. They could elect their own governor and judges. As with all new states added after the Original Thirteen, American settlers knew that they were not leaving their citizenship behind when they moved into the western territories.


  • Sage, Leland. A History of Iowa. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State Press, 1974.
  • Wall, Joseph. Iowa: A Bicentennial History. New York, New York: Norton, 1978.
  • Schwieder, Dorothy. Iowa: The Middle Land. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State Press, 1996.

Dr. Tom Morain is Director of Government Relations at Graceland University in Lamoni, Iowa.  He taught Iowa history at Iowa State University and Graceland and served as administrator of the State Historical Society of Iowa.  He has authored three books and numerous articles on Iowa history and has been awarded the highest honors for contribution to public education by both Humanities Iowa and the State Historical Society.

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