Article IV, Section 3, Clause 1-2
1: 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.
2: 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.
Marge Simpson: “There are only 49 stars on that flag.”
Abe Simpson: “I’ll be deep in the cold, cold ground before I recognize Missouri.”
Abe Simpson got it partly right. Article IV, Section 3 leaves one state Constitutionally suspect; it’s just not Missouri. It also highlights that, under irrevocable actions taken by Congress, there could be 54 states at any time one state chooses.
Congress first admitted states to the Union while Washington was still President. In 1791, it admitted Vermont (a territory previously claimed by both New York and New Hampshire, which had governed itself for 14 years). Within months, it admitted Kentucky (formerly, the disgruntled, Western counties of Virginia).
The pairing indicated the great dividing line in American political life for the next 70 years. Congress admitted the states together to preserve the balance in the Senate between states allowing human slavery and those abhorring it. Also noteworthy, Virginia consented to the independence of Kentucky only after negotiating an interstate compact that Congress contemporaneously approved.*
By 1820, the tradition of admitting states in free and slave pairs (Indiana and Mississippi, Illinois and Alabama) was so engrained that it required the Missouri Compromise. Congress contemporaneously admitted Missouri (formerly a territory) as a slave state and the northern district of Massachusetts as a newly separate, free State of Maine, while drawing a line through the West beyond which slavery would not be allowed in the remaining Federal territories. Unlike the Virginia of 1790, Massachusetts, happy to preserve the balance of power for free states, demanded no concessions from Maine on consenting to the separation.
The events that followed, including the eventual repeal of the Missouri Compromise’s Western-land provisions in 1854, directly precipitated the Civil War.
Notice that, already, Congress had twice exercised the power to carve a state out of another state, with the consent of the severed state’s legislature. During the Civil War, it did again, this time in a Constitutionally suspect manner. After Virginia seceded from the Union, its loyalist, mountain counties seized the chance to free themselves from the richer, more heavily populated lowlands. Deeming the rebellious state legislature in Richmond illegitimate, these counties’ representatives gathered in Wheeling, Virginia (in their midst) and declared themselves the legitimate government of all of Virginia. It was this “loyal” government of Virginia which consented to the carving of the same counties represented within it into the new state of West Virginia.
When the Civil War concluded and Virginia returned to the Union, Virginia’s government predictably challenged the legitimacy of the Wheeling convention’s actions during the war. In 1865, the Virginia General Assembly repealed the Wheeling convention’s act, nominally in Virginia’s name, of consenting to the split. Litigation followed, in which the United States Supreme Court implicitly recognized the Wheeling convention as having spoken both for the seceding counties and for the State of Virginia as a whole, despite the fact that this put the same people on both sides of the table in a negotiation.** Nonetheless, since 1871, West Virginia’s questionable legitimacy has been set aside, apparently in the interest of finality.
Finally, it is worth noting that while no new state has been admitted to the Union since 1959, Congress has bindingly consented to further admissions.
Alone among America’s states, Texas was an independent republic before statehood, which joined the Union not through the usual process of Congressional admission, but through the contemporaneous action of two, equal sovereigns. On February 26, 1845, the U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution offering Texas statehood. Texas then convened an Annexation Convention that approved annexation and submitted an Annexation Ordinance to popular referendum in October 1845. After the people of Texas authorized ascension, both the U.S. House and Senate approved the Annexation Ordinance and President Polk signed it into law on December 29, 1845.
Both the initial U.S. Congressional joint resolution and the Annexation Ordinance included the following provision:
New States of convenient size not exceeding four in number, in addition to said State of Texas and having sufficient population, may, hereafter by the consent of said State, be formed out of the territory thereof, which shall be entitled to admission under the provisions of the Federal Constitution.
An affirmative part of the deal between sovereigns, enshrined in the law of the United States, was that Texas, at its discretion, may self-divide into up to five (5) states at any time. While Texas has, to date, never exercised this option, it has the legal right, should it so choose, to sub-divide and claim an additional 8 seats in the United States Senate at its pleasure.
* The Compact bore on the preservation of land-titles held on paper by Virginians before Kentucky’s independence. The conflicts that Compact’s terms set in motion between Virginians that had never seen the lands in question but held papers properly filed in Richmond and the frontier woodsmen who settled Kentucky and developed its lands would only be resolved 140 years later through the Kentucky Supreme Court’s resort to legal fiction. Green v. Biddle, 21 U.S. 1 (1823).
** Virginia v. West Virginia, 78 U.S. 39 (1871).
Dan Morenoff is a graduate of Columbia College of Columbia University and of the University of Chicago Law School, who proudly worked on the Legislative Staff of Senator Phil Gramm. Dan is currently a lawyer in Dallas, Texas.