In today’s polarized political climate, the political, economic, and cultural differences between regions and even states seem exacerbated. These divisions have led to renewed calls for carving up or even secession by some states, namely California.
In the meantime, efforts to incorporate Puerto Rico as a new state continue unabated.
Among other potential “new states” are the island territories of Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands.
It remains to be seen whether any of these attempts—secession or incorporation—bear fruit. In a political and cultural climate as divided as the present’s, even a single new state (or loss of one) can tip the bipartisan political balance, making it difficult to imagine the ready consent of Congress, which would be necessary for ratification.
But what about the states in U.S history that almost were? Five, in particular stand out.
Sequoyah: This was the proposed name of a state constituting Indian Territory, i.e. the territory in which the Cherokee and other tribes from the American south settled after the Trial of Tears. It would have kept with the U.S. constitution’s philosophy of federalism: separate states for separate cultures, and what better than the creation of a state that would represent America’s oldest culture? Unfortunately for proponents of the state, Eastern politicians did not want to admit both Sequoyah and neighboring settler-majority Oklahoma territory, as this would reduce the political influence of the East. President Theodore Roosevelt thus told the two territories to enter the union as a single state, and Oklahoma was admitted to the union in 1907. However, the constitution of Oklahoma closely resembles the one drafted for Sequoyah just a few years before.
Deseret was a proposed state for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) who migrated from the eastern United States to the Great Basin desert in 1847 in order to escape persecution. While most of the proposed state is desert, the word deseret actually comes from a word for honeybee in the Book of Mormon. The state, as originally proposed was designed by the LDS leadership to encompass deserted and infertile land throughout the American southwest in order to reduce potential future conflicts between Mormons and other settler groups. However, the proposed state was deemed too large by the federal government, as it encompassed modern Utah, Nevada, much of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and California. In 1850, the same year California was admitted to the Union, Congress passed an act establishing the territory of Utah, which was significantly smaller than the proposed state of Deseret. Brigham Young became its first governor and its Mormon character was maintained, but not without further conflict.
Colorado (California): Proposals to split California into separate states trace back over a hundred years. However, the attempts that came closest to doing so occured in the 1850s, soon after the state of California itself was admitted to the Union. California was admitted to the Union as a free state in 1850 in its current borders because by encompassing the southern, mainly Hispanic sections of the state, the Anglo-dominated northern half prevented the creation of a new slave state to its south. Southern California would have been eligible to constitute itself as a slave state on the basis of the 36°30′ line of latitude established by the Missouri Compromise, in which slavery was permitted south of that line. Once California was created, its expansive size and demographic differences prompted the mainly Hispanic southern parts to petition in hopes of forming their own state. In 1859, the Pico Act was passed by the California State Legislature and signed by the State governor John B. Weller. It was approved by nearly 75 percent of voters in the proposed state of Colorado, in southern California. However, the Civil War soon broke out and nothing came of the proposal.
Long Island: My birthplace, Long Island, is very different economically, socially, and culturally from the rest of New York. In particular, Long Island pays more taxes to New York state than it receives. A proposal to make Long Island a separate state first gained traction in 1896, and an informal referendum approved the creation of a new state in 1996. Moreover, the chief executive of one of the two counties on the island outside of New York City publically endorsed the idea in 2010. However, Long Island has close economic ties with New York City, and a more viable plan should probably involve the secession of Long Island and New York City together from the rest of the more rural counties of the state. This would also be more politically viable in Congress as Democrat-leaning New York would be split into two new states, one of which would be Republican.
Superior: Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is separated from the rest of the state by Lake Michigan. While the Upper Peninsula’s 320,000 people would make for a smaller population than the least populous state, Wyoming, a movement for a separate state began in 1858, largely because of the geographical isolation of the region from the rest of Michigan. In 1858, delegates from the Upper Peninsula, together with parts of neighboring Wisconsin and Minnesota, met at Ontonagon in order to create a separate state known as Superior. The idea was backed by many prominent publications, including The New York Times. The state was considered viable as the Upper Peninsula supplied 90 percent of America’s copper by the 1860s. However, the events of the Civil War put a hold on this proposal. Further proposals were made in 1897 and 1962. But the opening of Mackinac Bridge connected the peninsula with the rest of Michigan and reduced the support of a new state, and today there is no active movement for Superior.
Akhilesh Pillalamarri is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative. He also writes for The National Interest and The Diplomat.