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The US almost tore itself apart to get to 50 states. Can DC make it 51?

As the federal response to protests in Washington over the death of George Floyd have added urgency to the quest for DC statehood, we look at why achieving that status has proven so complicated.

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Part of Issue #6 of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

A decade ago, Washington, DC, was on the cusp of gaining real representation in Congress. DC dwellers — who outnumber the populations of both Wyoming and Vermont — had been able to cast their votes in presidential elections since 1964, but they still lacked any voting power at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Washington has one congressional representative, currently Eleanor Holmes Norton, who can serve on committees but is not permitted to vote.

The proposal back then was this: DC’s nonvoting delegate would be replaced by a full-fledged House member. In exchange, an additional seat would be created, which initially would have gone to a safely Republican part of Utah, balancing DC’s heavily Democratic voter base. In many ways, the deal was a Band-Aid for the problem residents actually want fixed.

DC doesn’t have a vote in Congress because it isn’t a state, and becoming one is a long political ordeal: The last states joined the union 60 years ago, if that gives you an idea of how impossible adding another one seems now.

The 2009 deal, which would have circumvented the statehood process, made it through the Senate but died in the House. Democrats objected to provisions attached to the Senate bill to gut DC’s gun control laws. But Republicans weren’t too happy, either — including Jason Chaffetz, then still a representative from Utah. He didn’t like the trade-off, even though it meant more power for his state. “This whole thing strikes me as political bribery,” Chaffetz complained. “If Washington, DC, is due representation, make that case. … Don’t try and dangle a carrot out there.”

This month, the widespread protests over the death of George Floyd may have helped make that case to the entire nation. After President Trump sent federal National Guard troops to patrol DC, the District’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, seized on the moment to remind Americans of the District’s diminished position.

“We’re the capital city, we’re a federal district, we’re 700,000 taxpaying Americans, and I’m the mayor, governor and county executive all at once,” Bowser told PBS NewsHour this week. Because the long quest for statehood has yet to be fulfilled, she said, “the federal government can encroach on our autonomy” — including taking widely criticized actions this week on DC soil.

Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser speaks from a podium with supporters around her and the US Capitol dome in the background.
Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser speaks next to Army veteran Bernie Siler and DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) at a rally in support of DC statehood on September 16, 2019. “We want everybody across these United States of America to know that we are just like them, we pay taxes just like they do, we send our people to war,” Bowser said.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

The effort for DC statehood has been growing for some time: Residents drive around with license plates that complain about “taxation without representation.” DC statehood bills have been introduced in every Congress since 1965. A standalone House bill on statehood received just one Republican vote back in 1993, the only time the question has come to the floor. Late last year, Congress held its first hearing on DC statehood in more than 25 years. But Chaffetz wasn’t wrong about the state of affairs.

Political bribery is what the creation of states has been all about, with some exceptions. Whenever there’s a desire to create a new state, all Congress has to do is vote for it. But like animals on Noah’s ark, states have historically entered the union in pairs, with lawmakers using new states to maintain the balance of partisan power — or at least try to.

“It was never written down, but it’s not an accident you got states in pairs,” says Louisiana State University historian Jonathan Earle.

A majority of representatives are already co-sponsors of the bill that would make DC a state. In March 2019, the chamber passed a resolution that endorsed statehood. Still, the reality was that statehood for DC — or Puerto Rico, for that matter — didn’t stand a chance. This moment could change national public perception around that.

However, if the House passes a statehood bill, it faces certain death in the Senate, where the Republican majority is adamantly opposed to adding a state where only 4 percent of voters supported Donald Trump in 2016. Democrats view DC statehood as a way to rebalance a Senate and Electoral College that have stymied progressive priorities, and Republicans oppose the idea for that very reason. And public opinion is on their side. More than 60 percent of Americans oppose statehood for DC, according to a recent Gallup poll.

A similar share support statehood for Puerto Rico, according to the same poll. But history has shown that the creation of new states generally involves some form of power-sharing agreement. Right now, the GOP has no incentive to bless the creation of new states that Democrats would surely dominate. “DC and Puerto Rico are both likely to be Democratic states,” says Robert Pierce Forbes, a historian at Southern Connecticut State University. “It’s hard to see what you trade to get even one of them in.”

Insisting on tit for tat is part of a long pattern in American politics. The most recent additions to the US, Alaska and Hawaii, were brought in almost simultaneously in 1959 because one was understood to be Democratic and the other Republican.

Admitting states in ways that preserve partisan balance may sound cynical. The habit grew out of something much uglier. Throughout the first half of the 19th century, Southerners repeatedly blocked attempts to admit Northern free states unless they got a new slave state in return.

The birth of a state has frequently involved wrenching compromise, with the debate turning directly on the question of extending slavery or battles over race. The preservation of power has always been central to the equation.

Making new states wasn’t supposed to be complicated

The Constitution was written to make it easy to achieve America’s deeply rooted ambition to expand. But shortly after the founding, statehood fights devolved into a struggle involving the nation’s original sin of slavery.

What’s known as the new states clause (Article IV, Section III of the Constitution) gives Congress the power to create states with few restrictions. Delegates at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 rejected the idea of imposing a voting requirement beyond the simple majority typically required to pass the House and Senate. Whenever there’s political will to create a state, Congress has free rein to do so.

Typically, Congress first passes an enabling act to allow residents to form a territorial government and propose a constitution. It later passes a law or resolution to admit a territory as a state — nearly always imposing conditions that have involved everything from voting rights, the state’s political rules, language requirements, and, in the case of Utah, a ban on polygamy.

This system worked for the first few decades of the new United States — for settlers, if not the Native Americans they forced out nor enslaved people across the country. Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, and Mississippi were all admitted shortly after the War of 1812, which, “by removing the threat of the woodland Indians and the Creeks in the South, accelerated both the white settlement of these areas and the alacrity with which Congress acted to incorporate them as states,” writes historian Sean Wilentz.

The nation expanded rapidly, thanks to passage of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787 (which covered much of what we now call the Upper Midwest) and the Louisiana Purchase. That favorable 1803 deal with France brought in land that stretched from the Mississippi River to the Rockies, more than doubling the size of the country. “If you had a bona fide amount of settlers, you could apply to Congress,” says Earle. “It worked without a hitch until Missouri applied for statehood in 1819.”

A portrait of Henry Clay and his wife circa 1849.
Henry Clay, pictured with his wife Lucretia Hart Clay in 1849, crafted both the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850 as a way to appease slaveholders and abolitionists when new states entered the union.
Liljenquist Family collection via Library of Congress

In 1819, the Senate was evenly divided between North and South, with senators from the 11 states that allowed slavery and an equal number from the 11 free states. Missouri threatened to extend slavery west of the Mississippi River. The following year, House Speaker Henry Clay crafted the Missouri Compromise.

Missouri would enter the union as a slave state, but its admission was coupled with that of the free state of Maine, which until then had been part of Massachusetts. In addition, slavery was banned from any new states north of 36°30’ latitude, a line stretching out from Missouri’s border with the South.

“When that was proposed, it was considered shockingly transactional,” says Forbes, author of The Missouri Compromise and Its Aftermath: Slavery and the Meaning of America. “There was a huge backlash in Maine. There was a famous comment by one legislator that his constituents would rather wait a thousand years for statehood than to take it on condition of bringing in a slave state.”

Southerners weren’t happy about the arrangement, either. Until that time, they had successfully blocked any attempt by Congress to regulate slavery in the states. They recognized that any limits meant its potential abolition. An elderly Thomas Jefferson saw that a “geographic line, coinciding with a marked principle” would forever be a source of irritation. “This momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror,” Jefferson wrote. “I considered it at once as the knell of the Union.”

Statehood was a central front in the battle over slavery

If the idea of coupling free states with slave states was initially shocking, it soon became the norm. Due to Southern fears of being outvoted in the Senate, during the 1830s Michigan had to wait on Arkansas being admitted first. In its 1844 platform, the Democratic Party linked the entry of the vast slaveholding republic of Texas to the organization of the Oregon territory.

“Since control of the Senate, and more broadly the federal government, was vital to preserving the slave system, any change in the balance of free and slave states presented an existential threat to one side or the other,” says Queens College historian Joshua B. Freeman.

The issue remained a tinderbox. After the Gold Rush, California was flooded with settlers and quickly admitted to the union, without having first spent time as a territory. Admitting California required the Compromise of 1850, a “comprehensive scheme” that was again cobbled together by Henry Clay.

The slave trade was abolished in DC, but to appease those who favored slavery, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah officially became territories without reference to it, leaving the question to settlers. In addition, the brutal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it clear that African Americans were still legally considered property even after escaping to free states. Presciently, Free Soil Party co-founder and future Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase said, “The question of slavery in the territories has been avoided. It has not been settled.”

In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was a final attempt to maintain sectional balance by organizing two new territories split between the North and South. But its passage only fueled discord and prompted the formation of the anti-slavery Republican Party, with Abraham Lincoln declaring, “The spirit of ’76 and the spirit of Nebraska are utter antagonisms.” The “Bleeding Kansas” border war over whether the territory would become a slave state became an immediate precursor to the Civil War.

A portrait of Abraham Lincoln circa 1860.
The passage of the Kansas-Nebraksa Act of 1854 prompted the formation of the anti-slavery Republican Party, of which Abraham Lincoln was a member.
Corbis via Getty Images

Southern secession meant, among other things, that the region was no longer represented in Congress. The party of Lincoln took full advantage, admitting Nevada as a state in 1864 and approving new territories in the North: Idaho, Montana, and the Dakotas.

In 1889 and 1890, Republicans solidified their power, admitting as states Idaho, Montana, Washington, and Wyoming, while splitting the Dakota Territory into two states. Territories with substantial populations that were perceived as less of a lock for the GOP — Arizona, New Mexico, Utah — had to wait.

“State admission was explicitly used as a partisan tool by Republicans who dominated Congress and wanted to maintain their position,” says Eric Biber, a Berkeley law professor. “Republicans pushed through a number of states to improve their position in the Senate and the Electoral College.”

The remainder of the continental US was admitted as states by the early 20th century — except DC. Long debate over the district’s unique constitutional status — and Southern opposition to enfranchising black voters — kept residents waiting. And admitting the 49th and 50th states required making a new deal to keep both parties on board.

Alaska stops being ignored, while some considered Hawaii a threat

When Trump floated the idea of buying Greenland this summer, part of his motivation was to secure a legacy akin to the one Dwight D. Eisenhower cemented with his admission of Alaska as a state, according to the Wall Street Journal. The problem with that idea — okay, one of the problems with that idea — is that Eisenhower never wanted to admit Alaska.

The Democratic Party started promoting the idea of statehood for Alaska and Hawaii as early as 1916. By the 1950s, polls showed overwhelming approval, leading the GOP to endorse statehood as part of the party’s 1952 platform.

Eisenhower, elected president as a Republican that year, wasn’t convinced. He worried that Alaska would be a “tin cup state,” forever dependent on the federal government for support. “The area was so vast, so uninhabited, so removed from the rest of the nation that it hardly seemed to warrant consideration in his view,” according to Eisenhower biographer Jim Newton.

A photo from 1958 showing a very large American flag held against a building and men on a ladder pinning an additional star to its star field. Several people hang over the roof edge of the building to watch.
Alaskans pin the 49th star to the US flag to celebrate the acceptance of their state into the union, July 1, 1958.
Dmitri Kessel/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Conservatives were worried that Hawaii would be dominated by the West Coast longshoreman’s union, which they viewed as Communist. (A loyalty oath for public officials was a condition of Hawaii’s enabling act.) Southern Democrats disapproved of the nonwhite population of the islands, worrying that Hawaii would send senators of Asian descent who would represent two more votes against filibuster rules that helped them kill civil rights legislation.

“If Hawaii had been settled and primarily populated by Americans from the mainland, there might be no great problem admitting it as a state,” Nebraska Republican Sen. Hugh Butler said at the time. “Unfortunately, that is not the case.” (More bluntly displaying his racist beliefs, Butler also said he didn’t want two lawmakers of Japanese descent in the Senate.)

Given overwhelming public support for admission, Eisenhower decided in the end that a promise was a promise. Lyndon B. Johnson, then the Senate Democratic leader, dropped his opposition to admitting Hawaii as part of his broader switch in favor of civil rights legislation.

Leaders in both parties came to believe it was a fair deal all around, largely because Alaska at that time was Democratic and Hawaii was Republican. “The expectation that Alaska would be a Democratic state forever — how foolish we all are when we make these projections,” says Gerald McBeath, an emeritus political scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Without something for the GOP, Puerto Rico and DC are left to wait

In recent decades, statehood has largely been a backburner issue. Most of the current territories are too small in population to generate serious consideration.

For DC and Puerto Rico, as has been the case with statehood arguments for 200 years now, the question remains what’s in it for the other side. And race remains a factor, if less overtly than in the past: During the 1960s, the chair of the House committee that controlled DC’s purse strings responded to a budget from the city’s first black mayor by sending a truck filled with watermelons. Amid the George Floyd protests this month, the current mayor, Bowser, unveiled a message for President Trump on the city’s streets: She renamed the plaza in front of the White House “Black Lives Matter Plaza” and emblazoned a thoroughfare visible from the executive mansion with a massive, bright yellow mural reading “Black Lives Matter.”

Puerto Rico has held several referendums on statehood, with public opinion split. Statehood might help with the territory’s financial problems, while presumably making it harder to neglect in the wake of natural disasters (or for FEMA officials to commit fraud). Still, there are concerns that statehood would increase the tax bill for residents and corporations and make it harder to maintain Spanish as the dominant language.

In 2017, 97 percent of those participating in a Puerto Rico referendum favored statehood. Turnout was less than 25 percent, however, with the pro-territorial status quo Popular Democratic Party boycotting the vote.

In DC, opinion about statehood is less mixed. A statehood referendum in 2016 drew support from 78 percent of voters. Bowser sees the lack of representation as nothing less than the “denial of our fundamental rights as American citizens” of residents, a majority of whom are people of color, in the “capital of the free world.”

The main hurdle then, as now, is the fact that DC is overwhelmingly Democratic.

In March 2019, the House passed HR 1, a broad election reform bill that included an endorsement of DC statehood. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has called the package “a terrible proposal” that “will not get any floor time in the Senate.”

If the question of DC or Puerto Rican statehood were ever resolved politically in Congress, it would be a straightforward matter to admit them both, says Biber, the Berkeley law professor. For that to happen without sweeping Democratic majorities, however, something big has to be on the table for Republicans, and after all these years, it’s still not clear what that could be.

Alan Greenblatt is a writer covering politics and policy issues. He has been a reporter for Governing, NPR, and CQ.

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