Long Island's latest quest to split from New York and become its own state had a promising start last year. Legislators in Suffolk county, upset over a new payroll tax to fund New York City's subways, voted 12-6 in favor of a secession plan. It seemed viable: In terms of square miles, Long Island is bigger than Rhode Island; its gross state product would be larger than that of 20 states. Some optimists even proposed a state bird: the duck.
Objections from the rest of New York effectively killed the idea, but attempts to make Long Island a state will almost certainly return. The proposal was just the most recent in a series of statehood crusades, usually arising from complaints of unfair taxation. During a campaign in the 1890s, one proponent—Long Island sugar magnate Adolph Mollenhauer—said, "We're tired of bosses and bossism." His quote could be the rallying cry of any number of secessionist movements.
Across the country, there have been a persistent and surprising number of attempts to redraw borders and create new states. Last month, objecting to proposals to create a national park in northern Maine, State Rep. Henry Joy submitted legislation to split his state in two. He suggested calling the southern part "Northern Massachusetts," a thinly veiled insult that assured rejection of the legislation. In recent years, new state proposals have cropped up in Florida, Washington, Kansas and Maryland.
Modern quests for statehood may seem like nothing more than odd footnotes, because Americans have largely forgotten that adding and dividing states is one of the primary mechanisms used throughout U.S. history to solve problems and redress grievances. As far back as the proposed state of Franklin in 1785, disaffected regions have attempted to cleave themselves from their mother states. Like most subsequent secessionist movements, the Franklinites believed that the established state government (North Carolina, in this case) wasn't responding to their needs. So, in a workmanlike manner, Franklin unilaterally adopted a constitution, established courts, and elected a governor, John Sevier. Then they decided not to collect any taxes, which meant the state had no revenue to pay a militia. Without a militia, Franklin quickly crumbled.
This sort of idealistic optimism—at the core of the American psyche—is amplified in secessionist movements. We're a can-do people, and if we don't like our state government, we are quite prepared to make a new one. Sometimes the fervor pushes secessionists to the next level, and they attempt to leave the union altogether. The outcome of the Civil War is no deterrent to the outraged. North Dakotans proposed leaving the nation in 1933; Texas governor Rick Perry flirted with the notion in 2009; and just last week, Republicans in Minnesota's 5th District passed a secession resolution.
Seceding from the nation is illegal and, practically speaking, impossible. But seceding from a state to form a new state is allowed by the U.S. Constitution—and the specifications are straightforward. Article IV Section 3 says a proposal first needs to get the approval of the existing state legislature. Dozens of plans have been debated in statehouses over the years, and in a handful of cases, legislatures have passed measures to split their states. In 1819, for example, the Massachusetts legislature voted to release its northern district—unconnected to the rest of the state—to become the new state of Maine.
Similarly, in 1859, California voted in favor of splitting the golden state in two. The San Francisco area was then the fastest-growing place in the world, and the agrarian landowners of southern California pressed hard for the split, fearing domination by north. (In 1860, the census count for San Francisco was 56,802, while the cities of Los Angeles and San Diego combined had just over 5,100 residents.) This plan, which originated with Andres Pico, a prosperous landowner in the south, had the full support of residents of both halves—and the California legislature. However, it didn't pass the next hurdle in the process: sign-off from the U.S. Congress. Preoccupied with the likelihood of civil war, Congress wasn't interested in California's plan to divide.
As with most any major political move, the success of a secession plan doesn't hinge on the rule of law; the key factor is public opinion. That's where history can offer valuable instruction.
For starters, timing is everything. The idea of forming a new state in northwest Virginia first surfaced in the 1770s. Alternately named Vandalia and Westsylvania, the idea never got much traction. Virginia didn't want to give up territory, and residents of the Appalachians lacked the necessary political clout to force a change. But in the early days of the Civil War, the whole nation was in play—the perfect opportunity to implement the cleavage strategy that created West Virginia in 1861.
The state of Jefferson tried to launch at perhaps the worst possible moment of the 20th century. This proposal to form a new state from southern Oregon and the upper reaches of California seemed to reach a tipping point in late 1941. Supporters rallied around the cause of better roads, missing no opportunity to lambaste legislators in Salem and Sacramento. A Jefferson "governor" was elected, city councils and chambers of commerce voted support, and a two-day statehood rally kicked off on Nov. 28. Nine days later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
History also teaches the value of good branding. Many new-state proposers understood this, and named their states after beloved leaders—Lincoln or Jefferson, for example. Adding "south" or "west" to an established name also seems to engender credibility. Adding "north" apparently has a negative effect; there have been repeated attempts to change North Dakota's name to simply "Dakota" (in 1947, 1983, 1989 and 2001).
There also seems to be a penalty for being too creative. Thomas Jefferson's proposed states of Assenisipia, Polypotamia, and Cherronesus likely caused snickering even in the 1780s. Similarly, the 1970s plan to create a state from Maryland's eastern shore (by residents who were unhappy that their tax dollars didn't stay in their home counties) seemed tenable when the proposed name was Chesapeake—but much less so when some advocates suggested "Atlantis."
Professional persuaders know that the best way to rally public opinion is to create a villain. This is where a lot of secessionists go wrong. They tend to demonize the very state legislatures they need to get the effort passed. West Kansas, for example, was a 1992 proposal to carve a new state out of the oil and gas country of southwestern Kansas.
The plan was a backlash against a statewide school funding plan that increased taxes in the resource-rich parts of the state. Nine counties, with a total population of about 36,000, voted to secede. "Topeka just wants our money," was a common refrain. But contentious statements by western leaders only made the politicians in Topeka steadfast in their resolve to fight the secession.
Better to find an outside villain. Mid-19th century proposals to make Yucatan and Cuba into states, for example, were predicated on fear that foreign governments might establish a presence too close to the U.S. This turned out to be a prescient prediction, all too well-understood by anyone who lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis a century later.
Once the citizens are on board—and the state legislature has approved—the next step is Congress. Congressional decisions on the admission of new states have often split along party lines. That's why any new state that's serious about joining the Union needs a dancing partner. Neither Alaska nor Hawaii would be on the flag without the other. Back in 1959, Alaska had the conservatives' vote, Hawaii the liberals'. In a classic case of political horse-trading, both sides of the aisle got something they wanted.
It's stunning that modern statehood advocates in Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia don't seem to understand this reality. Both oft-proposed states would likely elect two Democratic senators, an obvious deal killer among Republicans in Congress. What these proto-states need is an arranged marriage of sorts with a conservative accomplice.
Such partners do exist. For example, the state of Lincoln, which would meld eastern Washington and northern Idaho, is culturally and geographically defensible; and it's heavily Republican. Among the more durable statehood ideas, Lincoln's been proposed repeatedly for more than a century—the most recent effort, in 2005, was led by Washington State Sen. Bob Morton.
The Republican elephant in the room in any new-state discussion is Texas. To cajole the independent nation of Texas into joining the Union in 1845, Congress offered a unique perk: Texas can slice itself up into two, three, four or even five distinct states. Constitutional scholars argue that any state has that right—but the significant point here is that Texans believe they have special legal cover to create new states. In the mid-1800s most Texans simply assumed this split would take place in short order. Over the years, the Texas legislature considered dozens of permutations. Today, the one-Texas status quo has inertia, but there are strong vestiges of Texas' desire to self-replicate. Under most scenarios, an additional Texas would add Republicans to the Senate.
Taxation without representation is the most common justification for statehood proposals of the last 100 years. Chicago had added a million new residents in the first two decades of the 20th century, bringing the population to 2.7 million in 1920, but rural lawmakers blocked the constitutionally-required reapportionment, admitting they didn't want to give up power. In 1925, the city council voted to begin a secession movement unless the state was redistricted.
The Illinois legislature capitulated—because secession seemed like a real option. In the 1920s, the American map was still very much in flux. Arizona and New Mexico had been states for barely more than a decade. The Philippines were still American soil. And future vice-president John Nance Garner was agitating to slice up his home state of Texas, hoping to create four new U.S. states.
Fresh water has also motivated many statehood proposals. The proposed state of Shasta was a 1950s attempt by northern Californians to protect their water from thirsty farms and cities to the south. A similar story in Florida in 2008 led to a proposed split of that state. The same year, Georgia tried to redraw its border with Tennessee, hoping to tap into an abundant reservoir that lay a tantalizing 50 yards beyond its current boundary.
Texlahoma, a combination of the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, was one of several proposed states borne of a desire for better roads in the emerging automobile era. Once people got their Model Ts, the rutted and often impassable dirt roads of rural America were no longer tolerable. But state legislatures were slow to react, and threats of secession seemed like the best way for back-country citizens to make their voices heard. Today, the roads problem is largely solved, but it's not too hard to imagine rural Americans of the 21st century mounting a similar campaign if broadband access fails to reach them.
Perhaps the first order of business in any statehood push is to create a 51-star flag (or, if you have followed the instructions above—a 52-star flag) to decorate meetings, rallies and press events. Because there's no particular rule for arranging the stars, proceed with caution. Puerto Rico likes to display a 51-star flag with the stars in a circular configuration. Frankly, this design doesn't have the necessary gravitas. When creating a U.S. flag, the last thing you want to be is trendy.
It's worth noting that difficult economic times could lead to a very different type of statehood proposal: a merger. Strong corporations sometimes absorb weak ones; perhaps the same formula could work for states in bankruptcy. The constitution actually anticipates mergers, outlining a roadmap to statehood for new states "formed by the Junction of two or more States."
Of course, merging states means some politicians would be giving up power, a scenario that's hard to imagine. For example, in 1887, Congress approved a plan to completely eliminate the then-territory of Idaho, merging its land with Washington and Nevada. Even though the Idaho legislature had no official say in the matter, their apoplectic response persuaded President Grover Cleveland to veto the bill. Nonetheless, a major national upheaval—like a collapse of the banking system—could potentially trigger a merger or other realignment of our state borders.
America's state borders generally don't make a lot of sense—often bolting together disparate regions (e.g., Idaho), and separating populations that should be together (e.g., Kansas City, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo.). As long as the map is imperfect, new statehood proposals will keep coming. And if history is any guide, eventually some who secede will succeed.