Rules of Engagement for Statehood

In the 1783 Treaty of Paris, Great Britain ceded an enormous amount of land to the new United States. One way to describe the area is that it was all British territory from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River south of the Canadian border and north of the British colony of Florida.

Another way to describe it would be to list the 10 states that it contains that were not members of the Thirteen Colonies. They are, in alphabetical order, Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Immediately, as shown in the map accompanying this post, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia claimed all the land from the Atlantic to the Mississippi. Connecticut claimed a sliver of land west of Pennsylvania. There was still some disputed land on the border of the U.S. and Canada and the southern border of Georgia north of western Florida, which would be resolved over time.

Members of the Continental Congress saw the lines drawn on a map as blatant land grabs by the individual states. So, what could the Continental Congress do?

Under the Articles of Confederation, no executive or judicial branch of government existed, so it could not adjudicate disputes between states. The Continental Congress had limited foreign policy powers and no way to raise money through taxes.

But it could pass laws. Could it enforce them? Not really, since under the Articles of Confederation the Continental Congress was not given any law enforcement power.

To be fair, the land given to the U.S. by Britain and claimed by the individual states was poorly surveyed. Yes, cartographers had drawn maps, but they were more SWAGs than based on accurate data. Nonetheless, legislators in Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia understood latitude and used them to draw their lines.

However, Thomas Jefferson thought these claims were absurd and wanted to create a framework to do two things. One, create principles on which new states could be created. Two, end slavery in the U.S. by establishing hard geographic boundaries that would limit its expansion.

Jefferson managed to persuade the Confederation Congress to vote for what is known as the Ordinance of 1784. In it, Jefferson established six principles for new states wanting to join the United States. Understand that the Constitutional Convention was still three years in the future, and the rules governing the admittance of a new state hadn’t yet been created. Yet, the Land Ordinance of 1784 provided a framework in that new states shall:

  1. Remain forever a part of the United States of America.
  2. Remain forever a part of the United States of America.
  3. Bear the same relation to the confederation as the original states.
  4. Pay their apportionment of the federal debts.
  5. Uphold republican forms in their government.
  6. Be in new states admitted after 1800, neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of them.

In well-chosen words, Jefferson laid out the principles for bringing new states into the confederation. With the last “rule,” Jefferson was hoping to limit the number of states in which slavery was practiced to only those where it was when he wrote the law. Ultimately, Jefferson failed because several of these restrictions died in the compromises made when the U.S. Constitution was originally written during the Constitutional Convention.

Admittance to the United States and slavery was a question debated each time a territory applied to become a state. In fact, between 1791 when Vermont was admitted as the 14th state, slavery was an issue 21 times. Kansas was the last stated admitted before the Civil War began and the Union victory put an end to the discussion.

Map shows the claimed boundaries by the original 13 States.

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