When Adding New States Helped the RepublicansRoundup
tags: political history, Heather Cox Richardson, statehood, District of Columbia
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON is a professor of history at Boston College. Her forthcoming book, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Struggle for the Soul of America, will be out in April 2020.
Today, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform is scheduled to hold the first hearing in a quarter century on whether to admit the District of Columbia as a state. Over the past year, Puerto Rico’s tribulations after a deadly hurricane have invigorated the statehood movement there, too. Adding the 51st and 52nd stars to the flag might seem like a dramatic change to Americans who haven’t seen a new one in nearly six decades—and Republicans have been quick to characterize the very notion as a radical move. In June, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned that a House plan to admit the two jurisdictions to the union would give the Democrats four more senators, permitting them to impose “full-bore socialism” on America, and he pledged to stop it.
The number of states in the union has been fixed at 50 for so long, few Americans realize that throughout most of our history, the addition of new states from time to time was a normal part of political life. New states were supposed to join the union when they reached a certain population, but in the late 19th century, population mattered a great deal less than partisanship. While McConnell is right to suspect that admitting Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia now would shift the balance in Congress toward the Democrats, the Republican Party has historically taken far more effective advantage of the addition of new states.
In 1889 and 1890, Congress added North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming—the largest admission of states since the original 13. This addition of 12 new senators and 18 new electors to the Electoral College was a deliberate strategy of late-19th-century Republicans to stay in power after their swing toward Big Business cost them a popular majority. The strategy paid dividends deep into the future; indeed, the admission of so many rural states back then helps to explain GOP control of the Senate today, 130 years later.
During the Civil War, the United States government had organized new territories in the West at a cracking pace, both to keep the Confederacy at bay and to bring the region’s mines and farmland under government control. The territories produced silver and gold, but didn’t attract the flood of settlers that would force immediate statehood, as the California gold strikes did in 1850. The war created a labor shortage, and there was work enough back East to give migrants pause before challenging the Apache, Comanche, Lakota, and Cheyenne, who controlled the West. Congress admitted Nevada in 1864, but by the end of the decade, the addition of new states had stalled. Then, after the 1870 readmission of Georgia, the last of the Confederate states, the drive to organize the West became entangled in the desperate struggle between Republicans and Democrats to control the nation.
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