How Do New States Become Part of the U.S.?

By: Dave Roos  | 
Demonstrators PR statehood
Demonstrators demand statehood outside a San Juan hotel where then-VP Dick Cheney was speaking in 2004. In 2012, a referendum on the island showed statehood received the most votes for the first time ever. Getty Images

In 2012, for the first time since Puerto Rico became a commonwealth in 1952, a majority of Puerto Ricans voted against the current relationship with the U.S. It was a close contest, with 54 percent saying "no." But when asked what political status they preferred, "statehood" received the most votes by a large margin [source: Fabian], though a quarter of voters of the first question left that second question blank. In 2017, the question was asked again in a low turnout contest. More than 500,000 people favored statehood in that referendum, followed by nearly 7,800 votes for independence/free association and more than 6,800 votes for the current status.

A non-binding referendum on the subject was once again held in November 2020, with a yes/no choice to the question "Should Puerto Rico be immediately admitted into the Union as a state?" Fifty-two percent voted "yes" while 47 percent voted "no." But even so, it's not enough to make the commonwealth a state.


Puerto Rico is a self-governing commonwealth that is "associated" with the U.S. Thanks to a 1917 law, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, but since Puerto Rico isn't a state, the island's inhabitants cannot vote in presidential elections. In an odd twist, they can vote in presidential primaries, because primaries are organized by the Democratic and Republican national committees, not the federal government [source: Helgesen].

According to Article IV, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, only Congress has the ability to authorize the creation of a new state. Specifically, Section 3 prohibits the creation of new states from the territory of others without their consent, or the combining of two or more states without congressional approval [source: Monk].

In practice, a majority of the 50 states began as U.S. territories. Either the territories petitioned Congress for permission to draft a state constitution and elect representatives, or they followed the more aggressive "Tennessee Plan." Tennessee, the very first U.S. territory, was rejected in its first bid for statehood, but decided to draft a state constitution anyway, and send two senators and a representative to Congress [source: Lehleitner]. Although Congress refused to seat the men, they successfully lobbied for statehood. Several other states followed the Tennessee model, including Alaska.

Official admission to the Union requires Congress to draft — and the president to sign — a bill called an "enabling act." For Puerto Rico to become a state, it would need to convince Congress and the president that statehood is not only in the best interest of the Puerto Rican people, but in the best interest of the United States as a whole. The U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives would need to approve the statehood admission by a simple majority vote, though some members of Congress want to raise that threshold to two-thirds majority [source: Longely, Rifkin].

For some perspective, let's look at where the other 50 states came from, and how the United States grew from 13 coastal colonies to the world's third-largest country.


Where the 50 States Came From

In 1783, King George III signed the Treaty of Paris, officially ending the American War of Independence and recognizing the 13 former British colonies — New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia — as "free sovereign and independent states" [source: National Archives].

As part of the Treaty of Paris, England handed over the area that is now the eastern United States, from the Atlantic Ocean all the way to the Mississippi River, bound by Canada to the north and the Spanish colonies of East and West Florida to the south [source: National Atlas]. This territory far exceeded the original boundaries of the 13 colonies. In an effort to avoid territorial disputes among the new states, Congress convinced the states to relinquish control of uninhabited lands to the federal government.


These "unappropriated" frontier lands were divided into territories with names like the Northwest Territory, Mississippi Territory and Southwest Territory. One by one, portions of those territories petitioned for statehood, which is how the Northwest Territory eventually became the states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Other states were carved out of existing states: Vermont was sliced from New York (1791); Kentucky was born from Virginia (1792); Tennessee began as the western extension of North Carolina (1796); Maine was originally part of Massachusetts (1820); and West Virginia split from Virginia in 1863 to join the Union in the Civil War [sources: National Atlas and West Virginia Archives and History].

The rest of the U.S. began as land purchased from other countries or as the spoils of war. The Louisiana Purchase (1803) is the largest and most famous, doubling the size of the nation for a price tag of $15 million [source: Library of Congress]. The U.S. also bought Alaska from Russia and Florida from Spain (but it would take more than 20 years for Florida to achieve statehood after the Adams-Onis treaty was signed in 1819).

Large portions of the American West were once Mexican territories. Texas won independence from Mexico in 1836 and was annexed by the U.S. as a state in 1845. After losing the Mexican-American War, Mexico ceded the land that would become California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and parts of Colorado and New Mexico for $15 million [source: National Atlas].

Hawaii, the most geographically isolated state, first became a U.S. territory in 1898, after American colonists overthrew the Hawaiian kingdom in a peaceful coup [source: Hawaii Tourism Authority]. Hawaii didn't become a state until 1959, well after its critical role in triggering America's involvement in World War II.

Puerto Rico isn't the only contender for the 51st state. On the next page, we'll discuss Puerto Rico's chances and look at some of the statehood failures that came before it.


The 51st State?

Mayor Muriel Bowser, D.C. statehood
District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser speaks during a news conference on D.C. statehood in the Capitol in Washington on June 16, 2020. Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Puerto Rico is only the latest in a long line of would-be 51st states. Over the past 200 years, there have been several attempts to carve out new states from existing ones, mostly triggered by tax and budget feuds. "South California" tried to split from the more industrialized north in 1859, but Congress said no. In 1861, parts of Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama attempted to form a neutral state called Nickjack that wouldn't secede from the Union. More recently, rural "South Jersey" tried several times to split from its crowded urban north in the 1970s and '80s [source: Trinklein].

As a commonwealth, Puerto Rico is as close as you can get to being a state without getting a star on the flag. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens who pay and receive Social Security benefits. They cannot vote in federal elections and they don't pay federal income taxes although they do pay things like payroll taxes, Social Security taxes and more. Puerto Rico is in charge of its own internal affairs, but the U.S. controls interstate trade, foreign relations, customs, military service, immigration, agriculture, radio and TV and the postal service.


After Puerto Rican citizens passed the referendum on statehood in 2012, what were the odds that Congress would take up their cause? Not very good. Although President Obama pledged to take action if Puerto Rican citizens made their preference clear, the political timing was not in Puerto Rico's favor. Puerto Rico has a staggering 43 percent poverty rate — more than double Mississippi (19.7 percent), the current most impoverished state — and would be entitled to billions in federal spending on social programs, Medicaid and more. Since spending cuts tend to be a top congressional priority, this is a strike against Puerto Rican statehood [source: Fabian].

Puerto Rico is one of several "unincorporated territories" acquired by the U.S. through war treaties and purchases. In 1901 and 1902, the Supreme Court ruled in the so-called "Insular Cases" to afford limited constitutional rights to unincorporated territories like Puerto Rico and Guam, on the grounds that they would never likely become states [source: Helgesen].

Today, both Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands share Puerto Rico's odd political status; their residents are U.S. citizens who cannot vote in federal elections. Guam had hopes of holding its own referendum on statehood in 2014, but never did, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have no plans for such a vote, known as a plebiscite. Puerto Rico has shown the most political interest in statehood, holding six such plebiscites since 1967.


New U.S. State FAQ

What was the first state?
In Dover, Delaware, the U.S. Constitution was ratified unanimously by all 30 delegates of the Delaware Constitutional Convention in 1787. This historical event made Delaware the first state of the modern United States.
Why is Puerto Rico not a state?
Puerto Rico does not have statehood primarily due to the island's long colonial history. In the last six decades, it’s had six referendums where voters had to choose between independence, commonwealth or statehood. In the last three, voters have chosen statehood. However, the status can only be legally changed by the U.S. Congress and since Democrats and Republicans disagree over the issue, Puerto Rico remains a territory. This is due to the potential effect on the nation’s legislative numbers.
How does a U.S. territory become a state?
Sometimes an entire territory becomes a state, while other times, only part of a territory becomes one. Regardless, a territory’s governing body initiates a referendum to determine what percentage of the population is in favor of statehood. Congress then prompts that government to hold a constitutional convention with the objective of writing a state constitution. The constitution must be accepted by the people of the territory and then again by Congress. After this, Congress adopts a joint resolution for granting statehood by a majority vote. Finally, the President of the United States signs the resolution and issues a proclamation announcing that that a new state has become a part of the union.
What are the four newest states?
Since the establishment of the U.S., the number of states has increased from 13 to 50. The four newest states are New Mexico (Jan. 6, 1912), Arizona (Feb. 14, 1912), Alaska (Jan. 3, 1959) and Hawaii (Aug. 21, 1959).
Why do people think there are 52 states?
Often people think that there are 52 states because they assume there are 50 “contiguous” states, plus Hawaii and Alaska. But there are actually only 48 "contiguous" states, while Alaska and Hawaii make the total 50.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Do New States Become Part of the U.S.?

The Puerto Rican vote for statehood grabbed headlines, but the results of the ballot measure were far from clear. The referendum asked two separate questions: "Are you satisfied with the current territorial status?" to which 54 percent voted no. The second question asked, "Which status do you prefer?" When the votes were tallied, 61.5 percent chose statehood, while 33 percent chose "sovereign free associated state," which is the same as the current commonwealth status. But a full 466,337 people purposely left the second question blank in protest to the odd two-part construction of the referendum, which many considered rigged for statehood supporters. If those blank votes are counted, then statehood loses. The Obama administration had promised to act on a clear mandate from the Puerto Rican people, but this referendum is anything but.

Related Articles

  • Abrams, Jim. The Huffington Post. "DC Voting Rights Bill Gets Yanked By Congress." April, 20, 2010. (Nov. 23, 2012).
  • Fabian, Jordon. ABC News/Univision. "Will Puerto Rico Become the 51st State? Not So Fast." Nov. 8, 2012. (June 26, 2020)
  • Hawaii Tourism Authority. "Hawaii History." (June 26, 2020)
  • Helgesen, Elise. The Center for Voting and Democracy. "Puerto Rico and Other Territories Vote in Primaries, But Not in General Election." March 19, 2012. (June 26, 2020)
  • Howell, Jr., Tom. Washington Times. "D.C. statehood project put on hold".Nov, 22, 2012. (June 26, 2020)
  • Lehleitner, George. University of Alaska. "Creating Alaska: Alaska-Tennessee Plan" (June 26, 2020)
  • Library of Congress. Primary Documents in American History. "Louisiana Purchase" (June 26, 2020)
  • Longely, Robert. "How the US Statehood Process Works." ThoughtCo. June 2, 2021 (Jan. 19, 2022)
  • Monk, Linda. The Words We Live By. National Constitution Center. "Article IV" (Nov. 13, 2012),%20The%20Words%20We%20Live%20By%20(I).htm
  • National Archives. "Transcript of the Treaty of Paris (1783)" (June 26, 2020)
  • "Expansion and Growth of the United States" (Nov. 13, 2012)
  • "Territorial Acquisitions" (Nov. 13, 2012)
  • Rifkin, Jesse. "Constitutional amendment would require new states be admitted with two-thirds votes in House and Senate, up from simple majorities." June 11, 2021 (Jan. 19, 2022)
  • Trinklein, Michael J. The Wall Street Journal. "Altered States." April 17, 2012 (Nov. 13, 2012)
  • U.S. Department of State. Office of the Historian. "Milestones: 1830-1860" (Nov. 13, 2012)
  • West Virginia Archives and History. "A State of Convenience: The Creation of West Virginia" (June 26, 2020),the%20eastern%20counties%20of%20Virginia