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The United States Constitution allocates power between the two levels of government in general terms. By ratifying the Constitution, each state transfers certain sovereign powers to the federal government and agrees to share other powers. Under the Tenth Amendment, all powers not explicitly transferred or shared are retained by the states and the people. Historically, the tasks of public education, public health, transportation and other infrastructure have been considered primarily state responsibilities, although all have significant federal funding and regulation as well.
Over time, the Constitution has been amended, and the interpretation and application of its provisions have changed. The general tendency has been toward centralization, with the federal government playing a much larger role than it once did. There is a continuing debate over "states' rights," which concerns the extent and nature of the powers that the states have given to the federal government.
Union as a single nation
Upon the adoption of the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union], the states became a confederation, a single sovereign political entity as defined by international law; empowered to levy war and to conduct international relations; albeit with a very loosely structured and inefficient central government. After the failure of the union under the Articles of Confederation, the thirteen states joined the modern union via the process of ratifying the United States Constitution, which took effect in 1789.
Relationship among the states
Under Article IV of the Constitution, which outlines the relationship between the states, the United States Congress has the power to admit new states to the union. The states are required to give full faith and credit" to the acts of each other's legislatures and courts, which is generally held to include the recognition of legal contracts, marriages, criminal judgments, and—at the time—slave status. States are prohibited from discriminating against citizens of other states with respect to their basic rights], under the Privileges and Immunities Clause. The states are guaranteed military and civil defense by the federal government, which is also required to ensure that the government of each state remains a republic.
The Supreme Court of the United States has interpreted the Constitution of the United States such that the commerce clause allows for a wide scope of federal power. For example, Congress can regulate railway traffic across state lines, but it may also regulate rail traffic solely within a state, on the theory that wholly intrastate traffic can still have an impact on interstate commerce.
Another source of Congressional power is its "spending power"—the ability of Congress to allocate funds, for example to the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System. The system is mandated and partially funded by the federal government but also serves the interests of the states. By threatening to withhold federal highway] funds, Congress has been able to persuade state legislatures to pass a variety of laws. Although some object on the ground that this infringes on states' rights, the Supreme Court has upheld the practice as a permissible use of the Constitution's Spending Clause.
Admission of states into the union
Since the establishment of the United States, the number of states has expanded from 13 to 50. The Constitution is rather laconic on the process by which new states can be added, noting only that "New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union", and forbidding a new state to be created out of the territory of an existing state or the merging of two or more states as one without the consent of both Congress and all the state legislatures involved.
In practice, nearly all states admitted to the union after the original thirteen have been formed from U.S. territories (that is, land under the sovereignty of the United States federal government but not part of any state) that were organized (given a measure of self-rule by Congress). Generally speaking, the organized government of a territory would make known the sentiment of its population in favor of statehood; Congress would then direct that government to organize a constitutional convention to write a state constitution. Upon acceptance of that Constitution, Congress would then admit that territory as a state. The broad outlines in this process were established by the Northwest Ordinance, which actually predated the ratification of the Constitution.
However, Congress has ultimate authority over the admission of new states, and is not bound to follow this procedure. A few U.S. states outside of the original 13 have been admitted that were never organized territories of the federal government:
- Vermont, an unrecognized but de facto independent republic until its admission in 1791
- Kentucky, a part of Virginia until its admission in 1792
- Maine, a part of Massachusetts until its admission in 1820 following the Missouri Compromise
- Texas, a recognized independent republic until its admission in 1845
- California, created as a state (as part of the Compromise of 1850) out of the unorganized territory of the Mexican Cession in 1850 without ever having been a separate organized territory itself
- West Virginia, created from areas of Virginia that rejoined the union in 1863, after the 1861 secession of Virginia to the Confederate States of America
Congress is also under no obligation to admit states even in those areas whose population expresses a desire for statehood. For instance, the Republic of Texas requested annexation to the United States in 1836, but fears about the conflict with Mexico that would result delayed admission for nine years. Utah Territory was denied admission to the union as a state for decades because of discomfort with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' dominance in the territory, and particularly with the Mormon elite's then practice of polygamy.
The Constitution is silent on the issue of the secession of a state from the union. The Articles of Confederation had stated that the earlier union of the colonies "shall be perpetual," and the preamble to the Constitution states that Constitution was intended to "form a more perfect union." In 1860 and 1861, several states attempted to secede, but were brought back into the Union by force of arms during the Civil War. Subsequently, the federal judicial system, in the case of Texas v. White, established that states do not have the right to secede without the consent of the other states.
Naming issues: Commonwealths, republics, and states
Four of the states bear the formal title of Commonwealth: Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. In these cases, this is merely a name and has no legal effect. Somewhat confusingly, two U.S. territories; Puerto Rico and the Northern Marianas; are also referred to as commonwealths, and do have a legal status different from the states.
The Republic of Texas was an independent nation for nine years, and the Republic of Hawaii, formerly the Kingdom of Hawaii, was also an independent nation. There is debate over whether Vermont was ever an independent nation; however it was the first future state to write its own Constitution. The so-called "California Republic" was actually a flag raised by Americans in the town of Sonoma, California after they expelled the local Mexican official. Ten days later the U.S. Army took over.
States are free to organize their state governments any way they like, as long as they conform to the sole requirement of the U.S. Constitution that they have "a Republican Form of Government." In practice, each state has adopted a three branch system of government generally along the sames lines as that of the federal government—though this is not a requirement. There is nothing that could stop a state from adopting a parliamentary system—with a fusion of powers, as opposed to a separation of powers—if it so chooses.
Despite the fact that each state has chosen to use the federal model to follow, there are some significant differences in some states. One of the most notable is that of the unicameral Nebraska Legislature, which unlike the legislatures of the other 49 states, has only one house. While there is only one federal President who then selects a Cabinet responsible to him, most states have a plural executive, with members of the executive branch elected directly by the people and serving as coequal members of the state cabinet alongside the governor. And only a few states choose to have their judicial branch leaders—their judges on the state's courts—serve for life terms.
A key difference between states is that many rural states have part-time legislatures, while the states with the highest populations tend to have full-time legislatures. Texas, the second largest state in population, is a notable exception to this: excepting special sessions, the Texas Legislature is limited by law to 140 calendar days out of every two years. In Baker v. Carr, the U.S. Supreme Court held that all states are required to have legislative districts which are proportional in terms of population.
Also, states can organize their judicial systems differently from the federal judiciary, as long as due process is protected. Most have a trial level court, generally called a District Court or Superior Court, a first-level appellate court, generally called a Court of Appeal (or Appeals), and a Supreme Court. However, Texas has a separate highest court for criminal appeals. New York is notorious for its unusual terminology, in that the trial court is called the Supreme Court. Appeals are then taken to the Supreme Court, Appellate Division, and from there to the Court of Appeals. Most states base their legal system on British common law (with substantial indigenous changes and incorporation of certain civil law innovations), with the notable exception of Louisiana which draws large parts of its legal system from French civil law.
New states on the horizon?
Today, there are very few U.S. territories left that might potentially become new states. In light of recent events, the most likely candidate may be Puerto Rico. The commonwealth's government has organized several referenda on the question of status over the past several decades, though Congress has not recognized these as binding; all shown resulted in narrow victories for the status quo over statehood, with independence supported by only a small number of voters. In December 2005, a presidential task force proposed a new set of referenda on the issue; if Congress votes in line with the task force's recommendation, it would pave the way for the first Congressionally mandated votes on status in the island, and, potentially, statehood, by 2010.
The intention of the Founding Fathers was that the United States capital should be at a neutral site, not giving favor to any existing state; as a result, the District of Columbia was created in 1800 to serve as the seat of government. The inhabitants of the District do not have full representation in Congress or a sovereign elected government (they were allotted presidential electors by the 23rd amendment, and have a non-voting delegate in Congress). Some residents of the District support statehood of some form for that jurisdiction—either statehood for the whole district or for the inhabited part, with the remainder remaining under federal jurisdiction. While statehood is always a live political question in the District, the prospects for any movement in that direction in the immediate future seem dim. Instead, an emphasis on continuing Home Rule in the District while also giving the District a vote in Congress is gaining support.
For the remaining permanently inhabited U.S. non-state jurisdictions—the United States Virgin Islands, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa—the prospects of statehood are remote. All have relatively small populations—Guam, with the most inhabitants, has a population less than 35 percent that of Wyoming, the least populous state—and have governments that are heavily reliant on federal funding.
Constitutionally, a state may only be divided into more states with the approval both of Congress and of the state's legislature, as was the case when Maine was split off from Massachusetts. The idea that a Congressional joint resolution from 1845 might serve as a sort of advanced Congressional approval for a move to divide Texas today seems unlikely to pass muster. In fact, the clause in question was almost certainly intended to give Texas the option of entering the union as more than one state. As there is no organized movement today to divide Texas into multiple states, the point is largely academic.
Origin of states' names
State names speak to the circumstances of their creation.
- Some states on the Atlantic coast originated from British colonies named after British monarchs: Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, and Maryland. Others, also former British colonies, take their names from places in the British Isles: New Hampshire, New Jersey, and New York. Pennsylvania, meaning "Penn's woods," in Latin, takes its name from the father of its founder, William Penn. Delaware is named after Thomas West, Lord De La Warr, an early colonist and governor of the Jamestown Colony.
- Many states' names are those of Native American tribes or are from Native American languages: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, the Dakotas, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin and others. Additionally, the name of Idaho was presented as a Native American word by eccentric lobbyist George M. Willing, though it was later revealed that he likely made it up. Indiana means literally "land of Indians."
- Because they are on territories previously controlled by Spain or Mexico, many states in the southeast and southwest have Spanish names. They include Colorado, Florida, Nevada, Montana, and, ultimately of Native American origin, New Mexico. California is also believed to be of Spanish origin, though this is not entirely clear.
- Because it was previously a French colony, Louisiana is named after Louis XIV (the King of France at the time). Maine may also be named after the historical French province of Maine, although another theory derives "Maine" from "mainland," differentiating it from the outlying islands. Vermont is derived from the French term for "green mountains", a reference to its mountainous but forested terrain.
- Formally referred to as the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Rhode Island likely gained its name through the supposed similarity of Aquidneck Island (the body of land known as Rhode Island, which contains the city of Newport and the towns of Portsmouth and Middletown) to the Greek Isle of Rhodes, however as it was originally an offshoot of the Dutch colony of Nieu Netherlands, it is more likely the name is an anglicization of the Dutch name for the place, "Rhodt" or simply "Red Island," which probably referred to the color of the soil there. Providence Plantations, which makes reference to the mainland that surrounds Narragansett Bay, was named by its religious founders for God's divine providence. The state of Washington was named after George Washington. Arizona may come from a Basque term, or it may be of Native American origin. The name Hawaii came from Hawaiʻiloa, legendary discoverer of the Hawaiian islands.
- The origin of Oregon is not certain, although various theories exist, but is most likely to be of Native American origin.
Grouping of the states in regions
The West, The Midwest, The South and The Northeast. Note that Alaska and Hawaii are shown at different scales, and that the Aleutian Islands and the uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are omitted from this map.
States may be grouped in regions; there are endless variations and possible groupings, as most states are not defined by obvious geographic or cultural borders.
- Tables with areas, populations, densities and more (in order of population)
- Tables with areas, populations, densities and more (alphabetical)
- Origin of State Names
- Rick's Search Assistant - Web links & addresses for many state agencies, e.g., Motor Vehicles, Corporate Records, Attorneys General
- United States Postal Service
- State and Territorial Governments on FirstGov.gov
- StateMaster - statistical database for US States