The United States is unique in that unlike other countries, it is one nation divided into 50 states across the land mass. The reason for this was because the use of one government for the entirety of the massive nation would risk anarchy and civil war. Instead, a federal government was put in power to supervise local governments in each territory or state. This ensured a more stable and structured form of government that allowed each state to develop independently.
The four characteristics of a state include the following:
- A permanent population
- Defined territory
- Local government
- Communication and commerce relations with other states
The United States grew from thirteen colonies into the fifty states we have today. Join us as we explore how these boundaries were established, and how the states themselves were formed.
The Fifty United States
Below are the names of the United States and the abbreviations assigned to each one:
What is a “State” in the U.S?
By definition, a state in the United States of America is one of 50 political entities that shares sovereignty with the federal government. The term “sovereignty” refers to each state’s ability to govern itself without interference from the federal government, unless they break certain rules defined in the constitution. The states you see in this 50 states list all contain people who are both citizens of the federal government, and the operating body of their individual state.
This dual citizenship is provided through the fourth amendment of the constitution
. It was originally proposed as a response to the issue of former slaves after the American Civil War and as part of the Reconstruction amendments. The state citizenship is flexible though; Americans can move between states freely. The only exception here is citizens who are subjected to court orders.
The populations of each state vary anywhere from 600,000 in the case of Wyoming, to 38 million in California. States are further divided into counties or something equivalent that also exercise some level of local government power, but they are not sovereign. The structure and titles of these counties vary from state to state.
The power of the state governments is given to them through individual constitutions. When ratifying the United States Constitution, the states agreed to give certain powers to the federal government. Things like Law enforcement, public education, health, transportation, and infrastructure are all state responsibilities, but these things have been powered by federal funding and in turn, regulations.
As more and more amendments are made to the constitution, the general trend has been to centralize and incorporate the federal government into the previously sovereign traits of states.This has raised an ongoing debate as to where the line between state and federal sovereignty should be drawn. It was this exact debate the led to the American Civil War.
It is possible, according to the constitution, that Congress can admit new states. The last time this happened was in 1959 when Alaska and Hawaii were added to the nation on January 3rd and August 21st respectively. That being said, Congress is oddly silent on the issue of states seceding, or removing themselves, from the union. The Supreme Court was forced to weigh in
and ruled that secession is unconstitutional. This was meant to prevent another civil war.
The Power of The Federal Government Over The 50 States
Starting with the 20th century, the Supreme Court took the Commerce Clause as a means of exercising additional power over states. The Cambridge Economic History of the United States
states that “on the whole, especially after the mid-1880s, the Court construed the Commerce Clause in favor of increased federal power.”
This began with the Supreme Court case of Wickard V. Filburn
in which the Court ruled that the the federal government has authority to regulate the economy under the Commerce Clause, an authority which also extends to local trade. An example of this newly found power is the ability to regulate railway traffic across state lines and within a specific state as well. Congress can also impose taxes and redistribute the money back to the states.
Another example is the Interstate Highway System which is monitored and funded by the federal government, but it also serves the states. It is this power that the federal government has used to pressure state governments into passing certain laws such as the nationwide drinking age of twenty-one.
The Common Structure of U.S. State Governments
While individual states are able to organize their governments as they see fit, they must have what is known as a “Republican Form of Government” according to the U.S. Constitution. Thought not a requirement, most states mirror the structure of the federal government and choose the route of three separate branches:
In the U.S. States, the chief executive is known as the Governor. He/she is the head of state and government. This empowers them to veto bills that have been passed by the state legislature. He can also influence bills to be passed. Many of the states have a “plural executive” which allows for two or more people to be elected directly by the citizens. These officials are part of the executive branch and cannot be dismissed by the governor.
The attorney general is one example of someone who is elected in 43 of the 50 U.S. states.
All but one of the U.S. States has a legislative structure composed of two chambers. These are the upper and lower house. In the case of the upper house, the name is always the Senate, but the lower house comes in several variations:
- House of Representatives
- State Assembly
- House of Delegates
There is one exception to the title of “Senate” which is in Nebraska. It is known as the Unicameral Nebraska Legislature and it is only one house.
Individual states are able to change the organization of their judicial or criminal systems so long as they still provide their citizens with the constitutional right of due process. This term refers to the basic rights of a citizen in terms of a fair trial and the other legal aspects of the their constitutional rights.Most of the states have based their judicial systems on English common law, however since Louisiana was originally a French colony, they base their off of French civil law.
Only a handful of states will have their judges serve for life terms. In many cases the judges are elected or appointed for a set number of years after which they are able to be re-elected or appointed.
Admitting New States Into the Union
Since the dawn of the United States in 1776, the original thirteen colonies have expanded into 50 U.S states and abbreviations across the main landmass and off the west coast with Hawaii. The Constitution allows for Congress to admit new states to the Union, however a new state cannot be created within the space of an existing state and two or more states cannot be merged into one without the consent of both Congress and the individual state governments.
After the 13 original states, many of the following states were formed out of existing territories in the United States. They were already under the sovereignty of the federal government, but they had not yet applied for statehood. The process began by notifying Congress that the territory’s people were in favor of statehood. From there, they would write a state constitution and submit it to Congress. When the document was approved, they became a state.
Ultimately though, Congress had the final say when it came to new states. They weren’t required to follow this exact process. For example, the following states were not recognized territories before they became a member of the Union:
- Vermont - this was an independent republic until it became a state in 1791.
- Kentucky - originally this was a part of Virginia before it was admitted in 1792.
- Maine - a part of Massachusetts until 1820, after the Missouri Compromise.
- Texas - an independent republic until 1845
- California - As part of the Compromise of 1850, it became a state after being an unorganized territory of the Mexican Cession.
- West Virginia - In the Civil War, Virginia had a Union and Confederate government in power. The separate state was created when the confederate government seceded from the Union in 1861.
New States on The Horizon?
For now there are 50 states in the United States of America, but there is potential for more to be added. Currently there are talks for Puerto Rico and possibly Washington D.C to become states at some point in the future. While nothing is set in stone yet, the fact of the matter is the United States is an ever growing and evolving nation that is constantly seeking better ways of providing for its people and recognizing its citizens.