The Race to Become the Fourteenth State

Thirteen colonies joined to form the Second Continental Congress in May 1775.  A year later, they became the thirteen United States.

Would there ever be a fourteenth?  The members of Congress hoped so, since there were other British colonies in North America.  John Dickinson reflected this hope in his first draft of the Articles of Confederation (June 1776, see Drafting the Articles): “Canada acceding to this confederation, and entirely joining in the measures of the United Colonies, shall be admitted into and entitled to all the Advantages of this Union:  But no other Colony shall be admitted into the same, unless such admission be agreed to by the delegates of nine colonies.”

QuebecWith respect to Canada, Dickinson’s words were delusional by the time he wrote them.  Congress had attempted a two-pronged seduction of Canada in 1775-76.  As one prong, Continental armies attacked Montreal and the city of Quebec.  As the other, Ben Franklin led a diplomatic mission to ally persuasion to force. 

By June 1776 both prongs had failed, and Congress knew that they had failed.  The army was turned back at the walls of Quebec (left), and the diplomats never got past Montreal and attracted few converts among the Catholic French-speaking Canadians.  Such is human optimism, however, that Dickinson still wrote in June as if Canadian accession were a possibility.  His language survived into the final Articles as Article XI with only slight modification: “Canada acceding to this confederation, and joining in the measures of the United States, shall be admitted into and entitled to all the advantages of this union; but no other colony shall be admitted into the same, unless such admission be agreed to by nine states.”

Canada, it need hardly be said, never “acceded”.  What about other colonies?  British colonies in North America included East and West Florida, Nova Scotia, St. John’s Island (now Prince Edward Island), Newfoundland, and Rupert’s Land—the vast frozen fur-trading empire of the Hudson’s Bay Company.  None ever applied for admission to the United States.  None ever seriously considered it.

Was the language on new states then to be a dead letter?  Not necessarily.  Congress had overlooked what turned out to be the most common-sense manner of forming new states—by breaking apart existing ones, especially those with vast, barely governable trans-Appalachian land claimsDisaffected citizens forced the issue, inducing Congress to react despite the awkward language of Article XI and a lack of explicit power.  The race to form the fourteenth state was on.

VermontThe first entrant arose not from the mountain West but from the rolling farmlands east of the Hudson River, long disputed between New Hampshire and New York.  The British Crown had awarded the area to New York, against the wishes of its inhabitants, in 1764.  When British authority broke down during the Revolution, the inhabitants threw off both the British and New York, held a constitutional convention (1777, right), and proclaimed themselves the State of Vermont.  They applied to Congress for admission.

Congress stalled until after the Articles of Confederation were ratified, wishing to antagonize neither New York nor the Vermonters, who fought the British heroically at Ticonderoga and Bennington.  The Vermonters only grew more obstreperous.  They annexed neighboring districts in what are now New Hampshire and eastern New York.  Then (May 1781), they entered into negotiations with the British, offering to return to the Crown if Britain would recognize Vermont as a colony.

That got attention.  On August 20, 1781, Congress resolved that, if Vermont receded from her expansive boundary claims, it would be a “preliminary” to “recognition of the independence of the people of Vermont, and their admission into the federal union”.  The resolution passed nine states to one, with only New York opposed.  The nine states would meet the Article threshold for admission of a new state.  Three other states were represented by only single delegates, but those delegates favored the resolution as well.  Vermont appeared to be on the verge of admission, and duly retreated from its expanded boundaries in 1782.

Then matters ground to a halt.  Congress reconsidered Vermont in April 1782, and refused to even set a date to vote on a committee report recommending her admission.  What had gone wrong?  The war was winding down, so the British were no longer frightening as a suitor for Vermont.  But more importantly, sectional jealousy had reared its head. 

Pierce Butler of South Carolina wrote that “The Northern interest is all prevalent; their members are firmly united, and carry many measures disadvantageous to the Southern interest.  They are laboring hard to get Vermont established as an independent State, which will give them another vote, by which the balance will be quite destroyed.”  Arthur Lee of Virginia framed the matter as one of large versus small states: “The addition of another (small state) will be a dangerous accession, & the disposal of property in quotaing each being by Votes, not by interest, it will enable the small States to throw the whole burthen of the war upon the large Ones.”  Vermont was not admitted.

And yet, the Vermonters continued to govern Vermont.  New York shrank from asserting its claims by force.  The issue continued to fester.

The next entrants in the statehood race emerged from the West.  In 1784 Congress assumed sovereignty over the Northwest Territory, and adopted an ordinance written by Thomas Jefferson providing for the eventual settlers of the territory to organize themselves into new states (see Creating the Northwest Territory).  In time, this would lead to new states north of the Ohio River. 

What about south of the Ohio, where white settlers already lived?  In June 1784, North Carolina ceded its transmountain land to the federal government.  The transmountain settlers, then numbering about 15,000, promptly held a convention (December) and organized a state government.  If this was to be the process north of the Ohio, why not south of it as well?  The settlers originally called their land Frankland, after the tribe (the Franks) which overthrew the Roman Empire, but elided the name into Franklin (1785) in a dubious attempt to associate the proposed state with the popular Pennsylvanian.  The state collected taxes and paid salaries in beaver pelts.

Matters miscarried at once.  North Carolina had second thoughts, and resented the precipitate action of the Franklinites.  The legislature repealed her act of cession in March 1785.  Franklin sent a memorial to Congress anyhow, seeking admission as the fourteenth state.  North Carolina, the memorial read, “claims a sovereignty over a country whose prayers she has rejected and whose interests she has forsaken”.  Congress should “receive (Franklin) into the federal union”.

Congress considered the matter on May 20, 1785.  The first question was whether to accept the since-repealed North Carolina land cession.  A committee reported that “no subsequent act” of North Carolina could “repeal or make void” the original deed.  Six states (all Northern) voted to approve the report, two voted against, one was divided, two were under-represented, and two were unrepresented.  Without seven states in favor, the report failed.  The repeal stood.  With the repeal standing, there was no land cession.  Without the cession, there was no way to admit Franklin.

FranklinWith Congress standing aside, North Carolina showed none of the hesitation of New York.  North Carolina organized a competing government for the Franklin region, and for a time, residents had the choice of paying taxes to, and using the courts of, either government.  But not for long.  In 1788 North Carolina began seizing the property of Franklinites who failed to pay North Carolina taxes, and when the Franklinites resisted, they were crushed at the “Battle of Franklin” (left) near what is now Johnson City, Tennessee.  Franklin faded out of existence.

Farther north, matters proceeded with more decorum.  Virginians pouring into the western district of Kentucky endured many of the same indignities as the Franklinites—remoteness from the state capital, delay in learning of new laws, drain of tax money eastward, and a state government insufficiently interested in building roads and (always an issue) dispossessing American Indians.  Unlike the Franklinites, however, the Kentuckians worked with their parent state instead of against it.

DanvilleIn August 1785, a convention of Kentuckians meeting in Danville (right) formally petitioned Virginia for permission to separate.  Virginia agreed with but modest conditions, demanding that Kentucky honor prior Virginia land grants and assume a share of Virginia’s state debt.

Delay ensued when the militiamen of Kentucky (much of the adult white male population) took off to raid American Indians in the Ohio country (see From Conquest to Purchase).  The settlers returned and accepted the Virginia conditions at another convention in September 1787.  The matter came before Congress on July 3, 1788.

Here, finally, appeared to be a clear-cut case for admission.  Both parent and daughter state had agreed to an amiable separation.  The population of Kentucky (then about 60,000) was approaching that of the smaller eastern states, and growing rapidly.

And yet, Congress held back.  The new Constitution (the COTUS of 1787) was in the process of being ratified.  Two delegates, Nathan Dane (MA) and Thomas Tucker (SC), moved that it would be “manifestly improper for Congress assembled under the Articles of Confederation to adopt any measures (other) than those which express their sense that the said district ought to be an independent member of the Union as soon as circumstances shall permit proper measures to be adopted for that purpose.”  In other words, Congress would punt the matter to the new Congress elected under the COTUS.  Dane and Tucker’s motion carried, nine states to one, with only Virginia holding out for immediate admission.

Were constitutional scruples the real reason for the delay?  John Brown, a Kentuckian serving in Congress as a delegate from Virginia pending separation, wrote that delay was “supported by all the eastern States lest (Kentucky) might add to the Southern Interest”.  Clearly, again, sectional jealousy was an issue.  The Articles of Confederation began with 13 states, and ended with 13 states.

The Anti-Climactic Finish Under the COTUS

The COTUS convention granted Congress a clearer power to admit new states, but also endorsed the action of the Confederation Congress in declining to admit Vermont and Franklin without the consent of their parents.  “New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union”, ran Article IV, “but no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress”.

The First Congress (1789-1791) which met under the COTUS found itself in the happy situation of being able to consider Vermont and Kentucky in tandem.  New York had finally consented to the separation of Vermont in 1790, in return for a cash payment of $30,000.  And Virginia had again consented to the separation of Kentucky, and Kentucky had again accepted.  Vermont and Kentucky balanced each other in every possible way—north against south, east against west, and large state against small state.

President George Washington signed a bill to admit Kentucky on February 4, 1791.  He signed another to admit Vermont on February 18.  But, Vermont won the race to statehood.  Vermont had had a government in place since 1777, and slid seamlessly into the United States on March 4, 1791.  Kentucky had still to hold a constitutional convention and an election, and did not complete the process until June 1, 1792.  Vermont became the 14th state, and Kentucky the 15th.

The Confederation government, in this way as in so many others, set precedent.  Again and again, in the Nineteenth Century, states would be denied admission until they could be matched with sectional opposites.  Even as late as 1959, Alaska and Hawaii were admitted in tandem in the belief that they would be partisan political opposites.

And what of the vanished State of Franklin?  North Carolina finally ceded its western land to the federal government in 1790.  The government organized it into the Southwest Territory, and five years later, admitted it to the union as the State of Tennessee.

Sources: Peter Onuf, The Origins of the Federal Government, 1983; Kevin Barksdale, The Lost State of Franklin: America’s First Secession, 2009; Lowell Harrison, Kentucky’s Road to Statehood, 1992; Journals of the Continental Congress, Volumes 22, 28, and 34; Letters of Delegates to Congress

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