Anyone who has glanced at a map of the United States has had this thought: Look at all those big states with straight lines, something like Tetris assembly blocks. Perhaps you’ve expressed it out loud: What’s that all about? — All those straight lines?
Perhaps none draws your attention more than my home state of Colorado, and not just because it is somewhat large; in fact the 7th largest of all states south of 49 degrees. It’s because its boundaries are four perfectly “straight” lines (as is Wyoming): two east-to-west, spaced exactly 4 degrees of latitude apart; and two north-to-south, spaced exactly 7 degrees of longitude apart. [Since the world is curved, the east-west lines are, of course, not perfectly straight].
Now why is all of that?
The history of state shapes — and straight line boundaries — long precedes the incorporation of western states into the union. It’s a fact that the shapes of each of the original 13 states also had straight line boundaries, mostly along lines of latitude. And each of those, in turn, got their straight lines from charters issued by the Monarchs of England, in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Those original colonial charters, issued well before the Declaration of Independence, laid down much of the DNA for the political conflict we suffer today, now well into the 21st century.
Hearkening back to those original charters, with boundaries following straight lines as well as hill crests and river channels, led to colonies of vastly different size and population. When the colonies’ representatives assembled in the Continental Congress – eventually to seek independence from England – the smaller colonies (think Delaware, Rhode Island, and 9 more) were wary of the potential political power from larger, more populous and economically more brawny, muscular colonies, especially Virginia and New York.
Once independence was attained – de facto after victory and Yorktown in 1781 and officially by the Treaty of Paris 1783 – the 13 independent states hammered out their differences by many compromises to became a single nation, which we generally respect today as the Constitution of the United States; it became the federal rule book on March 4, 1789.
When the Paris Treaty was signed the new government immediately had some very important questions regarding states’ relative powers to address. How to administer all the new land west of the Appalachians, and what are the details of how new states are to be transformed from territories to state stauts?
A top criterion for this evolution was that no state should have excessive power over the others. This was a lesson learned through the tribulations of the Continental Congress. Sadly, this is largely unwritten and not in any legislation that I know of or could find. Nonetheless, upon entering the Union, a state would necessarily be comparatively weak, since only 60,000 residents were required to apply – most original states had many times that. But, by allocating a fairly consistent amount of land area to new states, their power could be constrained to reasonable limits as their populations grew. Expecting that it would take many generations to populate “the west”, and believing that the climate was consistent with reports of “the vast American desert”, most of the western states were allocated larger areas.
In short, new states were allocated area commensurate with the expected ability to grow a population that would make them all roughly equal in political power.
There were a few errors made here, including: 1) the westward emigration occurred much more rapidly than expected; and 2) without a full understanding of various western climates, they could not accurately forecast what the full and final population of these new states would be. Spend much time in the vast lands between the Pacific coast and the Appalachians and you can attest that they are much more varied than anyone in 19th century DC could expect.
To address these needs of expansion, new states and balancing state powers: there was first the Land Ordinance of 1785 followed by its sister legislation the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which allocated five states in the new Northwest Territory (north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River). These eventually became, in order: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. Removing the quirk of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula we can compare their landmasses and today’s Electoral Vote power as shown in the table here. I’ve also included the first two “western states”, Tennessee and Kentucky, which joined the Union before Ohio, under the same general guidelines.
Although there is certainly some variation, it is not nearly as wide as the original 13. Among those, Virginia had area of 67,000 sq miles* to Rhode Island’s 1,500sq mi. And an Electoral College weight of ten to R.I.’s three votes. In fact, Rhode Island was so put off and fearful that they did not ratify the Constitution until 1790, and hence their Electoral Votes, although it mattered little, were not counted in George Washington’s first election. [* – This is not the exact area of the original Virginia; I have stripped off most of the lands west of the Appalachians that was removed as part of the 1st Bank of America compromise; this also happened to other original states, especially North Carolina and Georgia. These sizes can be seen in the second map, above].
The allocation of most subsequent new states was intended to keep a balance between the states more or less in order. Using lines of latitude and longitude, a long and established practice dating back to the monarchs, was continued with each and every new state (with the exceptions of Hawai’i and Alaska: the latter’s eastern border was established by treaty) as this was a convenience in the drawing of territory and state lines. Although this approach had very little regard to geography (for example, the towering Rocky Mountains run right through the middle of Colorado) it was easy to assign areas in this way.
[A coincidental oddity: the border between Colorado and New Mexico, along the 37th parallel, passes within a few feet of the peak of Raton Pass]
There were certainly some anomalies, and in some regard, they curse us today. Of course, Hawai’I and Alaska, admitted in 1959, were freaks of history. But, they are quite small with regard to population and will forever remain that way. But there were others. “Free” West Virginia was split off from Virginia during the Civil War. Virginia’s area was further reduced to 42,700 sq miles and West Virginia comes in at a relatively puny 24,200 sq mi.
Before the bloodletting of the Civil War, two other states were admitted under relatively “unplanned” circumstances. States that bore no resemblance to the unofficial rule of keeping states’ powers relatively balanced. Those two were Texas and California. And the circumstances were directly related to haste — and in trying to cement the United State’s ownership of these lands during and after the Mexican-American War. The California Gold Rush (“In a cavern, in a canyon, excavating for mine; dwelt a miner, 49er and his daughter Clementine … “) added to the urgency of speeding California into the union, in 1850. The government played up the urgency of admitting them rather quickly without regard to (and without understanding) how large their populations could grow.
These two, Texas and California, came in massively at 268,600 and 163,700 square miles. Wow. So much for planning and vision. Their populations have since swelled so (California far more than Texas) that they carry much more sway on national politics than was ever envisioned in our country’s long history.
At the time those states (CA and TX) could conceivably have been split into 3, 4 or even 5 territories, each slated to become a state at some point. However, that would have disrupted the delicate balance between the number of slave and free states.
So we carry these historical relics and artifacts with us today in our national politics. The impacts on things like the Electoral College and political clashes is huge. Most people have a complaint about how it is working out. Many workarounds have been suggested.
As of today, eleven states, plus DC (Colorado is now on track to become the next) have passed legislation to join a Compact wherein they are committed to giving all their Electoral Votes to whoever wins the national popular vote.
As during the Constitutional Convention, most small population states will remain wary of the larger states, especially California — especially as the size of the Compact grows — and as the Compact threatens to drown out their their Whoville voices. At some point, perhaps only Horton will hear them. As of now, the 18th century constitutional compromise that protects smaller states from the massive vote generating capability of the larger states still protects them … at least for now.
Anyway, that’s the short story on all the straight lines, how we got them and how it affects us today. Thanks for reading — and there’s a final note below with plots showing that, overall and excepting CA, TX, HI, AK and the original 13, the allocation of state sizes and shapes was actually done pretty well.
Joe Girard © 2019
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- I must acknowledge a fun little book by Mark Stein that gave me some factoids and insights, called “How the States got their Shapes”, Smithsonian Books, (c) 2008
- For completeness and visualization: Below I have plotted the states’ area vs their number of electoral votes. In the first plot, all 50 states are included. The visually obvious Electoral outliers with extraordinary power according to the founders, are (in order) California, Texas, Florida and New York. California and Texas — and to a certain extent Florida — are freaks of historical circumstance. New York is of course one of the original states. (California currently gets 55 votes; New York and Florida 29, and Texas 38).
In the second plot, the original 13 have been removed (as have West Virginia and Maine, since they were spin offs of original states) and the historical freaks. Florida is retained. The 2nd plot is on the same scale as the first, so that one can see that these remaining states make a nice little cluster and one can deduce that, odd historical circumstances aside, the federal gov’t did a pretty good job of controlling and normalizing states’ relative power. A few states have very low Electoral Votes (e.g. the Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana), and that’s understandable, as the government did not really understand how these areas could not support much population.
I contend the Electoral College method of choosing presidents and Veeps would be nearly bullet proof with a few changes; and the first change would be to make the total cluster plot of states population and power look like the second plot, and not the first. It can reduce the likelihood of winners losing (and losers winning), and respect the choices of smaller states without completely doing away with the Electoral College, which is effectively what the States Compact does.