How Many States Are in The USA? Contentious Journeys to Statehood

Battle of Buena Vista engraving published in John S.C. Abbott’s 1867 “Lives of the Presidents of the United States of America, From Washington to the Present”

The United States of America currently consists of 50 states, however this was not always the case. In the early 1950s, elementary school pupils would have said there were just 48, whereas campaigners in the 2020s want the number to be 52.

It would appear that being a state or not would not be such a complex idea. You may be familiar with the Manifest Destiny narrative. There were once 13 colonies. Then, settlers continued to move westward to clear uninhabited territory.

There is a growing awareness of the brutality, displacement, and genocide committed against Indigenous peoples as part of the “manifest destiny” narrative, as well as a growing support for the Land Back campaign. In addition, many states that are presently part of the United States were once part of other sovereign nation states and joined the United States through colonial and neocolonial processes. Here are several further contentious accounts of how states joined the United States.

Mexican-American War Influenced the Southwest

Have you ever wondered why so many towns and sites in the southern states have Spanish names? The answer is that they originally belonged to Mexico. James K. Polk sought a meeting with the president of Mexico in 1845. He intended to make a $30 million offer to purchase Texas and a great deal of additional territory, including much of the southwestern United States. Polk requested a meeting with the president of Mexico, José Joaqun Herrera, but Herrera denied the request. President Herrera never intended to sell. President Polk replied by dispatching American troops to occupy all of the then-Mexican-owned property he desired to purchase. In response, Mexican and American forces engaged in a skirmish.

President Polk declared the deaths of American soldiers as an act of war since they occurred on American soil. Congress authorised the initiation of a war, but even among American legislators there was dissent. Some pointed out that the United States was the aggressor as the conflict took place on territory that still belonged to Mexico. Ultimately, there was never an agreement to acquire the land.

This series of occurrences precipitated the four-year Mexican-American War. With the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the war ended. After the war, relations between the United States and Mexico were, to say the least, tense. This is the direct reason why portions of Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, California, Utah, and California are now United States territory. The Gadsen Purchase, another outcome of post-war diplomacy, is also responsible for the statehood of portions of Arizona and New Mexico.

Destruction of the Hawaiian Monarchy

In the 1800s, Hawaii was an independent nation ruled by a monarchy. The United States and Hawaii have a long history of collaborating on projects for the mutual benefit of both nations.

During the reign of Queen Liliuokalani, Congress approved a law to compel Hawaii to join the United States, stating that Hawaii’s sugar would only be profitable for American and European sugar producers if the state joined the union. Otherwise, they risk substantial losses in profits.

This economic instability paved the way for a handful of American sugar planters to rise against the king and establish their own nation. This coup was supported by the U.S. military, which participated in the operation for profit-driven reasons. President Cleveland expressed his displeasure with the situation in Hawaii, but he did not intervene. Eventually, Hawaii, which had been renamed the Republic of Hawaii by those who ousted the monarchy, became a colony of the United States. In 1959, Hawaii became a state.

The Settlement of Puerto Rico

The Treaty of Paris, which ended the Spanish-American War, gave the United States the territory of Puerto Rico. Today, Puerto Rico is governed by a governor, and the U.S. territory has its own political parties that are noticeably distinct from the major parties in the continental United States. As a recognised Commonwealth of the United States, Puerto Rico has its own taxes and elections.

Politically, Puerto Rico is a highly peculiar case. Despite being acknowledged as American citizens, Puerto Ricans cannot vote in American elections. The question of statehood is extensively disputed in the United States Congress and among Puerto Rican individuals. As Puerto Rico would be a solidly blue state, many liberal American activists urge for Puerto Rican statehood. Concurrently, many native Puerto Ricans are pushing for complete independence from the United States.

The Quest for Independence in Guam

Guam is another territory gained by the United States through the Treaty of Paris. Guam and Puerto Rico are remnants of a form of colonisation that would offend many modern individuals. There is a political movement in Guam to achieve nationhood.

As a U.S. territory, citizens of Guam hold dual citizenship in Guam and the United States. Guamanians pay taxes to the government of Guam, and Guam conducts its own elections. Guam is subject to numerous laws made by the American Congress despite the fact that it has no voting representatives.

District of Columbia Statehood

The DC in Washington, District of Columbia, refers to the District of Columbia. Prior to the signing of the Constitution, a portion of this district belonged to Virginia, while the other portion belonged to Maryland. The Constitution established Washington, DC as the nation’s capital. It was crucial to the Founding Fathers that the government’s seat be located in a neutral non-state that did not have representation in Congress, as “no taxation without representation” was a major reason why America fought for independence from Britain.

Similar to the claims of Puerto Ricans and Guamanians, some Washington, DC, residents take issue with the fact that they do not have congressional representation. However, the actions of Congress continue to effect District residents just as they do citizens of other states.

The journey to statehood was not always as straightforward as marching west and clearing land. Obviously, indigenous populations have always inhabited this country, and the American claim to it was a violent act (the violence of which continues to this day). In addition, some of the states that now make up the United States were seized from other sovereign nation states. The path to statehood for many regions involved bloody battles and political compromises that would be heavily scrutinised by modern standards. Ironically, while certain regions became states against the aspirations of some of its population, there are numerous territories that lack statehood today despite the desires of some residents. How many states exist in the United States? That’s an extremely loaded question!


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