After North Carolina joined the other future states during the American Revolution, it gave up its territory west of the Appalachian mountains to the new American government. Those lands became a territory belonging to the United States, with the clunky name “Territory of the United States, South of the River Ohio.” The people who had settled those western lands asked the Continental Congress to admit their territory as a State.
While North Carolina was working toward becoming a state, which they accomplished in 1789, they temporarily regained control over the territory. When they became a State, though, the new government of North Carolina confirmed its transfer of the western territory to the federal government. The Congress of the United States, using the powers given by the Territorial Clause in Art. IV, Sec. 3, Cl. 2 of the Constitution, organized the territory in the same way the Northwest Territory of greater Ohio had been organized. The Northwest Ordinance became law under the newly ratified U.S. Constitution, and it was used as the pattern for moving territories toward statehood.
So the land which is now Tennessee became the “Southwest Territory” and was governed under the Northwest Ordinance. This meant that Congress expected the Southwest Territory to become a state eventually, and was prepared to support the people living there along that path.
But the people of Tennessee were not satisfied. They had fought in the Revolutionary War, they wanted to become a state, and the process Congress had in mind was just too slow for them. They held a vote and 73% of the people voted for immediate statehood. The Governor and the local legislature held a convention to establish a constitutional government — not as a territorial government but for government as a State of the Union. The convention approved a state constitution, declared the end of territorial government on March 28, 1796, and said Tennessee would become a State on that same day.
The legislature also established two Congressional districts, authorized four presidential electors, sponsored elections for two members of the U.S. House, and elected two Senators. The U.S. Senate opposed admission; Tennessee was being too bold for them. The Tennessee Senators went to the Senate and demanded their seats, but the Senate refused.
The House supported admission, though. On June 1, 1796, Congress yielded and passed an admission act allowing Tennessee one seat in the House until the next census. They also insisted on new elections, since the citizens of a territory did not have the power to elect members of Congress. Only citizens of a state can do that. Tennessee had declared itself a state, but only Congress can do that.
Tennessee accepted the compromise and became a state just a few months after they said they would.
Until that time, territories had asked for statehood and then waited for Congress to declare them states. Tennessee’s bold move essentially meant that they decided they were a state, declared themselves a state, and persuaded Congress to agree. This approach has been called “the Tennessee Plan.”
Six other territories organized under a version of the Tennessee Plan and forced their admission into statehood. These were Michigan (1837), Iowa (1846), California (1850), Oregon (1859), Kansas (1861), and Alaska (1959). New Mexico attempted the Tennessee Plan in 1850, but it failed. New Mexico was finally admitted in 1912 after a waiting through the Congressional process for territorial status resolution for 62 more years.
Alaska studied the New Mexico experience before committing itself to the Tennessee Plan. The people of Alaska noticed that the Tennessee Plan worked best when it had local law behind it and when it was clearly the will of the people.
Proving the will of the people can take different forms. In the case of Tennessee, it was a locally sponsored referendum on how to work toward statehood. In other cases, it was the vote to ratify a state constitution or to elect Congressional representatives.
Tennessee’s plan worked for them and for states after them, and it might work for Puerto Rico, too. Sign the petition to allow self-determination for Puerto Rico.
More of our series on paths to statehood:
This post was originally written in English and may be being auto-translated by Google.