Florida became a state on March 3, 1845, after almost thirty years of effort. Florida had been a colony of Spain, just like Puerto Rico.
Spain passed Florida along to the United States in 1819 with a treaty that included a statement that Florida “shall be incorporated in the Union of the United States, as soon as may be consistent with the principles of the Federal Constitution, and admitted to the enjoyment of all the privileges, rights, and immunities of the citizens of the United States. . . .”
This made the people of Florida think they should be able to become a state quickly. After all, the Constitution says very little about how a territory can become a state. Basically, the Constitution just says that Congress can make states whenever it feels like it. Other affected states must agree, but when a territory becomes a state, there’s no effect on neighboring states.
So Florida started petitioning for statehood almost as soon as they became a territory. They didn’t think they should have to have a certain population size (and in fact, another former Spanish colony, Arkansas, became a state before Florida, with fewer than 60,000 inhabitants). They didn’t worry about what languages were spoken in Florida or how financially stable they were. They had been promised statehood.
Florida had a big problem, though. The Eastern part of the territory was involved in the Seminole War, a conflict between the Native Americans and the European settlers that made Congress think seriously about dividing the territory and admitting only the Western part. And it was “Middle Florida,” the prosperous central division of the territory with plantations and banks that was most strongly in favor of statehood.
The territorial delegate proposed different solutions at different times. Sometimes he argued for Florida to be admitted as one state. At another time, he wanted Florida to be admitted as two states. And sometimes he argued for admission of just part of Florida as a state, leaving the rest as a territory until they got their conflicts settled.
Florida wanted statehood so they could have sovereignty and self-government. The people in Florida who did not want statehood were worried about paying higher taxes.
We could say the same about Puerto Rico today.
Florida had also, by 1834 when they wrote their constitution, made three different proposals to Congress. They added a couple of additional ideas, suggesting that the different parts of Florida could become part of Georgia and Alabama instead of becoming a new state, or that Georgia and Alabama should both give part of their states to Florida to make the population large enough for statehood.
A few years later, after sending two more statehood petitions to Washington, reminding Congress of the guarantee of statehood in their treaty, Florida’s territorial government changed parties. The new governor didn’t want to push for statehood. Instead, Florida asked to be made into two territories… but Congress refused.
Florida was certainly not presenting a united front.
The report of the Committee on Territories
In 1844, after another petition for statehood from Florida, the federal Committee on Territories produced a report on Florida. They said that they didn’t want Florida to continue under “the burdens and tyranny of a territorial condition.” But they also said that the United States was still divided on the question of slavery. Adding another slave state like Florida without also a adding a free state, they feared, would threaten the “harmony” of the United States.
They proposed waiting till a territory which didn’t allow slavery was also ready to become a state.
Michigan had been a possible partner for Florida, but Arkansas slipped ahead of Florida and joined along with Michigan. Florida would have to wait for Iowa, which was having problems settling its boundaries. Eventually, the two territories had one bill calling for admission of both as states.
Congress got mired in controversy at this point, suggesting not only that Florida should be divided into two states, but that Iowa also should be made into two states. The arguments were about geography, but they were also about slavery. Each side worried that the other side would end up with an extra state.
What’s more, the Florida constitution contained racist restrictions on immigration which were considered unAmerican by some representatives, and these restrictions also became part of the argument. One congressman pointed out that Virginia had “these same obnoxious provisions,” but was a state.
At one point, some members of Congress wanted to scrap the whole bill and start over with separate bills for Iowa and Florida.
In the end, the bill passed and Florida gained its statehood — as one state. They sent senators and congressmen to Washington in December of 1845, 26 years after Spain agreed to give Florida to the United States on the understanding that Florida would become a state as soon as possible.
Statehood turned out well for Florida, as it has for all the territories which have been admitted to the Union.
It wasn’t easy.
Puerto Rico’s path to statehood hasn’t been easy, either, but no territory yet has petitioned for statehood and been refused. We have to make it clear to Congress that statehood for Puerto Rico is the right decision.
Rep. Robert Cortes of the Florida House of Representatives recently filed a statement on the Status of Puerto Rico which “Urges Congress to apply law & policy in Puerto Rico without discrimination or inequality & to establish mechanism for Puerto Rico’s orderly transition to statehood.” Let’s thank Rep. Cortes and ask all our representatives to follow his example. Florida had a tough path to statehood, and we value their support as Puerto Rico attains statehood.