The Territory of Michigan petitioned Congress for statehood in 1833, and Congress didn’t respond. This sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Puerto Rico has voted for statehood, and Congress has not yet admitted the Island.
There were some issues in Michigan. For one thing, they had a border dispute with Ohio and had threatened war, they didn’t yet have a constitution, and admitting a state that didn’t allow slavery would upset the delicate balance of power between the slave states and those that didn’t allow slavery. It seems strange to us nowadays, but in the 1830s, the United States was divided on the subject, and Congress had agreed to keep that balance.
These problems were more serious than any issues Puerto Rico now faces that could delay statehood.
Michigan adopts the Tennessee Plan
Michigan decided to go with the Tennessee Plan. In 1796, tired of waiting for Congress, the territory of Tennessee wrote up a constitution, elected congressional representatives, and headed for Washington. They said that statehood was a right Congress couldn’t deny, and demanded seats in Congress for their representatives.
But Michigan really couldn’t become a state without settling their boundary dispute with Ohio, which was already a state. Congress proposed a compromise. A group of elected delegates had to agree to the boundary compromise before Michigan could become a state. The representatives from Michigan went home and held a convention.
The border compromise was not accepted at the convention. The governor really wanted the benefits of statehood for his territory, and he knew that Michigan Territory wouldn’t win the boundary dispute with the state of Ohio. Canals were being built in their part of the country, and a state would certainly get the better outcome than a territory.
We see this constantly when we compare the territory of Puerto Rico with any of the 50 states. Federal funds, federal projects, and federal grants are always more bountiful for states than for territories. The U.S. Constitution allows the territories to be treated differently from states, and states have representatives in Congress who stand up for their constituents. Puerto Rico has no voting members in Congress, and neither did Michigan. Territories — then and now — are relatively powerless.
The governor could see that Michigan needed statehood. He pulled together a different group of delegates, and they approved the compromise at a new convention. Scholars today still debate whether this solution was completely legal. The delegates were chosen in local caucuses, and the federal government didn’t officially authorize their convention. Some counties refused to send delegates.
By this time, though, the territory of Arkansas had become a state. Slavery was legal in Arkansas, so the balance of power in Congress was threatened. This might have motivated Congrtess to take action. In 1837, Michigan was admitted as the 26th state in the Union.
The 51st state
Like Michigan in the 1830s, Puerto Rico needs statehood. It will be better for the people of Puerto Rico to have the rights and sovereignty of a state than to continue on as a powerless territory. Like Michigan, Puerto Rico has chosen to adopt the Tennessee Plan.
The Puerto Rico Statehood Commission will be heading to Washington to make the case for statehood for Puerto Rico. Being able to point to strong support for statehood will help the Commission make their case. Please sign the petition for statehood.