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. Read more about the Tennessee Plan as an option 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.


22 Responses

  1. 119 years is enough time for a territory with 3.6 millions US citizen who life underground with a second class of citizenship.

    • Thats why we want independence….people think after 121 years the US is going to treat us as first class citizens all of the sudden. Because some Puerto Ricans force them to.

  2. It clearly says here that despite having local law and the will of the people behind them, the final arbiter of whether a territory becomes a state is the US Congress. Right now it is controlled by right wing Republicans, a party which is against immigration, and which ignorantly views Puerto Rico as a den of welfare recipients. There are various articles mentioning how statehood does not benefit the United States of America because it would be “too costly” for them. I think we need to realize the the United States is never going to make us a state, unless Puerto Rico becomes financially independent first. Not to mention that many Americans would simply not want Puerto Rico to join the United States because 50 states sound acoustically better than 51 states.

    • The Puerto Rico referendum held on June 11, 2017 might be a major stumbling block in the island’s quest for statehood
      under the Tennessee Plan. In 1850, New Mexico territory attemped to use the plan in order to gain statehood. Apparently
      it was not supported by the will of the majority of the people living in the territory, and Congress refused to admit New
      Mexico as a state. In 1958, Alaska wanted to use the Tennesse Plan in order to gain statehood. They viewed New
      Mexico’s failed attempt and clearly saw that Congress paid attention if the territory’s plan was effective when it was
      supported by local law and that it was supported by the will of the territory’s inabitants. Once Congress saw that the will of the Alaskan people wanted statehood, the 49th State was admitted in January of 1959. With only 24 percent of the
      registered voters casting ballots in Puerto Rico’s 2017 vote, the majority of the territory’s people might be at
      odds with statehood. Anohter referendum needs to be conducted with a majorty voter turnout. If a majority of Puerto
      Rico’s voters support statehood, then the USA will welcome its 51st State.

    • Puerto Ricans are American citizens not immigrants. They are free to travel anywhere in the USA. I get a laugh it when I
      hear people from the US Mainland ask people in my state of Hawaii if we accept American money and that they came to the
      islands from the United States. Guess they didnt travel too far.

    • I’m a republican Tennessean (Although living in Alabama now) that would love for Puerto Rico to join the party of our Union and have always felt that way. I view Puerto Ricans as American as much as this Tennessean typing this. I was in San Juan two Mondays ago and it’s such a beautiful city. I loved it and wished I could have spent more time there other than getting chased by a couple iguana’s. I do agree that adding a fifty-first star to our flag would be tricky but who cares; it can be figured out. I feel we have room for Y’all, D.C., Guam, Virgin Islands and even Cuba if they’ll ever come around. To explain the Cuba part to those that don’t know there history Cuba became a Territory of the U.S. too after the Spanish-American War. Also Don’t forget Texas was it’s own country too before it became a state. All I’m saying is Puerto Rico is not second rate and I just wanted to express that I feel y’all are as American as I am.

    • A simple way to solve the 51st state dilemma is to find a 52nd state so the two can balance each other. Case in point
      would be the state of Jefferson. Jefferson is the rural, more conservative counties in northern California. Jefferson first
      tried to pull out of Califonia in 1941, but the attack on Pearl Harbor brought it’s momentum to an abrupt halt. Then in
      the early 2000’s, the movemnt was resurrected and now support for the State of Jefferson is growing by leaps and
      bounds. If California becomes a sancturary state, I am sure that the folks in the counties that support a Jefferson
      withdrawal from the Golden State would be alarmed and prevent it from being implemented in those counties in the
      north. If it came into being, Jefferson would be a red state, with most of its representatives in Congress loyal to GOP.
      Puerto Rico’s represetation would be primarily Democratic, making Puerto Rico a blue state. This balancing act idea is not new to American politics. The balacing act dates back to the early 1800’s when the addition of a slave state was
      complemented with an addition of a non-slave state. The trend continued even after the Civil War. Did you think that a
      red state of Alaska and a blue state of Hawaii was an accident? Right now, the addition of a red state of Jefferson could be Puerto Rico’s best freiend in gaining statehood.

  3. […] Governor Rosselló took the current election as a big win for the island and may now put the Tennessee plan into place where he will choose two senators and five representatives to go to Washington, D.C., […]

  4. May you please tell me who wrote this article? I would love to give credit to the person who wrote this, since I’ve used some of this information for an essay.

  5. Puerto Rico’s Statehood and what you need to know about it – Puerto Rico Act 20 Act 22 says:

    […] Governor Rosselló took the current election as a big win for the island and may now put the Tennessee plan into place where he will choose two senators and five representatives to go to Washington, D.C., […]

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