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The Problem With More Than 50 States

With what seems a never-ending list of wanna-be states, why hasn't there been a successful secession since 1863?
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In an argument for statehood, George Sundborg, a newspaper editor who went on to help write the Alaskan constitution, decreed that in the making of the Union, “It seems that Americans no sooner got their feet upon the ground than they wanted to make the ground into a state.” What Sundborg didn’t mention is that sometimes Americans want to take their states and turn them into more states, which is both a current and historical trend. In the 19th century, residents of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan began lobbying for statehood, while in 1915 representatives from Panhandle, Texas, drafted a bill to secede and form the State of Jefferson. Now, arguments for another Jefferson have been made, this time by displeased citizens in northern California and southern Oregon. Movements from Maryland and Colorado have also received media attention, leading some critics to argue that instead of seceding, unhappy residents could always just move.

The 1863 formation of West Virginia was the last successful state secession, but a poor track record hasn’t kept some Americans from thinking that it’s possible. A recent Rasmussen report states that 17 percent of Americans would secede from their own states, while 34 percent of Republicans think it’s likely some states will break up within the next 25 years. While 44 percent of adult Americans believe new states would be bad for the country, 12 percent still feel it would be for the best.

"The thing about a larger union is that if it’s diverse it requires more conversation, more effort to figure out what’s really in our common interest. If you have a small union, then it’s easier to lord over others."

Which raises the obvious question: Would it be that bad if we added more states?

“In an ideal world, it’d probably be better to redo the whole state alignment, make them more equal in population, and start from scratch,” said Bruce Cain, a professor of political science at Stanford. “But in reality of course, that’s not going to happen for any number of practical reasons.”

New state formations would be disastrously expensive, Cain said, and the areas that want to secede simply don’t have the economic capacity to pay for the level of services they would need as states.  But the bigger issue is that, yes, it would be bad if we added more states.

“It’s one thing for the federal government to let some states set up health exchanges and others not. It’s another thing to create new representation, which changes the composition of the Senate,” Cain said. “That would infringe on the very bitter politics that we’re seeing on a day to day basis now.”

Jack Rakove, also professor of political science at Stanford, agrees. “You can say, ‘OK I see how that would make sense on a state level,’” Rakove said. “But if you look at the state of the national policy—and this is not a bad week to think about that—this scenario is going to create more Republican states that will represent the kind of constituencies that are already over-represented.”

If the federal gridlock seems bad now, more states could make it worse.

Of course, Rakove said, you can definitely imagine lots of ways of restructuring the map so that it would make more geopolitical sense. But it’s probably in our best interest to have large, diverse states, which tend to keep extremists from misusing their power. According to Rakove, through history we’ve learned, “the thing about a larger union is that if it’s diverse it requires more conversation, more effort to figure out what’s really in our common interest. If you have a small union, then it’s easier to lord over others.”

While states successfully seceding doesn’t seem to be in the future, a version of secession does work at the level of local government—areas that incorporate or annex themselves into different jurisdictions to avoid unfavorable political situations. “At some point over the next 10 years or so,” Cain said, “I think there is going to be a lot of effort by local governments to take more control over policies and services and representation at the local level.”

But could that then spread out to state-level secession?

“No,” Cain said, “I don’t think it’s going to lead to the creation of new states.”