State Admission/Exclusion on a Partisan Basis

I want to share an interesting argument made about twenty years ago by two political scientists that is relevant to my draft paper on “The Antipartisan Principle.” They (Barry Weingast and Charles Stewart) argue that the Republican Party artificially inflated its majority from 1860-1912 by admitting territories that leaned Republican and excluding those that leaned Democratic.  These “rotten boroughs” enhanced the strength of the party (especially in the Senate and in the Electoral College) and helps explain why Republicans could sacrifice African-American voting rights in the South and still win.

There’s definitely merit to this argument.  Consider how the territories were admitted after 1860:

1.  Kansas in 1861–Before the Civil War there was a bitter fight over whether Kansas should be admitted at all (as it was thinly populated), and, if so, whether it should be a slave or free state.  As soon as Southern Democrats were gone, the GOP admitted Kansas as a free state.

2.  West Virginia in 1863–This admission was highly disputed because West Virginia resulted from the secession of counties from Virginia.  Naturally, this region supported Republicans as the Union Party.

3.  Nevada in 1864–This should get more attention.  Not only was Nevada bereft of people, but it was admitted right before the 1864 presidential election (to give Lincoln 3 more votes).

4.  Nebraska in 1867–This was admitted by the 39th Congress over Andrew Johnson’s veto to get the GOP two more senators to assist with Reconstruction.

5.  Colorado in 1876–President Johnson blocked Congress’s attempt to admit Colorado in 1867, but eventually this GOP territory was admitted just in time to give Rutherford B. Hayes 3 electoral votes.  (He won by 1 disputed vote.)

I could continue the story with admissions in the 1880s and 1890s, but you get the idea.

There were three territories in the West that leaned Democratic (Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona).  Their admission was delayed for decades. Utah did not become a state until 1896. New Mexico and Arizona not until 1912. What did these 3 states share?  Well, they supported Democrats largely because of religion (Mormons and Catholics). This suggests that opposition to Utah statehood because of polygamy was partly a pretext.

Anyway, this history is an interesting contrast to the modern understanding, which I think would be that admitting a state for partisan gain (say DC or Puerto Rico), would be wrong even if the party that would benefit had the votes.

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2 Responses

  1. Joe says:

    Kansas’ population in 1860 was 107,206, which was small vis-a-vis others, but a few thousand less than Delaware and much more than Oregon, which was just made a state.

    The minimum for a new state was 40,000 by one account. Nevada didn’t make that, so “bereft” indeed.

  2. ctr says:

    I don’t think I share your “modern understanding … that admitting a state for partisan gain (say DC or Puerto Rico) would be wrong…” Why should that decision be any less political than any other decision a legislature makes? I can understand a reason why Senate confirmations are should be non-political out of deference to the office of the president. And similarly, the rule of law requires that judges be non-political, or at least pretend to be, in deference to the political branches. I can even see why redistricting decisions should be non-political, to defer to the people to pick their representatives rather than vice versa. But the decision of whether to expand a government to cover new territory and new people seems to be the ultimate of political questions. If democrats want to include a group of people because they share political values, or vice versa, then that seems to be precisely the sort of concern that motivates the creation of a polity in the first place.