The Long and Winding Road to Statehood

Sometimes the path to statehood is linear: pass the enabling act, vote on delegates, go to the convention, debate and come up with the form of government and constitution.  The petition for statehood follows and, even with some political wrangling, approval by Congress and statehood.  However, not every convention and hopeful state were so lucky.  The Early State Records collection provides numerous examples of these unsuccessful attempts and missteps.  Although the delegates undoubtedly were frustrated with much work and no reward, these documents provide fascinating examples of the politics and attitudes that just missed their intended purpose. 

Perhaps the best examples of constitutions that were implemented but failed in their ultimate goal of statehood can be found in LLMC #00099t-00100t.  Historically, the State (or Free Republic) of Franklin was established in 1784, following North Carolina’s cession of this area to United States Congress to satisfy debts from the American Revolution.  Located in the area west of the Appalachian Mountains, in what is now eastern Tennessee, North Carolina was somewhat reluctant in the best of times to oversee this area.  Faced initially with indifference and later rescission by North Carolina, the frontiersmen decided on independence, and attempted to create the next state in the Union[1].  The American Historical Magazine printed a copy of the 1784 Constitution of the State of Franklin (the Jonesboro Constitution) in its October 1904 edition (LLMC #00099t).  This constitution was considered a temporary placeholder, generally based on the North Carolina constitution, until another convention could be held after six but before twelve months.  Such a convention did meet, although it failed in its petition for statehood.

In LLMC #00100t, the preface explained the history behind this subsequent constitutional convention which began in November 1785 in Greenville.  After some disagreements on content from the delegates, a committee was appointed, which then made numerous changes to the Jonesboro Constitution. These included a single legislative body (Section 1), the exclusion of attorneys and ministers from the legislative body (Section 3), and voting eligibility for all free men twenty-one years or older (Section 4).   Nevertheless, this “Greenville Constitution” (LLMC #00100t) was rejected and the North Carolina constitution was then used, with a few amendments, for the duration of Franklin’s existence as a de facto republic.   Ultimately North Carolina decided to take control of the area and this fascinating almost state and republic ceased its brief existence in 1789.

Vermont is a good example of the adage, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again.”   While ultimately successful, Vermont spent the years 1777 to 1791 as the “Republic of Vermont.”  The causes of this delay were complex, but essentially due to border issues over the New Hampshire Grants with neighboring states.  LLMC #00048t provides a reproduction of the records of the first convention in 1776-1777 held in the New Hampshire Grants, which formed the land to become Vermont.  This version of those records, published in 1904, contains additional material which thoroughly reviewed the record to assure readers that this was an accurate copy of the original minutes of the convention.  The ensuing constitution did not result in statehood, despite a 1776 petition by this hopeful state.  Not surprisingly, these Green Mountain Boys of Vermont were blocked by New York, as it claimed the rights to the New Hampshire Grants, which formed Vermont[2].  Vermont could separate from Great Britain; separating from New York was another matter.

Another general convention was then held at Windsor from July 2-December 3, 1777 and resulted in the Constitution of Vermont.  Fighting against Great Britain and the claims of various states, and not allowed to join the Union, Vermont became the Republic of Vermont.  This constitution contained a Declaration of Rights for Vermont citizens, banned adult slavery, and allowed voting by all freemen in the state, whether they owned property or not (LLMC #00049t).  Vermont continued as a separate republic, amending its constitution in 1786 (LLMC #00051t), but still failing in its goal to become a member state of the United States. An excellent review of this period can be found in LLMC #00053t, which included a collection of the records and documents of Vermont: the 1777 Constitution, journals of the General Assembly from 1779 to 1786 and other related information regarding the Vermont government.  All demonstrated that Vermont was willing to go it alone, although becoming a part of the United States was its ultimate goal.  Finally, New York agreed to statehood and, despite numerous intrigue and requests by other adjoining towns to join Vermont[3], it became the 14th state on March 4, 1791. 

Sometimes the present sounds eerily like the past.  Minnesota’s initial constitution is a good example of the nature of political parties and the sometimes absence of bipartisan cooperation.  In this example, the constitutional convention resulted in two separate proposals caused by the political divide between Democrats and Republicans[4].  The convention to form a government and constitution, which would be submitted to Congress for statehood, convened on July 13, 1857.  However, the convention took an unusual turn when a portion of the delegates refused to co-operate and formed a rival organization. The Republicans left the convention, allowing both groups to create a draft, with little discussion of contentious topics. (LLMC #10572).  The draft constitution (p. 671) that was ultimately adopted was the product of a joint committee of the two conventions and was voted with little discussion.  According to the reporter’s preface, however, the result was essentially the Democratic document (#10572, p. 22).  Nevertheless, voting on this committee version passed with a majority of the votes, despite delegate Mr. Coggswell’s assertion that the convention “proceeded in an unparliamentary manner time after-time, and time and time we have passed solemn votes and then backed out.” (LLMC #42011 p.582).  This uneasy alliance can even be seen by the two separate signature pages for the Democrats and Republicans in the proposed constitution (LLMC #42009).  Nevertheless, the constitution got the job done, and Minnesota became a state on May 11, 1858. 

A final example of multiple proposed constitutions and the long and winding road to statehood can be seen with Kansas.  This territory had four separate conventions (Topeka, Lecompton, Leavenworth, and Wyandotte) stretching from 1855 to 1859 before it became a state.  Slavery appeared to be the pivotal issue, with Lecompton allowing slaves, while the others outlawed slavery and were progressive in varying degrees (LLMC #00417t-00421t).  The first constitution, organized by the Free-Staters in Topeka, met from October 23 to November 1855 and banned slavery.    However, the ideology of this group only went so far.  For example, the Daily Kansas Freeman (LLMC #00416t, November 1, 1855 edition), which contained details of the constitutional convention proceedings, reported that the question of excluding free Negroes into Kansas would be decided by voters.  This was a compromise between the Free-Staters and other members at the convention (LLMC #00417t is also an incomplete manuscript of these proceedings). This attempt at statehood failed, as did the next pro-slavery convention at Lecompton.  The liberal Leavenworth constitutional convention (LLMC #00419t) followed, assembling on March 25, 1858.  In this version, the word "white" did not appear in the proposed document, nor did it exclude “free Negroes and mulattoes" from the state.  Ultimately, this constitution was supplanted by the final version (LLMC #00420t-00421t).  In that constitution, adopted on July 29, 1859, boundaries were established with the present rectangular shape (preamble), slavery was rejected and separate property rights for married women were affirmed (Article 15). However this final version denied suffrage to all but free white men (Article V) (LLMC 00421t).  This Wyandot Constitution was less progressive than Leavenworth, but a rejection of the pro-slavery Lecompton constitution.  It was the successful version that led to statehood on January 29, 1861. 

Other conventions have also met unfortunate fates, whether at the hands of Congress or voters.  Nevertheless, the Early State Records collection allows researchers to decide if either group was correct in its respective rejection.  Who knows what may have happened if every state had put forward the best ideals for its people?

Early State Records is one of LLMC’s most substantial initiatives, thanks to the patronage of several libraries which are listed *here* as well as a grant award from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR).  LLMC is digitizing 2000+ reels from the Library of Congress’ microfilm collection, containing the records, treatises, newspaper accounts and other legal or related documents from pre-colonial through early statehood of the 48 states as well as Native American tribes.  Applying advanced digitization post-processing and value-added metadata  to these primary and secondary sources which were held in numerous state, federal and foreign libraries, historical societies, archives and legislatures, LLMC’s LLMC Digital online service will make many hidden documents, such as the manuscripts, available to researchers and society as a whole. 

Written by Joyce Savio Herleth, Saint Louis University School of Law 


[1] Vying with Vermont for the 14th state.  Guess who won?

[2] New Hampshire also claimed ownership of these New Hampshire Grants.  LLMC 00049t, p. 6-7.  See also LLMC #00081t for Ethan Allen’s narrative on New York’s claims. 

[3] See LLMC #00079t for Ira Allen’s defense of his action in negotiating with New York, including not including towns which were east of the Grants. LLMC #00080t and #00082t also provided a defense of Vermont regarding all the various claims on its land. 

[4] Remember, the Republicans were the party of Lincoln and considered more progressive at the time.