Happy Centennial, Arizona!

February 21, 2012

Happy 100th Birthday Arizona!

This is a few days late — Arizona the state turned 100 back on February 14 — but I happen to know a little Arizona territorial history, so I thought I’d pass it along. Better late than never.

My dissertation looked at the political development of the American west — how the statehood process in the Constitution was executed via the politics of territorial creation, territorial division, and state admission. One of the APD-ish chapters (condensed blog post on it here) examined how the civil war affected western territorial development, and Arizona was semi-prominently featured in that research, because the war affected not only the timing of the creation of the Arizona territory, but also the decision to divide the New Mexico territory along the familiar north-south line (as currently divides Arizona and New Mexico) rather than an east-west line, which at the time would have created a more natural political boundary.

Subsequent to southern secession, there was a  general fear among the North of a western rebellion. Although the exact nature of the relationship between the states and the federal government had been up for debate for almost two generations, the reality of the southern secession in 1860-61 quickly turned all of the theoretical arguments of the previous 70 years into questions of immediate and concrete reality, including questions that had not been fully contemplated over the years: if the south was free to leave the union, was the west? If the south (free or not) did in fact leave the union, did it have any claim over the western territories? If the north made peaceful disunion with the south, did that affirm the concept that peaceful separation from the union was both legal and attainable for other states, or for western territories?

It is easy to imagine how these ideas made northern leaders, trying to hold the union together, quite nervous. Of greatest immediate concern to the union, however, was the competition with the south for the territories. It wasn’t an iron-clad lock that the western territories — particularly political communities in the west that had been denied territorial status over the past decade — would side with the union in the war. The combination of these two fears – the rebellion of the west into its own nation and the competition with the south for the allegiance and control of the territories – and the reality of watching their fears realized, spurred Congress into action during the war.

The creation of the Arizona territory exemplified these worries. After the New Mexico territory was created as part of the compromise of 1850 (the Gadsden Purchase was added in 1853), there was a period of about 5 years where there was very little local or national voice for further division of the territory. Staring in 1856, however, residents of the southwestern portion of the territory living in Tucson began to petition Congress to divide the state along an east-west line, which can be seen in the below map:

From 1857 until 1859, residents of Tucson annually sent a delegate to Washington from their proposed territory, but Congress refused to seat him. There were, however, sympathetic politicians in Washington, particularly southerners eager to see the creation of new plausibly pro-slavery states, and bills were introduced in both chambers of Congress for the creation of Arizona via an east-west line through the center of the territory annually from 1857 to 1860. Northern Republicans, of course, had little interest in creating a new southern-leaning territory, however, and correctly pointed out that the 1860 census revealed that Arizona county (the southwestern portion of New Mexico territory) had only 6,482 residents, far too small a population to merit a territorial government. With the northerners firmly in control of the national government after the 1860 election, the prospects for Arizona territory looked slim.

The secession of the south, however, was just what Arizona needed. With the southern portion of the New Mexico territory largely a pro-confederacy population, territorial secession conventions took place at both Tucson and Mesilla in March of 1861. The conventions seceded the pseudo-territory from the union, created a provisional territorial government, and sent out a petition to the Confederacy for admission. By January, 1862, the Confederate States of America had passed legislation organizing the territory of Arizona, and had accepted a delegate from the territory to their Congress. Arizona was officially a political institution of governance, only it was now in the Confederacy.

The union did not wait to act. Lincoln dispatched the Army to occupy Tucson, and Congress prepared legislation in March to create the United States territory of Arizona. The decision was made to split the old New Mexico territory along a north-south line, for two reasons: first, in order to reduce the influence of southern-sympathizers in both the new territory as well as the (new) New Mexico territory. Second, to avoid the appearance of rewarding rebel communities in the west who might seek to organize future territories by seceding from the union. The legislation for the territory stalled for a bit in Congress, and Arizona territory was not officially created until February 24, 1863, long after the Union Army had retaken control of the area. Although statehood would not come for almost 50 more years, the north-south line of division was never altered, and is today Arizona’s eastern border.

The upshot of this is threefold. First, it reminds us that contingent events matter. Absent the war, there would probably have been an Arizona territory eventually — the five big holding territories of the post-1848 west (Washington, Nebraska, Utah, Kansas, and New Mexico) were all subdivided into multiple territories and eventual states — but it would quite likely have been the southern state desired by the territorial residents, rather than the western state placed by Congress in response to war concerns.

Second, it illustrates that the process of bounding the proto-states was both shaped by contemporary politics and consequential to future politics. Time and time again — in Michigan territory, in Minnesota territory, in Washington territory, in Iowa territory, and so forth — the final boundaries of the new state or the new territory are both contestable and contested. As such, the territories and future states are first and foremost political constructions. And it’s not always the case that interests wish to be part of new states; in many territorial divisions and final statehood boundary fights, the politics takes on the character of a core vs. periphery battle, with each side sometimes interested in keeping the periphery in, and sometimes interested in getting it out.

Finally, the division of the New Mexico territory suggests that interests in both the territories and in Washington have goals to which different boundary lines can strongly influence, and thus strong incentives to shape the new territories and states to their preferences. The political development of new states is not simply an admissions game in DC, nor is it simply a settlers game out in the territories. Instead, the local goals of western residents combine with the goals of Washington politicians to create the political structure of development. Local leaders petition Congress, territorial legislatures memorialize Congress, and territorial conventions write state constitutions. But political actors in Congress have their own goals, to which the territories are often instruments. And almost uniformly, the key playing field for these two groups to meet is the House and Senate Committees on the Territories, whose influence on the process is still felt today, with its large role on the political footprint of the west.

The central government of the United States itself has no direct democratic constituency. It is instead constituted exclusively by the aggregation of democracy that takes place in the state governments: members of Congress are chosen by districts either within states or by the states at large; the President of the United States is chosen by the electoral college, a system that purposefully sets aside a direct national election in favor of an aggregation of state elections. Ultimately, no matter how great the authority of the central government becomes, the structure of social choice in the United States will continue to reflect the federal nature of the system.

And that federal nature was largely created as the byproduct of the political goals of western settlers and political actors in Congress, who built a nation incidentally while pursing short-term interests in the 19th century. The resulting configuration of non-original states in the United States – their number, size, and shape – is a lasting visual footprint of the politics of the statehood process in the 19th century. The politics that created that footprint continues to structure social choice in the United States today.

But that’s a (long) story for another time.


4 Responses to Happy Centennial, Arizona!

  1. Lynn (NM Enchantment) on February 22, 2012 at 1:52 pm

    What a great article! I don’t think many New Mexicans even know how bit the territory used to be. It’s interesting how Arizona and New Mexico grew in two different ways. Thanks for sharing. I posted a link to this on my blog if you don’t mind: http://www.newmexicoenchantment.com/state-of-new-mexico-blog.html

    • Matt on February 22, 2012 at 2:01 pm


      Thanks for the kind words. And of course I don’t mind having links pointed at my blog!


  2. Daniel on February 27, 2012 at 12:49 pm

    Fascinating article. Is your dissertation available to read?

    • Matt on February 27, 2012 at 4:24 pm

      Sure. Drop me an email to MattGlassman312 at gmail dot com, and I’ll send it to you.


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