Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld


Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Friday, December 13, 2013

How the States Got Their Shapes: A Few Counterfactuals


I don’t what kind of ratings the new offshoot of the History Channel, H2, has been getting, but I enjoyed the recent airing of the two hour program “How the States Got Their Shapes,” which was based on Mark Stein’s book of the same name from 2008.

In it, some interesting counterfactuals were raised -- however fleetingly.  One that I was unaware of involved the ill-fated attempt in 1785 to spin off a new state from western North Carolina (eventually eastern Tennessee), known as Franklin.  Its backers (who proposed naming it after Benjamin Franklin in the effort to curry favor with Congress) strove to realize their dream for some four years, during which time, they elected their own governor (the Revolutionary War veteran, John Sevier), drafted their own Constitution, and formed their own militia.    



After Congress declined to recognize the state in 1785, Franklin continued as a de facto independent republic.  But North Carolina eventually moved to reassert its control over the restive region (which continued to battle local Cherokees).  In 1787, strife erupted when state troops moved into Franklin and engaged Sevier’s militia, leading to the latter’s defeat.   Undeterred, Sevier, whose forces were embroiled in ongoing skirmishes with the Cherokees into 1788, reached out to Spain for diplomatic and financial support, leading the program’s narrator to counterfactually intone:

“Had they won and earned Spain’s help, Franklin might have parlayed that power into statehood and become the 14th state.  Instead, it became part of Tennessee.”

I am no expert in 18th century American history and cannot vouch for the plausibility of this evocative “what if?”  But I am skeptical, given the other failed efforts to create independent states in U. S. history.  These efforts include the Mormon effort to create the state of Deseret (1849) and the effort of gold prospectors and miners in the heartland of today’s Colorado to create the state of Jefferson (1859).  Congress’s tight control over the admission of new states (especially the drawing of boundaries, as Stein’s book makes clear) shows how little say various lobbying groups ultimately had. 

That said, the story of these “ghost states” raises the larger question of how the borders of the United States might have turned out differently.    

Interestingly, I recently came across an older study that explored this precise question, D. W. Meinig’s The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History, Volume 2, Continental America, 1800-1867 (Yale Press, 1993), which includes the following map showing two “might have been” visions of the U. S.  



The first is a greater U. S. in which parts of present day Mexico and Cuba have been incorporated; the second is a lesser U. S. in which the independent Republics of Texas and California (along with Deseret) border a smaller U. S.    Meinig points out that both were possible outcomes in the 19th century and reminds us that our present-day borders, no matter how commonsensical they may appear today, were anything but inevitable. 

This is probably worth remembering in light of new secessionist movements in states such as (surprise!) Texas.    For more on how such counterfactual possibilities may play out in the future, see Nate Cohn's recent article from the New Republic, "The 61 States of America."






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