Make ’em rectangular and make ’em big

There is a distinct difference in the shape of U.S. states created early on and those created later. Call it a difference between boundaries created during the colonial era and those created by Congress under the Constitution. States in the east vs those in the west. Perhaps the best way to describe it is as those states created by Congress out of the lands of the national public domain, vs those created in any other way. States whose boundaries were not created by Congress include the original thirteen colonies, Vermont, Maine, Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas, California, and West Virginia.

The above map, made using a Wikimedia Commons blank map, shows the original thirteen colonies’ successor states in blue (including Maine, which was a part of Massachusetts). States created by Congress out of the Public Domain lands are orange. Special cases are shown in brown. They include California, Texas, and Vermont, which were all de facto independent nations before becoming states. Kentucky was part of Virginia until statehood. Tennessee was briefly federal territory before becoming a state, but its borders were essentially given to Congress, not created by Congress. West Virginia was created during the turmoil of the Civil War, based on counties and votes.

Bill Hubbard writes, in his book American Boundaries, “In all of the Public Domain, only two principles for state shaping were consistently applied: “make ’em rectangular and make ’em big.” One of the results, he argues, was the “yoking together of opposites”, that is, states containing “factions” that “would forever be contending”. Examples include Oregon and Washington, with their western forests and their eastern deserts, Montana, Colorado, and Wyoming, with their western mountains and eastern plains, and, well, look at basically any western state. Hubbard further argues that this is not a bad thing—on the contrary it is exactly the kind of thing James Madison would have wanted: that “the tyranny of a majority” is best avoided by throwing divergent interests together.

This is all well and good. What surprised me was not that Congress made states that were generally rectangular and big—that is obvious—but that in all the states created by Congress the boundaries either follow rivers or straight lines (almost always lines of latitude or longitude). The only border that is not a straight line or a river, is the Idaho-Montana border, which mostly follows the Continental Divide and the crest of the Bitterroot Mountains. And of the straight line boundaries, the only exceptions to the rule of following lines of latitude or longitude—that is, the only diagonal straight lines, are: the Ohio-Michigan border, part of the Wisconsin-Michigan border, part of the Mississippi-Alabama border, and part of the Arkansas-Oklahoma border. The blatantly diagonal California-Nevada border was not created by Congress but by the Republic of California. As said above, this is counting only those states created by Congress out of the Public Domain lands, meaning every state after Tennessee, excepting Texas, California, and West Virginia. Ohio too might be excused, as it was the first state with borders given to it by Congress, and Congress was still working out how it would create states in the first place. Its slightly diagonal border with Michigan was something the people of Ohio requested and Congress granted.

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