It all started when 13 British colonies in North America declared their independence and founded the United States of America. The notion of adding onto that narrow strip of territory hugging the Atlantic seaboard by welcoming new states into the Union was a given for the Founders. They even wrote it into the Constitution: “New states may be admitted by the Congress into this Union.” There’s no limit on the number of states, no geographic boundary, no timeframe—just a constitutional invitation to expand. There are efforts underway to accept that invitation yet again—and add more stars to Old Glory.

Growth Spurts
Before we discuss those efforts, it’s important to underscore how common this process has been. Three states joined the original 13 during George Washington’s presidency. A land surveyor by training, Washington advocated expansion.[1]  Responding to news of Kentucky's statehood plan, Washington praised “the sentiments of warm attachment to the Union…expressed by our fellow citizens of Kentucky.”[2]

By 1823, there were 24 states. On the eve of the Civil War, there were 34. By that time, the nation had expanded north to Maine and Wisconsin, west to Kansas and Texas, south to Louisiana and Florida. In our nation’s first 183 years (after the original 13 states declared independence), Americans welcomed a new state into the Union, on average, every five years.

None of these growth spurts were accidental or unexpected. President Thomas Jefferson acquired the Louisiana Territory, from which 15 states would be formed. While serving as secretary of State, John Quincy Adams envisioned a nation “coextensive with the North American continent.”[3]President James Polk delivered on that vision, adding the Oregon Territory and vast parts of the North American west to the Union. The war with Mexico would yield nine states, including California.[4]With Oregon and California in the fold, the United States stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Alaska, acquired from Russia after the Civil War, pushed U.S. territory even further west. Hawaii became a U.S. territory in the 1890s, as did Guam, the Philippines and Puerto Rico.[5]

Puerto Rico
That brings us to current statehood efforts. There are undoubtedly political-electoral calculations in Congress for these efforts—as there have been every time states have been added to the Union[6]—but that’s a subject for another essay. The purpose here is simply to explore how and where the United States might grow.

Puerto Rico is at the top of the list of candidates. A 2020 referendum saw 52 percent of Puerto Ricans vote for statehood. That’s not exactly overwhelming support from the Puerto Rican perspective. Moreover, the island is economically bankrupt.[7]And as political analyst Michael Barone points out, “Since 2010, some 550,000 Puerto Ricans, 14 percent of the population, have left for the mainland.”[8]That’s not exactly an ideal statehood candidate from the U.S. perspective.

Regardless of those impediments, it does seem Puerto Rico’s status in that gray area between statehood and independence needs to change one way or the other. Toward that end, a bill was introduced in the House in 2020 empowering the people of Puerto Rico to organize a convention to “exercise their natural right to self-determination.” While that measure never gained traction, the statehood referendum seems to have generated some momentum.[9]There are bills percolating in both the Senate and House that would establish “a process for the admission of Puerto Rico into the Union as a state…based on a majority vote of the people of Puerto Rico.”[10]

“We're gonna push for this now,” says Jenniffer González-Colon, who serves as Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner (or delegate) in Congress. “It's a bipartisan issue.”[11]

With 3.1 million people, Puerto Rico would be a medium-sized state—sliding in between Utah and Nevada in population.[12]

Washington, D.C.

Residents of Washington, D.C., too, have voted on statehood, but the outcome was much clearer: 86 percent of D.C. voters supported a measure calling on the D.C. council to “petition Congress to enact a statehood admission act to admit the State of New Columbia to the Union.”[13]

In April 2021, the House passed legislation—aptly numbered HR 51—providing admission into the United States “of most of the territory of the District of Columbia….on an equal footing with the other states.”[14]As envisioned by the bill approved by the House, this new state would encompass “all District territory, with specified exclusions for federal buildings and monuments, including the principal federal monuments, the White House, the Capitol Building, the U.S. Supreme Court Building, and the federal executive, legislative, and judicial office buildings located adjacent to the Mall and the Capitol Building.” This downsized D.C. “shall be known as the Capital and shall be the seat of the federal government,” according to the bill, which awaits Senate action.[15]

Still, major impediments stand in the way of D.C. statehood. The first is underscored by the contortions and carveouts in the aforementioned legislation. To ensure that no state has control over the federal government, the Constitution makes clear that there must be a federal enclave subject to Congress for the seat of government.[16]Whittling down what is currently known as Washington, D.C., to a few buildings and monuments, and then declaring D.C.’s remaining serpentine territory a state would seem to create new problems. Equally troublesome for D.C. statehood advocates is the reason why all those legal-geographic contortions and carveouts are included in HR 51: Many constitutional scholars contend that D.C. statehood—because it would impact the text of the Constitution and could muddle the intent of the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution—requires a constitutional amendment.[17]HR 51 tries to sidestep that by preserving some semblance of a federal enclave. But that may not be enough to satisfy legal challenges. Moreover, given that only 29 percent of the American people support D.C. statehood, passage of the enabling legislation through an evenly-divided Senate—let alone passage of a constitutional amendment requiring ratification by three-fourths of states and two-thirds of Congress—seems unlikely.[18]

Another solution for D.C. residents—who are currently represented by a non-voting delegate in the House and participate in presidential elections via the 23rd Amendment—is something known as “semi-retrocession.” Under semi-retrocession, U.S. citizens living in D.C. would vote in Maryland’s Senate elections and for one of Maryland’s federal House seats, thus giving them political representation on par with other U.S. citizens.[19]

With 700,000 residents, D.C. would be a small state, just slightly larger than Vermont and Wyoming.

Beyond P.R. and D.C.

Candidates for 21st-century statehood are not limited to P.R. and D.C. The United States could lean into this and explore adding several stars to the flag. The candidates are sprinkled across the Pacific, Caribbean and even North America. As with P.R. and D.C., each faces impediments to statehood, each has its share of drawbacks and downsides, and each has to address the issue of political support for statehood within Congress and among its population.

With a population of 104,000, the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) are located 1,200 miles southeast of Florida and 112 miles east of P.R. Like other U.S. territories, USVI is represented in Congress by a non-voting delegate. Virgin Islanders are considered deeply patriotic and supportive of America.[20]Yet statehood seems a distant aspiration for USVI, owing to problems it has had developing a constitution that meets Washington’s approval. The most recent draft constitution was returned to the island during the Obama administration.[21]USVI held a referendum on its political status in the 1990s, with the majority voting to remain a territory.[22]

Guam and NMI
With its strategic location, a major U.S. military presence and population of military dependents, Guam may have the strongest case for statehood among America’s Pacific territories. The island, which sits about 4,000 miles southwest of Hawaii and 1,500 miles south of Tokyo, has 169,000 residents and is represented by a delegate in Congress. Polls reveal that 56 percent of Guamanians support statehood, with only 10 percent supporting independence.[23]As with Hawaii and Alaska in the 1950s, there’s a solid national-security rationale for Guam joining the Union: Guam as a state could serve as a potent political deterrent to Chinese aggression. As Eyck Freymann, director of Indo-Pacific programs at Greenmantle, argues, “The notion that Guam is ‘just a military base’ makes it a more attractive target for U.S. adversaries that would not dare target an American state like Hawaii.”[24]

About 100 miles north of Guam sits the Northern Mariana Islands (NMI), a collection of 22 islands populated by just 54,000 people.[25]  Like Guam, NMI has a delegate in Congress. Freymann notes that “Mariana Islanders have repeatedly voted to merge with Guam as a step toward statehood.” Although those votes have yet to generate much forward momentum,[26]Freymann contends that “statehood for Guam and the Northern Marianas would send a powerful message to Beijing,” namely, that the U.S. is not only committed to defending the Indo-Pacific, but that the U.S. is part of the Indo-Pacific and will not be driven out.[27] 

American Samoa
American Samoa, a cluster of seven islands and atolls in the South Pacific with a population of 55,000, sits 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii. It’s the only U.S. territory whose residents are not considered U.S. citizens.[28]Samoan officials have mulled independence, statehood and continued territorial status, though there seems to be little momentum for statehood currently.[29]In fact, Howard Hills, a former State Department official who handled issues related to Pacific territories, notes that “fiercely patriotic” Samoan “nationals” committed to “preservation of local culture and customary communal land ownership traditions” comprise a substantial segment of the territory. “Unlike the other four territories,” Hill concludes, “American Samoa retains strong social cohesion and political as well as economic self-determination.”[30]

Canadian Provinces
When it appeared that Quebec might declare independence in the 1990s and thus disconnect the eastern provinces from the rest of Canada, some provincial premiers in the east discussed U.S. statehood.[31]  More recently, Canadians in the western part of the country have grown disenchanted with the government in Ottawa. Many in these western provinces have an individualist, independent ethos similar to that of the American southwest, and they’ve launched the “Wexit” movement—mirroring Britain’s effort to withdraw from the EU, which was dubbed “Brexit.” There’s even a political movement pushing for secession known as Wexit Canada, with a core of support in Alberta.[32]If Alberta were to cut itself away from Canada, U.S. statehood would be a more likely—and more viable—option than independent nationhood.

The Californias
We tend to think of the boundary lines and names of existing states as settled. But that may not be true. In 2014, there was a statewide initiative to split California into six states.[33]A similar effort dubbed the “New California” movement proposes dividing California into a coastal-urban state stretching from Los Angeles to San Francisco (which would retain the name California) and a rural-suburban-agricultural state (which would be known as “New California”).[34]

Dating to the Gold Rush days of the 1840s, California residents and even some members of Congress advocated forming the State of Jefferson in northern California.[35]Not unlike Albertans disgruntled with and disconnected from Ottawa, Californians agitating for Jefferson today view the government in Sacramento as out of touch with their interests and values. Jefferson’s prospects for statehood may be slim. But the Los Angeles Times reports that some counties have entertained proposals from Jefferson supporters. The Sacramento Bee notes that “sweeping pandemic edicts out of Sacramento” have added new fuel to the Jefferson statehood movement.[36]And it pays to recall that this has happened before: A large swath of northwestern Virginia broke away to form West Virginia in 1863.[37]

If it happened in the past, it can happen in the future.




[3]https://history.state.gov/milestones/1801-1829/florida; John Lewis Gaddis, Surprise, Security and the American Experience, 2004, p.26.



[6]https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/the-last-time-congress-created-a-new-state-hawaii   https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/gop-dc-statehood/2021/03/28/3d1b1b64-8e43-11eb-9423-04079921c915_story.html?outputType=amp   https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/columnists/statehood-for-territories-may-boomerang-on-democrats



[9] https://www.pr51st.com/puerto-rico-statehood-pros-and-cons/







[16] Article I, Section 8





[21] https://www.britannica.com/place/United-States-Virgin-Islands/Government-and-society

[22]https://weather.com/storms/hurricane/news/puerto-ricans-usvi-american-citizens  https://web.archive.org/web/20201128225332/https://www.pacificislandtimes.com/post/2017/01/06/Choose-or-Lose-US-Virgin-Islands-in-2017









[31]https://buffalonews.com/news/frustrated-provinces-ponder-statehood/article_170ed1d2-d2c0-5c28-a3f1-023425b40c3e.html  http://archive.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/gallery/RedrawingNewEngland?pg=5  http://faculty.marianopolis.edu/c.belanger/nfldhistory/NewfoundlandandConfederation-USA.htm



[34]https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-state-of-jefferson-activists-20180317-htmlstory.htmlhttps://www.newcaliforniastate.com/  https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2018/01/16/new-california-declares-independence-california-bid-become-51st-state/1036681001/