Statecraft on the Eve of the Civil war: Influences on New Territories and States in the 36th U.S. Congress

Brandon Stanley Plewe, Samuel Otterstrom


Regional jurisdiction (states, provinces, counties, etc.) is a crucial part of the governance of a country, and thus one would assume that great care is given to developing an optimal set of jurisdictional boundaries. However, the geometric precision of the boundaries of the western United States seems to defy the logic of the region’s human and physical geography, suggesting that other forces have played a role in the production of political space in the West at pivotal times in its history. In particular, the 36th Congress (1859-61) changed the map of the West considerably just before the beginning of the Civil War, just when the politics of slavery was at its height. Congressional bills, debates, and votes show that slavery did have a strong influence on the creation of new states and territories, but western geography was also very important. In particular, bills were generally introduced to the 36th Congress at the request of settlers, with boundaries that were geographically motivated. Conversely, votes on those bills tended to fall along the sharp party and sectional divisions that were driving the country apart. This paper analyzes the process of boundary-making by governments through a consideration of the complex combination of geopolitical and geo-administrative forces that result in a final decision. The study period of the 36th Congress included the creation of three new territories, a new state, as well as myriad intriguing but unsuccessful proposals.


political boundaries, territories

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