A statewide project equipping K-12 educators to teach Iowa history using primary sources

Teaching Iowa History Logo

Home » Articles » Road Statehood

The Road to Statehood

Author: 

From its very earliest days, under the Articles of Confederation that preceded the adoption of the Constitution, the United States government lay down some important guidelines for settlement of western lands beyond the original thirteen states on the Atlantic Coast.  In the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the Congress declared that western lands would be under the authority of the Federal government, not westward extensions of the existing states.  According to policy, before American settlement could advance into a region, resident Indian tribe had to give it up by treaty and the land had to be surveyed for sale.  The Ordinance set up Federal support for public schools in the west before there was support for universal free education in the original states.  It also designated that slavery was prohibited north of the Ohio River.

All of these measures were part of a blueprint for settlers moving west to new homes.  There was a plan for the west that would guarantee them effective government and equal representation in the affairs of the nation as states equal in status to the established states of the East.  When the United States doubled through the Louisiana Purchase from France, that plan was extended to the trans-Mississippi, including Iowa.

Included in that very significant measure was an outline of the steps that a new region would go through three stages to achieve full status as a state: a district, a territory, a state.  The plan directed the Federal government to use population as the measure of the region’s need for government oversight.  A district with a population of under 5,000 white males did not need much administrative oversight.  When the population met the 5,000 threshold, the President appointed a governor and secretary, and the voters elected a territorial legislature. When the population reached 60,000, a territory could begin the process of application for statehood. The territory had to hold a convention to draft a constitution and submit it to Congress and to the voters.  If approved by both, the territory had to set up an election of state officials to assume office when the state was officially admitted to the Union.  Iowa’s path to statehood followed that pattern, but by no means without several delays.

The road to statehood for Iowa was complicated by many issues and took eight years to succeed.  The details may be confusing, but it is important to outline some of the major issues surrounding the effort.  First, party politics played a significant role.  The President appointed the territorial governor and naturally chose one of his own party.  The Democratic Party had an early edge in territorial politics, and Iowa Democrats did not want to lose the political advantage they had if the Whig Party would win control of the White House (which they did in 1840).  A second issue was economic. The Federal government paid the salaries of territorial officers like the governor, secretary judicial branch appointees and other expenses. If Iowa became a state, however, local taxpayers would have to pick up that tab, and early Iowa residents would be stretched to come up with the cash to pay tax bills. Until the population had grown so that those costs were spread over a larger tax base, many Iowans were happy to remain as a territory even if it meant that there were no voting representatives from Iowa in Congress.

Also, like so many other issues in early 19th C. America, the debate over Iowa’s statehood status became a victim of the North-South division over slavery.   There were two factors.  First, by the terms of the Missouri Compromise in 1820, to maintain the balance between slave and free states in the Senate, the admission of a new state from one side had to be balanced by admission of one from the other.  Florida was ready to come in as a slave state.  If Iowa missed the chance to be her dance partner, Iowa might have to wait for another slave state to apply.  Second, Iowa was the first “free” state to be carved out of the Louisiana Purchase.  Northerners in Congress wanted to keep future free states small to provide the opportunity for more free states.  Southerners hoped for big state boundaries in the Upper Mississippi to limit the number of applications from free states.  On this question, Iowa voters themselves would weigh in forcefully on their own behalf.  They were less concerned about the slave-free state balance than they were about the size of the state itself.

Some local issues also became points of debate.  Democrats for the most part opposed the creation of banks, seeing them as unreliable and a potential source of corruption.  Whigs, the major opposition party of the time, favored the creation of banks as a factor in economic development.  The clash played out in the debates over the creation of a state constitution.  A second issue was race.  Most white Americans of that time, Iowa residents included, incorrectly saw whites as a superior race in intelligence, industry, and morality, over what they judged to be inferior blacks.  There was almost no support for racial equality or integration.  Early debates on the issue were over how far the constitution could go to restrict black migration into the state—perhaps even eliminating it entirely—and to restrict the civil rights of those blacks who did move here.  While the prejudices were real on their own, a secondary factor was the fear that more lenient restrictions would attract large numbers of free blacks to Iowa, a development most early Iowans strongly opposed.

Governor Robert Lucas, a Democrat appointed by President Andrew Jackson, was the first territorial governor and began pushing Iowa to seek statehood shortly after his arrival in 1838.  Though the population had not reached the necessary 60,000 when he took office, the numbers were increasing rapidly.  Lucas had shepherded Ohio through the steps to statehood when he was governor there, and he had seen the rapid development of the new state.  He predicted a similar outcome for Iowa.  In his appeal to the territorial legislature to convene the required constitutional convention, Lucas proposed an expansive set of boundaries.  The Mississippi River on the east and the Missouri line on the south were givens.  Under Lucas’s plan, the western boundary was the Missouri River as far north as the present-day Sioux City where the line heads northeast as far north as the present-day Twin Cities and then back down the Mississippi.  The legislature refused to endorse the call for a constitutional convention, but Lucas’s boundaries became a bargaining point in future deliberations.  However, Congress a few months later authorized Iowa to hold such a convention.  Lucas presented the proposal again to the legislature which this time agreed to put it to a vote of the people.  It was decisively defeated, 2,907-937.

In 1840, the Whig candidate, General William Henry Harrison, won the Presidential election, and Democrat Lucas was replaced by Governor John Chambers.  Although Iowa Whigs in general opposed statehood, Chambers pushed for it anyway.  In 1842, Iowa voters again rejected the call for a constitutional convention to draft a state constitution.  Democrats still feared increased taxation when the Federal government no longer picked up the costs as they did for a territory.

With a growing population, however, the legislature finally issued a call for a constitutional convention to meet in October 1844.  Democrats won two-thirds of the delegates.  The resulting document modeled itself closely to those written for earlier states.  There were three branches of governments, each with its own powers.  On the race question, the proposed constitution did not prohibit blacks to settle in the state but limited the right to vote, public office, jury duty, and the militia to white males only.  Reflecting distrust of banks at the time, the document allowed banks only if the legislature provided a charter that would need to be renewed in twenty years.  Anyone owning an interest in the bank was personally liable for the bank’s debts.  And significantly, it proposed the boundaries that Governor Lucas had outlined five years earlier.  The document was approved by the convention, forwarded to Washington, and presented to Congress in December of 1844.  This time, the process was to seek Congressional approval first before submitting it to the voters of the state. 

In a quirk of fate, the report of a French-American explorer, engineer, and geologist Joseph Nicollet happened to arrive at the offices of the U.S. Geological Survey.  Working entirely independently of the political debates on the Iowa constitution, Nicollet proposed division of the western side of the Upper Mississippi into five states.  His boundaries were much smaller than those of Lucas.  Nicollet’s western boundary cut off about a third of the western Iowa under Lucas but raised the northern boundary about 50 miles north of the current Iowa-Minnesota border.  Iowa’s size under the Nicollet recommendations were considerably smaller than those of Lucas and denied Iowa the Missouri on its western border.

Northern representatives seized on the Nicollet recommendations because they favored the creation of more, and therefore smaller, states out of the region.  The succeeded in amending the constitution that the Iowa convention had submitted, over the protests of Southern forces that wanted larger borders.  Thinking that Iowa would not challenge Congress over the new borders, it sent the revised document back to Iowa for ratification in the upcoming election of April 1845.  Iowa voters were stunned.  Both parties favored the large-state, Lucas boundaries.  After a heated debate, Iowa refused to accept the Congressional changes by a 996 margin, 7,019 - 6,023. 

The previous fall, the Democrats once again captured the White House with the election of President James K. Polk.  He appointed James Clarke as governor of the Territory of Iowa who assumed his position in the spring of 1845 amid the constitutional controversy.  Clarke successfully persuaded the territorial legislature to call a new convention to meet in May, 1846, to draft yet another constitution.  As the delegates were being selected, a new proposal appeared in Congress.  Rep. Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, chairman of the Committee on Territories, introduced a compromise measure between the large-state Lucas boundaries and the small-state Nicollet lines.  The Missouri River and a small portion of the Big Sioux River up to the 43030’ longitude became the western boundary.  From that point east to the Mississippi would become the northern boundary of the state.  (The Douglas boundaries are today’s borders.)

The Iowa convention adopted a constitution very similar to the earlier one proposed with one essential change: it approved the Douglas boundaries instead of the original Lucas lines.  However, for ratification, the convention required the voters of Iowa to approve the document before it was sent to Congress.  Congress, however, went ahead with its own plan.  In June, the U.S. House of Representatives amended the original application to include the same Douglas boundaries as the Iowa convention had adopted and the Senate followed suit August 1.  On August 4, President Polk signed the bill.

By a remarkable coincidence in an era without rapid communication, Iowans (white males only) went to the polls on August 3 and gave the revised constitution a razor-thin victory, 9,492-9,036.  The rest was formality.  Gov. Clarke declared the constitution approved and set up the elections for state officials.  On Dec. 3, the Democrat Ansel Briggs was elected the first governor of the state of Iowa even though Congress had not formally admitted Iowa into the Union.  That was accomplished on December 24 and signed by President Polk on December 28, 1846, making Iowa the 29th state to join the Union. 

In his inaugural address, Gov. Briggs included a rare line for newly-elected officials declaring his lack of preparation for the position: "From my want of experience in the affairs of civil administration, I must naturally feel a great degree of embarrassment in my present position; but that feeling will be greatly lessened from the hope and belief which I entertain, that in your character of representatives of an enlightened constituency, you will kindly extend to me your aid and indulgence.”

While there were delays on the way to statehood, the path was clear, and Iowans knew that eventually their state would join the Union as a full and equal partner.  The process saw debates on local issues like banking and race and the all-consuming national divide over slavery.  It pitted Iowans’ unwavering support for river-to-river borders against Congressional interests in shaping the future of the free states of the trans-Mississippi west.  Iowa was paired with Florida to maintain the free-slave state balance in the Senate, but the slavery controversy grew only more divisive.  Fifteen years after Iowa’s admission, the Union Iowa had worked hard to join was threatened with disintegration and plunged into a bloody Civil War.


For Further Reading
Leland Sage, A History of Iowa (ISU Press, 1974)
State Library of Iowa, Iowa Constitution of 1846 http://publications.iowa.gov/17470/
Ordinance of 1787 https://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Ordinance+of+1787