By ERIN ALLEN
Mark Stein owes much to the Library of Congress for the completion of his recent book, “How the States Got Their Shapes.” The institution’s collections were central to his research.
And he is one of the few members of the public who has been able to take home Library books. His wife, Arlene Balkansky, happens to be a senior reference specialist in the Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room. Her staff borrowing privileges definitely came in handy.
“I would urge any young person entering a career that involves research to marry an employee of the Library of Congress,” Stein quipped in the book’s acknowledgments.
Stein made extensive use of the holdings in the Library’s Geography and Map Division, saying the division’s reference librarians “led me to an extraordinary resource that I suspect is available in relatively few libraries.
“The single most valuable resource made available to me from the Library was the online collection of historical maps. It enabled me to search a great number of maps of any given area over many years, which helped me to locate and understand some of the more subtle and curious border irregularities,” Stein added. “In addition, the online collection enabled me to zoom in and identify critical details not present on contemporary maps.”
Of course, the Library’s traditional collections of books provided Stein with a great number of sources that were not readily available elsewhere. Many of these were not books to be found at your local library, he said.
“State histories from the 19th century were a treasure trove of information regarding the reasons for boundaries being located where they are,” he said.
The Library’s American Memory Web site also provided “gems of insight” into the circumstances contributing to the location of state borders.
Stein further discussed his book before a packed audience on July 15 as part of the Books and Beyond lecture series sponsored by the Center for the Book.
Young and old alike gathered to hear his anecdotal findings on the biggest jigsaw puzzle of them all—the United States. Prior to his lecture, family members visiting the Library could be found quizzing one another other on the states, thanks to a handy map of the nation provided to all those attending. Little did they know that those shapes most everyone takes for granted are rooted in various histories of intolerance, military skirmishes and ideological intrigue.
According to Stein, four elements influenced the shapes of the states: the American Revolution, the 1808 proposal for the Erie Canal, railroads and slavery.
Before the American Revolution, the British crown created colonies that were diverse in size. After the revolution, the new bicameral legislature created greater parity among the states with regard to their size and shape. Founding Father Thomas Jefferson provided the underlying principle of all states being created equal, although he actually meant in size.
After the revolution, Congress assigned Jefferson the task of devising how the Northwest Territory—land between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers—should be divided. He proposed that the region be divided into states having two degrees of latitude and four degrees of longitude, wherever possible.
According to John Hébert, chief of the Library’s Geography and Map Division, one degree of latitude is 69 miles. “Generally the degree of longitude is 69 miles also (although this is trickier with longitude as it moves away from the equator),” he says.
So, Jefferson proposed states of the Northwest Territory be 138 miles in height and approximately 276 miles in width.
Congress did not adopt Jefferson’s recommendation for these borders for this particular region; however, it did apply the concept to the creation of other state lines. The prairie states of Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota all have three degrees of latitude (or 207 miles in height). The Rocky Mountain states of Colorado, Wyoming and Montana each have four degrees of latitude (or 276 miles in height). And, the western states of Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota all have almost exactly seven degrees of longitude (or approximately 483 miles in width).
Following the revolution, the original 13 United States were no longer part of England and several wanted access to the St. Lawrence River in Canada, which connects the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. The Erie Canal changed the boundary lines for that region. Rivers also became less critical to shaping boundaries as railroad lines began to straighten borders from east to west.
With the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, a question had arisen regarding slavery in the states to be created in this new land. States carved out of the Northwest Territory (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin) prohibited the practice. However, Congress allowed Louisiana to continue slavery because the practice existed there prior to American acquisition. When Missouri sought statehood in 1818, it sparked a dispute that resulted in the Missouri Compromise in 1820—only those states in the new territory whose northern borders were below 36 degrees 30 minutes North latitude could allow slavery, with the exception of Missouri.
Stein entertained questions from the audience; most asked how their home states got their shapes. Naturally, a question arose as to the oddity that is Maryland, which is seemingly cut in two and missing the part from its eastern edge that is Delaware.
“Every boundary in Maryland’s colonial charter was contested, and Maryland lost,” he said.
If states’ equality was so important, why are California and Texas so large compared to the rest of America? According to Stein’s book, Congress didn’t create them; they created themselves. And, thanks to the discovery of gold in California and Congress not wanting to risk losing all of Texas by forcing it to dissolve into smaller states, both states were able to retain most of their claims.
So much historical detail is involved in understanding the boundaries of the 50 states. The prospect of explaining them all seems daunting indeed. So why undertake the task?
“When I set out to do this book, all the lines seemed as much a part of nature,” said Stein. “But they really are the ‘this and that’ of American character.”
Erin Allen is a writer-editor in the Library’s Public Affairs Office.