Why Is Texas So Big?

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In the lower 48 states, Texas is more than 60 percent larger than the next largest state, California. How did this happen? Typically, new states were created by subdividing territories. The Louisiana purchase was divided up into several states including North and South Dakota, Iowa, Missouri and others. The Northwest territories became five states – Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. However, Texas was an independent nation at the time it joined the Union, so it came in with the borders it had. And those were large. At one point in history, Texas was even larger than it is now.

The making of Texas-sized Texas turns out to be a long and winding road, almost 200 years long.

1665 - King Charles II – Colonial Charters

British colonies were financed on a ‘for profit’ basis by private investors under charters provided by the king. These charters allowed investors to colonize the land typically bounded by designated lines of latitude on the north and south. Virginia’s southern border with the Carolinas was originally set at 36 degrees north. This placed the Carolinas’ Albemarle Sound partly in Virginia, forcing Carolina settlers to pay export taxes to those entrepreneurial Virginians on goods shipped to England. They complained and in 1665, King Charles II moved the border north a half degree to 36 degrees, 30 minutes (36° 30’). This placed Albemarle Sound entirely within the Carolinas, eliminating taxes to Virginia! This line serves today as the southern border of Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri and the Oklahoma panhandle.

1803 – Thomas Jefferson – Louisiana Purchase / 1819 – John Quincy Adams – Adams / Onis Treaty

President Jefferson made the Louisiana purchase which, in time, got sub-divided into states. The first one created, Missouri, was given a southern boundary on the same 36° 30’ line as Kentucky and Virginia. 

John Quincy Adams negotiated the Adams/Onis treaty with Spain to define the precise borders of the Louisiana purchase with Spain, then the owner of the land to the west. The border generally followed river lines combined with straight lines at designated latitudes and longitudes. The northern boundary was set at 42 degrees latitude, now the northern border of California, Nevada and part of Utah.

The border of Texas with Louisiana and Oklahoma still reflects this treaty.

1820 – Henry Clay – Missouri Compromise

Henry Clay negotiated the Missouri Compromise allowing Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state, but otherwise banning slavery in any new states north of the 36° 30’ latitude line, which is the southern border of Missouri. This line dates to the Virginia colonial charter from the 1600s previously described.

1836 – Texas becomes an independent republic / 1846 Texas joins the Union

When Texas became an independent republic, its boundaries with the U.S. were defined by the Adams/Onis treaty. But its boundaries with Mexico were disputed. Texas claimed borders including parts of current New Mexico as far west as Santa Fe, making it even larger than today.

1850 – Stephen Douglas - Compromise of 1850

The issue of slavery reared its ugly head after the U.S. acquired significant territory in the Mexican-American War. The dispute was whether the new lands acquired from Mexico should become become slave states or free states. Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois negotiated the Compromise of 1850. Texas, a slave state, agreed to give up all of land north of the Missouri Compromise 36° 30’ latitude line. Planning ahead, Congress had already set the Kansas border at 37 degrees latitude allowing four evenly sized states to be created with the Canadian border, which is at 49 degrees latitude. As a result, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota are all 3 degrees of latitude from north to south. There is a half-degree strip of land left between 37 degrees north and 36° 30’ north. This is now the Oklahoma panhandle which is about 35 miles deep. Texas ceded its western claims in today’s New Mexico to the federal government in return for for $10 million, sorely needed by Texas at the time. The western boundary now runs in a straight line on the 103-degree longitude mark.

If you think Texas is big now, it gave up about a third of its territorial claims as part of this compromise.

Break Texas into smaller states

When Texas joined the union in 1845, the state’s large size was an issue. Some thought it might be better governed if broken up into smaller states. Supporters of slavery liked that idea as it would increase the number of slave states in the Senate. After debate, annexation of Texas into the Union included a provision that allowed Texas to create four additional states within its territory, making five in total. It is possible the provision is no longer valid due to Texas’s secession and subsequent re-admission to the Union after the Civil War. Nate Silver, statistical analyst at FiveThirtyEight, did a simulation of a Texas split up. While overall a red state, parts of it are blue and he concluded that the effect on the Senate balance and electoral votes would be minor. For now, Texas keeps its place as the largest state in the lower 48, allowing Texans to continue to say that ‘Everything is bigger in Texas.”

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