Political divisions of the United States
||This article includes a list of references, but its sources remain unclear because it has insufficient inline citations. (August 2012)|
|This article is part of the series:
Politics and government of
the United States
of the United States
Political divisions of the United States describes the various subnational entities that together form the United States. The primary division is the state. The United States Federal and State governments operate within a system of parallel sovereignty, so states are not technically "divisions" created from the United States, but rather units that, together with the federal district and other territories administered by the Federal government, compose the United States.
Counties and county equivalents may be further subdivided into townships. Towns in New York and New England are treated equivalent to townships by the United States Census Bureau. Towns or townships are used as subdivisions of a county in 20 states, mostly in the Northeast and Midwest.1
Population centers may be organized into incorporated cities, towns, villages, and other types of municipalities. Municipalities are typically subordinate to a county government, with some exceptions. Certain cities, for example, have consolidated with their county government as consolidated city-counties. In Virginia, cities are completely independent from the county in which they would otherwise be a part. In some states, particularly New England, towns form the primary unit of local government below the state level, in some cases eliminating the need for county government entirely.
Outside of the states, other divisions include the federal district, insular areas administered by the Federal government, and American Indian reservations. The Federal government also maintains exclusive jurisdiction over the military installations, and American embassies and consulates located in foreign countries. Other special purpose divisions exist separate from those for general governance, examples of which include conservation districts and Congressional districts.
The primary political unit of the United States is the State. According to numerous decisions of the United States Supreme Court, the 50 individual states and the United States as a whole are each sovereign jurisdictions. The United States was formed when the Thirteen Colonies declared their independence from the British Empire in 1776, becoming the first 13 states. The 37 additional states were admitted to the Union by acts of the United States Congress, beginning with Vermont in 1791 and ending with Hawaii in 1959. The United States Constitution establishes the authority of the Federal government of the United States and maintains the sovereignty of the individual states, limited only by either the powers that each state has specifically transferred to the federal government via the Constitution or the provisions of the state's own constitution, which typically sets certain parameters for the exercise of the state's sovereignty.
The 50 states of the United States of America are as follows:
The Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution reinforces this idea of parallel sovereignty, declaring that the powers not delegated to the federal government are retained by the states.
The United States Supreme Court in Texas v. White held that states do not have the right to secede, though it did allow some possibility of the divisibility "through revolution, or through consent of the States."23 Under the Constitution of the United States they are not allowed to conduct foreign policy.
The 50 states can be divided into regions in many different ways:
- The continental United States typically refers to the main block of 48 states with the Atlantic Ocean to the east, Pacific Ocean to the west, Canada to the north, and Mexico to the south. Since this grouping contains 48 states, it is also commonly referred to as "the Lower 48". The designation "conterminous" or "contiguous" United States is also used for this grouping of 48 states, arguably more accurately, since Alaska is also located on the North American continent, and therefore "continental United States" should really refer to the Lower 48, plus Alaska.
- Alaska is an exclave of the United States, physically connected only to Canada
- Hawaii is located on an archipelago in the central Pacific Ocean
- The states are also commonly divided into regions, primarily based on geography. The precise definition of individual regions may vary between states and between regions. One common definition—the definition used by the United States Census Bureau—is as follows:
Most states decentralize the administration of their sovereign powers, typically in three tiers but always employing at least two tiers and sometimes more than three tiers. The first tier of decentralization is always the statewide tier, constituted of agencies that operate under direct control of the principal organs of state government—such as bureaus of vital statistics, and departments of motor vehicles or public health. The second tier is usually the county (called a borough in Alaska and a parish in Louisiana), which is an administrative division of the state. It may also be more than that (e.g., a metropolitan municipality), but it is always an administrative division of the state. Connecticut is the exception to this second tier rule, having abolished county government in 1960. Some areas in Alaska outside of borough jurisdiction are designated simply as a census areas (unorganized boroughs). Some states contain independent cities that are designated into separate counties. New York City, for example, consists of several counties (boroughs). The state of Virginia has 41 independent cities (see Political subdivisions of Virginia).
The states are divided into smaller administrative regions, called counties in all but two states—exceptions being Alaska (parts of the state are organized into subdivisions called boroughs; the rest of the state's territory that is not included in any borough, known collectively as the Unorganized Borough, is divided into "census areas"), and Louisiana (which is divided into county-equivalents that are called parishes). There are also independent cities which are part of particular states but not part of any particular county or consolidated city-counties. Another type of organization is where the city and county are unified and function as an independent city. There are thirty-nine independent cities in Virginia and other independent cities that are not part of, or consolidated with, counties; these include Baltimore, Maryland, St. Louis, Missouri, and Carson City, Nevada. Counties can include a number of cities, towns, villages, or hamlets, or sometimes just a part of a city. Counties have varying degrees of political and legal significance, but they are always administrative divisions of the state. Some cities are consolidated with, and coterminous with, their counties, including Philadelphia, Honolulu, San Francisco, and Denver—that is to say, these counties consist in their entirety of a single municipality the government of which also operates as the county government. New York City is coterminous with five counties. For further detail, visit counties and county statistics of the United States. Counties in many states are further subdivided into townships—which, by definition, are administrative divisions of a county. In some states, such as Michigan, a township can file a charter with the state government, making itself into a "charter township", which is a type of mixed municipal and township status (giving the township some of the rights of a city without all of the responsibilities), much in the way a metropolitan municipality is a mixed municipality and county.
The third tier commonly found in many states, especially the Midwest, is the township, which is an administrative division of a county. However the county subdivisions vary from state to state and can be either a type of Minor Civil Division (MCD) or a Census County Division (CCD).4 In Alaska, borough subdivisions are designated as census subareas.4 Arlington County, Virginia does not have any additional subdivisions (no MCD).4 MCD may be an independent incorporated place (often city) or unincorporated territory (UT). The water area of Atlantic Ocean and Great Lakes outside of any land MCD is assigned to an MCD that is identified by a 000 code.
Counties exist to provide general local support of state government activities, such as collection of property tax revenues (counties almost never have their own power to tax), but without providing most of the services one associates with municipalities. The township provides further localized services to the public in areas that are not part of a municipality.
In some states, such as Michigan, state universities are constitutionally autonomous jurisdictions, possessed of a special status somewhat equivalent to that of metropolitan municipality. That is, as bodies corporate, they operate as though they were municipalities but their autonomy from most legislative and executive control makes them equally comparable to administrative divisions of the state, equal or superior to counties.
In some states, cities operate independently of townships. Some cities (and all cities in Virginia) operate outside of the jurisdiction of any county. Cities, which are sometimes called towns, differ from counties and townships in that they are not administrative divisions of the state. Instead, they are semi-autonomous municipal corporations that are recognized by the state. In essence, the city as municipal corporation is the modern form of the ancient city-state, a sovereign entity that exists today only in the forms of Monaco, San Marino, Singapore, City of London, and the Vatican City.
Township is an intermediate civic designation between city and county; cities sometimes cross county boundaries, townships never do. Some townships have governments and political power, others are simply geographic designations. Townships in the United States are generally the product of the Public Land Survey System. For more information, see survey township and civil township. Townships are subdivided into sections, which never have separate governments.
The terms townships and towns are closely related (in many historical documents the terms are used interchangeably). However, the powers granted to towns or townships varies considerably from state to state. In New England, towns are a principal form of local government, providing many of the functions of counties in other states. In California, by contrast, the pertinent statutes of the Government Code clarify that "town" is simply another word for "city", especially a general law city as distinct from a charter city.
There are approximately 30,000 incorporated cities in the United States, with varying degrees of self-rule.
Divisions of the federal government include, the District of Columbia, which contains the United States Capitol building and forms the seat of the Government of the United States. The United States Congress exercises exclusive jurisdiction over the District.4
Four states (Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky) call themselves "commonwealth", which goes back to their original founding charters and constitutions. In the federal context, the term "commonwealth" denotes an intermediate status between "territory" and "state"—both in the sense of "independent state" and "U.S. state"—but such does not apply to the four states that are commonwealths by their own state constitutions. At the Federal level, there is really no distinction, and the term is more of an archaism than one of any true importance.
Article IV, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution defines the extent of the authority that the U.S. Congress exercises over the territory of the United States:
- New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.
- The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.
The power of Congress over territorial divisions that are not part of one of the states is exclusive and universal. Once a territory becomes a state of the Union, the state must consent to any changes pertaining to the jurisdiction of that state. The only potential violation of this occurred when the legislature of Virginia declared the secession of Virginia from the United States at the start of the American Civil War and a newly formed alternative Virginia legislature, recognized by the federal government, consented to have West Virginia secede from Virginia.
On March 3, 1849, the last day of the 30th Congress, a bill was passed to create the U.S. Department of the Interior to take charge of the internal affairs of United States territory. The Interior Department has a wide range of responsibilities (which include the regulation of territorial governments, the basic responsibilities for public lands, and other various duties).
In contrast to similarly named Departments in other countries, the United States Department of the Interior is not responsible for local government or for civil administration except in the cases of Indian reservations, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), and island dependencies, through the Office of Insular Affairs (OIA).
The federal government also exercises exclusive jurisdiction over overseas military installations, and American embassies and consulates located in foreign countries. It exercises concurrent jurisdiction to varying degrees with the states in many domestic federal enclaves.
A separate federal district, the District of Columbia, which is under the direct authority of Congress, was formed from land ceded to the Federal Government by the states of Maryland and Virginia; however, the territory ceded by Virginia was returned to that state in 1846. The District does not form part of any state and the United States Congress exercises "Exclusive jurisdiction in all cases whatsoever", over the city; however, the District of Columbia Home Rule Act provides for limited home rule, including an elected mayor and city council. Residents of Washington D.C. can vote in presidential elections and are afforded three electors in the Electoral College.
The insular areas of the United States are those jurisdictions that are neither a part of one of the 50 states nor the federal district.5 Unlike within the States, sovereignty over insular areas rests not with the local people, but in Congress. In most cases, however, Congress has granted considerable self-rule through an Organic Act, which functions as a local constitution. Insular areas are administered by the Federal Government through the Department of the Interior's Office of Insular Affairs.
The insular areas include a number of territories under the sovereignty of the United States and three sovereign nations in free association with the United States. Territories incorporated within the provisions of the U.S. Constitution are designated incorporated territories. Territories not so incorporated are designated "unincorporated". Territories may also be organized, if granted by an Organic Act of Congress or unorganized (without direct authorization of self-government by such an act).
The Northwest Ordinance grants territories the right to send a non-voting delegate to the U.S. Congress. Since the organization of the Northwest Territory in 1789, all areas not admitted to the United States as States were under the direct control of Congress as organized incorporated territories, with some political autonomy at the local level. These organized incorporated territories subsequently became states. Thirty-one of the current 50 states were organized incorporated territories before their admission to the Union. Since the admission of Hawaii to the Union in 1959, there has been a single incorporated territory, the uninhabited Palmyra Atoll (formerly part of the Hawaii Territory, but excluded from the act of admission).
The unincorporated territories of the United States and their ISO 3166-1 codes (in parentheses) are as follows:
- American Samoa (AS) (unorganized; self-governing under authority of the U.S. Department of the Interior)
- Guam (GU) (organized under Organic Act of 1950)
- Northern Mariana Islands (MP) (commonwealth, organized under 1977 Covenant)
- Puerto Rico (PR) (commonwealth since 1952, organized under Law 600 of 1950)
- United States Virgin Islands (VI) (organized under Revised Organic Act of 1954)
In addition to the territories noted above, the United States administered the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands from July 18, 1947 until October 1, 1994. The trust territory was subsequently divided into four political entities—the Northern Mariana Islands, listed above, and three freely-associated states with which the United States has entered into the Compact of Free Association (ISO 3166-1 codes in parentheses):
Cuba and the Philippines are two additional former unincorporated territories that are now independent countries. The United States Navy has held the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in a portion of Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, since 1898. The United States government possesses a lease to this land, which only mutual agreement or United States abandonment of the area can terminate. The present Cuban government of Raúl Castro disputes this arrangement, claiming Cuba was not truly sovereign at the time of the signing. The United States argues this point is irrelevant because Cuba apparently ratified the lease post-revolution, and with full sovereignty, when it cashed one rent check in accordance with the disputed treaty.
The United States government is part of several international disputes over the disposition of certain maritime and insular sovereignties, some of which would be considered territories. Bajo Nuevo Bank and Serranilla Bank are two such disputed claims. See International territorial disputes of the United States for more information.
The United States also holds several other territories, districts, and possessions, notably the federal district of the District of Columbia, and several overseas insular areas, the most significant of which are American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the United States Virgin Islands. Islands gained by the United States in the war against Spain at the turn of the 20th century under the control of the federal government is considered part of the "United States" for purposes of law.;6 on the other hand, the United States Supreme Court declared in a series of opinions known as the Insular Cases that the Constitution extended ex proprio vigore to the territories. However, the Court in these cases also established the doctrine of territorial incorporation. Under the same, the Constitution only applied fully in incorporated territories such as Alaska and Hawaii, whereas it only applied partially in the new unincorporated territories of Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines.78
Northern Marianas Islands is a territory which are commonwealths associated with the United States. They might some day advance to statehood, or they might become independent—as did the Philippines in 1946, after it was a commonwealth of the United States for many years. A territory—whether "organized" or "unorganized"—has significantly fewer rights in the grand scheme of things than a commonwealth (let alone a state), but it ranks at least a notch above "possessions" such as Wake Island, which has no permanent population and thus does not require even a simple territorial government.
American Indian reservations are areas of land managed by a Native American tribe under the United States Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs. There are about 310 Indian reservations in the United States. Tribes possess limited tribal sovereignty over the land in their reservation. As a result laws on tribal lands may vary from the surrounding area.9 The tribal council, not the local or federal government, generally has jurisdiction over reservations. Different reservations have different systems of government, which may or may not replicate the forms of government found outside the reservation. Most Indian reservations were established by the federal government; a limited number, mainly in the East, owe their origin to state recognition.10
Residents of a reservation may vote as residents of a state and are required to pay federal taxes. The special status of reservations has created both opportunities (such as gambling in states that normally disallow it) and challenges (such as the unwillingness of some companies to do business in an area where they are not certain what laws will apply to them).
In addition to general-purpose government entities legislating at the state, county, and city level, special-purpose areas may exist as well. Conservation districts are one such type of special purpose area, created for the purpose of conserving land, natural scenery, flora, and fauna.
Additionally, U.S. courts have ruled that there are smaller areas which are to be considered as fulfilling government functions, and should therefore be bound by the same restrictions placed on "traditional" (US-aligned) government bodies. These include homeowners associations (determined in Shelley v. Kraemer, Loren v. Sasser, Committee for a Better Twin Rivers v. Twin Rivers Homeowners’ Association), and company-owned towns (both for employees and for consumers, decided in the USSC case Marsh v. Alabama in 1946). Many homeowners' and neighborhood associations are considered non-profit organizations, but have the ability to raise taxes or fees, fine members for infractions against association-rules, and initiate lawsuits. The question of civil rights in such communities has not yet been conclusively determined, and varies from state to state.
- Geography of the United States
- Historic regions of the United States
- History of United States continental expansion
- History of United States overseas expansion
- Index of United States-related articles
- List of regions of the United States
- List of U.S. colonial possessions
- List of U.S. state demonyms
- List of U.S. state, district, and territorial insignia
- Organized territory
- Outline of the United States
- Territorial evolution of the United States
- Territories of the United States
- Unceded territory
- United States territory
- Unorganized territory
- U.S. state
- 2002 Census of Governments, Individual State Descriptions (PDF)
- Aleksandar Pavković, Peter Radan, Creating New States: Theory and Practice of Secession, p. 222, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2007.
- Texas v. White, 74 U.S. 700 (1868) at Cornell University Law School Supreme Court collection.
- Geographic Areas Reference Manual
- See 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(36) and 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(38) Providing the term “State” and "United States" definitions on the U.S. Federal Code, Immigration and Nationality Act. 8 U.S.C. § 1101a
- CONSEJO DE SALUD PLAYA DE PONCE v JOHNNY RULLAN, SECRETARY OF HEALTH OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF PUERTO RICO Page 6 and 7, The United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico, retrieved 4 February 2010
- The Insular Cases: The Establishment of a Regime of Political Apartheid" (2007) Juan R. Torruella, retrieved 5 February 2010
- Wade Davies and Richmond L. Clow, American Indian Sovereignty and Law: An Annotated Bibliography (Lanham,MD: Scarecrow Press, 2009).
- Veronica E. Velarde Tiller, ed., Tiller’s Guide to Indian Country: Economic Profiles of American Indian Reservations (Albuquerque: BowArrow Pub., 1996/2005)
- Animated Map: Boundaries of the United States and the Several Statesdead link
- U.S. Census Bureau Geographic Areas Reference Manual
- CityMayors article
- Atlas of Historical County Boundaries