Political divisions of the United States
The political units and divisions of the United States include:
*The 50 states (four of these being officially styled as Commonwealths), which are typically divided into counties and townships, and incorporated cities,
towns, villages, and other types of municipalities, and other autonomous or subordinate public authorities and institutions. With the exception of the original 13, each state was admitted to the Union at a specific time by an act of the U.S. Congress.
*The District of Columbia, the Capital of the United States. Although the District of Columbia is not a state and does not have voting representation in Congress, D.C. residents can vote in presidential elections and are afforded three electors in the
Native American reservations are given quasi-independent status. While every reservation is part of a state, and residents vote as residents of the state in which they reside and do pay federal taxes, the reservations are exempt from many state and local laws. The ambiguous nature of their status has both created opportunities (such as gambling in states that normally disallow it) and challenges (such as the unwillingness of some companies to open up shop in a territory where they are not certain what laws will apply to them).
Territories of the United Statesmay be "incorporated" (part of the United States proper) or "unincorporated" (known variously as "possessions", "overseas territories" or "commonwealths") Territories may also be "organized" (with self-government explicitly granted by an "Organic Act" of the U.S. Congress) or "unorganized" (without such direct authorization of self-government). Thirty-one of the current 50 states were organized incorporated territories before their admission to the Union. Since 1959, the United States has had only one incorporated territory ( Palmyra Atoll), but maintains control of several unincorporated territories, both organized and unorganized.
*The federal union, which constitutes the United States as a collective of the several states, exercises exclusive jurisdiction over the military installations, and American embassies and
consulates located in foreign countries; and the District of Columbia.
*Such quasi-political divisions as conservation
districts and school districts, which are usually just special, geographically designated subordinate public authorities.
*Recognized bodies, such as
homeowners associations, which fulfill government functions, and have since been bound by subsequent court decisions to certain restrictions normally applying to local governments.
Altogether, there are an estimated 85,000 extant political entities in the United States. Political units and divisions of the United States are a subset of the total
United States territory.
Political units and system of operation
The primary political unit of the
United Statesafter the federal union is the state. Technically and legally, states are not "divisions" created "from" the United States, but units that "compose" the US, because the United States and the several states that constitute it operate with a system of parallel sovereignty. According to numerous decisions of the United States Supreme Court, the several states and the United States (that is, the federal state which is coextensive with the 50 several states and the District of Columbia) are sovereign jurisdictions. The sovereignty of the United States is strictly limited to the terms of the United States Constitution, whereas the sovereignty of each individual state is unlimited, except in two respects: 1. The sovereignty and powers that each state has transferred to the United States via the United States Constitution, and 2. The provisions of its own constitution, which usually (but not always) sets certain parameters for the exercise of the state's sovereignty.
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 always 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. The third tier commonly found in many states, especially the Midwest, is the township, which is an administrative division of a county.
Basically, 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, because counties are usually too big for that purpose. That is where the township comes in, to provide 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, and the Vatican City.
Divisions of the federal state include, first, the District of Columbia, which contains the
United States CapitolBuilding - the seat of the Government of the United States. The United States Congress exercises exclusive jurisdiction over the District and all other lands controlled by the federal government.
Notwithstanding four states officially call themselves "commonwealth" (Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky), which go back to their original founding charters and constitutions. In the federal context, the term 'commonwealth' means 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 import. However, Puerto Rico and the Northern Marianas Islands are territories which are commonwealths associated with the United States. They might someday 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" and "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.
Federal oversight of United States territory
Congress of the United States
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 the territory becomes a state of the Union, the state must consent to any changes pertaining to the jurisdiction of that state. This has been violated only once, when a rump legislature formed the State of
West Virginia, seceding from Virginia, which itself had seceded from the United States in the months preceding the American Civil War.
United States Department of the Interior
On March 3, 1849, the last day of the 30th Congress, a bill was passed to create the
U.S. Department of the Interiorto 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).
tates of the United States
At the Declaration of Independence, the United States consisted of 13 states, former colonies of the
United Kingdom. In the following years, the number of states has grown steadily due to expansion to the west, conquest and purchase of lands by the American government, and division of existing states to the current number of 50 United States:
The relationship between the state and national governments is rather complex, because of the country's
federal system. Under United States law, states are considered sovereign entities, meaning that the power of the states is considered to come directly from the people within the states rather than from the federal government. The federal government of the United States was created when sovereign states delegated some of their sovereignty to one central government. The sovereignty they delegated, however, was not complete. The logical extension of this delegation is that the federal government enjoys limited sovereignty, and the states retain whatever sovereignty they never delegated to the federal government. Federal law overrides state law in the areas in which the federal government is empowered to act, but the powers of the federal government are subject to the limited sovereignty delegated by the Constitution of the United States. (The Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution declares that the powers not delegated to the federal government are retained by the states, but this arguably is mere truism.)
American Civil Warand " Texas v. White" established that states do not have the right to secede, and under the Constitution of the United States, and they are not allowed to conduct foreign policy.
The United States–Canadian border is the longest undefended political boundary in the world. The 50 states are divided into distinct sections:
continental United States", also known as "the Lower 48" and more accurately termed the conterminous, coterminous, or contiguous United States
Alaska, an exclave, which is physically connected only to Canada
archipelagoof Hawaii, in the central Pacific Ocean.
The United States also holds several other territories, districts, and possessions, notably the
federal districtof 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 Spainat the turn of the 20th century were no longer to be considered foreign territory; on the other hand, the United States Supreme Courtdeclared that they were not automatically covered by the Constitution and that it was up to the United States Congressto decide what portions of the Constitution, if any, applied to them. The only remaining exception is Palmyra Atoll, the United States's only incorporated territory; it is unorganized and uninhabited.
United States Navyhas held a base at 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 Raul Castrodisputes this arrangement, claiming Cuba was not truly sovereign at the time of the signing. The United States argues this point is moot because Cuba apparently ratified the lease post-revolution, and with full sovereignty, when it cashed one rent check in accordance with the disputed treaty.
Divisions of U.S. states
Counties in the United States
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 within 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 Virginiaand other independent cities or city-counties are San Francisco, California, Baltimore, Maryland, St. Louis, Missouri, Denver, Coloradoand 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. 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.
Cities in the United States
There are approximately 30,000 incorporated cities in the United States, with varying degrees of self-rule.
Townships in the United States
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 townshipand 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.
Jurisdictions not administered by the states
Federal district of the United States
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
Marylandand 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 Congressexercises "Exclusive jurisdiction in all cases whatsoever", over the city; however, the District of Columbia Home Rule Actprovides for limited home rule, including an elected mayor and city council.
The District of Columbia is also known as Washington.
Indian reservations are a separate and special classification of political division of the U.S. Under U.S. law, Indian tribes are sovereign nations, meaning that their legal authority to exist derives independently of the state and federal governments. However, under this definition of tribal sovereignty, they cannot "act" independently of the federal government, but they are immune from regulations under state law. Until the late-19th century, agreements between the U.S. government and Native American groups were generally called treaties, however these are now considered domestic legislation despite their name, and, since the passage of the Dawes Actin 1883, no new treaties with Indian tribes have been concluded.
Territories of the United States
Regions that are neither part of any State, nor assigned to a Native Nation, have often been legally designated as territories by the U.S. government. Since "territory" now has legal definition under federal law, the term "insular area" is used as a generic reference. These can be
incorporated territories(i.e., incorporated within all provisions of the US Constitution) or unincorporated (areas in which the US Constitution does not apply). From the organization of the Northwest Territoryin 1789, all areas not admitted as States were under the direct control of Congress as organized incorporated territories, with some political autonomyat the local level. Since the admission of Hawaiito the Union in 1959, there have been no incorporated territories other than the uninhabited Palmyra Atoll(formerly part of the Hawaii Territory, it was excluded from the act of admission). Several overseas unincorporated territoriesare now independent countries, such as Cuba, the Philippines, Federated States of Micronesiaand the Republic of Palau.
Unlike states, sovereignty over insular areas rests not with the local people, but in Congress. In most areas, Congress has granted considerable self-rule through an Organic Act, which functions as a local constitution. The Northwest Ordinance grants territories the right to send a non-voting delegate to the U.S. Congress.
The U.S. is part of several international disputes over the disposition of certain maritime and insular sovereignties some of which would be considered territories. See
International territorial disputes of the United States
Insular areas of the United States
Several islands in the
Pacific Oceanand Caribbean Seaare considered insular areasof the United States.
;Incorporated (integral part of United States)
Palmyra Atoll(uninhabited, owned by The Nature Conservancybut administered by the Office of Insular Affairs; part of the United States Minor Outlying Islands)
;Unincorporated (United States' possessions)
American Samoa(unorganized; self-governing under authority of the U.S. Department of the Interior)
Guam(organized under Organic Act of 1950)
Northern Mariana Islands(commonwealth, organized under 1977 Covenant)
Puerto Rico(commonwealth, organized under terms of the 1950 Puerto Rico-Federal Relations Act)
U.S. Virgin Islands(organized under Revised Organic Act of 1954)Along with Palmyra Atoll, these uninhabited islands form the United States Minor Outlying Islands::* Baker Island:* Howland Island:* Jarvis Island:* Johnston Atoll:* Kingman Reef:* Midway Islands(administered as the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge) - small number of contractors present:* Navassa Island:* Wake Island- small number of contractors present:* Petrel Islands:* Serranilla Bank
From July 18, 1947 until October 1, 1994, the U.S. administered the
Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, but more recently entered into a new political relationship with all four political units (one of which is the Northern Mariana Islands listed above, the others being the three freely-associated states noted below).
The freely-associated states are the three sovereign states with which the United States has entered into a
Compact of Free Association. They have not been within U.S. jurisdiction since they became sovereign; however, many considered them to be dependencies of the United States until each was admitted to the United Nationsin the 1990s.
*Republic of the Marshall Islands
Federated States of Micronesia
*Republic of Palau
Each political institution defines for itself the districts from which its members are elected.
Congressional districts are an example of this. State legislatures are also divided up from the territory of each state.
In addition to general-purpose government entities legislating at the state, county, and city level, special-purpose entities such as
conservation districts also exist.
Additionally, U.S. courts have ruled that there are smaller organs 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 (non-
discrimination, etc.). 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/fees, to fine members for infractions against association-rules, and to initiate lawsuits. The question of human rights/civil rights ( freedom of expression, etc.) in such communities has not yet been conclusively determined, and varies from state to state.
United States territory
Geography of the United States
Territorial evolution of the United States
Territories of the United States
Historic regions of the United States
History of United States continental expansion
History of United States overseas expansion
List of regions of the United States
* [http://www.ac.wwu.edu/~stephan/48states.html Animated
* [http://www.census.gov/geo/www/garm.html U.S. Census Bureau Geographic Areas Reference Manual]
* [http://citymayors.com/government/mergers_locgov.html CityMayors article]
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