Strange Politics: Beyond Fifty States

Kid with Flag image from Woodsmen of the World

When I was in elementary school, I was taught the song “Fifty Nifty United States”, a song that was meant to help us memorize the names of each state in the Union. It seems so perfect, in a way – “One nation under God” made up of 50 states, each represented by a star on the flag. Fifty is a nice, round number that rolls off the tongue. It all fits together so neatly, like 50 pieces of a puzzle.



It’s also false. It turns out, there are a few things that complicate this nice, neat picture. There is much more to America than just 50 states. If you look beyond them, you will find…

 Complication 1: America’s Stateless Capital

Washington DC image from Wikipedia

I’ve previously mentioned on this blog that in America’s earliest days, our Founding Fathers quickly discovered that locating the nation’s capital in any of the states would leave the federal government vulnerable to that state’s political whims. To avoid this problem, the Constitution included a clause that allowed the government to set up a new national capital that was not located in any state. Thus was born Washington, D.C., capital of the United States, located on the Potomac River between Maryland and Virginia but not a part of either.

If it’s not a part of any state, though, that begs some major questions. Who builds the roads and schools? Who writes the laws and hires the police to enforce them? Who collects the garbage, puts out fires, and decides what sorts of buildings can go where?

For a very long time, the answer was “Congress”. The U.S. Congress was both the national government AND the government of the city, meaning it literally took an act of Congress to get anything done in Washington, D.C. This was a rather inefficient way to do things, since, you know, Congress often was too busy dealing with major national problems to worry about where to locate a dog park. So, in 1973, Congress finally passed a law giving the city its own mayor and city council. Congress still keeps the right to veto anything the city government does that they don’t like, but for the most part, the city now handles most of its own affairs.

While the federal government has been well-served by its decision to have a home outside of any state’s politics, there are some disadvantages for the city’s residents. For example, not being a state means no representation in Congress. Congress is, after all, a states-only club; all these locals get is a single “Delegate” who can speak but can’t vote. If you’ve ever wondered why some Washington, D.C. licence plates say “Taxation Without Representation”…

Washington DC licence plate image from Krokodyl

…that’s a protest against this situation. The IRS treats the city as a “state” for federal tax purposes, but the people in the city don’t get a vote in the laws that set those taxes. There have been attempts to fix this problem, but seeing as the city didn’t get to vote for President either until 1961, odds are pretty good that resolving this issue will take some time.

Of course, with the 50 states and now Washington, D.C., we’ve got the United States covered, right? Not quite…

Complication 2: Palmyra Atoll

Palmyra Atoll image from NASA

This collection of tiny coral reef islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in the middle of nowhere is uninhabited, except from some wildlife and a handful of scientists studying that wildlife. Yet they are just as much American soil as the ground on which I am sitting as I type this. They are a part of the “incorporated territory” of the United States, which means they are a part of the United States proper, just like the states and Washington, D.C.

How did this happen? It’s because the United States has annexed these islands three times. In 1859, a U.S. ship claimed the islands for the United States so they could harvest guano (bird or bat dung) on the islands for fertilizer. However, they found no guano, so they abandoned the islands. Later, the Kingdom of Hawaii and the United Kingdom each staked their own claims on the islands. In 1898, Hawaii became a part of the United States, and so the United States regained the islands. Then, just to make sure the British stayed away, Congress re-re-annexed the islands in 1911.

So Palmyra Atoll is a part of the United States. However, it is not a part of any state, nor is it a part of Washington, D.C.

"What exactly are we supposed to do with this?"

“What exactly are we supposed to do with this?”

This makes Palmyra Atoll the only unorganized incorporated territory of the United States. Congress has never bothered to pass a law giving the islands a government, because there is nobody there to govern. The closest thing it has to a “government” is a federal agency called the Office for Insular Affairs.

Oddity that Palmyra Atoll is, at least it completes our tour of the United States. It does not complete our tour of all the places that fly the Stars and Stripes, though…

Complication 3: Unincorporated Territories

Puerto Rico image from the New York Times

Some time ago, Puerto Rico held an election where it appeared as if they wanted to become America’s 51st state. That’s great, but it makes one wonder what exactly they are right now. I mean, Puerto Rico is a country, right? Well, not exactly.

Puerto Rico, along with Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and American Samoa, are all “unincorporated territories” of the United States. This means they are not a part of the United States, but are still ruled by the United States. They are not independent countries, but not a part of what would be considered U.S. soil, either. On the other hand, you don’t need a passport to travel there, and locals from these places can freely travel and live here in the U.S. On the other-other hand, only parts of the Constitution and federal law are applied there.

This is getting confusing fast, so let’s simplify it with an analogy. Remember when the future United States was just a collection of British colonies?



In colonial days, Massachusetts, New York, Virginia, and the rest were not a part of the United Kingdom, but were clearly ruled by the British. The colonists were British subjects, but not all British laws applied to them, only the ones Parliament specifically chose.

Well, the unincorporated territories are sort of like colonies. They fly the U.S. flag, depend on the U.S. military to protect them, and send a non-voting delegate to Congress just like Washington, D.C. does. However, they don’t have to pay federal income taxes to the IRS, and they don’t get to vote for the President. Just in case it wasn’t confusing enough, they also get their own Olympic teams.

The inhabitants of Puerto Rico, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands are full U.S. citizens, and they have elected governments that handle their local matters under constitutions approved by Congress. This makes them organized unincorporated territories.

American Samoa also has its own elected government, but theirs was set up by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Another political oddity that makes American Samoa special is the fact that its inhabitants are not U.S. citizens – they are U.S. nationals. This strange distinction means they can travel and live in the United States just like any American, but if they want to be able to vote, they have to apply for citizenship just like any immigrant.

Why this strange distinction? I’m not sure, and I couldn’t find a proper answer in a Google search, but I do have an educated guess. Samoan society traditionally is based on the matai system, which is essentially a system of nobility. The U.S. Constitution bans the creation of any system of nobility, so maybe this peculiarity is a way to preserve the matai system? Whatever the reason, there is currently a lawsuit making the rounds in the U.S. court system seeking to end this distinction and make all American Samoans U.S. citizens.

Lastly, there are eight additional tiny islands in the middle of nowhere that are counted as unorganized unincorporated territories. Like Puerto Rico or Guam, they are not technically a part of the United States but are under U.S. control, and like Palmyra Atoll, they are tiny islands that are either uninhabited or have very tiny populations (the most populous has only 150 inhabitants), and so they have no formal government. These are: Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, Midway Atoll, Navassa Island, and Wake Island.

Got it? Good, because things are about to get even stranger.

Complication 4: Free Association

Not that kind of free association!

Not that kind of free association!

After World War II, the United States took possession of a number of islands that were once ruled by Japan. Between 1986 and 1994, the United States turned these islands into the independent nations of Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia.

Except these countries aren’t quite as independent as you might think. Sure, they are legally fully sovereign, and are even members of the United Nations. It’s just that they depend on the U.S. military to defend them. Oh, and they also get assistance from the U.S. government in an emergency, such as a natural disaster. And the U.S. Postal Service delivers their mail. And their air traffic control towers are run by the FAA. And their college students can apply for federal grants and student loans from the U.S. government.

This is because of a treaty the United States signed with them when we granted these countries their “independence”, the Compact of Free Association. This “free association” was meant to be temporary, expiring after 15 years. However, the treaty was repeatedly extended, and almost three decades later, it is still in effect. While the treaty could theoretically be terminated at any time, there appears to be no movement to do so. After all, if one of these island countries chose to leave this arrangement, they would have to provide and pay for all these government services themselves.

If you think that turns the notion of “sovereignty” on its head, just wait until our last complication…

Complication 5: Indian reservations

I knew you'd get around to me eventually!

I knew you’d get around to me eventually!

Native Americans are not only citizens of the United States, they are also citizens of their respective tribes. These tribal groups are legally considered sovereign nations, just like foreign countries. Well, not actually like foreign countries; according to the U.S. government, they are “Domestic Dependent Nations.”

What the heck is that supposed to mean? Well, in a way, it is a recognition that unlike the states or territories, Indian societies created themselves. The tribes had sovereignty over their land before the United States even existed, and numerous Supreme Court cases have recognized this fact in their rulings.

On the other hand, the U.S. government does not consider Native Americans to be foreign nations, which would make a map of the United States look like Swiss cheese. Instead, the federal government has given itself the power to “protect” Native American groups. The specific doctrine has changed over the generations as societal attitudes have changed, but under current legal theory, Indian reservation lands are “held by the federal government in trust” to the tribes, and tribal governments have whatever powers that have not been specifically given up to the feds.

While each specific tribe or reservation is different, there are a few common generalities at play. Generally, tribes can control who can and can’t enter reservation lands, they can pass laws specific to the reservation and enforce them with their own police and courts, and they are exempt from most (but not all) state laws and regulations. They can tax people on reservation lands, handle such matters as adoptions and child custody, and even regulate the sale and use of alcohol or peyote. In fact, one Supreme Court case even found that the First Amendment doesn’t apply to tribal governments!

There are also some special privileges that come with being a registered member of an Indian nation. For example, in my own hometown of Morro Bay, the main landmark is a massive volcanic stone that is 581 feet tall. Morro Rock is home to peregrine falcon nests, and so climbing on it is prohibited – except at specific times each year, when local Chumash and Salinan worshipers climb the rock as a part of their sacred ceremonies.

So now we have the big picture. The United States of America consists of the 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Palmyra Atoll. The United States also rules a number of “unincorporated territories” that are sort of like colonies, and treats three otherwise independent nations as part of the United States for certain purposes. Lastly, the Native American tribes are nations within the United States that are given many special exceptions and privileges because they are far older than any of the rest of this. Politics sure is strange in the U.S.A.

One Response to Strange Politics: Beyond Fifty States

  1. Pingback: Awesome Flags You’ve Probably Never Seen Before | Cat Flag

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