Can Texas really divide into five states?
Yes. But so can Rhode Island.
Technically, any state can divide itself into however many states, with the approval of its legislature and Congress. The popular claim is that Texas can do so on its own — without congressional approval.
The popular claim is wrong. It dates back to a misreading of an amendment attached to Texas’s second annexation treaty.
First, here’s some background on the fight for Texas statehood:
Texas’s annexation was controversial. From 1812 to 1850, Congress admitted states in pairs, one slave and one free. Michigan and Arkansas were already continuing the balancing act when Texas broke from Mexico in 1836. But no territory in the north was ready for admission with Texas. The only plan was to admit Texas as a slave state without a corresponding free state to balance it out in the Senate.
(Wisconsin would have been 1846, but the first constitution was rejected by the voters, so they had to wait; the admission itself was not in question, merely the timing.)
This plan was a nonstarter for two reasons:
1) The Senate didn’t want to upset the delicate balance; men like Daniel Webster and Henry Clay spent a long time in the Senate trying to ease sectional tensions and avert or delay war (without which it would have come sooner than 1861).
2) Mexico was still pissed about Texas seceding, and annexing Texas would start a war the Democrats and Whigs didn’t want to fight.
Both sides argued for years — the fight cost President Martin van Buren the renomination in 1840 because Southern Democrats wanted another big slave state, and van Buren wasn’t having it. (For more on presidents heeding Southern Democrats on race issues, see Roosevelt, President, Franklin Delano.)
Now, the idea that Texas could splinter into five states comes from a House amendment attached to a treaty President Tyler introduced to annex Texas. That treaty did not address admitting Texas as anything but one state. The final law concerning Texas entering the Union contained this language, which is the only thing addressing the subject ever signed by the president (bolding mine):
Third- New states, of convenient size, not exceeding four in number, in addition to said state of Texas, and having sufficient population, may hereafter, by the consent of said state, be formed out of the territory thereof, which shall be entitled to admission under the provisions of the federal constitution. And such states as may be formed out of that portion of said territory lying south of thirty-six degrees thirty minutes north latitude, commonly known as the Missouri compromise line, shall be admitted into the Union with or without slavery, as the people of each state asking admission may desire. And in such state or states as shall be formed out of said territory north of said Missouri compromise line, slavery, or involuntary servitude, (except for crime,) shall be prohibited.
Texas is allowed to carve chunks off itself, but those chunks don’t automatically become states; the process is the same as it is for every other state. Moreover, that treaty stopped meaning anything when Texas seceded and was readmitted after the Union won the Civil War; the resolution allowing Texas to have members of Congress again said nothing about splitting off more states.
Thus, only Congress can allow Texas to slice chunks off itself and have them admitted into the Union as separate states, with their own delegations to Congress.
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(The saga continues.)
(The saga continues.)