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At the beginning of July 1788, the unicameral Congress of the Confederation began deliberations on whether to admit the proposed new state of Kentucky to the Union. Under the Articles of Confederation, each of the thirteen states could cast one vote on each measure in Congress, and nine states were needed to admit a state to the Union. Kentucky was a part of Virginia and the legislature of Virginia had consented to making it a separate state.

Congress's deliberations were interrupted by a notification that New Hampshire had just become the ninth state to ratify the proposed new Constitution, so that it became effective in the ratifying states. They passed a resolution saying it would be "unadvisable" to admit a new state under those circumstances.

That it would have opened some major cans of worms can be seen when one considers that the new Constitution named the thirteen states and not any new states, and said how many representatives each would have in Congress until the census data became available, without mentioning any new states, and granted to the new bicameral Congress the power to admit new states.

Alexander Hamilton, then a member of the legislature of New York, predicted in 1788 that one of the first things to be done by the new bicameral Congress the following year would be the admission of Kentucky to the Union. He used that as one of his arguments in favor of New York's renouncing its disputed claim to sovereignty over Vermont and consenting to Vermont's admission to the Union, so the the additional southern representation in the Senate would be balanced by additional northern representation.

But Congress did not admit Kentucky to the Union in 1789. Why not?

One guess would be that maybe they were too busy. They had to write all the new federal laws, approve appointments to every federal judgeship on the Supreme Court and all lower federal courts, decide which departments would exist in the executive branch and approve appointments to head them, approve appointments of ambassadors, etc. But that's just a guess.

And in 1790 they still didn't admit Kentucky.

In February 1791 they decided to admit Kentucky and Vermont. The act admitting Kentucky was passed two weeks before the act admitting Vermont, but it provided that Kentucky would not be admitted until well over a year later, whereas Vermont was admitted just two weeks after the bill was passed.

So why did they wait until 1791 to admit Kentucky?

  • 1
    They waited until 1792 actually, and the delay may have had more to do with Kentucky then with Congress. Quoting from Wikipedia: "Kentucky's final push for statehood, now under the Federal Constitution, officially began with a convention, again held at Danville, in April 1792. There delegates drafted Kentucky's first Constitution and submitted it to the United States Congress. On June 1, 1792, Kentucky was admitted into the Union as the fifteenth state." So a complete answer to your question would probably have to address the circumstances of the Danville convention. – Brian Z Apr 14 '17 at 13:38
  • @BrianZ : You're mistaken: Kentucky's admission on June 1, 1792, was in consequence of Congress's act passed February 4, 1791. Congress did NOT wait until 1782. – Michael Hardy Apr 14 '17 at 18:50
  • @BrianZ : Or I should say: The Senate passed the bill in January 1791 and the House of Representatives in February. – Michael Hardy Apr 14 '17 at 18:51
  • Feel free to correct Wikipedia if it's wrong, I'm just quoting what I found there. – Brian Z Apr 14 '17 at 19:06
  • 1
    ok, Google identified the article and I've edited accordingly. – Michael Hardy Apr 14 '17 at 19:15
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Kentucky to the Union given,
Vermont will make the balance even;
Still Pennsylvania holds the scales,
And neither South or North prevails.

(*) A slogan appearing in a journal at the opening of Congress voiced the politics of equilibrium underlying the compromise that allowed Kentucky into the union. Source: Editorial Note: on the Admission of Vermont and Kentucky to the Union

Like most state issues in America occurring before January 31, 1865, the underlying issue was slavery. Kentucky's admittance to the union was dictated by slavery. Vermont was an independent sovereign state (like Texas) when it petitioned entry into he union. Kentucky was part of Virginia. The Virginia legislature separated Kentucky from the state in 1789 in preparation for it to be entered into the union as an independent state. Kentucky's entry into the Union is what allowed Vermont to enter into the union and visa versa. It was all about preserving the slave and free state equilibrium. That they didn't enter the union at the exact same time is irrelevant, the votes to admit them both after years of debate, occurred 10 days apart. It was a package deal.

Adding Kentucky to the union without a free state such as Vermont ready to join, or visa versa would have upset the delicate balance which defined the United States government until the Kansas Nebraska act May 30, 1854. Kansas Nebraska act irrevocable blew apart this equilibrium, condemning the country to the civil war, and one side of the slavery issue would be destined to be victorious.

Kansas Nebraska act allowed states themselves to decide if they would be slave or free. Before that congress decided; and if you were a single state you could be sure half the congress would vote against your inclusion and you likely wouldn't even get a vote on the hill.

soure wikipedia article on admission to the union

  • This is interesting, but I wonder to what extent this was the case as early as 1789? – Michael Hardy Oct 29 '17 at 5:49
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – T.E.D. Oct 30 '17 at 15:55
  • 1
    I think you mean "Virginia General Assembly" rather than Virginia General. – KorvinStarmast Jan 22 '18 at 19:43
  • I think the following is an error: "The Virginia legislature separated Kentucky from the state in 1789 in preparation for it to be entered into the union". But Kentucky remained a part of Virginia until it became a separate state. What the Virginia legislature did was to consent to the admission of part of Virginia as a new state. It wasn't separated until it was a new state. – Michael Hardy Jan 23 '18 at 2:56
  • Also, lest anyone be misled by the following: "Adding Kentucky to the union without a free state such as Vermont ready to join, or visa versa would have upset the delicate balance": Vermont was ready to join, but New York was not ready for Vermont to join. New York was still asserting a disputed claim to Vermont, and an agreement on that had to be reached first. – Michael Hardy Jan 23 '18 at 2:58

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