Nick Krieger (@nckrieger):
Happy Statehood Day! Michigan achieved statehood 179 years ago, on January 26, 1837. So have you ever wondered why the Great Seal of the State of Michigan is emblazoned with the date MDCCCXXXV (1835) instead of MDCCCXXXVII (1837)?
Under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and the Enabling Act of 1802, any United States territory northwest of the Ohio River could apply for statehood once it had attained a population of 60,000 residents. The Michigan Territory petitioned Congress for statehood in 1833, believing that it had the requisite 60,000 inhabitants. However, Congress refused to grant statehood, largely because Ohio’s Congressional delegation blocked the effort. As you will recall from history class, there was a considerable disagreement over the Toledo Strip, a narrow strip of land that was claimed by both Ohio and the Michigan Territory. As part of the ongoing fight, Ohio’s representatives in Congress held up efforts to admit Michigan as a new state.
Given Congress’s failure to act, and wishing to prove that Michigan was truly eligible for statehood, Acting Territorial Governor Stevens T. Mason requested that the Territorial Council authorize a census of the Michigan Territory. According to Professor Willis Dunbar, “The council readily assented to Mason’s proposal. A census was ordered, and the returns indicated that there were 85,856 persons in the Lower Peninsula, with another 6,817 in the vast area north and west of Lake Michigan that was then part of the territory of Michigan.” Dunbar, Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State, pp 205-206. Having thus determined that there were enough inhabitants to warrant statehood, the Territorial Council ordered the election of delegates to a constitutional convention, to be held at Detroit in May 1835. A constitution was drafted; it was ratified by the people on October 5 and 6, 1835. Its provisions went into effect on November 1, 1835, establishing Michigan’s first “state” government.
Meanwhile, the Toledo Strip question continued to rage in Congress for more than a year before a congressional compromise was ultimately reached and sent to the people of Michigan for their approval. Under the compromise, Ohio would be entitled to the city of Toledo and the mouth of the Maumee River. In exchange, Michigan would be granted statehood and would gain the western two-thirds of the Upper Peninsula (contrary to popular belief, the far eastern end of the Upper Peninsula was already a part of the Michigan Territory at that time).
The people of the Michigan Territory selected delegates to consider the congressional plan. Once they had convened in September 1836, however, the delegates decided that the congressional plan was a raw deal and rejected it.
About that same time, the United States Treasury announced that it would distribute a $400,000 surplus among the existing states—but not the territories. This prompted the Michigan territorial government to organize a controversial second convention. It convened at Ann Arbor on December 14, 1836, and has come to be known as the “Frostbitten Convention.” Delegates at the Frostbitten Convention disregarded the results of the first convention and agreed to accept the congressional plan, complete with Ohio’s proposed survey line.
Congress chose to accept the results of the Frostbitten Convention over those of the first convention, even though the legality of the Frostbitten Convention was widely questioned. Michigan was finally granted statehood on January 26, 1837, when President Andrew Jackson signed legislation admitting Michigan to the union as the 26th state.
Some, like Congressman (and former President) John Quincy Adams, recognized that Michigan had been entitled to statehood all along but had been simply unable to overcome the great power of Ohio’s congressional delegation. As Adams stated, “Never in the course of my life have I known a controversy of which all the right was so clearly on one side and all the power so overwhelmingly on the other.”
Emblazoned with the date MDCCCXXXV, our Great Seal continues to remind us that the people of Michigan were willing to stand up, form a state government, and claim what was rightfully theirs in 1835—without waiting for a dilatory and self-interested Congress to act.