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January 26, 2011 marks Michigan’s 174th birthday as a state. Today, many residents of our country’s fifty states take statehood for granted. For Michiganians in the 1830s, the road to statehood proved rough and rocky.

Do-It-Yourself

The Michigan Territory petitioned the U.S. Congress for statehood in 1833. A petitioning territory would typically begin writing a state constitution after Congressional approval, usually in the form of an “enabling act.” Unfortunately, Michigan did not gain approval from Congress.

In May 1834, Congress tabled Michigan Territory’s petition.  The petition was delayed for two reasons.  First, Michigan and Ohio were fighting over the Toledo Strip. Second, a Michigan statehood would upset the balance between free state and slave states. Eventually, the second would be resolved when Arkansas, a slave state, entered the Union around the same time as Michigan.

Despite the the delays, Michigan Territory decided not to wait for Congress. In January 1835, the Michigan territorial legislature called for a constitutional convention. Michigan looked to Tennessee for precedence. In 1796, Tennessee wrote a constitution and then demanded statehood, claiming statehood as a right that Congress couldn’t deny. For Tennessee, the tactic worked.

Two Conventions

For Michigan, it wasn’t so easy. Congress made statehood contingent on a compromise with Ohio to settle the land dispute. If Michigan wished to become a state, then a convention of elected delegates had to formally agree to Congress’s terms. Such a convention met in Ann Arbor on September 26, 1836. The delegates rejected the compromise. Michigan Governor Stevens T. Mason was not happy with this outcome. He knew that Michigan would never win the boundary dispute, and he saw nothing to gain by denying Congress. Through some political maneuvering, he and his fellow Democrats secured another body of delegates.

On December 14, 1836, these new delegates met in Ann Arbor in what would be termed “the Frostbitten Convention.” This second convention assented to Congress’s terms, and Michigan formally became a state on January 26, 1837. Truthfully, the second convention acted under a dubious legality. Neither the territorial legislature nor the U.S. Congress authorized it. The delegates were chosen through local caucuses, rather than through general elections. Some counties refused to participate. The outcome, however, was never officially challenged.

Michigan Statehood: Our Documentary Heritage

The Archives of Michigan houses the original 1835 Michigan constitution, in addition to other documents from the early statehood and pre-statehood periods.  You can view these materials are all documentary treasures, representing the heritage of every Michiganian. Now, on the 175th anniversary of our state’s constitution, would seem an appropriate time to review these treasures and reflect on the stories behind them.

Sources Consulted

  • Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State (3rd Revised Edition) by Willis F. Dunbar and George S. May
  • The Toledo War: The First Michigan-Ohio Rivalry by Don Faber
  • “The Four Michigan Constitutions” by Frank Ravitch. In The History of Michigan Law, Edited by Paul Finkelman and Martin J. Hershock.