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Political divisions of the United States

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Title: Political divisions of the United States  
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Political divisions of the United States

This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of
the United States

Political divisions of the United States are the various governing entities that together form the United States. The primary division is the state. The United States Federal and State governments operate within a system of parallel sovereignty, so political states are not technically "divisions" created from the United States, but rather units that, together with the federal district and territories administered by the Federal government, compose the United States.

States are typically subdivided into counties. Louisiana uses the term parish and Alaska uses the term borough for what the Census terms county-equivalents in those states.

Territories, except the Minor Outlying Islands, are subdivided into municipalities. Guam uses the term Village and the U.S. Virgin Islands uses the term Districts, American Samoa uses the terms district and Unorganized atolls.

Counties and county equivalents may be further subdivided into townships. Towns in New York and New England are treated as equivalents to townships by the United States Census Bureau. Towns or townships are used as subdivisions of a county in 20 states, mostly in the Northeast and Midwest.[1]

Population centers may be organized into incorporated cities, towns, villages, and other types of municipalities. Municipalities are typically subordinate to a county government, with some exceptions. Certain cities, for example, have consolidated with their county government as consolidated city-counties. In Virginia, cities are completely independent from the county in which they would otherwise be a part. In some states, particularly in New England, towns form the primary unit of local government below the state level, in some cases eliminating the need for county government entirely.

Outside of the states, other divisions include the federal district, insular areas administered by the Federal government, and American Indian reservations. The Federal government also maintains exclusive jurisdiction over military installations and American embassies and consulates located in foreign countries. Other special purpose divisions exist separate from those for general governance, examples of which include conservation districts and Congressional districts.


  • States and their subdivisions 1
    • States 1.1
    • Counties 1.2
    • Towns and Townships 1.3
    • Municipalities 1.4
    • Other subdivisions 1.5
  • Federal oversight of United States territory 2
    • Congress of the United States 2.1
    • United States Department of the Interior 2.2
    • Other Federal Oversight 2.3
  • Jurisdictions not administered by the states 3
    • District of Columbia 3.1
    • Insular Areas 3.2
    • American Indian Reservations 3.3
  • Other defined areas 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7

States and their subdivisions


The primary political unit of the United States is the State. According to numerous decisions of the United States Supreme Court, the 50 individual states and the United States as a whole are each sovereign jurisdictions. The 13 original states Thirteen Colonies declared independence from the British Empire in 1776. In 1777, they established a collective government under the Articles of Confederation. The United States Constitution superseded the Articles in 1789 in the sense that it established and superimposed an consolidated political government over the confederated union of geographical states. The Constitution establishes the political government for the Federal government of the United States, which includes the power to coin money and conduct foreign policy. The Constitution also maintains the sovereignty of each state. The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution reinforces this idea of parallel sovereignty, declaring that the powers not delegated to the federal government are retained by the states.

The 37 additional states were admitted to the Union by acts of the United States Congress, beginning with Vermont in 1791 and ending with Hawaii in 1959.

The United States Supreme Court in Texas v. White held that political states do not have the right to secede, though it did allow some possibility of the divisibility "through revolution, or through consent of the States."[2][3]

Four states (Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky) call themselves "commonwealths." The word commonwealth in this context refers to the common "wealth", or welfare, of the public.[4] The term has no legal impact.[5]

The 50 states of the United States of America are as follows (this list includes both the postal code abbreviation and the traditional abbreviation for each state):
Map of United States with state border lines. Note that Alaska and Hawaii are shown at different scales and that the Aleutian Islands and the uninhabited northwestern Hawaiian Islands are omitted from this map.

The 50 states can be divided into regions in many different ways.

  • The continental United States typically refers to the main block of 48 states with the Atlantic Ocean to the east, Pacific Ocean to the west, Canada to the north, and Mexico to the south. Since this grouping contains 48 states, it is also commonly referred to as "the Lower 48". The designation "conterminous" or "contiguous" United States is also used for this grouping of 48 states, arguably more accurately, since Alaska is also located on the North American continent, and therefore "continental United States" should really refer to the Lower 48, plus Alaska.
  • Alaska is an exclave of the United States, physically connected only to Canada
  • Hawaii is located on an archipelago in the central Pacific Ocean


The states are divided into smaller administrative regions, called parishes). Counties exist to provide general local support of state government activities, such as collection of property tax revenues (counties almost never have their own power to tax), but without providing most of the services one associates with municipalities. Counties have varying degrees of political and legal significance. In some states, mainly in New England, they are mainly used as judicial districts. In other states, counties have broad powers in housing, education, transportation and recreation.

Counties may contain a number of cities, towns, villages, or hamlets, or sometimes just a part of a city. Some cities are consolidated with, and coterminous with, their counties, including Philadelphia, Honolulu, San Francisco, and Denver—that is to say, these counties consist in their entirety of a single municipality the government of which also operates as the county government. Some counties, such as Arlington County, Virginia, do not have any additional subdivisions. Some states contain independent cities that are not part of any county. New York City is coterminous with five counties.

Towns and Townships

Towns and townships are subdivisions of counties. The terms townships and towns are closely related (in many historical documents the terms are used interchangeably). However, the powers granted to towns or townships varies considerably from state to state. In New England, towns are a principal form of local government, providing many of the functions of counties in other states. In California, by contrast, the pertinent statutes of the Government Code clarify that "town" is simply another word for "city", especially a general law city as distinct from a charter city.

Some townships have governments and political power, others are simply geographic designations. Townships in the United States are generally the product of the Public Land Survey System. For more information, see survey township and civil township.


There are approximately 30,000 incorporated cities in the United States, with varying degrees of self-rule.

Other subdivisions

In some states, such as Michigan, state universities are constitutionally autonomous jurisdictions, possessed of a special status somewhat equivalent to that of metropolitan municipality. That is, as bodies corporate, they operate as though they were municipalities but their autonomy from most legislative and executive control makes them equally comparable to administrative divisions of the state, equal or superior to counties.

Federal oversight of United States territory

Congress of the United States

Article IV, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution defines the extent of the authority that the U.S. Congress exercises over the territory of the United States:

New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.
The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.

The power of Congress over territorial divisions that are not part of one of the states is exclusive and universal. Once a territory becomes a state of the Union, the state must consent to any changes pertaining to the jurisdiction of that state. The only potential violation of this occurred when the legislature of Virginia declared the secession of Virginia from the United States at the start of the American Civil War and a newly formed alternative Virginia legislature, recognized by the federal government, consented to have West Virginia secede from Virginia.

United States Department of the Interior

On March 3, 1849, the last day of the 30th Congress, a bill was passed to create the U.S. Department of the Interior to take charge of the internal affairs of United States territory. The Interior Department has a wide range of responsibilities (which include the regulation of territorial governments, the basic responsibilities for public lands, and other various duties).

In contrast to similarly named Departments in other countries, the United States Department of the Interior is not responsible for local government or for civil administration except in the cases of Indian reservations, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), and island dependencies, through the Office of Insular Affairs (OIA).

Other Federal Oversight

The federal government also exercises exclusive jurisdiction over overseas military installations and American embassies and consulates located in foreign countries. It exercises concurrent jurisdiction to varying degrees with the states in many domestic federal enclaves.

Jurisdictions not administered by the states

District of Columbia

A separate federal district, the District of Columbia, which is under the direct authority of Congress, was formed from land ceded to the Federal Government by the states of Maryland and Virginia; however, the territory ceded by Virginia was returned to that state in 1846. The District does not form part of any state and the United States Congress exercises "exclusive jurisdiction in all cases whatsoever", over the city; however, the District of Columbia Home Rule Act provides for limited home rule, including an elected mayor and city council. Residents of the District can vote in presidential elections, as the twenty-third Amendment to the United States Constitution grants the District three electors in the Electoral College.

Insular Areas

The insular areas of the United States are those jurisdictions that are neither a part of one of the 50 states nor the federal district.[6] Unlike within the States, sovereignty over insular areas rests not with the local people, but in Congress. In most cases, however, Congress has granted considerable self-rule through an Organic Act, which functions as a local constitution. Insular areas are administered by the Federal Government through the Department of the Interior's Office of Insular Affairs.

The insular areas include a number of territories under the sovereignty of the United States and three sovereign nations in free association with the United States. Territories incorporated within the provisions of the U.S. Constitution are designated Congress or unorganized (without direct authorization of self-government by such an act).

The Northwest Ordinance grants territories the right to send a Hawaii to the Union in 1959, there has been a single incorporated territory, the uninhabited Palmyra Atoll (formerly part of the Hawaii Territory, but excluded from the act of admission).

The unincorporated territories of the United States and their ISO 3166-1 codes (in parentheses) are as follows:

Along with Palmyra Atoll, the following uninhabited territories form the United States Minor Outlying Islands (UM):

In addition to the territories noted above, the United States administered the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands from July 18, 1947 until October 1, 1994. The trust territory was subsequently divided into four political entities—the Northern Mariana Islands, listed above, and three freely-associated states with which the United States has entered into the Compact of Free Association (ISO 3166-1 codes in parentheses):

Cuba and the Philippines are two additional former unincorporated territories that are now independent countries. The United States Navy has held the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in a portion of Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, since 1898. The United States government possesses a lease to this land, which only mutual agreement or United States abandonment of the area can terminate. The present Cuban government of Raúl Castro disputes this arrangement, claiming Cuba was not truly sovereign at the time of the signing. The United States argues this point is irrelevant because Cuba apparently ratified the lease post-revolution, and with full sovereignty, when it cashed one rent check in accordance with the disputed treaty.

The United States government is part of several international disputes over the disposition of certain maritime and insular sovereignties, some of which would be considered territories. Bajo Nuevo Bank and Serranilla Bank are two such disputed claims. See International territorial disputes of the United States for more information.

The United States also holds several other territories, districts, and possessions, notably the [8][9]

The possessions" such as Wake Island, which has no permanent population and thus does not require even a simple territorial government.

American Indian Reservations

American Indian reservations are areas of land managed by a American Indian tribe under the United States Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs. There are about 310 Indian reservations in the United States. Tribes possess limited tribal sovereignty over the land in their reservation. As a result laws on tribal lands may vary from the surrounding area.[10] The tribal council, not the county or state government, generally has jurisdiction over reservations. Different reservations have different systems of government, which may or may not replicate the forms of government found outside the reservation. Most Indian reservations were established by the federal government; a limited number, mainly in the East, owe their origin to state recognition.[11]

Residents of a reservation may vote as residents of a state and are required to pay federal taxes. The special status of reservations has created both opportunities (such as gambling in states that normally disallow it) and challenges (such as the unwillingness of some companies to do business in an area where they are not certain what laws will apply to them).

Other defined areas

In addition to general-purpose government entities legislating at the state, county, and city level, special-purpose areas may exist as well. Conservation districts are one such type of special purpose area, created for the purpose of conserving land, natural scenery, flora, and fauna.

Congressional districts are another example, formed for the purpose of electing members to the United States Congress.

Additionally, U.S. courts have ruled that there are smaller areas which are to be considered as fulfilling government functions, and should therefore be bound by the same restrictions placed on "traditional" (US-aligned) government bodies. These include taxes or fees, fine members for infractions against association-rules, and initiate lawsuits. The question of civil rights in such communities has not yet been conclusively determined, and varies from state to state.

See also


  1. ^ 2002 Census of Governments, Individual State Descriptions (PDF)
  2. ^ Aleksandar Pavković, Peter Radan, Creating New States: Theory and Practice of Secession, p. 222, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2007.
  3. ^ Texas v. White, 74 U.S. 700 (1868) at Cornell University Law School Supreme Court collection.
  4. ^ The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, 2000.
  5. ^ See "Commonwealth", The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, 2001-07.
  6. ^
  7. ^ See 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(36) and 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(38) Providing the term “State” and "United States" definitions on the U.S. Federal Code, Immigration and Nationality Act. 8 U.S.C. § 1101a
  8. ^ CONSEJO DE SALUD PLAYA DE PONCE v JOHNNY RULLAN, SECRETARY OF HEALTH OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF PUERTO RICO Page 6 and 7, The United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico, retrieved 4 February 2010 
  9. ^ The Insular Cases: The Establishment of a Regime of Political Apartheid" (2007) Juan R. Torruella, retrieved 5 February 2010 
  10. ^ Wade Davies and Richmond L. Clow, American Indian Sovereignty and Law: An Annotated Bibliography (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2009).
  11. ^ Veronica E. Velarde Tiller, ed., Tiller’s Guide to Indian Country: Economic Profiles of American Indian Reservations (Albuquerque: BowArrow Pub., 1996/2005)

External links

  • Animated Map: Boundaries of the United States and the Several States
  • U.S. Census Bureau Geographic Areas Reference Manual
  • CityMayors article
  • Atlas of Historical County Boundaries

Administrative divisions of the United States by state

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