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Political divisions of the United States: Map

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The political units and divisions of the United States include:
  • The 50 states (four of these being officially styled as commonwealths), which are typically divided into counties and sometimes townships, and further divided into incorporated cities, towns, villages, and other types of municipalities, and other autonomous or subordinate public authorities and institutions. With the exception of the original 13, each state was admitted to the Union at a specific time by an act of the U.S. Congress.
  • The District of Columbiamarker, the Capital of the United States. Although the District of Columbia is not a state and does not have voting representation in Congress, D.C. residents can vote in presidential elections and are afforded three electors in the Electoral College.
  • Native American reservations are given quasi-autonomous status. While every reservation is part of a state, and residents vote as residents of the state in which they reside and do pay federal taxes, the reservations are exempt from many state and local laws. The ambiguous nature of their status has created both opportunities (such as gambling in states that normally disallow it) and challenges (such as the unwillingness of some companies to open up shop in a territory where they are not certain what laws will apply to them).
  • Territories of the United States may be incorporated (part of the United States proper) or unincorporated (known variously as "possessions", "overseas territories" or "commonwealths") Territories may also be organized (with self-government explicitly granted by an Organic Act of the U.S. Congress) or unorganized (without such direct authorization of self-government). Thirty-one of the current 50 states were organized incorporated territories before their admission to the Union. Since 1959, the United States has had only one incorporated territory (Palmyra Atollmarker), but maintains control of several unincorporated territories, both organized and unorganized.
  • The federal union, which constitutes the United States as a collective of the several states, exercises exclusive jurisdiction over the military installations, and American embassies and consulates located in foreign countries; and the District of Columbia.
  • Such quasi-political divisions as conservation districts and school districts, which are usually just special, geographically designated subordinate public authorities.
  • Recognized bodies, such as homeowners associations, which fulfill government functions, and have since been bound by subsequent court decisions to certain restrictions normally applying to local governments.


Altogether, there are an estimated 85,000 extant political entities in the United States. Political units and divisions of the United States are a subset of the total United States territory.

Political units and system of operation

The primary political unit of the United Statesmarker after the federal union is the state. Technically and legally, states are not "divisions" created from the United States, but units that compose the U.S., because the United States and the several states that constitute it operate with a system of parallel sovereignty. According to numerous decisions of the United States Supreme Courtmarker, the several states and the United States (that is, the federal state which is coextensive with the 50 several states and the District of Columbia) are sovereign jurisdictions. The sovereignty of the United States is strictly limited to the terms of the United States Constitution, whereas the sovereignty of each individual state is unlimited, except in two respects: 1. The sovereignty and powers that each state has transferred to the United States via the United States Constitution, and 2. The provisions of its own constitution, which usually (but not always) sets certain parameters for the exercise of the state's sovereignty.

Most states decentralize the administration of their sovereign powers, typically in three tiers but always employing at least two tiers and sometimes more than three tiers. The first tier of decentralization is always the statewide tier, constituted of agencies that operate under direct control of the principal organs of state government—such as bureaus of vital statistics, and departments of motor vehicles or public health. The second tier is always the county (called a borough in Alaska and a parish in Louisiana), which is an administrative division of the state. It may also be more than that (e.g., a metropolitan municipality), but it is always an administrative division of the state. The third tier commonly found in many states, especially the Midwest, is the township, which is an administrative division of a county.

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. The township provides further localized services to the public in areas that are not part of a municipality.

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.

In some states, cities operate independently of townships. Some cities (and all cities in Virginia) operate outside of the jurisdiction of any county. Cities, which are sometimes called towns, differ from counties and townships in that they are not administrative divisions of the state. Instead, they are semi-autonomous municipal corporations that are recognized by the state. In essence, the city as municipal corporation is the modern form of the ancient city-state, a sovereign entity that exists today only in the forms of Monacomarker, San Marinomarker, Singaporemarker, and the Vatican Citymarker.

Divisions of the federal government include, first, the District of Columbia, which contains the United States Capitolmarker Building - the seat of the Government of the United States. The United States Congress exercises exclusive jurisdiction over the District and all other lands controlled by the federal government.

Four states (Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky) call themselves "commonwealth", which goes back to their original founding charters and constitutions. In the federal context, the term "commonwealth" denotes an intermediate status between "territory" and "state"—both in the sense of "independent state" and "U.S. state"—but such does not apply to the four states that are commonwealths by their own state constitutions. At the Federal level, there is really no distinction, and the term is more of an archaism than one of any true importance.

Puerto Rico and the Northern Marianas Islands are territories which are commonwealths associated with the United States. They might some day advance to statehood, or they might become independent—as did the Philippines in 1946, after it was a commonwealth of the United States for many years. A territory — whether "organized" or "unorganized" has significantly fewer rights in the grand scheme of things than a commonwealth (let alone a state), but it ranks at least a notch above "possession" such as Wake Islandmarker, which has no permanent population and thus does not require even a simple territorial government.

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 the territory becomes a state of the Union, the state must consent to any changes pertaining to the jurisdiction of that state. This has been violated only once, when a rump legislature formed the State of West Virginiamarker, seceding from Virginiamarker, which itself had seceded from the United States in the months preceding the American Civil War.

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.marker Department of the Interiormarker 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).

States of the United States

At the Declaration of Independence, the United States consisted of 13 states, former colonies of the United Kingdommarker. In the following years, the number of states has grown steadily due to expansion to the west, conquest and purchase of lands by the American government, and division of existing states to the current number of 50 United States:



The relationship between the state and national governments is rather complex, because of the country's federal system. Under United States law, states are considered sovereign entities, meaning that the power of the states is considered to come directly from the people within the states rather than from the federal government. The federal government of the United States was created when sovereign states delegated some of their sovereignty to one central government. The sovereignty they delegated, however, was not complete. The logical extension of this delegation is that the federal government enjoys limited sovereignty, and the states retain whatever sovereignty they never delegated to the federal government. Federal law overrides state law in the areas in which the federal government is empowered to act, but the powers of the federal government are subject to the limited sovereignty delegated by the Constitution of the United States. (The Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution declares that the powers not delegated to the federal government are retained by the states, but this arguably is mere truism.)

The United States Supreme Courtmarker in Texas v. White held that 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." Under the Constitution of the United States they are not allowed to conduct foreign policy.

The 50 states are divided into distinct sections:

The United States also holds several other territories, districts, and possessions, notably the federal district of the District of Columbia, and several overseas insular areasmarker, the most significant of which are American Samoamarker, Guammarker, the Northern Mariana Islandsmarker, Puerto Rico, and the United States Virgin Islandsmarker. Islands gained by the United States in the war against Spainmarker at the turn of the 20th century were no longer to be considered foreign territory; on the other hand, the United States Supreme Courtmarker declared that they were not automatically covered by the Constitution and that it was up to the United States Congress to decide what portions of the Constitution, if any, applied to them. The only remaining exception is Palmyra Atollmarker, the United States's only incorporated territory; it is unorganized and uninhabited.

The United States Navy has held a base at 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 Raul Castro disputes this arrangement, claiming Cuba was not truly sovereign at the time of the signing. The United States argues this point is moot because Cuba apparently ratified the lease post-revolution, and with full sovereignty, when it cashed one rent check in accordance with the disputed treaty.

Divisions of U.S. states

Census Regions and Divisions of United States

Counties in the United States

The states are divided into smaller administrative regions, called counties in all but two states — exceptions being Alaskamarker (parts of the state are organized into subdivisions called boroughs; the rest of the state's territory that is not included in any borough, known collectively as the Unorganized Borough, is divided into "census areas"), and Louisianamarker (which is divided into county-equivalents that are called parish). There are also independent cities which are part of particular states but not part of any particular county or consolidated city-counties. Another type of organization is where the city and county are unified and function as an independent city. There are thirty-nine independent cities in Virginiamarker and other independent cities that are not part of, or consolidated with, counties include Baltimore, Marylandmarker, St. Louis, Missourimarker, and Carson City, Nevadamarker. Counties can include a number of cities, towns, villages, or hamlets, or sometimes just a part of a city. Counties have varying degrees of political and legal significance, but they are always administrative divisions of the state. Some cities are consolidated with, and coterminous with, their counties, including Denver, Coloradomarker, San Francisco, Californiamarker and Philadelphiamarker--that is to say, these counties consist in their entirety of a single municipality the government of which also operates as the county government. New York Citymarker is coterminous with five counties. For further detail, visit counties and county statistics of the United States. Counties in many states are further subdivided into townships - which, by definition, are administrative divisions of a county. In some states, such as Michigan, a township can file a charter with the state government, making itself into a "charter township", which is a type of mixed municipal and township status (giving the township some of the rights of a city without all of the responsibilities), much in the way a metropolitan municipality is a mixed municipality and county.

Cities in the United States

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

Townships in the United States

Township is an intermediate civic designation between city and county; cities sometimes cross county boundaries, townships never do. 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. Townships are subdivided into section, which never have separate governments.

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 Englandmarker, towns are a principal form of local government, providing many of the functions of counties in other states. In Californiamarker, 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.

Jurisdictions not administered by the states

Federal district of the United States

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 Marylandmarker and Virginiamarker; 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.

Indian reservations

American Indian reservations are a separate and special classification of political division of and within the United States. Under U.S. law, Indian tribes are sovereign nations, meaning that their legal authority to exist derives independently of the state and federal governments. However, under this definition of tribal sovereignty, they cannot act independently of the federal government, but they are immune from regulations under state law. Until the late-19th century, agreements between the U.S. government and Native American groups were generally called treaties, however these are now considered domestic legislation despite their name, and, since the passage of the Dawes Act in 1883, no new treaties with Indian tribes have been concluded.

Territories of the United States

Regions that are neither part of any State, nor assigned to a Native Nation, have often been legally designated as territories by the U.S. government. Since territory now has legal definition under federal law, the term insular area is used as a generic reference. These can be incorporated territories (i.e., incorporated within all provisions of the U.S. Constitution) or unincorporated (areas in which the U.S. Constitution does not apply). From the organization of the Northwest Territory in 1789, all areas not admitted as States were under the direct control of Congress as organized incorporated territories, with some political autonomy at the local level. Since the admission of Hawaiimarker to the Union in 1959, there have been no incorporated territories other than the uninhabited Palmyra Atollmarker (formerly part of the Hawaii Territory, it was excluded from the act of admission). Several overseas unincorporated territories are now independent countries, such as Cubamarker, the Philippinesmarker, Federated States of Micronesiamarker and the Republic of Palaumarker.

Unlike within the States, sovereignty over insular areas rests not with the local people, but in Congress. In most areas, Congress has granted considerable self-rule through an Organic Act, which functions as a local constitution. The Northwest Ordinance grants territories the right to send a non-voting delegate to the U.S. Congress.

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. See International territorial disputes of the United States.

Insular areas of the United States

Several islands in the Pacific Oceanmarker and Caribbean Seamarker are considered insular areasmarker of the United States.

Incorporated (integral part of United States)


Unincorporated (U.S. possessions)
Along with Palmyra Atoll, these uninhabited islands form the United States Minor Outlying Islands:
*Baker Islandmarker
*Howland Islandmarker
*Jarvis Islandmarker
*Johnston Atollmarker
*Kingman Reefmarker
*Midway Islandsmarker (administered as the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge) - small number of contractors present
*Navassa Islandmarker
*Wake Islandmarker – small number of contractors present
*Petrel Islandsmarker
*Serranilla Bankmarker


From July 18, 1947 until October 1, 1994, the United States administered the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, but more recently entered into a new political relationship with all four political units (one of which is the Northern Mariana Islands listed above, the others being the three freely-associated states noted below).

Freely-associated states

The freely-associated states are the three sovereign states with which the United States has entered into a Compact of Free Association. They have not been within U.S. jurisdiction since they became sovereign; however, many considered them to be dependencies of the United States until each was admitted to the United Nations in the 1990s.

Electoral districts

Each political institution defines for itself the districts from which its members are elected. Congressional districts are an example of this. State legislatures are also divided up from the territory of each state.

Other districts

In addition to general-purpose government entities legislating at the state, county, and city level, special-purpose entities such as conservation districts also exist.

Government-like organs

Additionally, U.S. courts have ruled that there are smaller organs 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 (non-discrimination, etc.). These include homeowners associations (determined in Shelley v. Kraemer, Loren v. Sasser, Committee for a Better Twin Rivers v. Twin Rivers Homeowners’ Association), and company-owned towns (both for employees and for consumers, decided in the USSCmarker case Marsh v. Alabama in 1946). Many homeowners' and neighborhood associations are considered non-profit organizations, but have the ability to raise taxes/fees, to fine members for infractions against association-rules, and to initiate lawsuits. The question of human rights/civil rights (freedom of expression, etc.) in such communities has not yet been conclusively determined, and varies from state to state.

See also



References

  1. Aleksandar Pavković, Peter Radan, Creating New States: Theory and Practice of Secession, p. 222, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2007.
  2. Texas v. White, 74 U.S. 700 (1868) at Cornell University Law School Supreme Court collection.


External links




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