Political divisions of the United States

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The political units and divisions of the United States include:

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 States after the federal state is the state. Technically and legally, states are not "divisions" but units of the United States, because the United States and the several states that constitute it operate with a uniquely American system of parallel sovereignty. According to numerous decisions of the United States Supreme Court, 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 decentralise 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 decentralisation 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 'borough' in Alaska; '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 always and 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.

Basically, 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 muncipalities, because counties are usually too big for that purpose. That is where the township comes in, to provide further localised 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 municiapality. 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 all U.S. states, cities operate independently of townships and in some states (e.g., Virginia) they operate without 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 recognised 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 Singapore, San Marino, Monaco, and the Vatican; and to a degree, Hong Kong and Macao (but these two are not actually sovereign).

There is at least one notable exception to this arrangement. New York City is composed of five boroughs, each of which has separate governing bodies, which report directly to a borough president. The five borough presidents all report directly to the Mayor of New York City. A city council also reports to the Mayor, composed of members from each borough, represented proportionally with respect to their population. There does not appear to be a clear delineation between services that are delivered and administered at the borough level, and those that are the responsibility of the city, and many such services are delivered under combined collaborative arrangements between the two. To further complicate matters, the boroughs are given at times to calling themselves counties.

Divisions of the federal state include, first, the originally diamond-shaped District of Columbia (hence the song, "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean"), at the originally geographic and geometric centre of which is the U.S. Capitol Building - the seat of the Government of the United States (in contrast to most other countries, where the seat of government is the principal official residence of the president, monarch or other head of state - as with Buckingham Palace in United Kingdom, Rideau Hall in Canada, and Aras na hUachtaran in Ireland). The United States Congress exercises exclusive jurisdiction over this and all other lands owned by the federal government.

Notwithstanding four states officially call themselves "commonwealth" (Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky), the term 'commonwealth' in federal context means an intermediate status between 'territory' and 'state' - both in the sense of "independent state" and "U.S. state." Puerto Rico and the Northern Marianas Islands are commonwealths associated with the United States. They might someday 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 "organised" and "unorganised" 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" which often includes such places as Wake Island, which has no permanent population whatsoever 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 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.

United States Department of the Interior

On March 3, 1849, on 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).

States of the United States

At the Declaration of Independence, the United States consisted of 13 states. In the following years, this number 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 U.S. states:

Map of United States with state border lines; Alaska and Hawaii not to scale
Map of United States with state border lines; Alaska and Hawaii not to scale

The contiguous part of the U.S. (i.e. without Hawaii and Alaska) is called the continental 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. 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 limits in the Constitution of the United States. (All powers not granted to the federal government in the Constitution are duly appropriated to the states and the people, with the people explicitely retaining unenumerated Constitutional rights, and the Federal government retaining the exclusive right to determine the unstated rights of the people when these enter into conflict with the states.)

The American Civil War and Texas v. White established that states do not have the right to secede, and under the Constitution of the United States, they are not allowed to conduct foreign policy.

Divisions of U.S. states

Counties in the United States

The states are divided into smaller administrative regions, called counties in most states — exceptions being Alaska (boroughs) and Louisiana (parishes). Counties can include a number of cities and towns, 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. 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 muncipality is a mixed municipality and county.

Cities in the United States

There are approximately 30,000 incorporated cities in the United States. For more information, visit cities of the United States.

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 township, survey township and civil township. Townships are subdivided into sections, 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 England states, 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.

Jurisdictions not administered by the states

Federal district of the United States

A separate federal district under the direct authority of congress, the District of Columbia, was formed from land ceded to the Federal Government by the adjoining states (Maryland and Virginia); although all of the Virginia cession was subsequently returned to state jurisdiction. The district does not form part of any state and the United States Congress has the constitutional power of, "Exclusive jurisdiction in all cases whatsoever," over the district; however, the District of Columbia Home Rule Act provides for a mayor-council system of government.

The district is synonymous with the nation's capital city, Washington, D.C..

Indian reservations

Indian reservations are a separate and special classification of political division of the U.S. 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

Lands and regions not part of any state, and not assigned to the native peoples of the Americas, have often been legally designated as territories by the U.S. government. Most of these possessions, as they are alternately called, were the results of seizure and cession. All former territories in the contiguous U.S. are now states; many overseas unincorporated territories, briefly held, are now independent states — Cuba and the Philippines being two examples. See the individual articles for in-depth examinations of the legal status of these entities.

The United States currently has only one incorporated territory, Palmyra Atoll, and has no territories slated to become states. This has been the case since 1959, up to which point large parts of the United States were under the direct control of the federal government, with nominal political autonomy at the territorial level.

Unlike states, the authority to rule dependent areas comes not from the people of those areas but from the Federal government, however in most cases Congress has granted a large amount of self-rule.

Insular areas of the United States

Several islands in the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea are considered insular areas of the United States:

Incorporated (integral part of United States)

  • none


Unincorporated (United States' possessions)



From July 18, 1947 until October 1, 1994, the U.S. 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 nations with which the United States has entered into a Compact of Free Association.

Electoral districts

Each political institution defines for itself the districts from which its members are elected. Congressional districts are an example of this.

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.

See also

External links

Political divisions of the United States Flag of the United States
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Federal district District of Columbia
Insular areas American Samoa | Baker Island | Guam | Howland Island | Jarvis Island | Johnston Atoll | Kingman Reef | Midway Atoll | Navassa Island | Northern Mariana Islands | Palmyra Atoll | Puerto Rico | Virgin Islands | Wake Island
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