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Seeking Michigan: Michigan’s Rough & Rocky Road to Statehood

Seeking MichiganBy Bob Garrett, Archives of Michigan, courtesy Seeking Michigan. The goal of Seeking Michigan is simple: to connect you to the stories of this great state. Visit them regularly for a dynamic & evolving look at Michigan’s cultural heritage.

Michigan's First State Election

The First State Election in Detroit, Michigan 1837. A painting by Thomas Mickell Burnham. Used courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

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


Michigan Territory petitioned the U.S. Congress for statehood in 1833. A petitioning territory would typically begin writing a state constitution after Congressional approval (This came in the form of an “enabling act.”). Michigan, however, gained no such approval. In May 1834, Congress tabled the matter. Two issues delayed the process: 1) Michigan’s boundary dispute with Ohio (For more on this dispute, click: Toledo War.), and 2) the fact that Michigan statehood would upset the balance between free state and slave state Senators (Eventually, this matter would be resolved when Arkansas, a slave state, entered the Union around the same time as Michigan.). The Territory decided not to wait for Congress. In January 1835, the Michigan territorial legislature called for the aforementioned 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 of the aforementioned dispute (For details, click: Toledo War.). Michigan Governor Stevens T. Mason 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

Michigan State Seal

The Great Seal of Michigan

The Archives of Michigan houses the original 1835 Michigan constitution, in addition to other documents from the early statehood and pre-statehood periods. Now, Seeking Michigan visitors can view these materials from their home computers. To access them, click:  early statehood documents.  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. See Also: For more on Michigan’s first elected governor, Stevens T. Mason, click: Stevens T. Mason (Look! article)