The myriad political divisions of the United States include (but are not limited to) states, territories, counties, townships, cities, the federal district, possessions and insular areas, embassies and consulates, Indian reservations, military installations, conservation districts and non-municipal special-purpose districts like public authorities, school districts and utilities districts.
The primary political division of the United States is the U.S. state. The states have a large degree of autonomy, as a result of the U.S.'s federal system, and the fact that they created the federal government (rather than the other way around, as in many other countries). The state then grants further autonomy to its own subdivisions, primarily cities, counties, and townships.
There are an estimated 85,000 extant political entities in the United States. Political divisions of the United States are a subset of the total United States territory.
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
The contiguous part of the U.S. (i.e. without Hawaii and Alaska) is called continental United States.
The relation between the state and national government 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 explicitly granted to the federal government in the Constitution are duly appropriated to the states and the people.)
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. These counties have varying degrees of political and legal significance. For further detail, visit counties and county statistics of the United States. Counties in many states can divide themselves further into minor civil divisions.
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.
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 independent of any state. It is there that the nation's capital city resides. The city contains the historic Federal City and is that part that was originally designed as the National Capitol. It is part of the United States of America but not part of any state. The city is under the jurisdiction of the United States Congress, as well as its own mayor-council system.
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 act comes 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:
From July 18, 1947 until October 1, 1994, the U.S. administered the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, but recently entered into a new political relationship with all four political units (one of which is the Northern Mariana Islands listed above).
The freely-associated states are the three sovereign nations with which the United States has entered into a Compact of Free Association.
Each political institution defines for itself the districts from which its members are elected. Congressional districts are an example of this.
In addition to general-purpose government entities legislating at the state, county, and city level, special-purpose entities such as conservation districts also exist.