The map below shows, to a considerable extent, why Puerto Rico is part of the United States. It appeared in Alfred Thayer Mahan’s essay, “The Strategic Features of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea,” from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine for October, 1897—just a little more than a year before Spain ceded the island to the United States.

As you can see Puerto Rico straddled one of the routes to the as-yet-unbuilt canal through the as-yet-nonexistent nation of Panama. It’s pretty prescient, as maps go.

As I say, the map shows why Puerto Rico is part of the United States. It’s another question, of course, as to how Puerto Rico is part of the United States. At the start, the United States let Elihu Root run it; Root thought the people there “have not yet been educated in the art of self-government, or any really honest government.” (It takes a nation of bosses to discourse on readiness for honest government.)

With the Foraker Act of April 12, 1900 (31 Stat. 77), the citizens of Puerto Rico were entitled to “the protection of the United States,” however far that went. They also got an elected legislative assembly, along with a governor and executive council appointed by the US president.

In the 1901 case of Downes v. Bidwell, the Supreme Court found that Puerto Rico was neither independent nor completely incorporated into the United States—which is to say, it ranked somewhere below the territories. It was, the dissenting Justice Melville Fuller protested, “a disembodied shade, in an intermediate state of ambiguous existence for an indefinite period”. Or, as Julio Henna said, “We are Mr. Nobody from Nowhere.”

Then in 1917, the indefinite period seemed to end. Whereas in the Jones Act of 1916 the US promised eventual independence to the Philippines, in the Jones Act of 1917 the US granted American citizenship to Puerto Ricans. Partly this was for racial reasons; the Filipinos were seen as Asiatics, while in Puerto Rico white people—or, “generally full-blooded white people, descendants of the Spaniards, possibly mixed with Indian blood, but none of them [of] negro extraction”, as Rep. Sereno Payne (R-NY) said—had a 2:1 advantage over blacks. Moreover, unlike the Filipinos, the Puerto Ricans appeared “a peaceable, tractable, intelligent people … [who since] their incorporation into our territory … have never given this country the least trouble”, as Rep. Horace Towner (R-IA) declared.1

But as José Cabranes notes, though, there was never any idea that this would mean “giving … those people any rights that the American people do not want them to have”, as Sen. Joseph Foraker (R-OH) had declared at the start. Which is to say, for the first time the US had granted citizenship without the possibility of statehood. The indefinite period continued, and continues.

Should Sonia Sotomayor ascend to the Supreme Court, she will by her heritage represent not only the Hispanic experience, but to a degree the experience of being on the receiving end of American empire.


1Not, of course, all of them all the time.

Payne, Towne, and Foraker quotations from José A. Cabranes, “Citizenship and the American Empire,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 127, no. 2 (December 1978): 391-492.