Birth of a Nation: The Colony, The Territory, The State

“Incapable of self-government”


Verve Observation

by Phillip Wong

    “Porto Rico differs radically from any other people for whom we have legislated previously . . . they have no experience which would qualify them for the great work of government with all the bureaus and departments needed by the people of Porto Rico.

Said Republican Senator Joseph B. Foraker in a speech before the United States Senate in 1900.

In another speech before Congress in 1900, Senator William B. Bates (D-TN) who had served in the Confederate Army said:


“ What is to become the Philippines and Porto Rico? Are they to become states with representation here from those countries, from that heterogeneous mass of mongrels that make up their citizenship? That is objectionable to the people of this country, as it ought to be, and they will call a halt to it before it is done.           Jefferson was the greatest expansionist. But neither his example nor his precedents affords any justification for expansion over territory in distant seas, over peoples incapable of self-government, over religions hostile to Christianity, and over savages addicted to head-hunting and cannibalism, as some of these islanders are.”

   These views made in the United States Congress, at Puerto Rico’s inclusion into the United States sphere of influence were the backdrop of how Puerto Rico would be governed by the United States Congress for the next 117 years.

   These were not unique or shocking views as the 1800s passed into another century in America. But they create a perspective to how our views shaped a nation, a foreign policy, politics and an economy that echoes through our society today.

   They neither affirm, nor excuse, how we look at problems today, an economy today, or the environment and in context of tomorrow. But we can neither continue, nor embrace, nor adjust our actions today to maintain these views in the future. 

The easiest thing to change in our world, is our minds. The hardest thing to change in our world, is our minds. It is up to us.

A New World


             The New World was explored and discovered from 1400 through 1900 by European explorers seeking gold, glory and a foothold for a Christian god. Asia and Africa were already known by traders and crusaders for centuries, but the sea was a possible new path. Portugal, Spain, France, the Netherlands and England were the sponsors of exploration, and their explorers claimed new lands for their sponsors.



                     Puerto Rico was considered to have been the land discovered by Columbus when he first landed in the New World. He claimed Puerto Rico for Spain in 1492 and for the next two centuries, Spain was a dominant nation in global exploration and development. When Columbus landed, the indigenous people of Puerto Rico were Taino, but they, like many native peoples, perished from European borne diseases, warfare and slavery. Puerto Rico remained a Spanish colony from 1492 until 1898.

From Spain to the United States


          Following the end of the Spanish-American War, in the Treaty of Paris in 1898, Puerto Rico was transferred from a territory of Spain, to a territory of the United States.  Other Spanish territories involved in this transfer were Guam and Philippines. In the transfer, Puerto Ricans lost their Spanish citizenship but did not become American citizens.


              For the first 50 years, legislation created pertaining to Puerto Rico was written by the United States Congress and administered by appointed governors and officials to benefit American corporate interests. Following the creation of the Puerto Rico Federal Relations Act of 1950, Puerto Rico was able to elect its own governor, legislative and judicial bodies, but all was subject to approval by the United States Congress. And American disapproval could negate any Puerto Rican decision.


            In act after act of legislation, throughout Puerto Rico’s history, it becomes apparent from the timing and wording, which industries, which corporations and which country, and for which purposes, Congressional legislation was meant to benefit.

Territory, Commonwealth, Colony, Independence, State
                 For 100 years, Puerto Rico has remained in American limbo, as the decision on whether to be granted (and to accept) statehood, independence, commonwealth status has been debated and voted on both by Puerto Ricans and the American Congress.     
                  Puerto Rico came into American hands believing it would be granted independence from Spanish rule. Cuba was struggling for independence when America entered into war with Spain on their behalf. Spain granted Cuba independence at the time of ceding Puerto Rico , Philippines and Guam to the United States. Puerto Rico had just elected a parliament (a right which Spain had granted to both Cuba and Puerto Rico) that was meeting the day America declared war on Spain.              
                   The perception of the American Congress, and American businesses to Puerto Rico, is vastly different than the perception of Puerto Ricans to America (and there is always a difference between people on the street and governing bodies). Americans have viewed Puerto Rico in a transactional prism – how can our businesses and economy benefit from this island while paying some of the bills?
                     Puerto Rico’s government is largely funded by U.S. Congressional grants. They work for the United States Congress, less so, for the people of Puerto Rico, and people in Puerto Rico view their government as inherently corrupt. But as we examine the political history and the economic consequences of this anomaly, the Puerto Rican government has in a large way, acted as a Chamber of Commerce, rather than an independent three bodies (executive, legislative and judicial), serving the people of Puerto Rico.
              The people of Puerto Rico have largely seen themselves as Americans, but different. They see themselves as having the same rights and responsibilities as people on American soil, but unless they ARE on American soil, they don’t have American rights or protections. It is a nonsensical existence in a modern world.

A Land of Sugar, A Land of Labor


           From 1900 through the 1930s, American political rule and economic development was aimed at creating an American agricultural sugar industry on Puerto Rico.


            The first appointed governor was Charles Herbert Allen who was installed in 1900 and governed for 18 months before leaving for New York. On arrival in New York, he joined the Morgan bank and then starting the American Sugar Refining Company in 1901. In those initial 18 months, he set the stage for Puerto Rican dependency on the United States that continues today.


               In 1899, a year after Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States from Spain, Hurricane San Ciriaco struck and destroyed the island’s coffee crop. Puerto Rican farmers received no relief funds, instead the Hollander Act was passed by Congress with Allen’s guidance, to create a land tax on farmers who had no means to pay the tax. U.S. banks provided the loans to cover the taxes with usury rates. When Puerto Ricans couldn’t pay the loans and interest rates, the Sugar Trust (American Sugar Refining Company – now known as Domino Sugar), purchased the land by paying the banks.

Legislation by the United States Congress


                The Foraker Act of 1900, passed by the United States Congress, allowed for the governorship, Executive Council and Supreme Court all to be appointed by the United States president. Puerto Ricans could elect a lower house. But the purpose was to prohibit Puerto Rico from negotiating trade agreements with any foreign country. It prohibited tariffs or import/export regulations. By 1930, 94% of trade was with the United States, and with American goods sold in Puerto Rico roughly 15% higher than the same goods sold on American soil, a budgetary imbalance was created that exists today.

               In 1917, the Jones-Shafroth Act was passed authorizing a Puerto Rican government to collect taxes on property and internal revenue. Passed on March 02, 1917, it also made Puerto Ricans, American citizens. The passage of this act served multiple purposes: while it created a form of government similar to the United States, and allowed officials to be elected locally, it also any legislation passed by Puerto Ricans could be vetoed by the Governor and President of the United States and the United States Congress maintained control over all fiscal and economic matters. Congress exercised control over mail services, immigration, defense, foreign trade agreements and import/export. Essentially, it allowed Congressional members grant favors to their cronies to loot Puerto Rico if they so desired. Also, as newly minted American citizens, once America entered World War I a month later (April 6, 1917), it allowed Puerto Ricans to be drafted into the American military. They served in segregated military units.

            In 1920, the Merchant Marine Act (also known as the Jones Act, although, in relation to Puerto Rico is often confused with the Jones-Shafroth Act) was created to establish a Merchant Marine for the United States. But a Section 27, was included to deal with cabotage (the carrying of goods transported between U.S. ports). This section of the Jones bill, mandates that all goods transported between U.S. ports must be carried by American constructed, owned, operated, crewed ships. While this is not a problem for the transport of goods between Kansas and Missouri, Puerto Rico, Hawaii and Alaska are affected, and since much of America is continental, America does not have a large number of shipping companies that transport between “local” traffic areas.

American Citizenship for Puerto Rico.


The Jones-Shafroth Congressional Act in March 1917 assigned American citizenship to all Puerto Ricans. In April of 1917, America entered World War I, and 20,000 newly minted Puerto Rican-Americans were conscripted to fight.