The American age of imperialism was on and the sinking of the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana, Cuba on February 15, 1898, provided all the excuse that was needed to go to war with Spain. The spoils of this war would be the acquisition of Spain's colonial islands in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
Teddy Roosevelt became famous for his "Rough Riders" and the charge up San Juan Hill. However, the future President was not in charge of the expeditionary force invading the island of Puerto Rico. General Nelson A. Miles ordered the troops ashore at Guanica, ironically the 1493 landing spot of Columbus when he claimed the island for Spain.
Three days after the landing, General Miles issued a proclamation stating the intentions of the United States for the invasion. "The people of the United States, in the cause of liberty, justice, and humanity, its military forces have come to occupy the island of Porto Rico….They have come not to make war on the people of the country, who for centuries have been oppressed; but on the contrary, to bring protection….and bestow the immunities and blessings of our enlightenment and liberal institutions and government."
The Treaty of Peace between the United States of America and the Kingdom of Spain on December 10, 1898 stated, "The civil rights and political status of the native inhabitants of the territory hereby ceded to the United States shall be determined by Congress."
Military rule of the island continued until passage of the Foraker Act in 1900 when a non-voting resident commissioner to Congress was created. Congressional control triggered a national debate on the newly acquired colony with its vast sugar plantations. The debate raged in both academia and Congress where racist ideology colored the discourse.
Professor Charles Langdell, setting the tone for later U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the infamous Insular Cases, argued in the Harvard Law Review that the Bill of Rights should not apply in Puerto Rico. "Nor should the fact be lost sight of that those ten amendments as a whole are so peculiarly and so exclusively English that an immediate and compulsory application of them to ancient and thickly settled Spanish colonies would furnish as striking proof of our unfitness to govern dependencies, or to deal with alien races, as our bitterest enemies could desire."
Meanwhile, Senator William Bate (D-TN), a former Confederate general in the Civil War, led the attack in Congress against political rights for the conquered colonies. On the floor of the Senate chamber Bate described America's newest subjects as "physically weaklings of low stature, with black skin, closely curling hair, flat noses, thick lips, and large clumsy feet."
It would take more than a decade after the death of Senator Bate before Congress granted non-voting citizenship in 1917 to residents of Puerto Rico with the Jones Act. But the promise of General Miles, on the shoreline of Guanica, about the "blessings" of enlightenment, liberal institutions and government remains unfulfilled over a century later in America's largest colony.
21st Century American Colonies is a series of articles that explore the acquisition, control, and status of modern-day colonies of the United States. Although the colonies are now called "unincorporated territories" the second-class nature of U.S. citizenship of residents of the territories continues to define the colonial status. Permission is granted to reprint.