The story of British and American diplomacy in relations with the Kingdom of Hawaii, and American commercial interests that led to U.S. annexation of that nation as a U.S. territory is well known. What is relevant to the question of political status resolution for Puerto Rico is that the Hawaii Organic Act adopted by Congress in 1900 to make annexation of the islands a fait accompli conferred U.S. citizenship on the inhabitants of the new territory.
As it had throughout the history of territorial expansion, the issue of whether the Constitution applied in the newest territory once again was raised in a federal court case. In the 1903 case of Hawaii v. Mankichi, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution had been formally extended by the territorial organic act, as evidenced by and consistent with the conferral of U.S. citizenship on persons born in the territory.
That placed Hawaii on the Northwest Ordinance plan of incorporation into the Union, giving Hawaii rights to the statehood brand and participation in the statehood franchise territorial training program, so to speak. Accordingly, instead of being ruled by royalty, its kings and queens, princesses and princes, and a Governor appointed by the President of the United States arrives from Washington, followed by new waves of American commercial interests.
The territorial legislature is formed under the organic act, and as early as 1903 that representative body adopts a resolution asking the newly elected non-voting Delegate representing Hawaii in the U.S. House of Representatives, Prince Kuhio, to request that Congress approve a statehood enabling act for Hawaii to adopt a statehood constitution and be admitted to the union. By 1919 Delegate Kuhio apparently figured out he could introduce a statehood bill, the first of amny that went nowhere fast.
In 1921 Congress creates the Hawaiian Homes Commission to transfer public lands formerly owned by the Kingdom to native Hawaiians, a race-based preference enacted under the Territorial Clause power. That constituted the first major federal law recognizing Hawaii’s unique cross-cultural character, distinguishing its incorporation process from that of continental territories inhabited by diverse peoples already acculturated to the American way of life.
The march of history leading U.S. citizen populated territories to statehood was not to be turned around by cross-cultural accommodations. As it has in all territories integrated under the Northwest Ordinance tradition, the American way of life prevailed over obstacles to statehood in Hawaii when Congress passed the Jones-Costigan Act in 1934. That law treated Hawaii as an overseas area subject to the same lower quotas allowed on tariff free sugar imports to the continental U.S. as foreign importers.
This blatant federal protectionist measure benefitting sugar growers in the mainland at the expense of Hawaiian growers would have been an unconstitutional interference with interstate commerce if Hawaii were a state. American plantation owners whose predecessors had “stolen Hawaii fair and square” became convinced the schedule for admission to the Union had to be accelerated. Suddenly, equal citizenship rights became good for business.
It was, therefore, no coincidence that in 1935 the territorial legislature establishes the Hawaii Equal Rights Commission to oppose discriminatory federal law and policy denying equal citizenship rights and political integration of the territory into the nation under the Constitution. The HERC would later become the Hawaii Statehood Commission, demonstrating that equal rights can be the driver of political status rather than vice versa.
One of the most interesting historical facts about Hawaii’s statehood quest was that it got a boost of support from the President’s territorial czar at the Department of the Interior, who came and visited Hawaii in 1934 after commercial air service was available and stayed for months. He later would become Governor of Alaska and support statehood for the last two territories admitted to the union, and he was elected to the U.S. Senate from Alaska in the year of admission in 1959.
As the U.S. commits to a greater military presence in 1937 the territory a joint Congressional delegation of U.S. Senators and Congressmen held field hearings in Hawaii. After reporting the territory’s readiness for statehood the delegation recommends a statehood vote. That vote was sponsored by Congress in late 1940, and results in a 2-1 majority for statehood, but WWII intervenes and statehood is on hold until after Hawaiians have proven their patriotism in the war.
After the war federal immigration reform resolves the status of Chinese immigrants in Hawaii, and the U.S. Secretary of the Interior endorses statehood. The next hurdle becomes the newly established United Nations, were Hawaii is placed on the list of colonial territories, requiring the U.S. to report annually to the U.N. on decolonization of the islands. In Congressional hearings in 1946 a member of the territorial legislature opposes statehood as a completion of annexation process making Hawaii’s colonial status worse instead of better.
The Congress rejected that view and supporters argued statehood is the anti-colonial option to end territorial status. The Hawaii Statehood Commission began lobbying Congress for admission and in 1947 a statehood bill passed the House and President Truman formally endorses statehood, but concern in Congress about communism in Hawaii delays action.
In 1949 a local constitutional convention is called and a new statehood friendly constitution is adopted in 1950, the status of Japanese migrants is resolved and in 1952, the same year a joint Alaska-Hawaii statehood bill is considered. Both the Democrat and Republican platforms support statehood for both territories, but Republicans argue Alaska will be Democrat and want only Republican controlled Hawaii to be admitted immediately.
In 1954 Hawaii legislature is taken over by Democrats, and in 1956 Hawaii’s Governor runs and is elected as a Democrat. President Eisenhower favors admission of Hawaii but not Alaska, so in 1958 Democrat leaders in Congress and Hawaii agree to pass the Alaska admission act first and hold up Hawaii bill to force the President to sign Alaska statehood bill before he gets to sign a Hawaii admission bill.
After Alaska became the 49th state in early 1959, Hawaii was still a predominantly Republican state and Alaska mostly Democrat, so admission of Hawaii was still seen as a way to maintain partisan balance in Congress. Congress finally passes the Hawaii statehood admission act and the President signs it, but Hawaii’s Democrat Delegate in the House is not invited to the White House for signing ceremony!
As required in the Hawaii admission act in order to satisfy U.N. decolonization and self-determination standards, a plebiscite on statehood was held in Hawaii. Statehood wins by 94% of the vote. President Eisenhower signs the proclamation declaring Hawaii the 50th State of the Union and unveils the new 50 star U.S. flag.
The preceding detailed account of Hawaii’s admission process gives important context for predicting how political the admission of Puerto Rico will become. Even though there is not another territory also waiting for admission, the impact of Puerto Rico’s admission on the partisan political balance of power in Congress will similarly loom large in the sequence of actions leading to actual admission of the 51st State of the Union.
As we know, in the same year of 1900 the Congress passed the Foraker Act as the territorial organic law for that new territory, but did not confer U.S. citizenship. Instead the inhabitants were given territorial citizenship. The legal meaning of the term “citizen of Puerto Rico” under federal law was defined in the 1904 ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Gonzales v. Williams, holding that Puerto Ricans were neither U.S. citizens nor foreign citizens “aliens,” but subjects of U.S. “national protection.”
When that ambiguous status was clarified in 1917 with the enactment of the Jones Act as the new organic law for Puerto Rico, the territorial citizens were made U.S. citizens just as Hawaiians had been in 1900. When the meaning of U.S. citizenship and applicability of the Constitution were tested in 1922, the U.S. Supreme Court should have used the Hawaii and Alaska models as the template for acting on Puerto Rico statehood.
Instead, the court ruled that the Insular Cases unincorporated territory doctrine and the Philippines precedent for non-citizens populated territories should continue to apply to U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico. That ruling cheated Puerto Rico out of the opportunities for freedom and prosperity Hawaii was able to pursue in 1959.