When Louisiana, Alaska and Hawaii became territories the people were not U.S. citizens. Once citizenship was granted, statehood was the only way for the people to attain equal rights under the Constitution. History shows that for any territory realistically able to become a state, citizenship leads to statehood.
Granting citizenship was not necessary for admission of most territories that became states. That’s because U.S. citizen settlers already were a majority of the territorial population. Puerto Rico is the only remaining U.S. territory in which a non-citizen population was granted U.S. citizenship, that realistically is ready and able to become a state.
Louisiana was the first territory that had been foreign soil, and majority of inhabitants were French and Spanish citizens, so Article III of the “Louisiana Purchase” treaty with France signed in 1803 provided as follows:
“The inhabitants of the ceded territory shall be incorporated in the Union of the United States and admitted as soon as possible according to the principles of the federal Constitution to the enjoyment of all these rights, advantages and immunities of citizens of the United States, and in the mean time they shall be maintained and protected in the free enjoyment of their liberty, property and the Religion which they profess.”
Even though the people of the territory had different religion, language, institutions and traditions than the other 17 States in the Union that had been British colonies, U.S. citizenship was conferred under the treaty. Because the U.S. did not want to practice colonialism by treating citizens in Louisiana the way Britain had treated the colonies, granting citizenship made permanent territorial status impossible and statehood inevitable.
Problems of economic, legal and cultural integration were cited as reasons to delay statehood for Louisiana. But by 1812 Congress recognized those problems could not be overcome until the people of the territory secured equal rights and duties of citizenship under the Constitution through statehood.
In 1867 the U.S. purchased Alaska from Russia. Like Louisiana it was foreign soil and had a largely non-citizen population. So Congress approved language included in Article III of the treaty with Russia that recognized that non-citizens without allegiance to the U.S. could leave, but those who remained acquired the rights of U.S. citizenship under the Constitution:
“The inhabitants of the ceded territory, according to their choice, reserving their natural allegiance, may return to Russia within three years; but if they should prefer to remain in the ceded territory, they, with the exception of uncivilized native tribes, shall be admitted to the enjoyment of all the rights, advantages, and immunities of citizens of the United States, and shall be maintained and protected in the free enjoyment of their liberty, property, and religion. The uncivilized tribes will be subject to such laws and regulations as the United States may, from time to time, adopt in regard to aboriginal tribes of that country.”
The phrase excluding “uncivilized tribes” from citizenship reflects not only the attitudes of the time, but also an 1884 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court upholding classification of native peoples as citizens of tribal “nations” with allegiance to their tribes rather than America. In 1924 Congress granted citizenship to Native American children born after 1924, and in 1940 Congress expanded citizenship to all Native American tribes, while also preserving tribal rights.
In 1905 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Rassmussen v. U.S. that conferral of citizenship by the treaty incorporated Alaska into the union, giving inhabitants of Alaska the rights of citizenship under the Constitution.
In 1893 the Hawaiian monarchy capitulated to demands by U.S. interests and abdicated the throne. The successor government of the Republic of Hawaii agreed to U.S. annexation of Hawaii as a U.S. territory in 1898. In 1900 Congress organized Hawaii as a territory and immediately confirmed in Section 4 of the organic act that U.S. citizenship was conferred:
“All persons who were citizens of the Republic of Hawaii on August twelfth, eighteen hundred and ninety-eight, are hereby declared to be citizens of the United States”
In 1903 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Hawaii v. Mankichi case that the Newslands Resolution annexing Hawaii in 1898 and the 1900 organic law had incorporated the territory into the union, and that U.S. citizens of Hawaii had rights of citizenship under the Constitution as applicable in the territory.
At the same time the U.S. was annexing Hawaii, the U.S. captured Puerto Rico from Spain in the Spanish American War. Instead of following the Louisiana, Alaska and Hawaii examples, the U.S. decided to govern the non-citizen populations without extending citizenship.
Instead, Article IX of the treaty with Spain simply provided:
“The civil rights and political status of the native inhabitants of the territories hereby ceded to the United States shall be as determined by the Congress.”
In 1901 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Downes v. Bidwell that Congress could rule territories with non-citizen populations without incorporating the inhabitants or the territories into the union or applying the Constitution.
But then in 1917 Congress passed an organic law known as the Jones Act granting citizenship to Puerto Rico, providing in Section 5 that:
“All citizens of Puerto Rico…are hereby declared and shall be deemed and held to be citizens of the United States.”
As soon as Congress approved the Jones Act the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico were entitled to the same rights of citizenship under the Constitution as U.S. citizens in Louisiana, Alaska and Hawaii.
But in a shocking departure from federal court rulings on citizenship and status in Louisiana, Alaska and Hawaii, in 1922 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Balzac v. Puerto Rico that Congress could govern U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico without applying the U.S. Constitution in the territory. For the first time U.S. citizenship status and rights in a territory were separated from the Constitution.
As a result, since 1922 the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico have been ruled by Congress with limited local self-government only, in the same manner as the non-citizen inhabitants of the Philippines were governed during the territorial period before it became independent.
Once allowed by the courts, Congress gave citizenship to the small territories of Guam, the Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands. The Balzac ruling meant conferral of citizenship had no legal or political meaning different than non-citizenship for the inhabitants of U.S. territories. This is a failed policy that demands correction through statehood for Puerto Rico as chosen by voters in 2012, 2017, and 2020, and self-determination for the smaller territories.