As FDR’s appointee to serve as Governor of Puerto Rico, Rexford Tugwell used federal and territorial government powers differently, but just as robustly, as he had exercised his social engineering mandate at the Federal Resettlement Administration in Washington. His pet project there had been the planning and building of the model city that would become Greenbelt, Maryland.

That was an early experiment in New Deal urban planning that Tugwell wanted to duplicate in Puerto Rico by establishing the Puerto Rico Planning, Urbanization and Zoning Board. Tugwell and his surrogates among local leaders devised legal and regulatory measures that resulted in relocation of rural population to metropolitan San Juan and a few satellite cities. This was promoted by Tugwell as a trend leading to a more cohesive society and a concentrated labor pool for government and private industrialization.

Tugwell indoctrinated local Puerto Rican politicians to his collectivist program for Puerto Rico, and mentored those who showed ideological promise and leadership potential. Those of his protégés who publicly endorsed the collectivist vision rose to power under his rule, including his successor as the appointed Governor, Jesus Pinero, as well as the man who would become the first elected Governor, Luis Munoz Marin.

Leaving no stone unturned to secure outcomes and ensure his legacy, Tugwell also served as Chancellor of the University of Puerto Rico. He hoped by doing so to install an entrenched academic elite to indoctrinate a generation of leftists who could dominate the Puerto Rican intelligentsia and sustain the primacy of his ideological dogma.

Perhaps most brazenly, Tugwell affiliated openly with the local “commonwealth” party, calling for a permanent federally subsidized social experiment in Puerto Rico to create an alternative to statehood or nationhood. He saw Puerto Rico as captive insular society where he could prove collectivist theories, including a model of political economy that could not be tested in the states due to the disciplines of American federalism and the U.S. Constitution.

To understand his true intentions, it is paramount to understand Tugwell later would redirect his devotion to centralized planning at the local, state and national levels in the United States. Instead of limiting his focus to his own nation, he espoused the imperatives of centralized global planning under a supreme world government. Thus, he found an outlet for his higher order of beliefs by playing an active role on the Committee to Frame a World Constitution after WWII.

His grandiose pursuits after he left Puerto Rico shed light on his priorities during his tenure in Puerto Rico. His track record before and after Puerto Rico confirm his dedication to government management of a centralized planned social order, in which federal, state and local regulatory measures defined the choices of individuals and the collective in a government managed society. Correctly observing that the U.S. Constitution does not impose an economic system on the nation, the tenacious Tugwell later would propose a new kind of federalism with economic as well as political rights.

In the new constitutional order he advocated, the political and judicial branches of government would be competing with a new planning branch and a regulatory branch of the federal government. This new order would replace the structure established under principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, and would be instituted under the “Constitution of the New States of America.”

For Tugwell the existence of states rights under the 10th Amendment, as well as the checks and balances system in which the people of different states with competing interests were represented in Congress, prevented the kind of centralized command and control Tugwell espoused at the federal level. That is why he did not want Puerto Rico to move toward incorporated territory status like Alaska and Hawaii at the time, where citizens lacked federal voting rights but had most other citizenship rights under the Constitution.

Tugwell knew that once Puerto Ricans got citizenship with rights under the Constitution as applicable in an incorporated territory, statehood would be just a matter of time, as it was for Alaska and Hawaii when he was in Puerto Rico. That would usher in the same limits on federal government power, as well as the enhancement of state powers, that constrained Tugwell’s collectivist designs in the states before he was exiled from Washington, before he was made the imperial Czar of Puerto Rico.

A truly brilliant if misguided strategic thinker, Tugwell recognized that statehood would enable Puerto Rico to integrate into the social and political order under the historical U.S. system of constitutional system of federalism. Similarly, nationhood would allow Puerto Rico to integrate into the international world order. However, he did not want Puerto Rico to become part of the old order in the U.S. or the world.

In the mind of Rex Tugwell, the “more perfect union” formed in 1789 was an anachronism focused on the imperative of joining the autonomous states together to form a nation able to define its territory, citizenship and sovereignty. It was his historic conceptualization that in the mid 20th century the U.S. no longer needed to be defined by unity, but by renewal. So instead of United States he called for New States, with autonomy instead of unity, “unique” political relations instead of uniformity under law, special rights instead of equal rights.

It is in this context that we can begin to understand why Tugwell did not want Puerto Rico to become another of the United States, but rather a “new kind of state.” Instead of becoming captive to the “old” order of federalism under the U.S. Constitution as a matter of domestic law and policy, he wanted Puerto Rico to be a trailblazer for a new order, and so he invented the myth that “commonwealth” was a “new kind of statehood.”

Concomitantly, he did not want Puerto Rico to become a nation in the “old” order of the international community of nations. Instead, he wanted to make Puerto Rico the proving ground for a social reality free of the vestiges of the nation-state model of sovereignty.

As neither a state or a nation, Puerto Rico’s “unique” new status model as envisioned by Tugwell would not be that of an independent nation with supreme sovereignty to act in its own national self interest. Instead, although not part of the public narrative in his mind the long term concept he contemplated was that “commonwealth” would allow Puerto Rico to subordinate national sovereignty to global cooperation under a multi-tiered hierarchy of shared sovereignty.

These ideas about fungible sovereignty and the post-historical relations between citizenship and nation, as well as political status options that had no predicate in American territorial practice, had a profound impact on the political culture of Puerto Rico. Indeed, his protégés in Puerto Rico successfully advanced a political agenda in furtherance of which Puerto Rico became the first U.S. territory to pursue a permanent status other than statehood or nationhood. The unrealized promise of a “commonwealth” third option that was not territorial but post-imperial and non-colonial delayed the real choice between statehood and nationhood for 65 years.

The full story of Tugwell’s role in this intergenerational saga of democracy deferred will be explored further in the next installment of this series.



4 Responses

  1. […] Rexford Tugwell and the New Deal in Puerto Rico – How did Puerto Rico get this messed up? Rexford Tugwell helped lay the foundation. I suppose you could argue that they are the richest island in the Caribbean, but I don’t doubt that if we’d established the same laissez faire policies that the Brits applied to Hong Kong they would be much better off today. […]

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