The Puerto Rico Statehood Commission has been sworn in officially by Governor Rossello. The Commission, consisting of leaders from both the Democratic and Republican parties, as well as one independent representative, has a single goal: to encourage Congress to take action on Puerto Rico’s demand for statehood.
Statehood won in plebiscites in 2012 and 2017. The “commonwealth” party worked hard to discredit both votes. Since Congress has to take action — a plebiscite is always a way to get a sense of what people want, not a binding vote — the Commission needs to make the situation clear enough to Congress that they’ll take the needed action.
The Commission will not be distracted by questions about the PROMESA board or the history of Puerto Rico’s debt. These are important issues, but the most important issue for Puerto Rico right now is political status. As a state, Puerto Rico will be in position to reach prosperity, as all the other territories which became states before have done.
32 territories have become states.
In every case territories were less affluent before they became states. Statehood has provided stability, safety, and prosperity for 32 territories so far. It’s time to let Puerto Rico taste the same benefits.
All those territories had to work hard for statehood.
- When the Territory of Missouri’s population grew large enough to apply for statehood in 1819, slavery was legal in Missouri. The U.S. Congress of the time worried that accepting a new state with slavery would make the balance of power uneven in Congress, and “slave states” could have too much influence.
- Oklahoma wanted to combine its land with that of the Indian Territory to make a new state of Oklahoma. Leaders of the “Five Civilized Tribes” did not agree; they wanted to form a state of their own, called Sequoyah. Congress passed an enabling act for the combined state of Oklahoma, but it took years to iron out agreements among the various residents.
- Florida had a clause in their cession treaty saying that they would “be incorporated in the Union of the United States, as soon as may be consistent with the principles of the Federal Constitution, and admitted to the enjoyment of all the privileges, rights, and immunities of the citizens of the United States.” This clause made the citizens of Florida agitate for statehood frequently. On the other hand, they were involved in wars which kept them from paying their federal taxes — they just stopped paying for a couple of years. Their representative at one point during the Seminole Wars suggested separating Florida into parts and admitting just the most prosperous part as a state.
- The Dakota Territory voted for statehood, but some members of Congress were concerned that the turnout for the vote had been too small. South Dakota put together a commission (all Republicans — the Democrats boycotted the process) and sent them to Washington, using the Tennessee Plan to speed up the admissions process. The Senate accepted the delegation, but the Democrat-controlled House rejected it, since the whole slate was made up of Republicans. It took years of further effort for South Dakota to gain admission as a state.
How soon we forget!
Some of these stories might remind you of Puerto Rico’s process toward statehood, while others seem to have far more problems.
It has been a long time since the United States accepted any territories for statehood. We’ve forgotten that it has always been a complicated process. We may also have forgotten that it has always been a good thing for the territories to become part of the United States.
Being a territory should be thought of as part of the path to statehood. The new Commission’s work will remind us that statehood is worth fighting for.