There may be no statehood admission story more relevant to Puerto Rico’s quest for admission to the Union than that of Louisiana. That is because, like Puerto Rico today, in the territory that became Louisiana there were cultural diversity issues that complicated the issue. There were French as well as Spanish social traditions and multiple languages (including English, French, Spanish, Cajun, and Creole as well as Native American languages) were spoken in the territory. For some in Congress, this made delaying action on the status of the territory seem easier than doing the work of incorporation, integration and admission of the territory into the Union.

Still, the Territory of Orleans was carved out of the vast lands ceded to the U.S. by France in the “Louisiana Purchase” of 1803, and that new territory was admitted to the Union as the State of Louisiana in 1812. The people and government of the U.S. overcame political anxiety about cultural diversity issues and took action for the same reason that Puerto Rico will eventually become a state: the people of the territory were U.S. citizens.

That meant that the people of Louisiana would have the rights and duties of citizenship consistent with territorial status until they gained fully equal citizenship through statehood. Thus, after the Louisiana Purchase was divided into the Territory of Orleans and the Missouri Territory, the U.S. citizens had the status defined by Article III of the Treaty of Cession:

The inhabitants of the ceded territory shall be incorporated into the Union…and admitted as soon as possible, according to the principles of the Federal Constitution, to the enjoyment of all rights, advantages and immunities of citizens of the United States, and in the free enjoyment of the liberty, property, and the religion which they profess.

It was the common bond of citizenship that led to statehood. In the case of Puerto Rico, people came to believe that the status of the territory drove the meaning and rights of citizenship, but this is not the case. .

The lesson of Louisiana’s admission is that for U.S. citizens in a U.S. territory, the only way to achieve equal rights and duties of citizenship is for the territory to become a state.

In other words, theway to deal with cultural diversity is to give all citizens of the nation equal rights and duties of citizenship through statehood under the Constitution. Once statehood extends the Constitution fully to the people of a territory, they are full citizens with all the rights and responsibilities of citizens in other states.

It is the genius of America that we can rely on equal protection of the law, equal civil and political rights, the duty of allegiance all citizens owe to the nation, and our tradition as a nation of migrants who acquire equal rights and duties through citizenship under law to reconcile, accommodate and ultimately celebrate cultural differences, and truly become part of one nation under God.

Of course, today the U.S. is far more diverse and multicultural than the nation of 17 States was in 1803, and today finding the balance between ethnic identity and diversity with equal rights and duties of citizenship is a typical and expected part of our daily life as a nation. Indeed, Puerto Rico has become more like America and America has become more like Puerto Rico than most territories in the past were when they were admitted to the Union.

Some 80% of U.S. citizens in the Territory of New Mexico spoke only Spanish when it was admitted to the Union, and both Hawaii and Alaska had a history of ethnic diversity and multicultural reconciliation issues that, like Louisiana, were far more problematic than Puerto Rico’s often exaggerated cultural integration issues. Indeed, by comparison, Puerto Rico is a model for successful preservation of cultural integrity in the territory while adapting to the way of life known as the American Dream.

Of course, statehood will empower Puerto Rico under the 10th Amendment to preserve a balance between diversity and assimilation as a matter of constitutional rights. That proved true for Louisiana, Alaska and Hawaii, even though those early states were not as evolved and integrated when they were admitted to the union as Puerto Rico is today.

As the territory which would become the state of Louisiana struggled to overcome opposition to statehood in Congress, they held the idea that statehood would bring about integration of peoples with cultural differences. This idea meant many different things to people representing different interests in the territory.

  • To the federal territorial officials appointed to govern the territory, extending citizenship was a first step toward also extending the legal and political systems of the United States to a territory which was used to entirely different French and Spanish legal traditions. A territorial policy committing the U.S. and the territory to statehood created the mechanism for incorporation and integration.
  • Territorial leaders, however, feared that integration could mean loss of Spanish and French language and culture, as well as French and Spanish legal and political traditions. Thus, while equality under statehood was a positive shared value, imposed cultural assimilation was at the same time threatening.

To make things more complex, statehood would also affect slavery in Louisiana. As a territory, Louisiana could not extend slavery. If they were admitted as a slave State, Louisiana’s plantation-based economy could continue to grow. That meant that those in Congress who opposed slavery also opposed statehood for Louisiana, while some wealthy and influential investors wanted statehood.

In short, there were pressures for continuing as a territory and pressures for statehood, but it became clear that Louisiana couldn’t reach her goals as a territory. Only equal rights and duties of citizenship, putting the territory on an equal footing with the rest of the nation, would allow reconciliation of the political, legal and cultural traditions of the new territory with those of the nation to which the U.S. citizens of the territory now owed allegiance.

While the Louisiana Purchase doubled the geographic size of the United States, the admission of Louisiana as a State expanded the cultural boundaries of the new nation. The mix of cultures in Louisiana gave new depth and meaning to the principle of universal inalienable rights of all people and portended the “melting pot” and “nation of immigrants” contributions to the multicultural American creed.

Unlike Vermont, Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio, the Territory of Orleans had never been ruled by England. Instead, the French settlement that became New Orleans and the vast territory claimed by France had been ruled for decades by France and Spain.

New England, when it expanded to include 13 English-speaking and mostly Protestant colonies, seemed destined to compete with a Spanish- and French-speaking, predominately Catholic colonial empire. But destiny was changed when the American Revolution led to the emergence of the U.S. as an independent nation.

When the U.S. diplomats in Paris began to negotiate a settlement of navigation and trade rights involving the territorial status of New Orleans, President Thomas Jefferson sent James Monroe to Paris. James Monroe later would author the Monroe Doctrine, defining a hemispheric zone of U.S. national interest. He shared the vision of continental destiny at the heart of the Northwest Ordinance, which Jefferson authored more than 15 years earlier as Virginia’s representative in the Continental Congress.

Jefferson had served as President Washington’s minister to Paris when the convention in Philadelphia was called to improve the Articles of Confederation. Monroe’s contemporaries who served as delegates to that convention saw an American destiny that produced a “more perfect union” under the Constitution instead of revisions to the Articles of Confederation.  In like manner, the man Jefferson sent to deal with Napoleon about French empire in America turned his assignment to secure access to New Orleans into the astonishing geopolitical triumph known as the Louisiana Purchase.

The exact western boundaries of the new territory were hotly disputed, leading Talleyrand reportedly to tell the Americans, “You must take it as we received it.” Just as the Northwest Territories had been divided into the Territory of Ohio and the Territory of Indiana, the new territory was divided into the Territory of Orleans and the Territory of Missouri.

During the statehood debate in Congress and the territory, there were a number of controversial issues:

  • whether the states formed in the new territory would retain French and Spanish legal systems
  • the status of free people of color under federal law
  • the expansion of slavery
  • the influence of the Catholic church in the state and nation
  • the impact of statehood on the status of western Florida (it was uncertain whether France or Spain owned Florida at the time)

These and a whole host of other issues were debated in the most extreme and volatile manner possible. But the promise and the mandate of the visionary achievement by Jefferson and Monroe could not be denied.

Statehood was inevitable because the only alternatives were to move the new territory to statehood, with full and equal citizenship for the U.S. citizens of the new American frontier, or to give the territory back to France or Spain. As strong as many of the arguments made against statehood were, nothing could trump the necessity of equal rights and duties of citizenship and equal footing for the new state.

The most significant difference between Puerto Rico today and Louisiana in 1812 is that Louisiana was populated by U.S. citizens at the time it became a territory, and therefore was governed under the Northwest Ordinance until admitted as a state. In contrast, Congress delayed conferral of U.S. citizenship for 17 years after Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States. This left Puerto Rico an “unincorporated territory” even after citizenship was granted.

That historically perverse and constitutionally anomalous result for Puerto Rico was due entirely to a legally flawed and constitutionally unsustainable 1922 federal court decision creating a subordinate class of U.S. citizenship in Puerto Rico. Under the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in Balzac v. Puerto Rico, a misguided court ignored the legal precedent of Louisiana’s incorporation under the Northwest Ordinance based on U.S. citizenship of its population.

Instead the court wrongly decided the U.S. could govern U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico without extending the Constitution, incorporating the territory or even making a commitment to self-determination leading to a fully democratic political status with equal rights and duties of citizenship at the national level. In doing so the court also ignored the more recent and definitive Alaska and Hawaii precedents for admission of culturally diverse territories outside the contiguous boundaries of the continental union, based on the U.S. citizenship of the territorial peoples concerned.

Creating a second class U.S. citizenship in “unincorporated territories” is a discriminatory and destructive “separate and unequal” policy that has contributed to the deconstruction of U.S. sovereignty, nationality and citizenship as the source of all rights and duties of citizenship under the Constitution. It is a pernicious doctrine comparable in legal and moral defect to the worst forms of disenfranchisement and dehumanization ever institutionalized under federal law in our nation, including the 3/5ths Compromise, the Missouri Compromise, and the “separate but equal” doctrine of the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson ruling.

Fortunately for Puerto Rico and America, the meaning of U.S. citizenship can be reaffirmed at any hour by Congressional enactment of an enabling statute applying the Northwest Ordinance model of territorial status resolution to Puerto Rico.


One response

  1. […] Louisiana didn’t have an easy time of it. Neither did most of the other territories the became states. Territories do have to meet a certain set of standards in order to be worthy of statehood, but Puerto Rico met all those requirements decades ago. Territories don’t have to be solvent, they don’t have to have 100% consensus on statehood, and they don’t have to have a good deal worked out with their creditors. […]

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