By Howard Hills, author of Citizens Without A State
One reader expressed support for Puerto Rico statehood, but asked “Will it fly?”
Fair question. But the real question is whether we still follow the Constitution.
Congress conferred U.S. citizenship for all persons born in Puerto Rico 101 years ago. Jefferson wrote the Northwest Ordinance as a road map for making territories into states in 1787, an act of the Continental Congress that was enacted by the First Congress of the U.S. in 1789. Since then every U.S. citizen populated territory became a state, 32 in all, until Puerto Rico was denied incorporation into the union by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1922. Most if not all were far less ready than Puerto Rico is today.
Louisiana was populated predominantly by Catholics when the rest of the states were predominantly Protestant. Spanish and French were far more predominant in Louisiana in those days than Spanish is in Puerto Rico today. In addition, the elected leaders of the territory were more loyal to France than to the U.S. at the time. It was an undeveloped economic wilderness, and we were at war with the British, who invaded Washington and burned the White House.
But in 1812 the Louisiana territory was admitted as a state because Congress realized the only thing worse than admission was to deny it. That is where we are with PR today.
The only reason Puerto Rico is not a state is because William Howard Taft – former President – was Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. He fancied himself an expert on territorial law and that bluff worked. He twisted the arms of the court to rule for the first time since 1787 that citizenship did not guarantee eventual statehood for a territory: Puerto Rico.
The court had ruled the opposite – citizenship did guarantee statehood – in the case of Alaska and Hawaii. But Taft thought Hawaii and Alaska were mistakes because the native populations were not of Anglo-Saxon ancestry, and he was determined to prevent that mistake from being repeated in Puerto Rico. He had been Governor of the Philippines, a U.S. territory that became independent in 1946, and he thought the same outcome was best for Puerto Rico.
That set the stage for FDR and the New Deal to send a socialist (maybe an outright communist) down to Puerto Rico as Governor. He proceeded to channel massive federal spending into creating a local government that owned the means of production. FDR’s team in San Juan misled Congress to adopt laws making Puerto Rico an experiment in social engineering that would be like a nation within the nation.
For decades, Congress colluded with the White House to avoid the choice between independence or statehood, by pretending to take proposals for “autonomy” seriously. That is how the “commonwealth” regime of territorial government became sort of a Latino version of the Indian reservation model. The anti-statehood, anti-assimilation party promoting “autonomy” promised Puerto Ricans they would not have not have to assimilate, but would have U.S. citizenship and be a subsidized welfare state in perpetuity.
Meanwhile, Puerto Ricans were serving in the U.S. military at rates higher than all but a few states, the population of U.S. citizens in the territory was larger than almost half the states in the union, and the patriotic Puerto Ricans who saw socialism failing started to petition for statehood. By 2012 the majority voted for statehood, the socialist regime collapsed economically in 2015, and in 2017 the island was hit by two hurricanes that inflicted great suffering, crippling the economy and infrastructure.
So now we are about where we were in Louisiana in 1812, when the only thing worse than statehood is to deny it. Only statehood will mobilize the private investment to recover, and there is not enough government money to do it. It is like Europe after WWII, but statehood is the only viable Marshall Plan.
If statehood is denied Puerto Rico will become a failed client state like the USSR had in several of its imperial “republics.” Reagan was a strong supporter of statehood for PR because he believed it would show the world and the nation that statehood works. He saw statehood for Puerto Rico as a demonstration project proving out the model of freedom that unleashes human enterprise. So in Reagan’s mind the real question is whether we still believe in the American idea.
There are 3.1 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico, 5.6 million from the island in the 50 states. We can’t declare the territory an independent nation unless it votes for that outcome, at least unless we have decided we don’t really need to be a democracy anymore either.
Will statehood fly? The real question is whether not admitting the territory as a state will fly. Every territory admitted experienced sustained economic growth until it could pay its way in the union.
Denial of statehood means we think we can afford a permanent dependency with a third world economy. Is that what America has become? It is more about us than it is about Puerto Rico.