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A Page from History: A View of U.S. ‘Colonial’ Policy

“What shall be our colonial policy?” asked Howard Thomas, writing a letter to the New York Times in 1898 when Spain had ceded a number of its New World colonies — including Puerto Rico — to the United States. Thomas foresaw “an era of colonization” which was “an absolute reversal of our traditions and political doctrines.” He suggested that the United States, having embarked on this policy of colonialism, had two options: to exploit the new possessions for “the enrichment of the conquerors” or to provide security and freedom to the inhabitants of the new possessions. With a bit of wartime anti-Spanish feeling, the writer suggested that Spain’s example should not be the model for the relationship of the U.S. to its territories. He went on to write,

[T]he ultimate end and purpose of our colonial policy must be the extinction of all colonies, however acquired as colonies, and their absorption into the United States… If at the outset of what may perhaps justly be termed the new career of the United States; if in the beginnings of our efforts at colonial government, we are guilty of serious errors, we shall not lack instances to remind us of our faults.

It is clear that there was at that time a major national conversation going on about the correct relationship between the United States and its new territories. Independence and self-governance was not, it would seem, being seriously considered.

It has been suggested… that a territorial form of government will solve all our difficulties in this direction, but it must be remembered that Arizona is not Puerto Rico and Alaska is not the Philippines…. Whatever then may be the new form of government imposed upon our newly acquired colonies, let it be understood at the outset that it is merely tentative and pending their entry into the Union, with all the rights of Statehood, subject to such healthy change as the development of all of the several countries may require.

It is certainly not the case that Howard Thomas spoke for the United States Government, but his viewpoint was sufficiently part of the mainstream of thought to be featured in the New York Times.

The writer concludes with a declaration that United States is “determined that expansion of territory shall bring in its train the blessings of liberty to the peoples now for the first time brought under their sway, whose ultimate destiny is an equal share in the councils of the nation.”

It seemed reasonable to many people at that time that the new territories would be brought into the Union as States.To this letter writer, it was an obvious part of the positive option for the United States as a colonial power: to provide equal citizenship, full ownership, and liberty rather than the slavery or peonage that he understood as part of the other, the negative option. To many people now, this still seems reasonable.

Read the full letter.

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