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A Page from History: Taft on “Our Foreign Dependencies”

In 1908, William Howard Taft congratulated the people of America on the progress made in the island dependencies: Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines.

“The material prosperity of Porto Rico and the progress of its inhabitants toward better conditions in respect to comforts of living  and education,” he said, “should make every American proud that this nation has been an efficient instrument in bringing happiness to a million people.”

Taft, a Republican, reported that Democrats wanted to give the inhabitants of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Cuba independence as soon as they had a stable government — “at once.” Taft was not in favor of this idea.

“Such action would lead to ultimate chaos in the islands and the progress among the ignorant masses in education and better living will stop,” asserted Taft. “It is cowardly to lay down the burden until our purpose is achieved.”

In fact, the Democratic Party Platform for 1908 favored independence for the Philippines, calling U.S. involvement there an “experiment in imperialism” and “an inexcusable blunder.” For Puerto Rico, the platform had another proposal:

We demand for the people of Alaska and Porto Rico the full enjoyment of the rights and privileges of a territorial form of government, and that the officials appointed to administer the government of all our territories and the District of Columbia should be thoroughly qualified by previous bona-fide residence.

The Republican Party Platform for that year espoused independence for Cuba, statehood for Arizona and New Mexico, and for Puerto Rico a less clear future:

In Porto Rico the Government of the United States is meeting loyal and patriotic support; order and prosperity prevail, and the well-being of the people is in every respect promoted and conserved .

We believe that the native inhabitants of Porto Rico should be at once collectively made citizens of the United States, and that all others properly qualified under existing laws residing in said island should have the privilege of becoming naturalized.

None of the proposals envision consulting with the people of Puerto Rico to discern their preference.

Cuba and the Philippines have attained independence and Alaska, Arizona, and New Mexico have all attained statehood, but Puerto Rico remains a territory.

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