Puerto Rico has been part of the national political party platforms for a long time. How long? See this mention of Puerto Rico in the 1916 Democratic Party Platform.
Under the heading “Territories,” the platform says,
We favor granting to the people of Alaska, Hawaii and Porto Rico the traditional territorial government accorded to the territories of the United States since the beginning of our government, and we believe that the officials appointed to administer the government of those several territories should be qualified by previous bona-fide residence.
In 1916, the new states of New Mexico and Arizona had been admitted just four years before. Puerto Rico, still called “Porto Rico” at that time, had been a possession of the United States since Spain handed it over in 1898. Hawaii became a territory in the same year. The United States had purchased Alaska in 1867 and incorporated it as a territory in 1912.
Hawaiians gained U.S. citizenship in 1900. As of 1915, Alaskan law recognized Native people living in Alaska as citizens of the Territory of Alaska with endorsements from five white citizens, if they had “severed all tribal relationships and adopted the habits of a civilized life.”
With the United States stretching from the Pacific to the Atlantic and no more territories available on the continent of North America, the U.S. was moving on to islands. The U.S. occupied the Dominican Republic this year.
In 1917, with the support of Puerto Rico’s governor, the Jones-Shafroth Act gave U.S. citizenship to the people of Puerto Rico. However, the Insular Cases soon determined that Puerto Rico was, unlike Alaska and Hawaii, an unincorporated territory, not necessarily destined for statehood any time soon.
It is clear from the Democratic Platform of 1916 that Puerto Rico was already referred to and understood to be a territory of the United States at that time. The Democratic Party wanted to see all the territories in the same political status as the territories which had become States up to that time, having local governments with a degree of autonomy, under the Territorial Clause.
The Jones-Shafroth Act also established a local government for Puerto Rico, replacing the temporary civil government described in the Foraker Act of 1900, which was the Organic Act for Puerto Rico.
The Governor of Puerto Rico at the time was Arthur Yager, a former classmate of President Woodrow Wilson who had not lived in Puerto Rico prior to being appointed governor. He also did not speak Spanish; it was 1927 before the U.S. appointed a Spanish-speaking governor. In 1946, the first governor from Puerto Rico was appointed.
In 1949, the first elected governor, Luis Muñoz Marín, took office.
The Democratic Party was ahead of its time in favoring a resident of Puerto Rico as governor.
Changes in the Democratic Party platform
In 1920, the identical paragraph shown above was used under the heading “Porto Rico,” with separate and more detailed sections on Alaska and Hawaii, as well as a call for independence for the Philippines.
The platform of 1924 did not mention Puerto Rico, but the 1928 platform favored statehood:
We favor granting to Puerto Rico such territorial form of government as would meet the present economic conditions of the island, and provide for the aspirations of her people, with the view to ultimate statehood accorded to all territories of the United States since the beginning of our government, and we believe any officials appointed to administer the government of such territories should be qualified by previous bona fide residence therein.
The 1932 platform also called for “ultimate statehood for Puerto Rico.” There was no mention of the territories in 1936, but 1940’s platform demanded “a larger measure of self-government leading to statehood, for Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico.”
This call continued until 1948, when the platform instead said, “We urge immediate statehood for Hawaii and Alaska; immediate determination by the people of Puerto Rico as to their form of government and their ultimate status with respect to the United States; and the maximum degree of local self-government for the Virgin Islands, Guam and Samoa.”
In the 1950s and 1960s, the party platforms celebrated the “commonwealth” and “self-determination,” culminating in the statement in 1976:
We are committed to Puerto Rico’s right to enjoy full self-determination and a relationship that can evolve in ways that will most benefit U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico. The Democratic Party respects and supports the present desire of the people of Puerto Rico to freely associate in permanent union with the United States, as an autonomous commonwealth or as a State.
Later platforms added independence and “enhanced commonwealth” as options, before settling in in 2000 with this statement:
Puerto Rico has been under U.S. sovereignty for over a century and Puerto Ricans have been U.S. Citizens since 1917, but the island’s ultimate status still has not been determined and its 3.9 million residents still do not have voting representation in their national government. These disenfranchised Citizens – who have contributed greatly to our country in war and peace – are entitled to the permanent and fully democratic status of their choice. Democrats will continue to work in the White House and Congress to clarify the options and enable them to choose and to obtain such a status from among all realistic options.
By this time, it was clear that “enhanced commonwealth” was not a “realistic option.” Since then, Democratic platforms have promised quick resolution of the status question and equal treatment under federal programs.
The relationship of Puerto Rico to the United States has not evolved in the past century, but the position of the Democratic Party has done so.