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What Does It Mean to Be a Territory of the United States?

Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States… but just what does it mean to be a territory?

The United States formed as a union of 13 British colonies which banded together as a group of individual states. Each state saw itself as distinct from the others, and all were nervous about having the kind of centralized government they had been under as British colonies.

By 1790, the 13 former colonies had formed a centralized government and a constitution which described the rights and responsibilities of States. The United States Constitution had just one thing to say about territories: that Congress had complete power over them. Territories were lands that belonged to the United States, but were not ready yet to become states.

Just a year earlier, the Northwest Ordinance laid out the path from being a territory to becoming a State, and the 14th State was accepted into the Union less than two years later.

In essence, the document said that territories had to be settled, with enough people to keep them going, a local government that would be compatible with the U.S. Constitution, and a desire to be a State.

So far, 32 territories have become States. They became territories of the U.S. when the United States bought them, won them as the spoils of war, or claimed them as discoveries. In most cases, they were part of the frontier, working their way up from sparsely-populated lands to reach a large, settled population ready for statehood.

Some territories were too large to be a single State. Smaller sections of these large territories organized themselves and petitioned for statehood. The Louisiana Territory, for example, divided itself into smaller territories as population centers grew. Louisiana, Missouri, and a dozen other States were admitted into the Union from the original Louisiana Territory.

Some territories had laws which were not compatible with the laws of the United States. Utah, for example, had to give up polygamy before the U.S. would admit it as a state. It took nearly half a century from when Utah petitioned for statehood until it was admitted.

How does Puerto Rico fit in? With more than 3,000,000 U.S. citizens in residence and a fully functioning government with a constitution approved by the U.S. Congress, Puerto Rico is a far cry from the territories of the 18th and 19th centuries.

But it is still a territory. For many Americans, the idea of a territory calls to mind “Indian Territory,” or their local Territory Days celebration, or a Hollywood vision of the Wild West. These 19th century mental images make it hard to understand what it means to be a territory in the 21st century.

But a territory, legally and under the U.S. Constitution, is simply a piece of land belonging to the United States. It is not a state, and it is not a country. It is a possession of the United States, a piece of land owned by the nation. A territory doesn’t have the rights, responsibilities, or powers of a state or a nation. It has no sovereignty of its own. It’s just a possession.

This is a relationship that is hard for Americans to grasp. It doesn’t fit with our modern view of our nation as a pattern of democracy and freedom. It’s left over from the days of American Expansionism. There is no benefit in pretending that it is something it is not.

In both Puerto Rico and the United States as a whole, people are increasingly ready to give up the idea that Puerto Rico should be a territory. Puerto Rico has voted twice, in 2012 and in 2017, to become a state. The government of Puerto Rico formally requested statehood in 2018. So far, however, Puerto Rico continues to be a territory of the United States.

For educators:

  • Have students list the territories and former territories of the United States.
  • If your state was once a territory, challenge students to find out how you became a state. Were there any challenges to overcome on the way to statehood?
  • Two territories, Alaska and Hawaii, became states in the second half of the 20th century. Have students examine how becoming a state affected these two territories.
  • Give students time to search online for the primary positions on Puerto Rico’s status. List the arguments in favor of each of the status options. Analyze the arguments.

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