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Problems with Territorial Governments

According to Trading Economics, the United States gets a perceived corruption ranking of 16, while Puerto Rico has a perceived corruption ranking of 31. That means that people feel that the United States as a whole is much less corrupt than Puerto Rico. Is that true?

Trading Economics has no information on that. They’re just measuring perceptions. FiveThirtyEight came up with detailed corruption rankings for the 50 states on four metrics, but didn’t include Puerto Rico. The Washington Post ranks Puerto Rico #15 on the basis of the sheer number of convicted officials; 14 states rank as more corrupt.

In social media conversations about statehood, though, concerns about corruption in Puerto Rico come up often. It may not be true, but that is the perception.

Let’s accept for a moment the possibility that Puerto Rico suffers from a high level of corruption (high enough to be #15 in the nation, anyway). What might be the cause?

Territories are the Wild West

Back in 1912, there were just two territories left on the U.S. mainland: New Mexico and Arizona. Ask the man on the street in Washington, D.C. — and the Representative in the House, too — and you might hear about the shoot-out at the OK Corral in Tombstone or the Maverick Brothers of New Mexico. Those stories were more exciting than tales of everyday life in the territories, even if they weren’t typical. Stories of that kind made the news, and public perceptions followed.There was a feeling that the territories were more dangerous and that their governments were lawless.

Both those Wild West territories became States in 1912, and things settled down.

But the difference between governments in the territories and governments in the states weren’t just false impression based on dramatic tales of outlaws and gunslingers. There was a real difference.

Consider Arkansas

Arkansas is currently ranked #28 for corruption, significantly lower than Puerto Rico. But what was it like as a territory?

Arkansas Territory was established in 1819, when Arkansas broke away from Missouri. William Rector, the Surveyor General for Missouri, set up five of his brothers and two of his cousins in positions of public power in Arkansas. One of the cousins, Henry Conway, became territorial delegate, a non-voting position like the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico.

Conway was killed in a duel by Secretary Crittenden a few years later, but his faction, known as “The Family,” stayed in power. In fact, he was replaced as delegate by his cousin, Ambrose Sevier.

Sevier brought Arkansas into statehood, but not before several more decades of colorful politics. The Crittenden-Conway duel was not the only political duel in Arkansas Territory. Andrew Horatio Scott and Joseph Selden, both judges of the territorial Superior Court of the Arkansas Territory, participated in a duel which left Selden dead. Scott finished out his term, but was not confirmed for another term, possibly because of that duel. William Fontaine Pope, nephew and secretary of the Governor of Arkansas, and Charles Fenton Mercer Noland got into a quarrel over political letters to the editor in local newspapers. Pope died from his wounds; Noland carried the territorial constitution to Washington when Arkansas requested statehood.

Members of The Family served as governors and delegates during the territorial period, and in most other positions of political power. They and their rivals were equally known for corruption, embezzlement, nepotism, and a focus on personal power before political principle.

The territorial style of government carried on until the early days of statehood, when John Wilson, speaker of the Arkansas House of Representatives, stabbed Representative J. J. Anthony to death on the floor of the chamber during a debate in the legislature. Wilson was indicted for this widely-witnessed crime, but was found not guilty.

Statehood changed things

There was one more outbreak of political violence in Arkansas, in 1874 when Arkansas had been a state for nearly forty years. An armed struggle over the governorship ended with federal intervention. Federal intervention was never an option during territorial days, even when legislators pulled Bowie knives on each other.

There was a scandal over the Arkansas State Bank in the early years of statehood, too. Scandals over financial mismanagement and corruption didn’t come up much in territorial days. Those things were just part of politics as usual in Arkansas Territory. They might lead to a duel or a murder, but they didn’t count as scandal.

For Arkansas — as for many of the other former territories of the United States — statehood was desirable because it would bring greater safety, law, and order. Statehood brought accountability, transparency, and an end to the custom of wearing a Bowie knife into the capitol building. It has been a long time since any part of Arkansas was known as “Hell on the Border.”

Puerto Rico is not the Wild West

32 of the 50 States used to be territories. Once they had large enough populations and became well organized, they requested admission as States. In some cases, it took a long time for the territories to become States. Some had to change their boundaries or their laws. Others had to end wars they were involved in or to establish laws that would fit the U.S. Constitution.

None of these territories were as populous or as well organized as Puerto Rico was in 2018 when the Island formally requested statehood in Washington, D.C. No territory has been as thoroughly integrated into the economic and political life of the nation as Puerto Rico.

If corruption were an issue for Puerto Rico, however, history shows that statehood would be a solution. A Wild West approach to government has never been a reason not to admit a territory to the Union; it has rather been a sign that the territory needed statehood.

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