The Origin of the “Commonwealth” Label

Puerto Rico is often called “a commonwealth” but “Commonwealth” is actually just a part of its formal government title.   Four States (Virginia, Massachusetts, Kentucky and Pennsylvania) and another territory (the Northern Mariana Islands) also label themselves “Commonwealth”s in their constitutions.

In 1950, the Federal government authorized Puerto Rico to draft a local constitution for Federal approval with the condition that the new document would not change Puerto Rico’s status as a territory.  The new constitution would only grant Puerto Rico autonomy over its local affairs, relieving Washington of that responsibility.  After the law passed, Puerto Rico held a convention at which approval was granted for a local constitution that was titled “The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.”  Congress reviewed this document and required changes. The Constitution was returned to Puerto Rico, the requested changes were made, and Congress approved Puerto Rico’s local constitution through Public Law 82-447, enacted in 1952.

The Puerto Rican constitution did not change its official status as a territory of the United States.  Official documents from Congress, accessible by the links below, make that clear. Congress had – and still has – ultimate control over Puerto Rico.

Legislative History of Public Law 81-600 and Public Law 82-447, Providing for and Approving the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico

Quotations from the House of Representatives Committee on Public Lands, Report No. 2275, June 19, 1950.

  • The sections of the organic act which [the new legislation] would repeal are the provisions of the act concerned primarily with the organization of the local executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the government of Puerto Rico and other matters of purely local concern.  (page 3, emphasis added)
  • It is important that the nature and general scope of [Public Law 81-600] be made absolutely clear.  The bill under consideration would not change Puerto Rico’s fundamental political, social, and economic relations to the United States.  (page 3)
  • Puerto Rico is “unincorporated Territory.” (page 4)
  • [The enactment of Public Law 81-600] would be a fundamental contribution to the art and practice of the government and administration of Territories under the sovereignty of the United States. (page 4)

Quotations from Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs on Public Law 81-600, Report No.  1779, June 6, 1950.

  • This measure is designed to complete the full measure of local self-government in the island by enabling the 2¼ million American citizens there to express their will and to create their own territorial government.  (page 2, emphasis added)
  • The measure would not change Puerto Rico’s fundamental political, social, and economic relations to the United States.  (page 3)

Letter in support of PL 81-600 by Oscar L. Chapman, Secretary of the Interior, May 19, 1950.

  • The bill merely authorizes the people of Puerto Rico to adopt their own constitution and to organize a local government which, under the terms of S. 3336, would be required to be republican in form and contain the fundamental civil guaranties of a bill of rights.  (Senate Report No. 1779 and House Report No. 2275, page 5 of both)
  • The bill under consideration would not change Puerto Rico’s political, social, and economic relationship to the United States.  (Senate and House Reports, page 5)
  • The time has come to permit the people of Puerto Rico to adopt their own constitution.  Enactment of [P.L. 600] would be a reaffirmation by the Congress of the self-government principle which has been the cornerstone of United States policy toward its Territories. (Senate and House Reports, page 6)

Letter in support of PL 81-600 by Jack K. McFall, Assistant Secretary of State, April 24, 1950.

  • The Department of State believes it to be of the greatest importance that the Puerto Rican people be authorized to frame their own constitution as provided for in S. 3336, in order that formal consent of the Puerto Ricans may be given to their present relationship to the United States….[S]uch action by our Government would be in keeping with the democratic principles of the United States and with our obligations under the Charter of the United Nations to take due account of the political aspirations of the people in our Territories and to develop self-government in them.  In view of the importance of “colonialism” and imperialism” in anti-American propaganda, the Department of State feels that S. 3336 would have great value as a symbol of the basic freedom enjoyed by Puerto Rico, within the larger framework of the United States of America.  (Senate and House Reports, pages 8-9, emphasis added)

Quotations from the House of Representatives Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Report No. 1832, April 30, 1952.

  • As has been previously stated, the approval of this constitution by the congress will not change Puerto Rico’s fundmental political, social, and economic relationship to the United States.  (page 7)
  • Upon [the “Commonwealth” Constitution’s] approval the people of Puerto Rico assume full authority and responsibility of local self-government.  The committee believes the lpeople of Puerto Rico have demonstrated their readiness for this responsibility.  (page 8, emphasis added)

Quotations from Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs Report on Public Law 82-447,  Senate Report 1720, June 10, 1952.

  • Public Law 600 was so drawn that the constitution to be drafted superseded those sections of the Organic Act of Puerto Rico, the present basic law under which the island is governed, which related exclusively to local government of the island.  (page 3, emphasis added)
  • The provisions of the organic act which will be repealed are the bill of rights; the directive that the capital shall be at San Juan; the organization of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the territorial government, the manner in which each shall be appointed or elected, and the scope of authority entrusted to each; the manner in which laws shall be enacted; and other provisions of like character.  Each of these relates wholly to matters which are the concerns of local government and which may be found in the constitutions of the States.  (page 6, emphasis added)
  • The provisions of the present organic act which will remain in force and effect as the Puerto Rican Federal Relations Act, however, relate to matters affecting not the internal affairs of Puerto Rico but the relationship of Puerto Rico to the United States. (page 6)
  • The enforcement of the Puerto Rican Federal Relations Act and the exercise of Federal authority in Puerto Rico under its provisions are in no way impaired by the Constitution of Puerto Rico, and may not be affected by future amendments to that constitution, or by any law of Puerto Rico adopted under its constitution[.]   (page 6)
  • Any act of the Puerto Rican Legislature in conflict with [P.L. 600] or the Constitution of the United States or United States laws not locally inapplicable would be null and void.  (page 6)

Letter in support of PL 82-447 by Jack K. McFall, Assistant Secretary of State, May 13, 1952.

  • The achievement of self-government by Puerto Rico will be a matter of great interest to members of the United Nations in their discussions of the political progress of non-self-governing territories.  It will be a convincing answer to attacks by those who have charged the United States Government with imperialism and colonial exploitation, and it should be warmly welcomed by members who have a sincere interest in the political advancement of dependent peoples.  (Senate Report 1720, page 11)
  • The Department of State feels that the enactment of [Public Law 81-600] into law would have great value as a symbol of the basic freedom enjoyed by Puerto Rico, within the larger framework of the United States of America.  (Senate Report 1720, page 10, quoting Assistant Secretary of State Edward G. Miller, Jr., in testimony before the Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, May 17, 1950.)

Message from Harry S. Truman, the President of the United States, Transmitting the constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, Adopted by the People of Puerto Rico on March 3, 1952. 

  • The act of July 3, 1950, was the last of a series of enactments through which the United States has provided ever-increasing self-government in Puerto Rico. (House Report No. 1832, page 9)
  •  The people of Puerto Rico have accepted the law as enacted by the Congress.  They have complied with its requirements and have submitted their constitution for the approval of the Congress.  With its approval, full authority and responsibility for local self-government will be vested in the people of Puerto Rico.  (House Report No. 1832, page 10, emphasis added)

 

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The Relationship Between Puerto Rico and the U.S. - Puerto Rico Report

[…] The idea that Puerto Rico is a commonwealth and that a commonwealth is not the same as a territory may have gotten its start in 1952, when Puerto Rico developed a constitution. As far back as 1950, when the document was being drafted and discussed, a number of documents from the U.S. government made this statement: “The bill under consideration would not change Puerto Rico’s political, social, and economic relationship to the United States.”  Read related historical statements. […]

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