What Does It Mean to Be a Territory?

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Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States. Just what does that mean?

As the United States grew from the thirteen original colonies, land was added to the nation in a variety of ways.  Sometimes land was seized by conquest, other times it was purchased from other nations, and then there was the simple method of sticking a flag in the ground and announcing that the surrounding land belonged to the United States. The map above shows the United States in the summer of 1812, with territories that later became states, areas that were in dispute with other countries but which later became territories and eventually states, as well as the contemporary states.

It was generally understood at that time that being a territory was something like being in training to become a state. Discussions about the boundaries of territories often focused on the perceived purposes of territories at that time, such as providing hunting grounds for Native Americans and creating settlement opportunities for constituents of the congressmen proposing new boundaries.

Once a territory applied to become a state, it was up to Congress to admit the new state. In The Right of the Territories to Become States of the Union, written in 1892, Edmund Steele Joy argued that “no right to become a state is recognized as inherent in a community.” Instead, he said, Congress gave territories the right to draft a constitution. “If the constitution adopted is in conformity with that act,” he continued, “a law to admit the territory into the state as a Union is passed.”

Joy was considering the case of Utah, the admission of which into the Union as a state was controversial because of the religious beliefs of the majority of Utah’s residents, which were reflected in the constitution as initially drafted. Joy was asking whether Congress had the right to keep Utah as a territory forever, or whether Utah would have to be admitted, since the people of the territory had asked for statehood.

While Joy recognized that some states, such as Arkansas, had drafted constitutions before being given permission, he pointed out that these instances were dealt with by Congress before the new state was admitted. His argument was that a territory would have to be given permission to draft a constitution and that constitution would have to be approved before the territory could become a state.

Joy didn’t see the possibility that a territory might be enabled to draft a constitution, have the constitution approved, and then be kept as a territory anyway. A number of current states were controversial when they applied for admission — not just Utah and Arkansas. And yet Congress has never denied an application for statehood.

Puerto Rico, a territory of the United States, has a constitution that has been accepted by the Congress, has requested statehood, and yet has not been admitted as a state. Neither has Congress rejected Puerto Rico’s request for statehood.

When Edmund Steele Joy asked, more than a century ago, whether it would be legal for Congress to keep a territory in territorial status forever, he was envisioning a case in which the constitution of a territory was in conflict with that of the United States. His answer to his own question was something like, “Congress sure can keep a territory from becoming a state if they won’t pass a constitution that fits with the Constitution of the United States.” The discussion didn’t encompass the possibility of the United States as an imperial power owning territories against their will.

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