Category: History

by Amy Thornbury


Controversy over Citizenship
and the Statehood Effort: 1910-1929

There is a general and almost universal desire
and demand of all classes, interest, and political parties
[in Puerto Rico] for American citizenship for all the people
of Puerto Rico as a whole. . . .
-- J. M. Dickinson and General Clarence Edwards, 1910

Were there a citizenship of heaven with a right to eternal
happiness, and were it offered us in exchange for our own
[Puerto Rican citizenship], we would vacillate to accept it
and should under no circumstances accept it until after death.
-- Testimony before Congress, April 15, 1914

Many Puerto Ricans believed that the Foraker Act of 1900 was "temporary," and would soon be repealed or revised. As the years passed and it became apparent that the act was permanent, it is not surprising that a good deal of resentment towards the U. S. Congress and its inaction surfaced in Puerto Rico. Meanwhile, most U. S. congressmen assured themselves that, despite their ambivalence about the future of Puerto Rico, the island had been granted enough autonomy to handle its own problems.
By 1913, the Partido Puertorriqueño Republicano was the only political party in Puerto Rico with the goal of attaining admission to the Union. In that year, the Unionist Party dropped statehood as an acceptable alternative for Puerto Rico's status resolution, leaving only independence or complete autonomy under the U. S. flag as options. Their action was taken in an effort to curtail the rising Americanization on the island and to retain the Hispanic heritage in Puerto Rico. The Unionists' immediate aim was to reform the Foraker Act.
The significance of the Unionist Party's decision cannot be overlooked, for it showed increasing antipathy towards the U. S. and a rising need to preserve Puerto Rico's cultural identity. Sentiment against assimilation with the U. S. was strong and growing but almost completely ignored by the U. S., which relied on information from sources on the island who were pro-statehood (or at least pro-assimilation). That the U. S. intended to assimilate Puerto Rico is demonstrated in President Woodrow Wilson's first message to Congress on December 2, 1913, as follows:
Porto Rico, Hawaii, [and] the Philippines are ours indeed, but not ours to do what we
please with. Such territories, . . . are part of the domain of public conscience and of
serviceable and enlightened statesmanship. . . . We can satisfy the obligations
of generous justice toward the people of Porto Rico by giving them the ample and
familiar rights and privileges accorded our own citizens in our own territories.
President Wilson seems to have had Puerto Rico's best interests at heart, although he had no reliable method to gauge exactly what the people of Puerto Rico felt to be right for them. Some Puerto Ricans did indeed want the citizenship which Wilson offered; others were irrevocably opposed. What Wilson's sources told him, however, seems to have been only what he wanted to hear.
Wilson's foreign policy towards Latin America in general was tainted by a reliance on inexperienced, unofficial sources when deciding important matters and a well-intentioned but misguided sense of paternalism toward undeveloped countries which "destroyed the basis for an improvement he honestly wished to serve." Lacking experts on whom to rely, Wilson and his administration followed the same "Big Stick" interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine as President Roosevelt, probably doing more harm, albeit unintentional, to U. S.-Latin American relations than any other president before him. Frederico Gil, a U. S.-Latin American historian, explains Wilson's main fault as his "quixotic determination to teach men good government and democratic ideals, in addition to his basic misjudgment of the Latin American character, which could be traced to a lack of expert advisors."
By 1915, Wilson was completely preoccupied with a world at war and the defense of the U. S. Suddenly, Puerto Rico's status took on a whole new shade of importance. In order to secure the nation's defense, he needed the support of Puerto Rico, not only as a base, but as a contented colony. In a speech delivered on December 7, 1915 concerning national defense, Wilson brought up his plans for achieving these goals:
There is another matter which seems to me to be very intimately associated with
the question of national safety and preparation for defense. That is our policy towards
the Philippines and the people of Puerto Rico. . . .[In order to perform our duties
to the world] we must be free from every unnecessary burden or embarrassment;
and there is no better way to be clear of embarrassment than to fulfill our promises
and promote the interests of those dependent on us to the utmost. (Applause) . . .
This quotation is significant for it shows that Wilson truly desired to "fulfill our promises" to Puerto Rico made at the time of the American occupation and "to be clear of embarrassment" by granting the island greater measures of autonomy and a citizenship that he assumed they wanted. At the same time, his paternalistic notions of granting citizenship to the "dependents" in Puerto Rico are clear. He urged the congressmen to support the proposal to grant Puerto Ricans U. S. citizenship, believing that this measure would calm U. S.-Puerto Rico relations and allow the policymakers to focus their attention on the war.
* * *
The Jones Act, 1917
The Jones Act, first introduced to Congress in March, 1914 by William Jones (D-Virginia), proposed the extension of citizenship to Puerto Rico. Because Congress became preoccupied with World War I that summer, the bill was withdrawn and reintroduced two years later as H. R. 9533. At that time, Unionist Party delegates travelled to Capitol Hill and surprised Congress by expressing strong opposition to the bill. The Puerto Rican House of Delegates unanimously passed a resolution in 1914 which formally expressed their opposition to citizenship. Resident Commissioner Luis Muñoz Rivera read the statement to the U. S. Senate on April 15, which, in his words, represented the "true sentiment and ideas of the majority of people of Porto Rico." It commenced as follows:
A bill declaring Porto Ricans collectively citizens of the United States is now before
Congress. . . . While rendering just and sincere homage to your citizenship, we
firmly and loyally maintain our opposition to being declared, in defiance of our
express wish or without our express consent, citizens of any country whatsoever
other than our own beloved soil that God has given us as an inalienable gift and
incoercible right.
. . . . . .

You have known for many years that the people of our island is [sic ] profoundly
displeased; that it is in constant protest against the absurd form of government that
you have imposed on us without our consent; and . . . you have probably interpreted
our displeasure and our protest as due to the fact that you have not granted us
American citizenship, when in reality, of the few good things contained in our
present organic act, the best is Porto Rican citizenship, which you consecrated
before the world by means of a law of your Congress.
Two years later, Muñoz Rivera beseeched Congress to hold a plebiscite in Puerto Rico on U. S. citizenship. 'It would be strange,' he said, 'if, having refused [to grant citizenship] for so long as the majority of people asked for it, you should decide to impose it by force now that the majority of people decline it.'
The House of Representatives passed the Jones Act in 1916 and sent it to the Senate. The Senate took no action on the bill for six months. With a number of amendments and compromises, the bill was passed and signed into law on March 2, 1917, just before the U. S. sent its first troops to Europe. It provided Puerto Rico with slightly more autonomy than before by granting an elected bicameral Puerto Rico legislature, a bill of rights, and, most significantly, U. S. citizenship to all native Puerto Ricans who did not reject it. New voting requirements were made and were a subject of great controversy: after 1917, to vote in Puerto Rico, one had to be male, a U. S. citizen, and at least 21 years old, which meant that rejecting U. S. citizenship would forfeit one's right to vote for the island's policymakers. The increase in Puerto Rico's autonomy was actually very slight, since the U. S. maintained ultimate veto power through presidential or congressional means. In addition, significant appointments remained under the authority of the U. S. government, including the posts of governor, Commissioner of Education, and the Supreme Court Justices of Puerto Rico. Most importantly, the Jones Act did not give Puerto Ricans the right to participate in U. S. presidential elections.
In Puerto Rico, U. S. citizenship was received with as much mixed emotion as it had been granted. As stated before, much of the inital enthusiasm for association with the U. S. had long since worn off by 1917. No statistics are available, but it appears that those favoring U. S. citizenship were in the minority. However, only a handful (under 300 people) on the island did not become U. S. citizens because of the harsh conditions associated with rejecting U. S. citizenship. As the Jones Act was written, 'No person shall be allowed to register as a voter in Porto Rico who is not a citizen of the United States .' Thus, to deny U. S. citizenship was to deny political or civil rights of any sort, since the option to remain a citizen of Puerto Rico was really no option at all: how could one be a citizen of a nonexistent nation?
There were several reasons why the people of Puerto Rico opposed U. S. citizenship. Foremost was the patriotism they felt for Puerto Rico and the desire to retain their Puerto Rican identity. Many also believed that gaining American citizenship necessarily implied becoming an incorporated territory, which meant the loss of personal property tax revenues and customs duties. Further, many felt that gaining U. S. citizenship would solve no specific social or economic problems on the island.
On the other hand, the pro-statehood Republican-Socialist Coalition on the island made certain that their enthusiasm for U. S. citizenship was heard, since they believed that it would put them one step closer to statehood. At the very least, they argued, citizenship established an unbreakable bond between the U. S. and Puerto Rico and would provide a legal basis on which to demand equal treatment as a state. Muñoz Rivera acknowledged the link between citizenship and statehood when he stated in 1916, 'Give us statehood, and your glorious citizenship will be welcome to us and our children.'
But statehood was not on the minds of the U. S. congressmen. Besides their preoccupation with the war, the majority considered Puerto Rico and its inhabitants unworthy of a greater degree of self-government, let alone admission to the Union. Perhaps their greatest objection to the island's capability for self-rule was its high illiteracy rate. In 1915, 70% of the islanders were illiterate. Remarked the Education Commissioner of this fact: 'That enormous mass of illiterates, in its primitive, uncured condition, is not safe timber to build the good ship of state.' In other words, with such high illiteracy rates, it was impossible to expect democracy to be effective, and without a stable form of democracy, there would be no statehood.
After the Jones Act was passed in March, 1917, elections were held on the island to fill the positions it created, namely the bicameral legislature seats. The Unionist Party won the majority of these seats, while the pro-statehood Republican Party remained in the minority. Discontent continued on the island, as Puerto Ricans felt that the reforms were not extensive enough and that the status question remained unsolved. On the mainland, Democrats expressed their belief that citizenship had been extended to Puerto Ricans 'with the view to ultimate statehood.' Their view was in the minority, however, as the Republican-dominated U. S. Supreme Court ruled in 1922 that citizenship did not imply incorporation of Puerto Rico as a territory and that therefore, the island was not "one step closer" to statehood.
It is interesting that the U. S. Congress enacted such a controversial law at all. Since 1898, Congress had been reluctant to grant Puerto Ricans U. S. citizenship because most U. S. politicians regarded Puerto Ricans as inferior and 'unworthy of citizenship', to use the words of Senator Henry M. Teller ( D- Colorado). Tenessee Senator William Bate (D) described Puerto Ricans as 'savages addicted to head-hunting and cannibalism.' A Southern Senator phrased his objections to Puerto Rican citizenship in racial terms: 'I really had rather that [Puerto Ricans] would not become citizens of the United States. I think that we have enough of that element in the body politic already to increase the nation with mongrelization.' In the context of Jim Crow history, it is quite amazing that Puerto Ricans were allowed to become U. S. citizens. The explanation must be that citizenship was granted to make Puerto Rico irrevocably tied to the U. S., which would not only save face for the U. S. as the champion of democracy during WWI, but it would also protectwhite American business interests on the island.
The Jones Act is significant for its hypocrisy and the uneasy relationship which it established. The U. S. Congress extended citizenship to Puerto Rico, making them U. S. citizens without a state, without voting representation or any participation in the lawmaking process, and without many of the Constitutional rights belonging to their mainland counterparts.
* * *
The Twenties
A new party which would play an important role in the statehood effort in the 1920s and 1930s had been established in 1915 by Puerto Rican Santiago Iglesias. Its name, the Socialist Party, is misleading. While representing the working class, the party's ideology was pro-American and pro-capitalism, holding that the economic domination of the island by the U. S. could be mitigated through American connections, such as through Iglesias's friend, U. S. labor leader Samuel Gompers. The charismatic Iglesias founded the party as the political instrument of his Free Federation of Labor, formed in 1899, and wanted to omit the question of status from the party's platform. However, inevitably, the party's pro-American stance made it an ally of the Partido Republicano Puertorriqueño, and the two formed a political coalition in the 1920s.
Several technical changes occurred within the Puerto Rican statehood parties during the 1920s. In 1924, almost half of the Republican Party members broke off and joined forces with the Unionists to create a bloc known simply as the Alianza, or Alliance, to defeat the swelling ranks in the Socialist party. The dissident Republicans retained their former name, and were led by José Tous Soto. This strange combination of political forces was shortlived: the Alianza died in 1929.
Meanwhile, the original Republican Party had to change its name to the Historic Constitutional Party for distinction on the election ballot, although most Puerto Ricans referred to it as the Pure Republican Party. This was the sector of the staunchest statehood supporters, including Luis Ferré and Martínez Nadal. The 1924 split was a serious blow to the statehood effort. It is remarkable that the 30-year-old Republican Party did not collapse, since it was receiving no aid from the U. S. Republican Party, even though they were incorporated in the national party. One Puerto Rican observer wrote: "One can not help wondering at the vitality of a political organization which has successfully withstood two splits, the last one being of serious proportions, and still subsist as a party, after being for over twenty years in the position of the vanquished." The persistence of the "Pure" Republicans testified to the strong desire for statehood among some Puerto Ricans.
The founding of another political party in the twenties needs to be mentioned. This was the Nationalist Party, formed by Pedro Albizu Campos in 1922. Frustrated with the inability of the traditional political parties to improve Puerto Rico's relationship with the U. S., the Nationalists were a militant group strongly advocating Puerto Rican independence. The party was never widely popular, but its violence made it well-known.
Puerto Rico received a new governor in 1923, Horace M. Towner (1923-1929), a U. S. Republican who had served as Chairman of the House Committee on Insular Affairs which handled Puerto Rico. Carr describes Towner as "one of the few governors . . . who made a serious attempt to understand Puerto Rican aspirations . . . ." Towner proclaimed his personal support for statehood within a few months of his appointment when he stated,
I am not authorized to speak for Congress or the Administration, but I do not
hesitate to express my own firm belief that eventually Puerto Rico should
become a State of the Union. I am in favor, also, of a constantly increasing
measure of self-government until statehood is obtained.
Estadistas and other Puerto Ricans were quite enthusiastic about Governor Towner at first. However, as Towner began working within the majority Unionist party to try to accomplish his goals, the pro-statehood Republicans grew disenchanted with him. The Unionists also resented him when it became clear by 1925 that Towner was not afraid to use his veto power extensively, leaving the Puerto Rican legislature virtually impotent.
The 1928 elections revealed a lot about the nature of Puerto Rican politics. Feeling threatened by the growing support for the pro-statehood Coalition, the Alianza used every legal and illegal means to prevent a Coalition victory, including buying votes from the poor. An eyewitness to this process reported that the votes were bought openly, as Alianza representatives stood at the polls and handed out paper vouchers, redeemable for cash at the party headquarters, to those who voted for their party. The Coalition, without sufficient funds to compete with this strategy, lost badly, as "thousands of their [would-be] followers were enticed away by the sight of money . . ." In spite of their overall loss, the Coalition won in San Juan, which suggests the type of constituency which favored statehood: mostly the enlightened elite, but some of the urban poor as well.
* * *
The prospect for statehood was not promising in the period from 1910-1929. Despite strides toward the "Americanization" of the island, which wore down the foreign edges slightly in Puerto Rico and made it somewhat more assimilable, serious differences remained. Puerto Rico was still a Spanish-speaking island of disturbing contrasts. Luis Muñoz Marín, at the time an independentista, described Puerto Rico in early 1929 as "a land of beggars and millionaires, of flattering statistics and distressing realities." Besides such widespread economic disparity, Muñoz asserted that Puerto Rico's cultural differences were detrimental to the statehood effort: "it is certain that [Puerto Rico] will never be incorporated into the Union as a state save through the operation of cultural forces; that is, not unless, and until, our manner of life and thought has been respectably Americanized." In addition to the stock market crash and start of the Great Depression which had severe effects on Puerto Rico's economy, the island was hit by a hurricane in 1929 which nearly destroyed the coffee industry, one of Puerto Rico's staple crops. By the late twenties, the island had become "the poorhouse of the Carribean," now representing a major problem for the U. S.

Cited in STACOM, Background Studies, p. 70.

See Congressional Record, 63rd Cong., 2nd sess., April 15, 1914, p. 6720.

See STACOM, Background Studies, p. 67 for details.

Ibid., pp. 73-75.

President Wilson's speech is cited in Negron de Montilla, p. 161.

See Wiebe, pp. 243, 254.

See Gil, p. 73.

Ibid., p. 112.

Negron de Montilla, p. 161. The mention of Puerto Rico in conjunction with the Phillipines in these quotations is significant, as was discussed in Chapter 5, for it suggests the U. S. position of setting standards for the future of the Phillipines through the treatment of Puerto Rico.

Congressional Record, 63rd Cong., 2nd sess., April 15, 1914, p. 6718. The memorial was written by José de Diego, Speaker of the House of Delegates of Puerto Rico.


See STACOM, Background Studies, pp. 72-76.

Anderson, p. 13.

Resident Commissioner Luis Muñoz Rivera's words are cited in Negron de Montilla, p. 163. Italics mine.

With time, however, Puerto Ricans began to accept U. S. citizenship; by 1952, 77% of the islanders favored it; and by 1964, that figure rose to 94%, according to STACOM, The Status of Puerto Rico, pp. 5-6. It seems that as the generations opposing U. S. citizenship died out, opposition declined dramatically. One can only speculate whether opposition to a particular status resolution would decrease with time after its acceptance in the same way that opposition to U. S. citizenship did.

Negron de Montilla discusses their enthusiasm on p. 164. Apparently, although the Coalition had supported the memorial opposing citizenship in 1914 (since it was passed unanimously), it later decided in favor of U. S. citizenship.

See Grupo de Investigadores Puertorriqueños, p. 1294.

Carr, p. 53.

Commissioner Brumbaugh's comments are cited in de Montilla, p. 153. Illiteracy declined rapidly, Negron de Montilla goes on to point out, falling to 45% in 1927 and decreasing after that. Negron de Montilla and other Puerto Ricans have suggested that the U. S. was hypocritical in its condemnation of Puerto Rico's capacity for self-government on the basis of illiteracy, since 80% of the American colonialists at the time of the Revolution were illiterate.

This statement was made in the 1920 Democratic Party platform, cited in García-Passalacqua, p. 103.

The senators' words are cited in People's Press Puerto Rico Project, p. 35. It is true that head-hunting and cannibalism existed in Puerto Rico in the 16th century when the island of Vieques was inhabited by vicious tribes of head hunters. However, the natives of Puerto Rico, who were often the victims of the headhunters, decided enough was enough and raided Vieques, killing all of the head hunters before the start of the 17th century. Senator Bate's misinformed prejudices were not at all uncommon among the U. S. policymakers.

Senator James Kimble Vardaman (D-Mississippi), from the Congressional Record, 64th Cong., 2d. sess., January 30, 1917. Cited in Carr, p. 52.

See ibid. for a discussion.

For an explanation, see Cuesta, pp. 138-142, and STACOM, Background Studies, pp. 81-84.

Cuesta, p. 138.

Ibid. The first split ocurred in 1904, when many Republican followers joined the new Unionist Party.

Carr, p. 56.

STACOM, Background Studies, p. 81.

See Carr, pp. 56-57.

Ibid., pp. 141-142.

Luis Muñoz Marín, "The Sad Case of Porto Rico," American Mercury, 16 (February, 1929): 139.

Ibid., 141.

See Carr for discussion of this matter, p. 57.

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