The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The U.S. having territories perpetuates inequality and colonialism

Nothing has changed in more than a century

People demanding statehood for Puerto Rico gather at the premiere of the Broadway musical “Hamilton” in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for The Washington Post)
8 min

On April 21, the Supreme Court rejected Caribbean-residing American citizens’ right to Supplemental Security Income (i.e. disability benefits), arguing that the Constitution and legal precedent, combined with “long-standing historical practice,” precluded residents of U.S. territories from accessing certain federal benefits programs.

The decision highlighted the complex economic, political and cultural relationship between the U.S. government and American territories. U.S. policy, as Justice Neil M. Gorsuch noted in his concurring opinion, has too often rested “on ugly racial stereotypes” predicated on exploitation of island residents in the mold of European colonial powers, instead of American constitutional ideals.

Yet, while we take for granted that Caribbean islands such as Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John are U.S. territory, their role within an American empire has since the start sparked fierce debates. One of the earliest examples of this came when the Lincoln administration attempted to annex what decades later became the U.S. Virgin Islands.

As the Civil War was coming to an end in 1865, new expansionist possibilities in the Caribbean emerged. The strengthened and growing American empire saw opportunities to establish a naval base on St. Thomas after Denmark’s hold over its West Indian “possessions” had been weakened by an 1864 military defeat at the hands of Otto von Bismarck and allies.

In addition to providing military advantages to the United States, Secretary of State William Seward believed that the benefits of a St. Thomas coaling station would trickle down to the islands’ inhabitants. In Seward’s view, bringing St. Thomas into the “domain of the United States” would increase the residents’ access to American markets, protect their property and give them the same advantages “enjoyed by other citizens.” And so, on Jan. 7, 1865, Seward attended a Washington dinner at which he met with the Danish envoy, Waldemar Raasloff, to discuss a confidential proposition for the purchase of St. Thomas.

However, the shock of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865, and the attempt at Seward’s life that same evening considerably delayed negotiations. When he returned to politics, Seward became politically tied to Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, and by extension, involved in a battle with the Republican-controlled Congress that centered on federal Reconstruction policies.

Seward, however, continued his work on Caribbean expansion and traveled to St. Thomas and several other West Indian islands in January 1866. By summer, the secretary of state was ready to make an offer to Danish politicians for the purchase of St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John. The Danish envoy had suggested $20 million as a minimum amount, but since the islands, according to American military officials, could just be taken by force, the small European state lacked leverage. Seward, in turn, offered just “five millions of dollars of gold” and added that the negotiation had to be “by Treaty” and would “require the constitutional ratification of the Senate.”

After another round of negotiations, and Seward’s acquiescence to a referendum on the islands before annexation, the parties signed a treaty to transfer the islands of St. Thomas and St. John (St. Croix was strategically and commercially less important) to the United States in exchange for $7.5 million in gold on Oct. 24, 1867. The treaty seemed to benefit everyone, even the local population, which voted overwhelmingly for American annexation. Denmark got an economic boost, a plebiscite precedent for transfer of territory that would help in regaining what became Northern Germany and an apparent foreign policy success. The United States got a Caribbean naval base, increased economic opportunity and an expanded population.

Only congressional ratification remained.

The Constitution gave the Senate the power to “advice and consent” on treaties, and figures such as Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Charles Sumner reasonably expected to be heard. Indeed, just a few months earlier, Sumner had expressed the wish that the Alaska purchase, in which a treaty had been negotiated without Senate consultation, would not set “a precedent.”

While Johnson spoke warmly about the West Indian acquisition in his third annual presidential address to Congress on Dec. 3, 1867, domestic political tension escalated the next year, further undermining congressional support for ratification. On Feb. 21, 1868, three days before the deadline for ratifying the St. Thomas treaty, Johnson removed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton from office. Shortly thereafter, between Feb. 29 and March 3, 1868, the House of Representatives reviewed and — for the first time in American history — adopted articles of impeachment against a sitting president. Though Johnson narrowly survived the impeachment proceedings, the trial swallowed almost all domestic political energy until the middle of May and left little, if any, room for discussions of the Danish-American treaty.

Still, Danish politicians and diplomats held out hope for ratification and devoted significant resources, albeit no bribes, to building support for the treaty in Congress. Danish envoys even commissioned a book, “The Danish Islands: Are We Bound in Honor to Pay for Them?” which opened with Lincoln and Seward initiating negotiations to purchase the Danish West Indies and a basic argument: American politicians had wanted to buy the islands, Denmark had reluctantly sold, now the only honorable course of action was to ratify the signed treaty.

Danish diplomats sensed that the honor argument resonated personally with Sumner, because it built on his 1867 point that “a bargain once made must be kept” in relation to Alaska. Danish efforts, however, proved futile despite meetings with high-ranking American officials and two appearances before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in early 1869.

By then, support had vanished in the White House, too. Newly inaugurated President Ulysses S. Grant considered the St. Thomas treaty a scheme of the previous administration and declined to support it, despite his own interest in West Indian annexation.

The matter concluded in 1870. During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting in March, Sumner argued against the imperialism inherent in visions of Caribbean expansion, which he saw as a distraction from efforts to bring constitutional civil rights to the Reconstruction South, and his committee reported the St. Thomas treaty “adversely” to the Senate. Sumner’s decision officially put an end to the process as “the Senate declined to ratify it,” and a Grant administration treaty to acquire Santo Domingo suffered the same fate in June 1870. Still, the Republican Party’s support for territorial growth remained strong but for years was mostly limited to the American mainland — where its policy of land-taking was bolstered by several Homestead Acts after 1862.

In the wake of Seward’s failed attempt at noncontiguous expansion, St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix experienced decline, demographically and economically. High mortality rates, not least among children, were exacerbated by poor work conditions and lack of access to medical care. In October 1878, low wages, caused by a rigid contract labor system, led to widespread revolts among Black agricultural workers on St. Croix. Danish authorities quelled the uprising, known as the Fireburn Strike, only through military force, which demonstrated their precarious hold over the islands.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, when European powers such as Germany and France looked to gain Caribbean footholds, it renewed American interest in the region. After the Spanish-American War, which brought about the annexation of Puerto Rico (as well as Hawaii, Guam and the Philippines) in 1898, World War I provided the necessary additional impetus. By 1916, American emissaries and politicians, after hinting that St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix could just be taken by force, successfully negotiated a treaty that on March 31, 1917, transferred the islands to the United States.

The political atmosphere in the country had changed enough that the Senate ratified the treaty. But while it settled that these Caribbean islands were American territory, it raised a whole new swath of questions about how to treat them — and their citizens. While much has changed over a century, the basic question of equal treatment for citizens in American territories has essentially remained the same.

The United States still hasn’t fully integrated the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico or many other noncontiguous territories. Consequently, these relationships, as evidenced by the recent Supreme Court decision, continue be more aligned with those of Old World colonial powers than with Seward’s ideal of similar advantages enjoyed by all citizens.