American students are taught their nation’s valor during the world wars and their country’s unity during even the toughest of divides. And while those aspects of history are true, the nation’s past of exerting unjustified force on other sovereign territories is undeniable. We are told that the United States triumphed in the Spanish-American War in 1898, and with its victory, gained pieces of land that it forced to assimilate into American culture. But that’s where the textbooks often stop. The political developments that unfolded following the war affect every single US territory—and their citizens—to this day. And some of the most consequential of those developments are known as the Insular Cases.
The Insular Cases were a series of opinions authored by the US Supreme Court in 1901—only years after the conclusion of the Spanish-American War—outlining the statuses and rights of the new US territories: Puerto Rico, Guam, and the later-relinquished Philippine Islands. In essence, these opinions declared that the rights given to American citizens by the Constitution would not all be given to inhabitants of US territories.
The Supreme Court’s justification of this declaration came in the court’s judgment in the case Downes v. Bidwell, in which Justice Henry Billings Brown wrote that newly gained territories were “inhabited by alien races, differing from us in religion, customs, and… modes of thought,” preventing them from being governed by “Anglo-Saxon principles.” It is also interesting to note that Justice Brown also authored the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which laid the foundation for America’s Jim Crow era of race-based segregation. Yet, even Justice Brown noted that this declaration regarding the rights of Americans living in the territories should only hold “for a time.”
The decision to deny citizens of US territories many of the rights outlined in the Constitution still stands unmoved. Inhabitants of territories, such as the Northern Mariana Islands or the US Virgin Islands, despite being US citizens, are barred from voting in presidential elections. Puerto Rico, which holds a population of 3.19 million people—more than 20 US states—is denied from having a say in who its national leader is. That is where American democracy falters.
The Insular Cases reflected a growing period of American imperialism and inhumane force, especially upon those who held already established sovereignty. 120 years later, the people of the US territories—American citizens—are still grappling with the right to vote. As this country moves closer and closer to the 2022 midterm elections, in which new leaders are elected across the nation, the rights of the American territories and their people will be put into question once more.