by Bruce Dunlavy
(My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)

When we think of “Colonial America,” we think of the colonies of the United Kingdom that existed before the Revolutionary War. We were the colonies; we were not the colonizing country.

Most Americans would not consider the United States to have ever been a “colonial power” in the sense that England, Spain, France, and other European powers were during the two great waves of empire-building that occurred in the last 500 years.

The USA was not around for the first Age of Empire, when North and South America, East Asia, and coastal Africa became the objects of European interest. What is now the United States was itself then colonial territory, mainly of England, but also of Spain, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Russia, and one or two others.

The empires that began in the Sixteenth Century were created primarily for mercantile purposes. Spain in particular saw its American colonies as a source of gold and silver bullion, the acquisition of which was the aim of the Mercantile System.

The general rule in the exploitation of colonial territories was this: strip out the important natural resources and bring them back to enrich the “home country.” The primary means of accomplishing this was to send two groups of citizens to the colonies – the hardworking and the ruthlessly ambitious. The former would create wealth, and the latter would take it from them and send it home.

The second great Imperial Age occurred in the Nineteenth Century, and consisted of European powers heading to (mainly) Africa to conquer and exploit, setting up governments run from Europe and treating the lands as part of their own, albeit of an inferior order. By 1900 almost all of Africa was owned by European countries, with the inhabitants of these colonies dispossessed and subjugated. It was not until the 1960s that most of the African colonies were freed, when controlling them had become more trouble than they were worth.

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The United States, worn out from its own Civil War, got into the second wave of imperialism very late, but it entered with authority, notably by winning the Spanish-American War. In 1898, the “splendid little war” was cooked up to allow the USA to flex its international muscles by beating up on the old, tired Empire of Spain and expropriating its colonies in the Caribbean and the Pacific. At about the same time, the USA arranged to take over the independent Kingdom of Hawaii and shortly thereafter to establish its authority in Latin America by proprietorship of the Panama Canal.

Once in, though, the USA stayed in. Spain’s old colony in the Philippines was given independence in 1946, and control of the Canal Zone was returned to Panama in 1999, but most of the rest of America’s empire remains colonized today. The last nation to acquire a colonial empire is the last one still unwilling to give it up.

At the time these colonies were acquired, there was some dispute as to how they were to be treated. The Constitution does not directly address the issue of colonies, but anti-imperialists inferred from Article Four and the Fourteenth Amendment that a permanent territorial status was not intended by the Constitution; eventually, acquired lands would either become States or become independent.

Yet today, the nation which once prided itself on eschewing the old European practice of colonial empire-building has the world’s largest colony (Puerto Rico, population 3.7 million), and several other territories and possessions. The U.S. Virgin Islands and a string of archipelagos in the Pacific Ocean are all in an odd second-class status. While – with one notable exception – the residents are American citizens, they do not have voting representation in Congress, nor do they get to vote for President.  They pay Federal taxes (except for Federal income tax, although they do pay territorial income taxes), but they have no House member or Senator.  By virtue of the Twenty-third Amendment, the residents of the District of Columbia participate in Presidential elections, but they do not have voting representation in Congress.

The “notable exception” mentioned above is American Samoa. Those born there, although they are governed by the United States, do not thereby acquire USA citizenship. They have American passports, but are defined in them as American “nationals,” not citizens. With its confirmation of a status of second class Americans, this is truly a remnant of Nineteenth Century colonialism.

Why does the United States maintain an empire, when the glory days of such are long gone? The European powers have almost entirely abandoned their colonial systems. France, for example, once the owner of an extensive empire, liberated all but a few islands and the South American area of French Guiana. Most of those that did not become independent nations are now an integrated part of France, with representation in both the French Parliament and the European Parliament (their currency is the Euro).

What stops the United States from admitting its territories as States or freeing them from American control? Their military uses are largely gone, and the paternalistic oversight of the “little brown brother”  is a quaint, racist conceit. Statehood and independence are two viable possibilities; permanent limbo as “possessions” or “territories” seems incongruous to a nation that was founded on equality and representative government.

Historically (excepting the admission of six western States during the Republican ascendancy of 1889 – 1890), States have usually been admitted in pairs – at first, one slave State and one free State, later one for each of the major political parties. Perhaps the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico could be admitted together, with the expectation that the former would be a stronghold for Democrats and the latter for Republicans, but the current direction of political drift is taking Puerto Rico out of the Republican camp. There are no guarantees, of course. When Alaska and Hawaii became States, it was expected that Alaska would be Democratic and Hawaii Republican.

In any case, it is past time for the United States to divest itself of its colonies by granting either Statehood (as stand-alones, or in combination) or independence to those ambiguously labeled “territories,” and to extend participatory, representative government to all its citizens (and “nationals” who should become citizens). Let those stuck in this imperial limbo become either full participants in the American government or rulers of their own nations.