An Empire Of Liberty: Organizing The Unorganized Territories Of The United States

For more than a century after the founding of the United States, the territorial acquisitions made by the United States were simple and straightforward, with a clear and uniform goal. Land was purchased by the federal government through treaties, borders were established with neighbors, and once appropriate treaty relationships had been established with native tribes that had title to that land, settlement was opened and there was a process by which the territory was first incorporated, and then given statehood with full equality to existing states. The resulting fifty states of our republic have unique state constitutions, and each of them had a unique path to statehood, but the overall process was the same, and even those territories where sparse population or concerns about existing populations and cultures delayed the process of statehood—such as Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Oklahoma, Alaska, and Hawaii, to give a few examples—the ultimate path of statehood was plain and obvious to observers as well as to the people of those territories themselves.

In 1898, mostly due to the success of American arms during the Spanish-American War, the United States became the imperial master of territory where statehood was not conceived for the inhabitants of those territories. It was at this point that the long-held position that territory acquired by the United States was for future states shifted to a more complex position. A series of constitutional cases, known as the Insular Cases, established that the U.S. Constitution only fully applies to incorporated territories and not to unincorporated territories. Later cases made it clear that the privileges and immunities clause of the Constitution as well as the proper exercise of the justice system established by Article Three of the Constitution did not fully apply to unincorporated territories [1]. As a result of this status where those who dwell in such unincorporated territories have no clear path to either full statehood within the United States nor to independence, they are considered to be in a special category, along with the colonial empires of other nations, as lacking responsible self-government. It is the purpose of this particular discussion to provide a framework by which these territories can be viewed, and toward which policies can be undertaken, both by the people of the territories themselves as well as the federal government, towards the eventual goal of either statehood or independence.

It should be noted that American history provides a suitable example of how to address this problem. Given that it is unlikely that any territory with a population less than 500,000 will be admitted as a state because of concerns about the balance of representation within Congress, the example of the three small Pacific island nations in free association with the United States: Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia, is a valuable one. These three small nations are protected states that receive benefits through their relationship with the United States but are considered fully sovereign as well, and that model could easily be extended to other territories, once certain issues of national security are dealt with. A free association would allow for continued special privileges, but also grant such territories a clear and internationally recognized status of self-government where statehood within the United States is not considered to be a viable option.

It should also be noted that this matter is of particular moral importance to the United States in ways that are not shared by other imperial powers. Yet there are plenty of other nations which deal with these concerns. France has made its overseas islands departments, which is the French equivalent of a state, allowing the people of those nations the full privileges of French citizenship, participation within the European Union, and all institutions of justice which are currently denied to the insular inhabitants of America’s empire. Part of the Constitution held dear by American citizens is a guarantee of republican government, something which is denied to those in unincorporated territories. The existence of territories which lack the full freedoms and privileges of American citizenship, and which have no clear pathway to a full and just resolution of their status is a stain on our national honor. How to behave honorably in such matters is a question of the utmost importance.

American Samoa

The first of the unincorporated territories, taken in alphabetical order, is American Samoa. According to the 2010 census, the territory had a total population of 55,519 people, of whom 91.6% self-identified as Samoan. The United States has been the colonial power for this territory since 1899, when the tripartite convention between Germany, the United States, and Great Britain divided the islands between Germany and the United States. During the 20th century there were various movements for independence, and even in recent times there has been a call by at least some of the territory’s leadership for greater autonomy, if not independence, which had a mixed response. Aside from the fairly standard American political setup of the islands, there exists a political framework of local Samoan variety which cuts across the boundaries between independent Samoa (formerly Western Samoa under German and then New Zealand rule) and American Samoa. In addition, for much of the history of American Samoa there has been a heavy military presence in the islands, sometimes outnumbering the presence of locals, and any move towards autonomy or independence would need to recognize this military interest since it appears there is no desire on the part of the United States to accept the area as a state.


The second of the unincorporated territories, taken in alphabetical order, is Guam, which shares many characteristics with the neighboring Northern Mariana Islands. According to the 2010 census, the territory had a total population of 159,358, of whom 37.3% are indigenous Chamorro, 26.3% are Filipino, and smaller percentages make up a diverse collection of peoples. The United States has been the colonial power for this territory since 1898 when it was ceded by Spain as a result of the Spanish-American War. The island was the site of two particularly fierce battles in World War II, the first of which ended in a Japanese conquest and the second in the American reconquest [2]. The island has a unicameral legislature, has a strong military base presence, as Guam is one of the most important military bases in the Asia-Pacific region for the United States, and local politics once favored the establishment of Commonwealth status (similar to Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands) which was rejected by the federal government. Other political movements exist with no clearcut favorite among statehood, various unions with other territories, or outright independence, which would be problematic on account of the paramount interest of the U.S. military. The small size of Guam has meant that there has been little interest within the United States to accept it as a state, although it could unite with Hawaii and make that a slightly larger state.

Northern Mariana Islands

Close in geography and culture to Guam are the Northern Mariana Islands, part of the larger Mariana Island chain of which Guam is the southern end. Almost all of the population of the commonwealth, 53,833 in 2010, but dropping as a result of a decline in the island’s garment industry, lives on the island of Saipan, which is governed (like the Hawaiian islands) as a single municipality. Like its southern neighbor, the island has been governed by the United States since the Spanish-American War of 1898, but unlike its neighbor there is no overriding military presence. As a result of economic troubles, the island territory is bankrupt and there is discontent about the nepotism of local politics as well as the exemption of the islands from federal regulations which have resulted in some extreme and unjust labor practices. It is unclear what long-term political status is being sought by the people of the Northern Mariana Islands as to whether they would wish for independence under the terms of free association or statehood, or if they are content with their present status.

Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico [3] is by far the most populous of the unorganized territories, and like the Northern Mariana Islands it is a bankrupt commonwealth that has been ruled by the United States since it was conquered in the Spanish-American War. Its population of 3,725,789 according to the 2010 census (but dropping due to the island’s economic crisis and resulting immigration to the mainland) is mostly Spanish speaking. A slight majority of the island is dissatisfied with the existing status of the island as a commonwealth, and there has been a push, largely ignored so far by the federal government, to admit Puerto Rico as the 51st state of the Union. Among the unorganized territories it is the only one populous enough to be a state, but its distinct cultural background and backwards economic state have ensured that its move towards statehood is likely to become ensnared in the larger cultural politics of the United States of America. It is unclear whether this continued sense of crisis will lead to a rise in desire for independence or not.

United States Virgin Islands

The fifth and final populated unincorporated territory of the United States is the United States Virgin Islands, which were purchased by the United States in 1916 from the Kingdom of Denmark. The islands have a population of 106,405 at the 2010 census, about three quarters of which are of African descent, and have tried five times to form a constitution since 1954 without success. The most recent attempt was rejected in 2010 because it failed to expressly recognize American sovereignty, granted legal advantage to locals, and was imprecise in its wording of parts of its bill of rights [4], and the territory has not convened to revise the document. It is unclear if the goal of the territory’s population is ultimate independence, given the lengthy and troublesome delays in establishing constitutional rule by the mutual consent of the territory and its administrating power, namely the United States. The island is not known to have particular military importance for the United States, as its main income is due to tourism and rum distilling.


Within the United States at large there appears to be no particular current drive to satisfy the contradiction inherent in our contemporary political empire. A widespread comfort with or ignorance of imperial status exists alongside the strident claims of being a democracy and of being a force for freedom around the world. Yet the United States has millions of people in its five unorganized territories who lack responsible self-government and the matter has prompted concern in the UN General Assembly, even if the federal government has been disinclined to do anything about it. Problems of labor exploitation, denial of civil rights, and poor economic development exist because these territories are neither free nor are their residents given the same protections as American citizens. The obvious solution is either to grant them statehood as was the American model before 1898, and as the people of Puerto Rico appear to support at least narrowly, or to grant them independence under the terms of a free association that would allow the United States to have certain military bases where applicable. Doing so would be honorable in the eyes of the world and also in the eyes of the people we have for so long ruled without giving them a clear path to either full equality or full freedom. Such a debt of honor deserves repayment.

[1] See, for example:

Click to access Microstates_OccasionalPaper.pdf

[2] See, for example:

BOOK REVIEW – Captured: The Forgotten Men of Guam

[3] See, for example:

[4] See, for example:

Click to access 16-1-Proposed-Virgin-Islands-Constitution.pdf

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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