The United States has fifty states, right? We tend to think of the United States only in terms of these states. And if we’re being honest, a lot of Americans even forget about Alaska and Hawaii because they are not contiguous with the other forty-eight. But there is far more to the United States than just these fifty states.
Did you know that at one time Cuba and the Philippines were also part of the United States? Or that the US military fought a pretty bloody series of conflicts in the Philippies in the early 20th century?
How Do States Come into the USA?
The Northwest Ordinance is an important piece of US legislation, passed in 1787 by the Congress of the Confederation of the United States and then reinstituted in 1789 after the US Constitution was ratified. The Northwest Ordinance guaranteed that any US held territory could enter the union as a state on equal footing with the other states once it met the minimum requirements of statehood. Eventually, the implications of the Northwest Ordinance contributed to the causes of the US Civil War, and it took a while for the United States to sort out everything; but it has been the law of the land for the entirety of our nation’s existence and has been one of the fundamental instruments of guaranteeing that US territories are always treated equally.
Until the mid-19th century, the United States was uninterested in acquiring territory beyond North America. Even then, there were serious debates raised in Congress over the acquisition of land like the Louisiana and Alaska Purchases in 1803 and 1867, respectively. Still, as Americans moved into these newly acquired lands, they carved out states which were readily admitted to the Union under the Northwest Ordinance.
Unfortunately, during the late 19th and early 20th century, the United States government began to develop increasingly imperialistic tendencies, and the nation began to acquire territories far beyond the North American continent. Worse still, many of these lands were populated by people with different colors of skin who spoke languages other than English. This was the nadir of race relations, when xenophobia and rabid nationalism gave birth to segregation. It was also the time of ruthless commercialism, when large and powerful corporations dictated much of government policy with an aim at greater profits.
As the tentacles of US power spread over these territories which were either claimed for commercial reasons or given to the US through international treaties, the questions of how to administer them and whether they should be permitted statehood became serious concerns. Essentially what happened was that the United States stopped adding states in 1912 once Arizona completed the statehood of the continental area.
Only two other states – Alaska and Hawaii – have been added in the last century; and these were added because of the enormous economic boon they provided to private business. The outlying territories, some of them just a short trip away from the continental holdings, were placed in a bewildering array of relationships with the nation. They were basically placed in a subservience to the federal government through a different interpretation of the “Territorial Clause” of the US Constitution:
The Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State. (Article 4, Section 3, Clause 2)
Since the jurisdiction of these territories is not placed in the hands of the populace of the territories but rather in the hands of Congress, appeals for statehood are often denied. Congress simply refuses to allow them into the union.
Still, the people born in these territories are United States citizens, and as such are supposed to enjoy all the privileges and rights of US Citizens. They pay federal taxes (although Puerto Ricans are generally exempt from federal income tax because of their status as a “free associated state”) and partake in federal programs.
Here then are the territories of the United States and a little of the story of why they are US territory.
1856: The Guano Islands
Because guano was a vital component of fertilizers, the US Congress passed the Guano Islands Act, which stated:
Whenever any citizen of the United States discovers a deposit of guano on any island, rock, or key, not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other Government, and not occupied by the citizens of any other Government, and takes peaceable possession thereof, and occupies the same, such island, rock, or key may, at the discretion of the President, be considered as appertaining to the United States.
Under this legislation, the US claimed over 100 islands, although they have rescinded most of the claims. The remaining islands are mostly small and uninhabited, but they remain US territory.
- In the Pacific Ocean: Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, Johnson Atoll, Kingman Reef, and Midway Atoll
- In the Caribbean Sea: Navassa Island, Bajo Nuevo Island, and Seranilla Bank
1898: The Spanish-American War
The United States acquired virtually all Spanish-held territories in the Pacific and Caribbean, including the Philippines and Cuba. Cuba almost immediately declared their independence in 1902. While the Philippines were granted their independence in the wake of World War II, many of these territories remained in US hands:
- In the Pacific: Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands
- In the Caribben Sea: The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico
Under the Treaty of Paris, the Spanish retained the Northern Mariana Islands while ceding Guam, which is the southern island of the same archipelago, to the US. Then they sold the Northern Mariana Islands to Germany. After World War I, the islands went to the League of Nations, who handed them over to the Japanese. During World War II, the Japanese then invaded Guam. After the war, all the Mariana Islands were given to the United States, but Guam remains separate from the rest of the chain. The Mariana Islands are a good example of a territory which could easily be a state. The total population of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands is over 200,000; and the people are considered US citizens.
While Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands are considered organized territories, their governments operate wholly under the jurisdiction of the federal government. The Free Associated State (or as it is commonly called, Commonwealth) of Puerto Rico is technically an independent government even though it is US territory and populated by US citizens. The citizens cannot vote in federal elections and are not represented in Congress. The people of Puerto Rico have repeatedly called for statehood and been denied the right by the US Congress.
1899-1900: Pacific Islands
In 1899 and in the wake of the Spanish-American War, the United States simply annexed Wake Island as a telegraph station. Although one of the most remote places on earth (nearly 600 miles from the next island), the island became a major stopping point first in shipping and then in aviation. When commercial aviation stopped needing fields in the Pacitic, the United States Air Force took over operations and uses it for missile testing.
Also in 1899, the United States and Germany split the islands of Samoa between them. This was in the wake of armed conflict between vessels of the two nations’ navy during the Samoan Civil Wars. With a population of nearly 55,000 US citizens, American Samoa consists of five volcanic islands – Tutuila, Aunu’u, Ofu, Olosega, Ta’u – and two coral atolls – Swains Atoll and Rose Atoll.
In 1900, the United States annexed the archipelago of Hawaii and formed it into a territory. When the territory was organized into a state in 1959, the Palymra Atoll was excluded and became a territory. It has no permanent inhabitants, but since it remains an incorporated unorganized territory, Palymra is the southern most US territory.
1917: The Treaty of the Danish West Indies
The US Virgin Islands were originally administrated by Denmark, but the United States had been attempting to purchase at least two of the islands for their Caribbean naval base since the US Civil War. In 1916, the US finally purchased the three large islands – St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John – for $25,000,000. The deal was finalized in 1917, only five days before the United States entered World War I.