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Insular Cases

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Insular Cases

With the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the United States violently ejected itself from the British Empire. After the Spanish American War of 1898, the shoe was now on the other foot. The war had originally been about supporting the independence of Cuba from Spain but ended with the United States controlling the former Spanish colonies of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. How did the United States wrestle with this controversial new position as an imperial power? The answer: the Insular Cases!

US History Insular Imperialism US Supreme Court Circa 1901 StudySmarter

US Supreme Court Circa 1901, Wikimedia Commons.

Definition of Insular Cases

The Insular Cases were a series of US Supreme Court decisions regarding the legal status of these colonies. There were many unanswered legal questions when the United States suddenly became an imperial power. Territories like Louisiana had been incorporated territories, but these new possessions were unincorporated territories. The US Supreme Court had to decide how the laws of the United States applied to these lands controlled by the US but not an equal part of it.

Incorporated Territories: Territories of the United States on the path to statehood.

Unincorporated Territories: Territories of the United States which are not on the path to statehood.

Bureau of Insular Affairs

Why were they called the "Insular Cases"? That was because the Bureau of Insular Affairs oversaw the territories in question under the Secretary of War. The bureau was created in December 1898 specifically for that purpose. "Insular" was used to denote an area that was not a part of a state or a federal district, like Washington, DC.

Although most commonly referred to as the "Bureau of Insular Affairs," it went through several name changes. It was created as the Division of Customs and Insular Affairs before changing to the "Division of Insular Affairs" in 1900 and "Bureau of Insular Affairs" in 1902. In 1939 its duties were placed under the Department of the Interior, with the creation of the Division of Territories and island possessions.

US History Insular Imperialism Map of Puerto Rico StudySmarter

Map of Puerto Rico, Wikimedia Commons.

Insular Cases: History

The United States Constitution was set up to govern a country that had removed itself from imperial power but was silent on the legality of becoming an imperial power. The Treaty of Paris between the United States and Spain that ended the Spanish-American War, and ceded the territories in question, answered some questions, but others were left open. The Foraker Act of 1900 more clearly defined US control of Puerto Rico. Additionally, the United States administered Cuba for a brief period from the end of the war until its independence in 1902. It was up to the Supreme Court to analyze the law and determine what it meant to be a resident of these colonies. Were they a part of the US or not?

Citizenship Questions

The Treaty of Paris allowed those residents of the former Spanish colonies born in Spain to retain their Spanish citizenship. The Foraker Act similarly allowed Spanish citizens living in Puerto Rico to remain residents of Spain or become citizens of Puerto Rico. The Foraker Act's treatment of Puerto Rico allowed the United States to appoint its government and said that those officials must swear an oath to both the US Constitution and the laws of Puerto Rico, but never told the residents were citizens of anything but Puerto Rico.

Insular Cases: Dates

Scholars of history and law often point to nine cases from 1901 as the "Insular Cases." However, there is disagreement on what other, if any, later decisions should be considered to be part of the Insular Cases. Legal scholar Efrén Rivera Ramos believes that the list should include cases up to Balzac v. Porto Rico in 1922. He notes that this is the last case in which the doctrine of territorial incorporation developed by the insular cases continues to evolve and be described. In contrast, later cases mentioned by other scholars only deal with applying the doctrine to specific instances.

Case
Date Decided
De Lima v. Tidwell
May 27, 1901
Gotze v. United States
May 27, 1901
Armstrong v. United States
May 27, 1901
Downes v. Bidwell
May 27, 1901
Huus v. New York and Porto Rico Steamship Co.
May 27, 1901
Crossman v. United States
May 27, 1901
Dooley v. United States [182 U.S. 222 (1901)]
December 2, 1901
Fourteen Diamond Rings v. United States
December 2, 1901
Dooley v. United States [183 U.S. 151 (1901)]
December 2, 1901

If those possessions are inhabited by alien races, differing from us in religion, customs, laws, methods of taxation and modes of thought, the administration of government and justice, according to Anglo-Saxon principles, may for a time be impossible."

–Justice Henry Billings Brown1

US History Insular Imperialism Henry Billings Brown StudySmarter

Henry Billings Brown, Wikimedia Commons.

Insular Cases: Rulings

Downes v. Bidwell and De Lima v. Bidwell were two linked cases about fees charged on imports from Puerto Rico entering the port of New York, with repercussions for the entire legal relationship of the United States with the unincorporated territories. In De Lima, import tariffs had been charged as though Puerto Rico was a foreign country, whereas in Downes, a customs fee mentioned explicitly in the Foraker Act had been charged. Both argued that the Treaty of Paris had made Puerto Rico a part of the US. Downes specifically argued that the Foraker Act was unconstitutional to put fees on imports from Puerto Rico because the Constitution's Uniformity Clause stated that "all duties, imposts, and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States" and no states paid import fees from one state to another. The court agreed that Puerto Rico could be considered a foreign country for tariff purposes but disagreed that the Uniformity Clause applied. How could this be so?

The Bidwell in both cases was New York Customs Collector George R. Bidwell.

Territorial Incorporation

Out of these decisions came the new concept of territorial incorporation. When the Supreme Court outlined the doctrine of Territorial Incorporation, they decided that there was a difference between territories intended to become states of the Union and territories that Congress had no intention of allowing to enter. These unincorporated territories were not protected by the Constitution automatically, and it was up to Congress to decide which elements of the Constitution would apply to such unincorporated territories on a case-by-case basis. This meant that citizens of these territories could not be considered citizens of the United States and only had as many constitutional protections as Congress chose to give. Early decisions outlining this doctrine contain overtly racially discriminatory language explaining the justices' view that the inhabitants of these territories may be racially or culturally incompatible with the US legal system.

The legal term the court used in the doctrine was ex proprio vigore, meaning "by its own force." The Constitution was redacted so as not to extend ex proprio vigore to new territories of the United States.

Residents of Puerto Rico would later receive US citizenship by the Jones-Shaforth Act in 1917. The act was signed by Woodrow Wilson so that Puerto Ricans could join the US Army for WWI and later were even part of the draft. Because this citizenship is by an act of Congress instead of the Constitution, it can be revoked, and not all constitutional protections apply to Puerto Ricans living in Puerto Rico.

Insular Cases Significance

The effects of the Insular Cases rulings are still felt over a century later. In 2022, the Supreme Court upheld the doctrine of incorporation in the case of United States v. Vaello-Madero, where a Puerto Rican man who had been living in New York was ordered to pay back $28,000 in disability benefits after he moved back to Puerto Rico, because he was not entitled to the US national benefit for disabled persons.

The complicated legal status created by the Insular Cases resulted in territories like Puerto Rico and Guam where residents may be US Citizens that can be drafted into war but cannot vote in US elections, yet also experience differences such as essentially not having to pay US income tax. The cases were controversial at the time, with many instances of a five to four vote. The biased reasoning for the decisions remains controversial today, with even lawyers arguing for the United States in United States v. Vaello-Madero admitting "some of the reasoning and rhetoric there is obviously anathema."

Insular Cases - Key Takeaways

  • After the Spanish-American War, the US became an imperial power for the first time.
  • Whether or not the Constitution would apply to these new territories was a controversial issue.
  • The Supreme Court decided that the doctrine of territorial incorporation applied.
  • The doctrine of territorial incorporation stated that territories not on the path to statehood only received the constitutional protections Congress decided to grant.
  • The decision was based mainly on the bias about these new overseas territories' racial and cultural differences.

Frequently Asked Questions about Insular Cases

They defined the doctrine of territorial incorporation which set the legal status of US colonies. 

The insular cases were Supreme Court cases that defined the legal status of US possessions not on the path to statehood. 

They defined the doctrine of territorial incorporation which set the legal status of US colonies.

The Insular Cases primarily occurred in 1901 but some believe that cases as late as 1922 or even 1979 should be included. 

The Supreme Court ruling in the Insular Cases was that only the parts of the constitution that Congress chose to grant to territories the US possessed, that were not on the path to statehood, applied.  

Final Insular Cases Quiz

Question

In which year was the Spanish-American War fought?

Show answer

Answer

1865

Show question

Question

Which country was blamed for the destruction of the battleship Maine?

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Answer

Cuba

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Question

Which of the following WAS NOT an area where this war was fought?

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Answer

Hawaii

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Question

Who was the U.S. President during the Spanish-American War?

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Answer

William McKinley

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Question

This small Caribbean island was the site of small battles and became a U.S. territory after the war?

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Answer

Puerto Rico

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Question

This ship blew up in Havana Harbor causing the U.S. to blame Spain?

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Answer

U.S.S. Texas

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Question

What is a type of reporting that relies on sensational, biased, and often untrue information with shocking and lurid details? 

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Answer

Yellow journalism

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Question

On which island did U.S. troops face over 100,000 Spanish soldiers?

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Answer

Philippines

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Question

Which of the following was not a reason the U.S. went to war with Spain?

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Answer

Revenge for the Maine

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Question

Which of the following territory did America receive from Spain at the end of the war?

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Answer

Guam

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Question

What happened in the Philippines after the U.S. defeated Spain?

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Answer

The U.S. purchased the Philippines from Spain for $20 million

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Question

Did the Cubans and Filipinos both become independent nations after the war?

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Answer

No.  Cuba, while free remained a U.S. protectorate and the Philippines became a U.S. territory.

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Question

What was the peace treaty that ended the Spanish--American war?

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Answer

Treaty of Ghent

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Question

Where did the U.S. Navy fight in the Spanish-American War?

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Answer

Cuba

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Question

Which of the following was NOT a result of the Spanish-American War?

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Answer

The U.S. military was stronger and experienced

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Question

What country colonized the Philippines first?

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Answer

Spain

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Question

What event prompted the movement for Filipino independence?

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Answer

The execution of three priests accused of sedition.

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Question

In what war did the US get the Philippines?

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Answer

The Spanish-American War of 1898

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Question

What other territories, aside from the Philippines, did the US receive as a result of the war?

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Answer

Guam, Puerto Rico, and Cuba

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Question

What author argued for the US to make the Philippines a colony?

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Answer

Rudyard Kipling

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Question

What organization argued against the US making the Philippines a colony?

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Answer

The Anti-Imperialist League

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Question

Why did the Philippine-US war occur?


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Answer

Clashes broke out between US occupation forces and Filipino independence forces

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Question

What reforms did the US colonial government implement?

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Answer

Public education, a justice system and Supreme Court, infrastructure building, healthcare improvements, and a failed land reform.

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Question

What law planned for eventual independence?

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Answer

The Jones Law of 1916

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Question

What event helped speed up the process towards independence?

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Answer

The Great Depression

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Question

When did the Commonwealth government lead to independence?

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Answer

10 years after its creation.

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Question

What country occupied the Philippines before it became independent?

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Answer

Japan

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Question

When did the Philippines become independent?

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Answer

July 5, 1946

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Question

What country had Puerto Rico as a colony before the US?

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Answer

Spain

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Question

What was the name of the war in which the US acquired Puerto Rico?

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Answer

The Spanish-American War

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Question

What other territories did the US acquire in this war?

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Answer

Cuba, the Philippines, and Guam

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Question

Why was Puerto Rico of strategic interest to the US?

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Answer

Building naval and coaling stations would allow the US Navy to be more powerful.

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Question

Why was Puerto Rico of economic interest to the US?

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Answer

There were sugar plantations there.

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Question

How did Social Darwinism influence the colonization of Puerto Rico?

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Answer

It encouraged a belief that the people couldn't successfully govern themselves.

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Question

What reforms did the US colonial government implement?

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Answer

It created a public school system, healthcare system, and built new infrastructure.

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Question

Why did the education system cause resentment among Puerto Ricans?

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Answer

It required teaching in English even though most Puerto Ricans spoke Spanish, which became an important symbolic representation of national culture and identity.

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Question

What status did Puerto Rico get in 1952?

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Answer

It was made a Commonwealth with its own constitution and mostly autonomous domestic politics.

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Question

For Puerto Rico to become a state, what would have to happen?

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Answer

The US Congress would have to vote to make it one.

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Question

What doctrine was created by the Insular Cases?

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Answer

Doctrine of Territorial Incoporation 

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Question

What reason did the Insular Cases justify why the populations of US overseas colonies should not be full US citizens under the constitution?


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Answer

Racial and cultural differences

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Question

What are unincorporated territories?

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Answer

US territories not on the path to becoming a state

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Question

What are the Insular Cases named after?


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Answer

The Bureau of Insular Affairs 

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Question

What did the Foraker Act concern?

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Answer

The governance of Puerto Rico 

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Question

What was argued in Downes v. Bidwell?

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Answer

The Foraker Act was unconstitutional because Puerto Rico was a part of the US 

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Question

What was argued in De Lima v. Bidwell?

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Answer

Puerto Rican imports could not be tariffed as a foreign import because Puerto Rico was a part of the US

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Question

What does "ex proprio vigore" mean?

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Answer

By its own force 

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Question

What did the Supreme Court say did not carry "ex proprio vigore" into US territories?

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Answer

The US Constitution 

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Question

What did the Treat of Paris say would be the citizenship status of people indigenous to the Phillipines?

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Answer

It said nothing 

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Question

Which countries did the US gain as part of the Treaty of Paris? (select all that apply)

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Answer

Guam

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Question

The Anti-Imperialist League was founded as a response to US actions during the _____ War.

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Answer

Spanish-American War.

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