After 1898: Empire, Law, and Citizenship

AHA Session 147
Saturday, January 5, 2019: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Monroe Room (Palmer House Hilton, Sixth Floor)
Paul Kramer, Vanderbilt University

Session Abstract

As Puerto Rico dominated the news following the destruction wrought hurricane María and as Guam became newsworthy in the US as a potential target for a North Korean nuclear strike, it suddenly became clear that many in the U.S. public (and among American journalists) had little knowledge of the history of those places as US territories, and of the origins of their peculiar status in US law. The proposed panel takes a long view of the history of American empire. Focused on US territories in the Caribbean and the Pacific, it interrogates struggles over the law—about its administration and regulation of justice, labor, immigration, and natural resources—in order to illuminate the long and still very-present afterlives of 1898.

Katherine Unteman’s paper provides a new perspective on the Insular Cases by investigating how the Supreme Court’s decisions affected the residents of the U.S. territory of Guam, where after almost sixty years of US rule, courts still lacked juries in both criminal and civil trials. The paper recovers the struggle by Guamanians to gain jury trials and shows that for the island’s residents, the Insular Cases were not just abstract rulings about whether the Constitution followed the flag. They deeply affected the administration of justice and lives of ordinary islanders.

Julian Lim’s paper examines the intersections of empire and immigration law in Puerto Rico and the Philippines in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War. The expansion of U.S. territorial control heralded the expansion of the U.S.’s increasingly restrictive immigration regulation apparatus. The paper argues that the laws of immigration were deeply entwined with the laws of empire – both serving as regimes of inclusion and exclusion, of expansion and contraction that ultimately sought to pull the territories into the U.S.’ jurisdictional orbit.

Sam Erman’s paper focuses on labor law in Puerto Rico under US rule. After the U.S. imperial turn brought annexation of Puerto Rico in 1899, the AFL provided the island’s unions money, advice, public relations, lobbying, and an organizational home. It backed their demands for massive increases in education spending and their decision to accept disfranchisement of Puerto Rican workers in return for protection from “benevolent” federal administrators. Puerto Rico thus becomes an important site for studying shifting ideas about the role of government and law in labor disputes.

JoAnna Poblete’s paper examines U.S. federal government control of the ocean spaces surrounding American Somoa. Since 1900, that control has included the right to determine who gets permission to use the water. While some American Sāmoans believe they should have the native right to decide how to use the waters surrounding their ancestral lands, their status as wards in an unincorporated territory of the United States means their access to the ocean beyond three miles is ultimately regulated and controlled by the U.S. federal government. This presentation will examine the complications involved in this often-invisible U.S. colonial relationship connected to the global fishing industry.

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