A Power Grab or Healing a Wound?

The U.S. government established the Dakota Territory in 1861. It consisted of what’s now South Dakota and North Dakota, as well as parts of Montana and Wyoming. As the population grew, there was a campaign to make the territory a state. That happened in 1889. But there was a wrinkle. In order to give the Republican Party more representation in Congress, the territory was divided into two states.

Today, the 1.6 million residents of North and South Dakota have four senators and two representatives. If Dakota had been made a single state, it would be the fourth largest state by area and have two senators and one representative, just like Alaska, Delaware, Montana, Vermont and Wyoming.

There are 3.2 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico, twice as many as live in North and South Dakota, but they have zero senators and zero representatives.

Washington, DC, only has 700,000 residents, but that’s more than Vermont and Wyoming and almost as many as Alaska. Just like Puerto Rico, the Americans who live in Washington, DC, have zero senators and zero representatives. 

From The Guardian:

One of the most powerful prosecutions [at the impeachment trial] came from Stacey Plaskett of the US Virgin Islands, the first delegate from an American territory to hold the position of impeachment manager. Yet Plaskett’s status meant that she was unable to vote for impeachment because she has no vote on the floor of the House of Representatives. The US Virgin Islands has no representation at all in the Senate. Its residents cannot even vote for president.

The anomaly illuminates America’s long unaddressed colonial history that leaves five territories floating in constitutional limbo, their residents – most of them people of color – effectively treated as second-class citizens.

But with the impetus of last summer’s protests against racial injustice, and the election of a Democratic president, one of those territories – Puerto Rico – is aiming to become the 51st state of the union. A parallel effort by Washington, District of Columbia, is also closer than ever to its similar goal.

‘It is incredibly important to take a step back and look at who actually has real representation in democracy,” said Stasha Rhodes, campaign manager of 51 for 51, an organization pushing for DC statehood. “If you think about all the players that you mentioned, they all have a common thread: [most] are people of color. Does America have a true democracy if so many people of color are standing outside looking in and are not able to fully participate?”

There are five inhabited US territories: American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. Apart from American Samoa, people born in the territories are US citizens and pay federal taxes such as Medicare and social security, though not federal tax on locally sourced income. Each territory sends a delegate to the House who can debate legislation and sit on committees but is not able to actually vote.

Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony until 1898 when it fell under US control as part of the terms that ended the Spanish-American war. In 1917 the Jones Act granted Puerto Ricans US citizenship and in 1952 it became a commonwealth of the US – but still without voting rights in American presidential elections.

Over the past half-century Puerto Rico has held six non-binding referendums on its status and last November voted 52%-47% in favor of statehood, a cause boosted by grievance over the federal government’s inadequate response to Hurricane Maria in 2017. . . . 

George Laws Garcia, executive director of the Puerto Rico Statehood Council, said: “You have a bunch of unelected individuals making decisions on behalf of the people of Puerto Rico over the desires and ideas and perspectives of the local elected officials, which I think is basically blatant colonialism.

“We had Hurricane Maria and the earthquakes and now Covid and, in all these instances when Puerto Rico needs federal resources, federal support, federal action, we don’t have the capacity to hold elected officials in Washington accountable for what they do because they don’t ever get any votes from Puerto Rico, and that includes the president as well as members of Congress”. . . .

Almost all of Puerto Rico’s residents are Hispanic while nearly half of DC’s are Black. . . . 
Its 700,000-plus residents pay more per capita in federal income taxes than any state. They gained the right to vote in presidential elections in 1961 but still lack a voting member in the House or a voice in the Senate.

The movement for DC statehood is bigger and better organized than ever before. Last June the House passed a bill that approved it, the first time a chamber of Congress had advanced a DC statehood measure. . . .

Rhodes of 51 for 51 said: “Our most celebrated civil rights leaders were fighting for access to democracy. If you think about John Lewis and Martin Luther King, they were all fighting for access to voting and access to representation and so here in 2021 we’re still fighting in Washington DC for equal representation and a clear chance at participation in democracy” . . .
[After] the insurrection at the US Capitol on 6 January. Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, told reporters earlier this month: “If the District of Columbia could operate as a state, [what] any governor can do is to call out the national guard without getting the permission of the federal government. It shouldn’t have to happen that way”. . . .

Meagan Hatcher-Mays, director of democracy policy for the grassroots movement Indivisible, said: “It’s an issue of basic fairness”. . . . 

LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, said: “At the end of the day, you have states from Utah to Montana to others that have gained statehood early on with less question, with less critique than DC and Puerto Rico. It is a fundamental democratic flaw and it reeks of hypocrisy. The only reason why it is a debate or even a question is because of who makes up the majority of both of those places”. . . .

Donna Brazile, a former interim chair of the Democratic National Committee, said: “This is about making America a more perfect union. It’s the oldest constitutional democracy in the world and yet some of its citizens do not have all the full voting rights because of where they reside. If we’re going to end racial injustice in America and talk about a new beginning for the country, we can’t sidestep old issues.”

Unquote.

Of course, Congressional Republicans are opposed to statehood for Puerto Rico and DC. The Senate Minority Leader called the idea a “power grab”, simply a way to add Democrats to Congress (see “Dakota Territory, history of”). 

Except it’s not that simple at all. Our fellow Americans deserve representation in Congress. That’s the principal justification for adding two more states to the union. It’s not as clear what to do for the 376,000 Americans who live in Guam, the Northern Marianas, American Samoa and the Virgin Islands, but Puerto Rico and DC aren’t difficult cases.

Overcoming right-wing opposition (aka voter suppression) by abolishing or seriously reforming the Senate filibuster in order to give Puerto Rico and Washington, DC, full voting rights would give the voters who live there the same power as the other 330 million Americans. It would fix a longstanding problem. It would heal a constitutional wound. As a side effect, it would also add balance to the US Senate, where fifty Republicans today represent 43% of the population and fifty Democrats represent 57%.

“An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America” by Nick Bunker

Like most Americans, my knowledge of the Revolutionary War is spotty. The Stamp Act, the Boston Tea Party, one if by land, two if by sea. The minutemen. Lexington and Concord. The “shot heard round the world”. Bunker Hill. The Declaration of Independence, Valley Forge, Washington crossing the Delaware. Later we got the Constitution.

71saQEWKtcL._AC_SX522_

I didn’t realize the Revolutionary War lasted eight years. The Civil War only lasted four, but it’s sucked up most of the historical oxygen, along with World War 2. I did know that Washington was going to New Jersey when he crossed the Delaware River and that the Continental Army had terrible winters at Jockey Hollow, south of Morristown, even a winter that was worse than Valley Forge’s.

Reading An Empire on the Edge was helpful, therefore. The book covers events leading up to the war in great detail, sometimes in more detail than I needed. The author begins with the state of the American colonies after the French and Indian War (known elsewhere as the Seven Years War) and concludes with the British government having finally decided it’s necessary to use force to put down the rebellion in Massachusetts in 1775.

What really surprised me was the highly complicated, years-long series of events in both America and Great Britain that preceded the exchange of gunfire at Lexington and Concord in 1775. If there is one event that marked the beginning of the conflict, it was the Stamp Act, parliament’s attempt to tax the colonies by requiring printed materials to be produced on embossed paper made in London. That means there were ten years of escalating tensions, with the Americans resisting parliament’s efforts to make laws for the colonies and the British government convinced that parliament had the authority to do so. There were acts of violence on both sides, but mainly there was a lot of discussion: speeches, newspaper articles, pamphlets, meetings and personal diplomacy. All that talk eventually led parliament to declare Massachusetts in open rebellion and initiate a military response.

The author emphasizes throughout that, even so, the British government paid as little attention as possible to what was happening in the colonies. The government’s representatives in the colonies did a poor job informing London, while London was usually much more interested in events far from America. He sees the basic problem, however, as the inability of British aristocrats to understand the American point of view:

The crisis that led to the revolution in America had many causes, and ranking high among them was the narrowness of vision that afflicted [British prime minister Lord North] and his colleagues. . . . They found the rebels in America unthinkable. Nothing in rural Oxfordshire could prepare Lord North for an encounter, at a distance of three thousand miles, with men like . . . Ethan Allen of Vermont. For radicals like . . . Allen, the tenant was the equal of his landlord or even his moral superior; they would never pay a tithe to please a vicar or doff their hat in the street as he walked by . . . 

Perhaps the deepest divide of all was the one that separated Lord North from John Hancock. In the eyes of the king and his ministers, a Bostonian so wealthy had a duty to defend the status quo. . . .At best the man was deeply ungrateful, while at worse he was a traitor. . . 

A man with origins like those of Frederick North could never understand an enemy of Hancock’s kind. Nor could he be creative in response to the challenge that the colonies threw down. The very qualities George III liked best about him — his devotion to his church, to his king and to the landed gentry — were precisely those that rendered North incapable of governing America. . . . [368-69].

The war had been long in the making, the product of an empire and a system deeply flawed, the work of ignorance and prejudices and of men well-meaning but the prisoners of ideas that were obsolete and empty. “You cannot force a form of government upon a people”, the Duke of Richmond had said in the House of Lords . . . but although the radical duke would be proved right, it would take long years of fighting before the nation could admit that this was so [365]. 

It was never going to be as easy for Great Britain to rule over its American colonies the way it did over a country like India. The Americans believed they should be accorded the same rights as proper Englishmen. However, I came away from An Empire on the Edge feeling some sympathy for the British. I’m an American, but the Americans of the 1770s seem to have been a cantankerous lot, too ready to see looming tyranny.

Not much has changed in 250 years. 

The Old World and the New, 1492 – 1650 by J. H. Elliott

The English historian J. H. Elliott is an expert on the history of Spain. His subject in this short book is the effect of the discovery of the New World on Europe, especially the Spanish. Yet he is hesitant to identify causal relationships, tending to identify historical correlations instead, e.g. between the amount of gold and silver taken from the Western Hemisphere to Spain and rising prices in Europe.

The book begins with Columbus discovering North America and ends with the collapse of the Spanish Empire. Between those events, the Spanish viewed the New World as a source of gold and silver and as an opportunity to spread civilization, especially Catholicism. There were  intellectual consequences, but most of the impact was economic and political. Harvesting 180 tons of gold and 16,000 tons of silver (plus any that wasn’t officially reported) helped Spain become the most powerful nation in the world.

This development wasn’t lost on the other European powers. In Elliott’s words: “Overseas possessions came to be seen as essential adjuncts of Europe, enhancing the military and economic power of its rival nation-states”.

Considering that Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in America, was founded in 1607, and the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth in 1620, it isn’t surprising that the English play a small role in this story. What surprised me was how much history was being made in the New World by the Spanish, Portuguese, French and Dutch before the English began to colonize North America.

Not everyone in Europe thought the discovery of the New World was a blessing. There were Spaniards who criticized the treatment of Spain’s new subjects and believed Spain would be better off economically and morally without importing all that precious metal.

The French essayist Montaigne also had something to say: “So many goodly cities ransacked and razed; so many nations destroyed and made desolate; so many infinite millions of harmless people of all sexes, states and ages, massacred, ravaged and put to the sword; and the richest, the fairest and the best part of the world turned topsy-turvy, ruined and defaced for the traffic of pearls and pepper”.