Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)




Gladys McCormick


1898-1917, Citizenship, Congressional Records, Jones Act, Puerto Rico, Status

Subject Categories



"The Peculiar Status of Puerto Rico: Neither a State, nor an Independent Nation" is a study of the creation of the peculiar status of Puerto Rico. The research traces the steps from the American acquisition of Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898 to the granting of US citizenship to Puerto Ricans in 1917, cementing the ambiguous status of the island.

The burgeoning industrial and agrarian economy of the late-nineteenth century United States generated an overproduction of goods without sufficient domestic and foreign markets. At the same time the closing of the frontier halted continental expansion, thus limiting the available free soil sought by the new waves of immigrants and their pressure pushing native populations westward. The combined economic forces of overproduction and the closing of the frontier led to social problems like unemployment and labor unrest, which consequently led to political problems subsequent administrations attempted to tackle. In search of new markets, the United States sought expansion into Central and South America bringing the US in conflict with Spain, still holding Cuba and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean.

Spain's prolonged struggle to suppress the revolt in Cuba threatened American investments while Puerto Rico was singled out as the strategic gateway to Central and South America and the isthmian canal then under construction. The explosion of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor provided the casus belli for the war with Spain which resulted in transferring the Spanish colonies of Guam, the Philippines and Puerto Rico to the victorious United States.

The outcome of the Spanish-American War of 1898 was sanctioned at the Treaty of Paris of the same year which stipulated that the future status of Puerto Rico and its people would be determined by the Congress of the United States. The first attempt to rectify the political status of the island came from Senator Foraker in 1900. The bill passed in a truncated version and left Puerto Rico in the ambivalent status as an unincorporated territory of the United States. The Supreme Court decision in Downes v. Bidwell in 1901 further confirmed the ambiguous political status asserting that Puerto Rico belonged to, but was not part of the United States.

The half measures of the Foraker Act and the Supreme Court decision created disagreement within Congress between the imperialists and anti-imperialists while they led to a division within the political leadership of Puerto Rico between those seeking statehood in the US and those seeking independence for the island, and also between the United States and Puerto Rico. Foraker made subsequent attempts to correct the peculiar status of the island and its people, but repeatedly fell short.

Political realignment in Puerto Rico turned in favor of the independence movement and in 1909 attempted to force the US to grant more autonomy to the island. The United States responded with the oppressive measures of the Olmsted Amendment (1909) and Olmsted Bill (1910) reasserting that the US rather than the people of the island, determined the political fate of Puerto Rico. Representative Jones and Senator Shafroth took up the cause, but their subsequent bills were delayed until First World War events forced President Wilson and Congress to act.

Germany sought coaling stations in the Caribbean, and the possibility of German acquisition of the Danish West Indies seriously threatened American strategic interests. In order to stifle the independence movement and permanently secure the loyalties of the Puerto Ricans, Congress hurriedly passed the Jones-Shafroth Bill granting US citizenship to the entire population, and President Wilson signed it into law. However, the granting of citizenship without a path toward statehood permanently cemented the peculiar status of Puerto Rico: neither a state, nor an independent nation.


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