If the Virgin Islands is a colony, as I argued in a past column, then what empire is it a part of?
The answer is found in a recently published book on the American territorial system: “How to Hide An Empire” by Daniel Immerwahr, a professor of history at Northwestern University. It is essential reading for anyone interested in the relationship between the U.S. Virgin Islands and the United States. While Immerwahr is mainly concerned with the development of the American empire as a whole and devotes limited space to the Virgin Islands and the other small territories, he accomplishes the central task of placing their history with the mainland United States in a larger historical context. (The section of most relevance to the Virgin Islands is Part I: The Colonial Empire.) He brings to light the crucial part the territories have played in the American story: “The overseas parts of the United States have triggered wars, brought forth inventions, raised up presidents, and helped define what it means to be ‘ American’. Only by including them in the picture do we see a full portrait of the country — not as it appears in fantasy, but as it actually is.”
To claim that the United States has an empire can raise the same reaction in some quarters as calling the V.I. a colony. After all, wasn’t America born in a successful colonial revolt? It never acquired overseas possessions on the scale of Great Britain or France. But as Immerwahr points out if you examine the growth of the territorial system, its development is part of an imperial impulse central to the American experience. As he puts it: “The history of the United States is the history of empire”.
Initially, that expansionist drive was confined to the North American continent. It began with the settlement of the trans-Appalachian area and continued until the country reached the Pacific. When the Constitution was adopted, the states ceded control over the western lands they claimed to the federal government. Congress, under Article IV, was given broad and undefined authority over its governance and disposition. Fortunately for the future of the new country, it decided to treat the territories as nascent states – eventual equal partners in the federal system. With the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 a pattern was established by which, after a period of federal control, the territories were admitted to statehood, with Congress having broad powers to decide when they would become states and under what conditions. Once admitted, they were full partners.
The victims of this move westward were Native Americans, who were displaced on to reservations of various types. One of the most notorious examples was the eviction of the Cherokee people from their ancestral home in the southeast in the first part of the 19th century to an area designated as Indian Territory. This process of displacement continued and was applied to other indigenous peoples as the wave of settlement rolled westward,
There were a number of ways in which what was called the “manifest destiny” to occupy the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific was carried out. A huge chunk of land was purchased from France through the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Another vast expanse was gained when an independent Texas was admitted into the Union in 1845. The war with Mexico (1846-1848) added the present-day southwestern and mountain states. California became a state in 1850 in the wake of that conflict. Alaska was bought from Russia in 1867. By 1890, when the Pacific was reached, the internal frontier was declared closed.
But expansion did not stop there. Joining the European powers in the race to acquire overseas colonies, America took the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico from a defeated Spanish empire in the Treaty of Paris (1899). [Because] the outright acquisition of Cuba was prohibited by Congress, effective control was obtained through a treaty that gave America the right to intervene in Cuban affairs and to lease in perpetuity the extensive Guantanamo naval base. Around the same time, Hawaii was annexed and American Samoa was gained by agreement with rival foreign powers and local chiefs. With the purchase of the Danish West Indies in 1917, territorial acquisitions ended. America had its own overseas empire.
But its new colonies were not called colonies. They were designated “territories”. The Supreme Court decided there were now two kinds. The incorporated, like Alaska and Hawaii, were candidates for eventual statehood (not achieved until 1959). The rest were unincorporated, subject to congressional control with few exceptions. They were not extended the rights of American citizens or considered to be eventual full partners in the American governmental system. While the Philippines were granted independence in 1946, the others – Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa and the Virgin Islands – were placed, apparently indefinitely, in an unequal and undemocratic status. (To add a complication, the U.S. gained another unincorporated territory in the Northern Mariana Islands when a compact was signed in 1976.) This overseas domain was supplemented by the spread of military bases following WWII. While not traditional colonies, they extended America’s reach even more effectively than the acquisition of sovereign territory. At present, there are 600 of them according to Immerwahr. They are a de facto empire that enables the United States to engage in frequent foreign interventions in its role as global superpower.
One of the important contributions of “The Hidden Empire” is to demonstrate how the pivotal role of territories has been ignored or forgotten in the American political narrative. An example he cites is how maps of the United States generally ignore their presence: “When have you ever seen a map of the United States that had Puerto Rico or American Samoa, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Northern Marianas or any of the smaller islands the United States has annexed over the years?”
The absence of the territories on the map reflects their absence from the national consciousness and their continued exclusion from full participation in American political life. They are effectively hidden. Maybe a start to changing this is the honest use of language. The territories are colonies. They are part of an American Empire. A small beginning perhaps, but who knows where it might lead?
Daniel Immerwahr has made a major contribution in exposing America’s hidden empire. The territorial – colonial – residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands should read it. After all, we are part of it.
Editor’s note: Paul Leary, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of the Virgin Islands.