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100 Years of Puerto Rico: Puerto Rico Becomes a U.S. Territory

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The United States made a deal 100 years ago today, on March 2, 1917, when the Jones-Shafroth Act became law making Puerto Rico a territory of the United States.  The passage of the law guaranteed U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans born on or after April 25, 1898. The legislation was sponsored by Rep. William Jones (D-Va.), chairman of the House Committee on Insular Affairs, and Sen. John Shafroth (D-Colo.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Pacific Islands and Puerto Rico.

A book open to show the text of the Jones–Shafroth Act.
The Jones–Shafroth Act (39 Stat. 951-968) / photo courtesy Jane Fitzgerald, National Archives and Records Administration.

After Spain ceded Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines to the United States in the Treaty of Paris on December 10, 1898, Puerto Rico was ruled by the U.S. military and a governor appointed by the President of the United States. The Foraker Act of 1900 ended military rule and provided for a “temporary civil government for Porto Rico.”  Luis Muñoz Rivera, who had fought with Tulio Larrínaga for sovereignty for Puerto Rico since it belonged to Spain, argued for citizenship for Puerto Ricans and an civil government before and after the passage of the Foraker Act, which did not provide for citizenship. Although Theodore Roosevelt advocated for Puerto Ricans to have U.S. citizenship during his visit to the island in December 1906, and Larrínaga, Muñoz Rivera and others continued to push Congress for these rights, there were no legal changes until the Jones-Shafroth Act.

The act established a framework for a new government for Puerto Rico, including a bicameral legislature, a governor, an executive council appointed by the president; and a legislature made up of a Senate consisting of 19 members and a 39-member House of Representatives.  The act separated the executive, legislative and judicial branches, revised the judicial system to include a Supreme Court and a U.S. District Court, provided for a non-voting resident commissioner in Congress and provided for the civil rights of the individual.

Young man with a Puerto Rican flag.
Young man with Puerto Rican flag, ca. 1970 / by Frank Espada []
It was the then-resident commissioner, Luis Muñoz Rivera , who argued eloquently for Puerto Rico to have political autonomy and become part of the United States. As he demanded of Congress on May 5, 1916:

 ”Give us now the field of experiment which we ask of you… It is easy for us to set up a stable republican government with all possible guarantees for all possible interests. And afterwards, when you… give us our independence… you will stand before humanity as a great creator of new nationalities and a great liberator of oppressed people.”

Sadly he died in November 1916 of cancer, shortly before the act was passed. However, the final form didn’t wholly meet up with his goals. The act was superseded by the Commonwealth Act of 1952 which granted more autonomy to Puerto Rico’s government. However, that act did not change the citizenship rights granted by the Jones-Shafroth Act: Puerto Rico and the Puerto Ricans are still part of the rich diversity of the United States.

A mere two months later, Puerto Rico demonstrated its commitment and value to its nation when the Selective Service Act of 1917 was passed on May 18. Some 20,000 Puerto Rican men were conscripted and served the United States in World War I.

Looking for current legal materials from Puerto Rico? Here is a list of some of our latest arrivals to the collection, and some of our stalwart titles:

KGV2914 1952 C66 2015 Puerto Rico. Constitución del Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico.

KGV40 1954a  Puerto Rico. Leyes de Puerto Rico anotadas.

KGV40 1954  Puerto Rico. Laws of Puerto Rico annotated.

KGV4447.M34 A84 2014  Alvarado Tizol, Héctor M. Litigación en casos de impericia médica.

KGV2921.A95 2009 Álvarez González. Jose Julian. Derecho constitucional de Puerto Rico y relaciones constitucionales con los Estados Unidos: casos y materiales.

KGV304.A66 A3 2014 Aponte Toro, Roberto P. Primera estación.

KGV3205.F45 2014  Feijoó, José Roberto. Derecho laboral gubernamental.

KGV327.F66 2014  Fontánez Torres, Érika.  Ambigüedad y derecho : ensayos de crítica jurídica.

KGV602.G37 2015 García Cárdenas, Margarita E. Manual de propiedad horizontal: la Ley de condominios y esquemas jurídicos.

KGV2636.G669 2015 González Colón, Luis F. El Perito Psicológico Forense: desde la Consejería Profesional Licenciada y aliados de la salud en Puerto Rico.

KGV2919.H47 2014 Hernández Colón, Rafael. Estado Libre Asociado: naturaleza y desarrollo.

KGV3635.A28 2016  Legislación y documentación sobre las bibliotecas, los bibliotecarios y algunas instituciones de información en Puerto Rico.

KGV3588.L67 2014 López Cruz, Tamara. Un monstruo llamado D.E.: desenmascarando la verdad de la educación especial en Puerto Rico.

KGV1331.M66 2014 Montañez Miranda, Félix J. Lealtad fiduciaria de directores y oficiales.

ΚGV516.Ο782 2014 Ortega-Vélez, Ruth E. Derechos y obligaciones de los abuelos: derecho puertorriqueño.

KGV801.R63 2014  Rodríguez Urbano, Jesús Antonio, 1977- La mora en el contrato de transacción judicial.

KGV215.S74 2016 Steidel Figueroa, Sigfrido. Ética para juristas: ética del abogado y responsabilidad disciplinarian.


Comments (4)

  1. Thank you for your collection of information on the island of Puerto Rico. Your doing great. Never quit. Love your site

  2. I just wanted to share a website that might be useful to think about the history of the extension of US citizenship to Puerto Rico, namely the Puerto Rico Citizenship Archives Project:

    Best, CRVS

  3. Hi,

    This article seems like a narrow examination of the topic–there were a lot of very negative aspects of US colonialism in Puerto Rico that I didn’t see mentioned. Great writing but this subject deserves to be discussed more in depth.

  4. Nice!

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