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From the Serial Set: Congress and the Territories

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The following is a guest post by Bailey DeSimone, a library technician (metadata) in the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. Her ongoing blog series, From the Serial Set, shares discoveries from the Law Library’s Serial Set Digitization Project.

The House Committee on Territories was formed in 1825 during the 1st Session of the 19th Congress. Created to “examine [the] legislative, civil, and criminal proceedings” to “secure the rights and privileges of residents and non-residents” of United States territories, the Committee operated until the 79th Congress in 1946. (House Journal. 19th Cong., 1st Sess., 5 December 1825, 46.) United States territories are created through organic acts, which permit the establishment of a separate government.

Acts of territorial legislatures during the period of westward expansion were handled by this Committee. Throughout many of the early volumes of the U.S. Congressional Serial Set, we can observe the particularities of the relationships between Congress, territories, and other communities inhabiting the present-day United States in the early 19th century.

Farmer, John, and V. Balch And S. Stiles. Map of the surveyed part of the territory of Michigan on a scale of 8 miles to an inch. [Detroit: Publisher Not Identified, 1826].
Boundary Lines

The Committee addressed the division of the Michigan Territory in 1828. Based on the “geographical character” of the country, the Legislative Council of the Michigan Territory proposed a split. The Committee on Territories then assessed the new boundary lines: “The…new territory will…be bounded on the east by [a line northwardly, down the middle of the Lake, and through the Straits]; on the north, by the northern boundary line of the United States; on the south, by the States of Illinois and Missouri; and, on the west, by the Missouri River.” (20th Cong., 1st Sess., H. Report No. 79, at 1 (1829) reprinted in Serial Set Vol. 177.)

In the years to follow, further boundary lines were drawn, creating what would later become territories, including Wisconsin and Iowa.

Jurisdiction over Territorial Legislatures

The Committee received memorials from legislative and judicial bodies of territorial governments. In 1839, the Territory of Florida submitted a memorial to request “appropriation to purchase a law library.” (25th Cong., 3d Sess., H. Report No. 159, at 1 (1839) reprinted in Serial Set Vol. 351.)

25th Cong., 3d Sess., H. Report No. 159, at 1 (1839) reprinted in Serial Set Vol. 351

This memorial resembled a bill granting funds for the establishment of a law library for the government of the Territory of Wisconsin, initially described by the Committee as “[a request] that may justly be regarded in future applications as possessing the character of precedent.” (25th Cong., 3d Sess., H. Report No. 159, at 2 (1839) reprinted in Serial Set Vol. 351.)

Territorial governments would further appeal to Congress in this way. In January of 1839, the Territory of Iowa submitted a memorial requesting that their judges receive pay equal to those of the Territory of Wisconsin. “In point of expense to the General Government,” attests the legislature, “[the Territory of Iowa] has done more to reimburse the Government than any other Territory.” (25th Cong., 3d Sess., H. Report No. 270, at 2 (1839) reprinted in Serial Set Vol. 351.)

Suffrage in the Territories

The question of extending voting rights to territories was raised in 1858. In the same year, Minnesota gained statehood and the passage of the Guano Act two years prior authorized the first territorial expansion beyond the North American continent.

At the time, only “citizens” were constitutionally permitted to exercise certain freedoms, such as the right to vote and hold political office, under U.S. law. Here, “citizens” and “people of the United States” are considered synonymous when considering constitutional law: state citizens were deemed to be the real “political body who, according to our republican institutions, form the sovereignty, and who hold the power and conduct the government through their representatives.” (35th Cong., 1st Sess., H. Report No. 371, at 1-3 (1858) reprinted in Serial Set Vol. 966.) Territorial citizenship differed in the sense that the territories themselves were “[acquisitions of] the general government as the representative and trustee of the people of the United States.” In exercising their duty to create organic laws for territories, the Committee asserts that no other inhabitants of the United States aside from those living in the “political bod[ies] that form the sovereignty” – the states – should be extended the privilege of suffrage. (35th Cong., 1st Sess., H. Report No. 371, at 1 (1858) reprinted in Serial Set Vol. 966.)

The resulting bill proposed to restrict political sovereignty in territories until a “uniform” naturalization process took place. (35th Cong., 1st Sess., H. Report No. 371, at 1-3 (1858) reprinted in Serial Set Vol. 966.) Thus, inhabitants of territories would not obtain suffrage until the territory attained statehood. Although the ultimate conclusion once brought before the Committee on the Whole House on the State of the Union was “no resolution thereon,” the historical account of this decision-making process gives us an understanding of the broader debate surrounding suffrage during westward expansion.

35th Cong., 1st Sess., H. Report No. 371, at 1 (1858) reprinted in Serial Set Vol. 966

The United States still has territorial lands under its governance today, including Puerto Rico. The evolution of the map of America as we know it, outlined in these legislative practices, are crucial to understanding the legal framework of the United States and how many different geographical and cultural landscapes emerged.

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