The Founding Fathers envisioned an expanding republic; this goes without saying. Written into the United States Constitution is a process for territories to become states. While the current system of territories that we have was not laid out there, a system was.
What they could not have envisioned was that many territories would never become states. As of today, over 3.5 million American citizens reside across them. Unlike their brethren in the states, they lack a real say in Congress and in the Electoral College. For years, these territories have remained in a form of limbo – part of the United States, but not one of the United States.
What Is a Territory?
31 of the 50 states that exist today were previously part of a territory. Historically, territories were the process by which the United States expanded geographically. Territories implemented a system of government and enabled Congress to gradually cede control. Eventually, Congress admitted the new territory to the union as a co-equal state.
Today, the United States has 14 territories. Five of these territories (American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands) have permanent civilian populations. The other nine, the Minor Outlying Islands, have no permanent population. However, some, like Midway Atoll, have small populations of military and wildlife employees.
The United States also claims sovereignty over two more territories administered by Colombia. However, the international community does not recognize either claim.
Types of Territories
Today, there exist four different classifications of territories:
Organized and Unorganized
- Organized territories are territories that Congress has “organized” through an Organic Act. These territories have self-government. Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands are organized territories.
- Unorganized territories are territories that Congress hasn’t organized through an enabling act. The uninhabited territories are all unorganized. Additionally, American Samoa is technically unorganized – however, it has self-government.
Incorporated and Unincorporated
- Incorporated territories are territories where the Constitution applies in full. Incorporation is a one-way street; once a territory becomes incorporated, there’s no going back. Currently, only the uninhabited Palmyra Atoll is incorporated.
- Unincorporated territories are territories where the Constitution does not fully apply. All territories except Palmyra Atoll are unincorporated.
These statuses are heavily tied to the prospect of statehood. Because incorporation is irreversible, many see it as a step towards statehood. By keeping the five inhabited territories are unincorporated, there is flexibility in how they can be treated. An example of this comes from the Philippines, a former territory. The Philippines were unincorporated; while a statehood movement did exist, it never gained traction. The Philippines eventually left and become its own country.
In theory, such a scenario could happen to any unincorporated territory. While the vast majority of Puerto Ricans favor either statehood or some formal association with the US, an independence movement does exist. Because the territory isn’t incorporated, it’s possible – though unlikely – they could leave the United States.
The Inhabited Territories
Currently, the United States has five permanently inhabited territories. Collectively, they have a population of over 3.5 million people, and the vast majority are citizens. With the exception of American Samoa, everyone born in these territories is a citizen by birth. In most ways, the territories are fundamentally American.
Unlike in the 50 states, the federal income tax generally does not apply in the territories. However, each does have a non-voting Delegate to Congress. These Delegates have most of the rights of Representatives but cannot vote on the floor. And while the territories lack any voting power in the presidential election, they do have a say in the primaries of both major parties.
As the name implies, American Samoa shares a common history with the independent nation of Samoa. The territory consists of five islands and seven atolls in the Pacific. The largest one, Tutuila, is home to 97% of the population as well as the capital, Pago Pago. The territory has the highest poverty rate of any state, territory, or county.
Of American Samoa’s 57,000 residents, the vast majority are ethnically Samoan. Citizens mostly speak Samoan at home, but most residents are bilingual; only 1% cannot speak English. Like the nation of Samoa, American Samoa is overwhelmingly Christian. 98% of the population identifies as such, and roughly a fourth are members of the LDS Church.
Uniquely, American Samoa maintains its own immigration system and property laws. Its residents are mainly American nationals – they aren’t citizens, but can reside and work in the United States. This system helps maintain local land laws, but is increasingly controversial. The legislature of American Samoa, the Fono, is officially nonpartisan. In Congress, American Samoa is represented by a Republican, while its Governor is a Democrat.
With over 160,000 residents, Guam is the second-largest territory in the United States. Part of the Mariana Islands, it is also the largest island in Micronesia. The median household income of $48,000 is the most of any territory and is comparable to Alabama and Louisiana.
Guam’s population is predominantly Asian and Pacific Islander. Its indigenous people, the Chamorro, comprise 37% of the population. The vast majority of its population is Christian, with Catholicism ranking as by far the largest denomination. English and Chamorro are the official languages. However, other languages like Filipino are commonly spoken.
Guam is well-known for its key military status and has an economy broadly based around tourism. During World War II, the island was occupied by Japan for 31 months. The Chamorro people were treated especially brutally; as many as 10% of the island’s population died during the war. July 31, the day the Japanese occupation ended, is celebrated as Liberation Day. Both parties have historically been successful here, but Democrats are currently dominant. The Governor and Delegate are both Democrats, and Democrats hold a 10-5 edge in the unicameral legislature.
Northern Mariana Islands
I’ve written about the Northern Mariana Islands before. They comprise the remaining islands in the Mariana Island chain. Initially, the islands wanted to rejoin Guam following World War II; however, after the failure of a referendum, they became a separate territory instead. 89% of the population resides on the capitol Saipan. In total, the islands have a population of nearly 54,000 people.
The islands are similar to Guam ethnically, linguistically, and in religious practice. Unlike Guam, the GOP dominates local politics. Republicans control both houses of the legislature as well as the Governor’s office. Democrats have virtually no representation of the territory at all. However, the Delegate to Congress for the CNMI is an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.
When you think of a territory, you likely think of Puerto Rico. With nearly 3.2 million people, the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico is larger than 19 states. San Juan, its capital and largest city, has a population of nearly 400,000 people. Puerto Rico’s population is almost entirely Hispanic and Spanish-speaking. While both English and Spanish are official languages, most Puerto Ricans speak Spanish at home.
In Puerto Rico, statehood isn’t just a debate: the entire political system is based around it. Republican and Democratic politics exist but are separate from the true fight. Currently, the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP) controls both the House and the Senate while the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party (PPD) is in the minority. A third party, the pro-independence Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), has a single seat in both Houses. The island has held multiple referendums on the subject, with another this November.
In general, most PPD members are Democrats while the PNP comprises both Republicans and Democrats. The Governor and Resident Commissioner – the Puerto Rican equivalent of a Delegate – are both PNP members that affiliate with the Republican Party. Many assume that Puerto Rico would favor the Democratic Party if it were to become a state. However, this is not a given; Puerto Rico politics don’t neatly fit into either party.
U.S. Virgin Islands
The U. S. Virgin Islands (USVI) are, as the name suggests, part of the Virgin Islands. Over 106,000 people reside in the USVI, with the majority living on the islands of St. Thomas and St. Croix. The capital, Charlotte Amalie, lies on St. Thomas and has a population of over 18,000 people. Roughly 60% of the USVI’s GDP comes from tourism, and its ports are frequently traveled.
Uniquely among the territories, the USVI has a predominantly black population; 76% identify as black or Afro-Caribbean. Hispanics make up 17% of the population (many of which also identify as black). English is the dominant language, but a sizable minority of the population speaks Spanish. 95% of the population are Christians, and most are Protestants.
The Democratic Party dominates politics on the USVI. Democrats hold 13 of 15 seats in the unicameral legislature, and both the Governor and Delegate are Democrats. Republicans have had poor luck making any inroads in the territory.
The Uninhabited Territories
The uninhabited territories are a scattering of minor islands across the Atlantic and Pacific. Historically, most of these islands were claimed under the Guano Islands Act. Several of the larger ones, like Wake Island, Johnston Atoll, and Midway Atoll, were or are home to military installations.
Today, most of these islands are wildlife refuges which the public generally cannot access. It is possible to schedule tours or visits, but with their remote locations and limited accommodations, this isn’t common.
- Baker Island – A small, uninhabited atoll midway between Hawaii and Australia. Attempts at colonization ended during World War II.
- Howland Island – A small, uninhabited coral island midway between Hawaii and Australia. The island may have been inhabited in the distant past, but by the time it was claimed in 1856 it was uninhabited. Attempts at colonization ended during World War II.
- Jarvis Island – A small, uninhabited coral island midway between Hawaii and the Cook Islands. Attempts at colonization ended during World War II.
- Johnston Atoll – An isolated atoll in the Pacific. As recently as 2000, it had a population of 1,100 individuals, all of which were military. Today, the atoll is uninhabited and abandoned. Attempts by the government to sell the island to private individuals have failed. This is likely due to the lack of power and water as well as the widespread presence of chemical and nuclear waste.
- Kingman Reef – A small, almost entirely submerged reef halfway between Hawaii and American Samoa. The highest point is only five feet above sea level.
- Midway Atoll – Geographically part of the Hawaiian islands, this atoll was where the famous Battle of Midway played out. Around 40 government employees reside on the island at any given time. Owing to its relative proximity to Hawaii, planes occasionally make emergency landings here.
- Navassa Island – A small island located between Cuba, Jamaica, and Hispaniola. Haiti claims the island but the United States administers it.
- Palmyra Atoll – A small atoll that is part of the Northern Line Islands. The atoll was once part of Hawaii but was separated before it became a state. Unlike most of the territories, visits are allowed with permission. However, its isolated nature makes it challenging to get to.
- Wake Island – A coral atoll roughly halfway between Toyko and Honolulu. The island is home to an active military base and has a population of around 100 people. Its airfield and base were recently expanded, owing to increasing tensions in the Pacific.
The United States territories represent the broadest reaches of the American empire. While most are barren, deserted islands and atolls, the inhabited territories represent a diverse group of locations and peoples. These territories, while distinct from the 50 states, are undoubtedly American and have been for many decades.
While Puerto Rico remains the giant of the bunch, Puerto Rican statehood alone would not resolve the problem of disenfranchised Americans. Whether or not you can justify adding a state with under 200,000 people or not is unclear. What’s clear, however, is that a permanent territorial system wasn’t intended to happen.