• Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Supreme Court, in its decisions on various islands seized during the Spanish American War, determined the applicability of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to overseas territories.

The fourteen cases regarded as the Insular Cases arose out of the seizure of various island territories in the 1898 Spanish American War. Partisan political issues played a role in that the Democratic presidential candidate opposed the taking of these territories, and the Republicans defended their acquisition by the administration of Republican president William McKinley. McKinley’s decisive victory in the 1900 presidential campaign seemed to indicate broad support for the acquisition of these islands, and many believe it influenced the Court’s willingness to accommodate the administration with favorable rulings.Territories and new states;Insular Cases[Insular Cases]

In addition to partisanship, differing legal and historical concepts influenced the Court’s decisions. Historically, new territories eventually became states; however, many Americans believed that the newly acquired islands contained “savages” of other races who would never make suitable U.S. citizens. Also, deep in the background was the issue of the proper relationship of the Bill of Rights to states as well as territories under the initial incorporation theory of the Fourteenth Amendment as set out in Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad Co. v. Chicago[case]Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad Co. v. Chicago[Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad Co. v. Chicago] (1897) and Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railway Co. v. Minnesota[case]Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railway Co. v. Minnesota[Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railway Co. v. Minnesota] (1890).

The Supreme Court first disposed of the question of whether the United States could acquire territory by affirming the practice had a long history in De Lima v. Bidwell[case]De Lima v. Bidwell[De Lima v. Bidwell] (1901). The Court sidestepped certain other questions, such as taxing imports, by holding that congressional enactments on imports from foreign countries did not apply because the territories in question were no longer foreign nations. However, the question of taxes on exports to Puerto Rico was more complex. Normally, exports cannot be taxed, but as long as the military occupied the islands, a tax on exports was allowed under the federal government’s war powers. Once military occupation ended, the normal constitutional provisions would come into play. Either the islands were foreign and no export tax could be levied, or they were domestic and the duties would have to be “uniform within the United States” as required by Article I, section 8, of the U.S. Constitution. Justice Henry B. Brown, writing in Downes v. Bidwell[case]Downes v. Bidwell[Downes v. Bidwell] (1901), attempted to resolve this by reasoning that Puerto Rico was not “foreign” but also not a part of the “United States,” a term he said applied only to existing states. Justice Edward D. White, concurring with three other judges, found this view too narrow and held that the Constitution applied to a territory only after Congress had incorporated it.

Despite its ambiguity, Justice White’s formulation gradually became the accepted view. The island cases as a whole represent a confused and, at times, incoherent statement. The Court was clearly trying to give the federal government broad power over foreign affairs, but this had domestic consequences some of which continued to occupy the Court throughout the twentieth century.

Bill of Rights

Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad Co. v. Chicago

Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railway Co. v. Minnesota

Due process, procedural

Due process, substantive

Foreign affairs and foreign policy

Fourteenth Amendment

Incorporation doctrine

Territories and new states

Categories: History