Jones Act of 1917

Through passage of the Jones Act of 1917, the United States formed a unique and permanent relationship with the overseas territory of Puerto Rico.

Summary of Event

On December 10, 1898, the Treaty of Paris Paris, Treaty of (1898) between Spain and the United States ended the Spanish-American War and set forth terms that became effective April 11, 1900. The agreement transferred the control of Puerto Rico from Spain to the United States, thereby legitimating the occupation of the island and its satellites by U.S. forces. One of the provisions of the Treaty of Paris was as follows: “The civil rights and the political status of the native inhabitants of the territories hereby ceded to the United States shall be determined by the Congress.” The natives of Puerto Rico, no longer subjects of the Spanish crown, now found themselves without any citizenship recognized under international law or U.S. domestic law. Jones Act (1917)
Puerto Rico;relationship with U.S.
Organic Act (1917)
[kw]Jones Act of 1917 (Mar. 2, 1917)
[kw]Act of 1917, Jones (Mar. 2, 1917)
[kw]Jones Act of 1917 (Mar. 2, 1917)
Jones Act (1917)
Puerto Rico;relationship with U.S.
Organic Act (1917)
[g]United States;Mar. 2, 1917: Jones Act of 1917[04230]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Mar. 2, 1917: Jones Act of 1917[04230]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Mar. 2, 1917: Jones Act of 1917[04230]
Foraker, Joseph Benson
Atkinson Jones, William
McKinley, William
Munoz Rivera, Luis
Wilson, Woodrow
[p]Wilson, Woodrow;Jones Act (1917)

The Organic Act of 1900 Organic Act (1900) (also known as the Foraker Act, Foraker Act (1900) for its sponsor, Senator Joseph Benson Foraker) established a political entity called the People of Porto Rico (Puerto Rico), but it made no mention of U.S. citizenship for those born on the island, only that they would be “held to be citizens of Porto Rico, and as such entitled to the protection of the United States.” Puerto Ricans were now stateless, essentially confined to their island because of the difficulty of traveling across national borders without a passport. The U.S. Supreme Court, in cases such as Downes v. Bidwell (1901), confirmed that Puerto Rico was merely a possession of the United States, not an incorporated territory, to be disposed of by the U.S. Congress.

The reelection of William McKinley to the U.S. presidency in 1900 favored U.S. imperial expansion. Nevertheless, the debate as to whether racially, culturally, and linguistically distinct peoples brought under U.S. control should be granted U.S. citizenship and, if so, with what rights continued intermittently between 1900 and 1916. In 1916, the Philippines, also seized by the United States from Spain in the war, was promised independence by the Organic Act of the Philippine Islands, also known as the Jones Act (for its sponsor, Representative William Atkinson Jones). The Organic Act of 1917 (the Jones Act of 1917) did not similarly grant independence to Puerto Rico, but it did confer U.S. citizenship collectively on the natives of the island. Although the 1917 Jones Act changed the status of Puerto Ricans from that of U.S. nationals—noncitizens, but owing allegiance to and subject to the protection of the United States—the granting of citizenship did not give the islanders the right to vote in U.S. federal elections because the territory fell short of statehood. In the case of Balzac v. Porto Rico (1922), Balzac v. Porto Rico (1922) the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that as citizens of an unincorporated territory, the islanders enjoyed only fundamental provisions in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution, not procedural or remedial rights such as the guarantee of trial by jury.

The extent to which Puerto Ricans participated in the debate relating to their prospective status between 1900 and 1917 remains a matter of conjecture. For one thing, the spokesmen for the Puerto Rican community—such as Resident Commissioner Luis Muñoz Rivera and the Puerto Rican House of Delegates (the local legislature)—were ambivalent and contradictory on the subject. For another, much of the evidence placed before the Congress about the Puerto Ricans’ preferences during the drawn-out debate was impressionistic and anecdotal rather than objective. Accordingly, while some U.S. legislators talked of the yearnings, longings, and aspirations of Puerto Ricans to citizenship, critics claim that citizenship was pressed on the islanders. It has also been charged that members of Congress were not unaware of the expediency of acquiring additional recruits for military service only weeks before President Woodrow Wilson sought a declaration of war on Germany on April 4, 1917.

Whatever the truth, making Puerto Ricans native U.S. citizens and the establishment of a seemingly permanent political link between the United States and Puerto Rico by the Jones Act of 1917 contrasted with the creation of an articulately temporary relationship between Washington, D.C., and the Philippines. In fact, the defining of the latter’s status under the 1916 Jones Act catalyzed the following year’s Jones Act relating to Puerto Rico. The racist comments that peppered the congressional debates were infinitely harsher as they related to Filipinos, partly because of the Philippines’ spirited resistance to U.S. occupation, than in regard to Puerto Ricans, who were much more receptive to occupation. Some legislators even produced statistics to “prove” that a high percentage of the islanders were white in order to justify their being granted U.S. citizenship.

The final version of the 1917 Jones bill, introduced in the House on January 20, 1916, was only slightly different from Congressman Jones’s earlier versions. The only noteworthy change was that Puerto Ricans residing on the island were allowed one year instead of six months to reject U.S. citizenship if they desired. The House passed the bill by voice vote on May 23, 1916, the Senate approved it on February 20, 1917, and the House-Senate Conference Committee followed suit on February 24, 1917. President Wilson, a Democrat, signed it into law on March 2, 1917.


Only 288 Puerto Ricans legally declined to accept U.S. citizenship within the statutory period set by the act, thereby losing their right to hold or run for any public office on the island. Because the Jones Act established five different categories in determining the status of different individuals, great confusion followed passage of the act regarding who qualified for citizenship. In the interest of administrative simplification, the U.S. Congress subsequently passed several additional related laws.

In 1952, the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico became the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, known in Spanish as a “free associated state.” As such, Puerto Rico elected a nonvoting representative to the U.S. Congress but cast no vote in presidential, congressional, or senatorial elections. Although islanders paid no federal taxes, the aid that Puerto Rico received from Washington was less than it would have received had it been a state.

On November 14, 1993, a nonbinding referendum—the result of which President Bill Clinton nevertheless pledged to respect—was held in Puerto Rico regarding the island’s future status. Of the 2.1 million Puerto Ricans who voted, 48.4 percent opted for continued commonwealth status, 46.2 percent voted for statehood, and 4.4 percent favored independence. The vote spread between the first two options had narrowed drastically since an earlier referendum in 1967. Another referendum in 1998 demonstrated that the split in opinion remained stable. Just above 50 percent voted for a “none of the above” option on the ballot, whereas 46.5 percent voted for U.S. statehood and 2.5 percent voted for independence, indicating that a very slight majority of voters were essentially in favor of the status quo. The issue of Puerto Rico’s status—and thus the nature of the citizenship of the islanders—was far from over. It now was up to Puerto Ricans themselves, increasingly aware of their Latino roots, to decide their own political future. Jones Act (1917)
Puerto Rico;relationship with U.S.
Organic Act (1917)

Further Reading

  • Burnett, Christina Duffy, and Burke Marshall, eds. Foreign in a Domestic Sense: Puerto Rico, American Expansion, and the Constitution. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2001. Collection of essays by legal scholars focuses on the constitutional issues involved in Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. territory.
  • Cabán, Pedro A. Constructing a Colonial People: Puerto Rico and the United States, 1898-1932. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999. Economic history examines the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico from its beginnings in 1898, drawing on policy papers, speeches, memoirs, and other documents of the time. Chapter 6 discusses the Jones Act.
  • Cabranes, Jose A. Citizenship and the American Empire: Notes on the Legislative History of the United States Citizenship of Puerto Ricans. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979. A well-annotated, objective account, by a law professor of Puerto Rican extraction, of how Congress decided that the distinct people of a colonial territory should be made U.S. citizens.
  • De Passalacqua, John L. A. “The Involuntary Loss of United States Citizenship upon Accession to Independence by Puerto Rico.” Denver Journal of International Law and Policy 19, no. 1 (Fall, 1990): 139-161. A short discussion of the Jones Act of 1917 is included in this article on the effect that independence would have on the legal status of Puerto Ricans.
  • Gatell, Frank O. “The Art of the Possible: Luis Muñoz Rivera and the Puerto Rico Jones Bill.” The Americas 17, no. 1 (July, 1960): 1-20. Discusses how the resident commissioner from Puerto Rico in Washington, D.C., fought to liberalize the Jones bill while it was debated in Congress but without his Unionist Party’s radical proindependence stand.
  • Karst, Kenneth L. Belonging to America: Equal Citizenship and the Constitution. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989. Argues that equal citizenship for cultural minorities who have experienced exclusion, forced conformity, and subordination under the influence of U.S. nativism has become more topical over the years.

Insular Cases

Philippines Ends Its Uprising Against the United States

United States Begins “Dollar Diplomacy”

Philippine Independence Act