On April 21, the Supreme Court rejected the right of United States citizens residing in the Caribbean to Supplemental Security Income (i.e., disability benefits), arguing that the Constitution and legal precedent, combined with a “long-standing historical practice,” barred residents of U.S. territories from accessing certain federal benefit programs.
The United States with territories perpetuates inequality and colonialism
Yet while we take it for granted that Caribbean islands such as Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. debates. One of the earliest examples of this came when the Lincoln administration attempted to annex what decades later became the US Virgin Islands.
As the Civil War drew to a close in 1865, new possibilities for expansion in the Caribbean emerged. The strengthened and growing American empire saw opportunities to establish a naval base at St. Thomas after Denmark’s hold on its West Indian “possessions” was weakened by an 1864 military defeat at the hands of Otto von Bismarck and his allies.
In addition to providing military benefits to the United States, Secretary of State William Seward believed that the benefits of a St. Thomas coal station would trickle down to the islanders. According to Seward, bringing St. Thomas into the “domain of the United States” would increase residents’ access to U.S. markets, protect their property, and give them the same benefits “enjoyed by other citizens.” Thus, on January 7, 1865, Seward attended a dinner in Washington where he met the Danish envoy, Waldemar Raasloff, to discuss a confidential proposal to purchase St. Thomas.
However, the shock of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865 and the attempt on Seward’s life that same evening considerably delayed the negotiations. When he returned to politics, Seward became politically connected to Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, and by extension embroiled in a battle with the Republican-controlled Congress that centered on federal reconstruction policies.
Seward, however, continued his work on Caribbean expansion and visited St. Thomas and several other West Indian islands in January 1866. By the summer the Secretary of State was ready to bid to Danish politicians for the purchase of Saint-Thomas, Sainte-Croix and Saint-Jean. The Danish envoy had suggested $20 million as a minimum amount, but since the islands, according to US military officials, could only be taken by force, the small European state lacked leverage. Seward, in turn, offered only “five million dollars in gold” and added that the negotiation was to be done “by treaty” and “would require constitutional ratification by the Senate”.
After another round of negotiations and Seward’s acquiescence in a referendum on the islands prior to annexation, the parties signed a treaty to transfer the islands of St. Thomas and St. John (St. Croix was strategically and commercially less important) in the United States. in exchange for $7.5 million in gold on October 24, 1867. The treaty seemed to benefit everyone, even the local population, who voted overwhelmingly for American annexation. Denmark got an economic boost, a plebiscite precedent for the transfer of territory that would help win back what became northern Germany, and an apparent success in foreign policy. The United States gained a naval base in the Caribbean, increased economic opportunities, and an expanded population.
Only Congressional ratification remained.
The Constitution gave the Senate the power to “advise and consent” on treaties, and figures such as Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Charles Sumner reasonably expected to be heard. Indeed, a few months earlier, Sumner had expressed the wish that the purchase of Alaska, in which a treaty had been negotiated without consultation of the Senate, would not create “a precedent”.
While Johnson spoke warmly of the acquisition of the West Indies in his third annual presidential address to Congress on December 3, 1867, domestic political tension escalated the following year, further undermining congressional support for ratification. On February 21, 1868, three days before the deadline for ratification of the Treaty of St. Thomas, Johnson removed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton from office. Shortly thereafter, between February 29 and March 3, 1868, the House of Representatives considered and – for the first time in American history – passed articles of impeachment against a sitting president. Although Johnson narrowly survived impeachment proceedings, the trial engulfed nearly all of the national political energy until mid-May and left little, if any, room for talks over the US-Danish treaty.
Still, Danish politicians and diplomats held on to hope for ratification and devoted significant, but bribe-free, resources to building support for the treaty in Congress. The Danish emissaries even commissioned a book, “The Danish Islands: Are We Honorbound to Pay Them?” which opened with Lincoln and Seward entering into negotiations to buy the Danish West Indies and a basic argument: American politicians had wanted to buy the islands, Denmark had reluctantly sold, now the only honorable course of action was to ratify the treaty sign.
Danish diplomats felt that the argument of honor resonated personally with Sumner, as he relied on his 1867 point that “once made a bargain must be kept” with respect to Alaska. Danish efforts, however, proved fruitless despite meetings with high-ranking American officials and two appearances before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in early 1869.
By then, support was also gone in the White House. Newly inaugurated President Ulysses S. Grant viewed the Treaty of St. Thomas as a plan of the previous administration and refused to support it, despite his own interest in annexing the West Indies.
The affair ended in 1870. At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting in March, Sumner objected to the imperialism inherent in visions of Caribbean expansion, which he saw as a distraction efforts to bring constitutional civil rights to the Reconstruction South, and his committee reported the Treaty of St. Thomas “against” the Senate. Sumner’s decision officially ended the process as “the Senate refused to ratify it”, and a Grant administration treaty to acquire Santo Domingo suffered the same fate in June 1870. Yet Republican Party support for Territorial growth remained strong though for years. was mainly limited to the American continent – where its policy of taking land was reinforced by several Homestead Acts after 1862.
Following the failure of Seward’s attempt at non-contiguous expansion, St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix declined, both demographically and economically. High mortality rates, especially among children, are exacerbated by poor working conditions and lack of access to medical care. In October 1878, low wages, caused by a rigid contract labor system, sparked widespread revolts among black farmworkers in St. Croix. The Danish authorities suppressed the uprising, known as the Fireburn Strike, solely through military force, which demonstrated their tenuous hold on the islands.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, when European powers such as Germany and France sought to establish themselves in the Caribbean, it revived American interest in the region. After the Spanish-American War, which resulted in the annexation of Puerto Rico (as well as Hawaii, Guam and the Philippines) in 1898, World War I provided the necessary additional impetus. In 1916, American emissaries and politicians, after hinting that St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix might be taken by force, successfully negotiated a treaty which, on March 31, 1917, transferred the islands to the United States.
The political atmosphere in the country had changed enough for the Senate to ratify the treaty. But as these Caribbean islands were established as US territory, it raised a whole new set of questions about how to deal with them — and their citizens. While much has changed over the course of a century, the fundamental issue of equal treatment for citizens of US territories has remained essentially the same.
The United States still has not fully integrated the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico or many other non-contiguous territories. Consequently, these relationships, as evidenced by the recent Supreme Court decision, continue to be more aligned with those of the colonial powers of the Old World than with Seward’s ideal of similar benefits enjoyed by all citizens.