The Insular Cases and the Emergence of American Empire

Bartholomew H. Sparrow

When the United States took control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam following the Spanish-American War, it was unclear to what degree these islands were actually part of the U.S. and, in particular, whether the Constitution applied fully, or even in part, to their citizens. By looking closely at what became known as the Insular Cases, Bartholomew Sparrow reveals how America resolved to govern these territories.

Sparrow follows the Insular Cases from the controversial Downes v. Bidwell in 1901, which concerned tariffs on oranges shipped to New York from Puerto Rico and which introduced the distinction between incorporated and unincorporated territories, to Balzac v. Puerto Rico in 1922, in which the Court decided that Puerto Ricans, although officially U.S. citizens, could be denied trial by jury because Puerto Rico was "unincorporated." There were 35 Insular Cases in all, cases stretching across two decades, cases in which the Court ruled on matters as diverse as tariffs, double jeopardy, and the very meaning of U.S. citizenship as it applied to the inhabitants of the offshore territories. Through such decisions, as Sparrow shows, the Court treated the constitutional status of territorial inhabitants with great variability and decided that the persons of some territories were less equal than those of other territories.

“A scholarly feat. Not only does Sparrow make the complex legal argument crystal clear, but he also delves deeply into the political and cultural factors underlying each opinion. . . . His work is also a study of empire, formal and informal, at the turn of the nineteenth century that he makes fascinatingly relevant to our own time.”

Journal of American History

“Sparrow’s research is exceedingly impressive. . . . He has written a learned and thematically probing commentary on thirty-five Supreme Court decisions that established the constitutional standing and legal rights of the inhabitants of the new territories. He carefully locates this analysis in the relevant racial, economic, and political contexts; informatively traces the Court’s changing composition and dynamics; and provides engaging biographical sketches of the justices. . . . The Insular Cases were central to governing Americas island empire acquired at the turn of the twentieth century, much of which remains in existence. . . . [This book] . . . certainly contributes to our understanding of the American justification for and practice of imperialism.”

Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era
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Sparrow traces the fitful evolution of the Court's Incorporation Doctrine in the determination of which constitutional provisions applied to the new territories and its citizens. Providing a new look at the history and politics of U.S. expansion at the turn of the twentieth century, Sparrow's book also examines the effect the Court's decisions had on the creation of an American empire. It highlights crucial features surrounding the cases—the influence of racism on the justices, the need for naval stations to protect new international trade, and dramatic changes in tariff policy. It also tells how the Court sanctioned the emergence of two kinds of American empire: formal territories whose inhabitants could be U.S. citizens but still be denied full political rights, and an informal empire based on trade, cooperative foreign governments, and U.S. military bases rather than on territorial acquisitions.

The Insular Cases and the Emergence of American Empire reveals how the United States handled its first major episode of globalization and how the Supreme Court in these cases, crucially redirected the course of American history.

About the Author

Bartholomew H. Sparrow is associate professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin. His previous books include The Louisiana Purchase and American Expansion, 1803-1898, coedited with Sanford Levinson, and From the Outside In: World War II and the American State.

Additional Titles in the Landmark Law Cases and American Society Series