What Did Puerto Ricans Gain in 1917?

President Woodrow Wilson signed the 1917 act granting rights to Puerto Rico.
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Christopher Columbus made a practice of landing on islands and claiming them for Spain. In 1493, he landed on the small Caribbean island now known as Puerto Rico. Spain ruled until 1897, when it allowed Puerto Rico to create an autonomous government. Unfortunately, the Spanish-American War interfered. As a result, Spain was forced to cede Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines to the United States in 1898. Before Puerto Ricans had a chance to self-govern, they were under the control of another country. However, in 1917, the U.S. took a major step, granting Puerto Ricans more say in their government.

1 The Lead Up

In 1900, the Foraker Act established a local government on the island. While the American president appointed a governor, executive council and judges, Puerto Ricans elected members to their House of Representatives. Nine years later, the Olmsted Amendment was enacted because of a budget emergency in Puerto Rico. The amendment determined the consequences if Puerto Rico’s legislature didn’t agree on government spending: the budget from the previous year would automatically be carried over to the new year. This action wasn’t popular on the island, because residents wanted a greater voice.

2 Individual Rights

The Jones-Shafroth Act became law on March 2, 1917. Puerto Rico was made a territory of the U.S., and the island’s inhabitants became U.S. citizens. The citizenship was statutory -- not guaranteed -- because Congress granted it, not the Constitution. Basic civil rights found in the Constitution were promised to all citizens, such as the right to due process, which ensures fair treatment by the legal system. The right to a jury trial was not included, which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. As citizens, Puerto Ricans could join the U.S Army. Few volunteered. However, the U.S. entered World War I that same year, and more than 20,000 were drafted.

3 Home Rule

The 1917 act created two houses for the island’s legislature: a House of Representatives, with 39 seats, and a Senate, with 19. The island’s residents elected members to 4-year terms. The governor could veto any acts of the legislature, but, with a two-thirds vote, the legislature could override the veto. The island also got representation in Washington, D.C., though it was limited. They elected a commissioner who would work in the national capital, supporting their interests. However, the commissioner had no voting rights.

4 American Control

Even after the 1917 act, the U.S. retained a great deal of control over Puerto Rico. The president continued to appoint the island’s governor, executive council, attorney general, educational commissioner and judges. The Puerto Rican legislature could take any action they like, and even override the governor’s veto, but the president and Congress had the final say. The U.S. federal government also controlled much of the territory’s economy, as well as immigration, defense and post office policies.

Living in upstate New York, Susan Sherwood is a researcher who has been writing within educational settings for more than 10 years. She has co-authored papers for Horizons Research, Inc. and the Capital Region Science Education Partnership. Sherwood has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from the University at Albany.