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Almost Citizens
Puerto Rico, the U.S. Constitution, and Empire

Part of Studies in Legal History

  • Author: Sam Erman, University of Southern California
  • Publication planned for: October 2019
  • availability: Not yet published - available from
  • format: Paperback
  • isbn: 9781108401494

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  • Almost Citizens lays out the tragic story of how the United States denied Puerto Ricans full citizenship following annexation of the island in 1898. As America became an overseas empire, a handful of remarkable Puerto Ricans debated with US legislators, presidents, judges, and others over who was a citizen and what citizenship meant. This struggle caused a fundamental shift in constitution law: away from the post-Civil War regime of citizenship, rights, and statehood, and toward doctrines that accommodated racist imperial governance. Erman's gripping account shows how, in the wake of the Spanish-American War, administrators, lawmakers, and presidents together with judges deployed creativity and ambiguity to transform constitutional meaning for a quarter of a century. The result is a history in which the United States and Latin America, Reconstruction and empire, and law and bureaucracy intertwine.

    • Provides a gripping, detailed account of the US decision to annex Puerto Rico in 1898
    • Focuses on largely unknown historical figures who played central roles in the history of US constitutionalism
    • Reveals the roots of a key exception to a doctrine that remains at the center of political debate in the United States today
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    Reviews & endorsements

    'More than a century after the United States announced its rise to world power by vanquishing Spain in the 'splendid little war' of 1898 and acquiring distant island possessions, the American colonial experiment in Puerto Rico endures as a test of the promise of American citizenship. Sam Erman reconstructs the first years of this experiment, exploring the understandings and misunderstandings that led Congress to grant citizenship and an elected legislature to the people of Puerto Rico in 1917. His deeply researched narrative sheds new light on how the destinies of the United States and its new colony became intertwined - a process that prefigured the continuing clamor for full and equal United States citizenship for the Puerto Ricans.' José A. Cabranes, United States Circuit Judge and author of Citizenship and the American Empire

    'Erman's exploration of debates over the annexation and governance of Puerto Rico tells a powerful and long-overlooked story of constitutional transformation.' Christina Duffy Ponsa-Kraus, author of Foreign in a Domestic Sense

    'Erman tells the story of Puerto Rico and the invention of a new constitutional category - 'unincorporated territories' - in a compelling narrative that interweaves politics, constitutional controversy, and the lives of Puerto Rican activists.' John Witt, Yale University, Connecticut

    'Sam Erman's superb book illuminates the political and constitutional origins of the world's largest colony, Puerto Rico. His deep research and lively writing provide a ready, and altogether chastening, explanation for the fact that, a full century after the Jones Act awarded citizenship to all Puerto Ricans, all too many mainlanders, including the President, scarcely credit the reality that the island and its beleaguered citizens are truly part of a united American community with equal entitlement to our solicitude.' Sanford Levinson, author of An Argument Open to All: Reading 'The Federalist' in the 21st Century

    'Almost Citizens shows off both [Erman's] range and his substantial chops as a historian: the book is deeply researched and densely footnoted, but Erman's writing is also lively and lucid, and he has an eye for catchy stories and compelling characters. Most importantly, he has recovered a crucial history of the struggle over democracy, rights, race, and gender in America, a set of conflicts we have not left behind.' Andrew Lanham, The New Republic

    'This book by a US law professor about the fate of Puerto Rican aspirations to citizenship and then to statehood after the 1898 annexation up until this day, proves revealing … 'The empire that dared not speak its name' - as Erman says, with a certain grace - was characterized by ambiguity and inconsistency, sending equivocal signals and resisting the constitutional provisions for equal rights and the calls for statehood. US triumphalism and racism has prevailed at the expense of inclusive, democratic impulses.' El Nuevo Dia

    'Erman melds meticulous archival research with the acuity of a serious constitutional lawyer in tracing his constitutional history of empire.' Jedidiah Kroncke, The Journal of Things We Like (Lots)

    'In the US, citizenship is almost meaningless, and Constitutional protections are even less significant. In 1899, access to the benefits of the US was controlled by those in power rather than guaranteed by American founding documents. Almost Citizens traces the development of legal thought and application in the US transition from post-Civil War recovery to imperial power. … the American civilizing mission was undergirded by Democrats' racism; Republicans' hollow commitments to liberty; varying Puerto Rican goals of protection, citizenship, statehood, and independence; and American insecurity in the face of new imperial opponents. This toxic mixture enabled lawmakers to promise and reject citizenship almost simultaneously, while the Supreme Court actively carved a trail of ambiguity, leaving Congress and the executive branch to craft a piecemeal imperial policy. Erman's detailed analysis of American colonial administration and legal argument makes for a distressing, fascinating read. Recommended.' J. L. Meriwether, Choice

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    Product details

    • Publication planned for: October 2019
    • format: Paperback
    • isbn: 9781108401494
    • dimensions: 229 x 152 mm
    • contains: 9 b/w illus.
    • availability: Not yet published - available from
  • Table of Contents

    Introduction
    1. 1898: 'The constitutional lion in the path'
    2. The Constitution and the new US expansion: debating the status of the Islands
    3. 'We are naturally Americans': Federico Degetau and Santiago Iglesias pursue citizenship
    4. 'American aliens': Isabel Gonzalez, Domingo Collazo, Federico Degetau, and the Supreme Court, 1902–1905
    5. Reconstructing Puerto Rico, 1904–1909
    6. The Jones Act and the long path to collective naturalization
    Conclusion.

  • Author

    Sam Erman, University of Southern California
    Sam Erman is Associate Professor at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law.

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