Erman on the Gonzales v. Williams Case

Professor Sam Erman, author of Almost Citizens: Puerto Rico, the U.S. Constitution, and Empire (forthcoming from Cambridge University Press in October 2018), discusses the pivotal Gonzales v. Williams case that shaped the status of Puerto Rico and its citizens in the eyes of the United States government. A lightly edited transcription follows the video. You can read more about the book here.


The Gonzales v. Williams case is a Supreme Court decision from 1904 that began when a woman traveled from Puerto Rico to Ellis Island and she was stopped at Ellis Island as an alien who was undesirable for entry. She sued and said “I’m not an alien; I’m an American.” The argument was that you [the United States] annexed Puerto Rico in 1899 and that transformed all of us [residents of Puerto Rico] into Americans, and thus U.S. citizens. This was important, not primarily because of Puerto Rico, but because the U.S. had also annexed the Philippines–which was much larger and more populous and which most Americans considered to be much more racially “degraded” at the time (and so more of a threat). But Isabel Gonzalez, the woman who took this trip, was the test case. And what the Supreme Court decided was that she was not an alien—she was allowed to enter. But they didn’t decide if she was a citizen. And this was important (to my book, and to legal history more broadly) because it was part of a trend of how the Supreme Court dealt with the expansion of the United States into overseas islands in the early twentieth century. Rather than say that colonialism as a whole is okay, or say that we are not going to allow anything like colonialism in this country, the Supreme Court equivocated. So, in this case, they said, “well, you’re not an alien. We won’t decide if you’re a citizen.” That opened up the possibility that there were Americans who weren’t citizens—other than American Indians, which had always been a special case. And in other cases, the Supreme Court said “we’re going to say that there are places that maybe don’t have to become states,” which violated a longstanding rule that all U.S. territory other than the capitol was a state or would become a state. And they also said that there were Americans living in the United States with less than full constitutional rights. It had been thought, prior to 1898, that every American within U.S. jurisdiction had to have the full gamut of constitutional rights. So I use this case in order to try to illustrate how the Court uses strategies of evasion and ambiguity in order to kind of nudge the nation to a position that seems simultaneously to somewhat honor the constitution and to accommodate certain forms of empire.

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