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Territories of the United States


Portions of the United States that are not within the limits of any state and have not been admitted as states.

The United States holds three territories: American Samoa and Guam in the Pacific Ocean and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the Caribbean Sea. Although they are governed by the United States, the territories do not have statehood status, and this lesser legal and political status sets them apart from the rest of the United States.

The three U.S. territories are not the only U.S. government land holdings without statehood status. These various lands fall under the broad description of insular political communities affiliated with the United States. Puerto Rico in the Caribbean and the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean belong to the United States and have the status of commonwealth, a legal and political status that is above a territory but still below a state.

The United States also has a number of islands in the Pacific Ocean that are called variously territories and possessions. U.S. possessions have the lowest legal and political status because these islands do not have permanent populations and do not seek self-determination and autonomy. U.S. possessions include Baker, Howland, Kingman Reef, Jarvis, Johnston, Midway, Palmyra, and Wake Islands.

Finally, land used as a military base is considered a form of territory. These areas are inhabited almost exclusively by military personnel. They are governed largely by military laws, and not by the political structures in place for commonwealths and territories. The United States has military bases at various locations around the world, including Okinawa, Japan, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

A precise definition of territories and territorial law in the United States is difficult to fashion. The U.S. government has long been in the habit of determining policy as it goes along. The United States was established through a defensive effort against British forces and then through alternately defensive and offensive battles against Native Americans. From this chaotic beginning, the United States has struggled to fashion a coherent policy on the acquisition and possession of land.

The U.S. Constitution does not state exactly how the United States may acquire land. Instead, the Constitution essentially delegates the power to decide the matter to Congress. Article IV, Section 3, Clause 1, of the Constitution provides that "New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State shall be formed … by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress." The same section of the Constitution gives Congress the "Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States."

Under international law the United States and other nation-states may acquire additional territory in several ways, including occupation of territory that is not already a part of a state; conquest, where allowed by the international community; cession of land by another nation in a treaty; and accretion, or the growth of new land within a nation's existing boundaries.

Through various statutes and court opinions, Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court have devised a system that gives Congress and the president control over U.S. territories. Congress delegates some of its policy-making and administrative duties to the Office of Insular Affairs within the interior department. The president of the United States appoints judges and executive officers to offices in the territories. Congress devises court systems for the territories, and the Supreme Court may review decisions made by territorial courts.

Congress may pass laws governing a territory with due deference to the customs and sensibilities of the native people. Congress may not pass territorial laws that violate a fundamental constitutional right. Such rights have not been defined concretely by the Supreme Court in the context of territorial law, but they can include the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, the right to freedom of speech, and the rights to equal protection and due process (Torres v. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, 442 U.S. 465, 99 S. Ct. 2425, 61 L. Ed. 2d 1 [1979]).

Persons living in U.S. territories do not have the right to vote for members of Congress. They may elect their own legislature, but the laws passed by the territorial legislature may be nullified by Congress. Each territory may elect a delegate who attends congressional sessions, hearings, and conferences in Washington, D.C. These delegates may propose legislation and vote on legislation in committees, but they may not participate in final votes.

U.S. territories have less political power than do U.S. commonwealths. Commonwealths are afforded a higher degree of internal political autonomy than are territories. Congress and the commonwealth work together to fashion a political system that is acceptable to both parties. By contrast, Congress tends to impose its will on territories. Commonwealth status once inevitably led to statehood, but such a progression is no longer automatic.

further readings

Farrand, Max. 2000. The Legislation of Congress for the Government of the Organized Territories of the United States, 1789–1895. Buffalo, N.Y.: Hein.

Statham, Robert, Jr. 2002. Colonial Constitutionalism: The Tyranny of United States' Offshore Territorial Policy and Relations. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.

Van Dyke, Jon M. 1992. "The Evolving Legal Relationships between the United States and Its Affiliated U.S.-Flag Islands." University of Hawaii Law Review 14 (fall).


Louisiana Purchase; Territorial Courts.

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Territories of the United States


TERRITORIES OF THE UNITED STATES are those dependencies and possessions over which the United States exercises jurisdiction. Until the turn of the nineteenth century, American experience was almost exclusively directed to the creation of territorial governments within the continental United States. The force of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 set the precedent that territorial status was a step on the path to statehood, during which time residents of the territories maintained their citizenship and their protections under the Constitution. Alaska and Hawaii, admitted in 1959, were the last of the territories to become states and the only exceptions to the pattern of contiguity with existing states and territories. Although new states were admitted, in the twentieth century the United States entered an era when the appropriate destiny of its territorial acquisitions was not necessarily statehood.

For the Spanish possessions ceded to the United States in 1898, the peace treaty did not include the promise of citizenship found in earlier treaties of annexation. Subject only to the limitations of the Constitution, Congress was free to determine the political status and civil rights of the inhabitants. In the Insular Cases, decided in 1901, the Supreme Court held that Congress could distinguish between incorporated and unincorporated territories and that the full guarantees and restraints of the Constitution need not be applied to the latter. Congress uniformly chose to treat its new acquisitions as unincorporated territories and so enjoyed a flexibility not present in the earlier pattern of territorial government.

In common with other dependencies Puerto Rico was initially subject to military control, although this period was brief. Its inhabitants became U.S. citizens in 1917. Civil government with a gradual broadening of self-rule culminated in an act of Congress in 1950 that authorized Puerto Rico to formulate and adopt its own constitution, which came into effect in 1952. While commonwealth status is not the equivalent of statehood and did not terminate U.S. authority, the agreement that neither Congress nor the president should annul Puerto Rican legislation guaranteed the commonwealth the maximum degree of autonomy accorded to any of the territories.

The Virgin Islands were purchased from Denmark in 1917 and citizenship was conferred in 1927. By the early 2000s, the islands had become a popular vacation destination.

Guam did not attract significant attention until World War II, after which it became the site of major military installations. Guamanians became citizens in 1950, framed and adopted a constitution in 1969, and since 1970 have elected their governor as well as members of the legislature.

American Samoa became a distinct entity in 1899 and remained under the administration of the U.S. Navy until 1951. In 1960 a constitution was formulated with Samoan participation and was then accepted and promulgated by the secretary of the Interior.

With the exception of Guam, islands of the Caroline, Marshall, and Mariana groups have been held by the United States as trust territories under the United Nations since 1947. The trust agreement charges the United States with the development of the islands toward "selfgovernment or independence."


Carr, Raymond. Puerto Rico: A Colonial Experiment. New York: New York University Press, 1984.

Stevens, Russell L. Guam U.S.A.: Birth of a Territory. Honolulu: Tongg Publishing, 1956.

Taylor, Bette A. The Virgin Islands of the United States: A Descriptive and Historical Profile. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Library, Library of Congress, 1988.

Robert L. Berg / a. g.

See also Caroline Islands ; Guantanamo Bay ; Marshall Islands ; Midway Islands ; Paris, Treaty of (1898) ; Pribilof Islands ; Samoa, American ; Spain, Relations with ; Spanish-American War ; Teller Amendment .

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