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The Insular Cases | Past & Present

The Insular Cases are a series of U.S. Supreme Court cases decided in 1901 concerning the status of U.S. territories and their peoples acquired by the United States in the Spanish-American War.

While relatively unknown to most Americans today, these cases speak to important issues of equality, citizenship, and sovereignty in the U.S. territories that resonate more than 100 years later.           

In 1898, the United States signed the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Spanish-American War. Originally, the United States entered into war with Spain to help its southern neighbor, Cuba, secure independence. While Cuba remained independent, the United States acquired the remaining Spanish territories of the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. However, acquiring territories proved controversial for the once-colonial nation.

In 1901, the Supreme Court heard the original six cases that comprise the Insular Cases, and attempted to answer the question of whether the Constitution follows the flag.

In DeLima v. Bidwell (1901), the DeLima Sugar Company in Puerto Rico sued New York state’s customs collector to recover duties levied against the company’s imported sugar. In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that Puerto Rico was not a foreign country, but a territory of the United States, and therefore, the tariff laws that applied to foreign goods were invalid for sugar shipped from Puerto Rico or other U.S. territories.

While the details of the original six cases deal with economic and diplomatic procedural issues between the United States and the territories, they also establish a cultural and social relationship founded in the beliefs that democracy and colonization are compatible and that white Americans are superior with paternalistic responsibilities toward territorial peoples. In 24 subsequent cases adjudicated throughout the 20th century, the court reaffirms this racist and paternalistic relationship, incompatible with full citizenship and equal rights, that leaves American citizens in the U.S. territories with limited constitutional rights.

Dr. Robin C. Henry holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Indiana University and is an associate professor in the history department at Wichita State University. Her research examines the intersections among sexuality, law, and regional identity in the 19th- and early 20th-century United States.