The Northwest Ordinance…in space?

With the GOP Presidential Primaries behind us and the candidates no longer courting votes from the US Territories in their quest for the nomination, the issue of statehood will probably disappear again from the campaign trail for another four years.

That is, unless, Mitt Romney bucks common sense and for some reason selects former House Speaker Newt Gingrich as his running mate.

You may remember that Gingrich made headlines when the primaries were in full swing for some remarks he made on statehood. It wasn’t his comments on Puerto Rico that grabbed headlines—that honor went to Rick Santorum who falsely claimed that the territory would have to adopt English (and only English) as its official language for Statehood to be a legal possibility.

Instead, Gingrich made headlines for his grandiose plan to colonize the moon and then admit Earth’s celestial cousin to the Union as the 51st state.

That’s right, Gingrich has taken up the cause of statehood for the moon—population zero—while places like Puerto Rico and the District of   would actually welcome a serious national discussion on such a proposal.

Gingrich, who is known equally for his grandiose thoughts as he is for his knowledge of US history, even went so far to propose a “Northwest Ordinance for Space” to guide the moon’s accession and other future space colonies into the Union.

For those who don’t remember this from US History class, the Northwest Ordinance was the Congressional Act that first defined a process for organizing territories and creating new states. Thomas Jefferson wrote it in the 1780’s to outline a way for Congress to establish temporary federal control of the Northwest Territory–the frontier region east of the Mississippi and north of the Ohio River that the United States acquired from Great Britain in1783–and then create several new states from this sparsely populated land.

Under the process defined by the Ordinance, the President was to appoint a governor and other government officers to administer the Northwest Territory on the federal government’s behalf. Once 5,000 “free male inhabitants of full age” had settled in the area, a territorial legislature could be elected and a constitution drawn up. Finally, when 60,000 free inhabitants had settled in particular portions of the territory, Congress was to carve up the territory further and admit the regions that met the above-mentioned criteri as states to the Union “on an equal footing with the original States in all respects…”

As states and new territories grew out of the old Northwest Territory, it soon became apparent that Congress had at its disposal a method with which to guide the country’s territorial growth as national leaders cast their eyes west.

Unsurprisingly, the Northwest Ordinance guided the creation of all or parts of the 21 states that were carved out of the vast Louisiana Territory that the United States  obtained from France in 1803. Congress followed these same steps to guide Florida Territory, ceded by Spain to the United States in 1819, on the path to statehood. (In recent years, especially since the 2000 election fiasco,academics have scoured the text of the ordinance to see if there’s a mechanism to devolve Florida’s statehood and give it back to Spain. Unfortunately, none exists.) The same was done for done for the land that was carved out of Oregon Territory and turned into states after 1846.

By the late 19th century,admitting new states to the Union under the process laid down in the Northwest Ordinance had become ubiquitous. Some territories took longer to reach statehood than others (New Mexico, portions of which were acquired via the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, wasn’t admitted to the Union until 1912, whereas California only spent about two years as a Territory), but all land acquired by the United States between 1787 and 1852 was eventually transformed into the lower 48 states, more or less guided by the Northwest Ordinance.

However nowhere in the Constitution does it say that any of this need occur, or that newly-acquired territories ever be admitted to the Union as states at all. Article IV of the Constitution grants sole responsibility for organizing new possessions into territories, but there is nothing that says new territories must at some point be transformed into states. Congress, if it should so choose, could sit on its hands and do nothing about statehood in newly-acquired territories, be they on the Moon or elsewhere.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened when the United States began acquiring populated island territories thousands of miles from American shores in 1898 as a result of the Spanish-American War. Under the terms of the peace settlement with Spain, the United States acquired a handful of Spanish colonial outposts, including Puerto Rico and Guam.

But unlike the sparsely-populated lands of the American west that were added to the American domain throughout the 19th century,the insular possessions that the United States acquired during the Spanish-American War were populated by thousands of non-white, non-English speaking residents. Owing to the racial and cultural prejudices of the day,Congress undoubtedly believed that the inhabitants of these new American possessions were unfit for American citizenship, and probably never seriously considered their islands and island groups as eventual candidates for statehood. Former president Benjamin Harrison lamented the nature of American overseas expansion, saying that the  United States had “done something out of line with American history, not in the matter of territorial expansion, but in the character of it.”

Congress’ decision to hold these places in perpetuity as territories without setting them on the path to statehood was endorsed by the US Supreme Court in a series of early 20th century cases known as the Insular Cases. Perhaps the most noteworthy concept to emerge from these cases was the idea that the US Constitution need not apply in full to possessions like Puerto Rico or Guam, or, eventually, American Samoa, the US Virgin Islands, or the Northern Mariana Islands. Instead, Congress has the ability to create law within territories in certain circumstances—particularly pertaining torevenue—that the Constitution would not allow for for states within the Union. And so the situation has remained for the better part of a century.

So it was odd to hear Newt Gingrich talk about statehood for his imaginary moon colony as millions of real, non-lunar Americans are today without states of their own. To hear Gingrich propose reviving the Northwest Ordinance for this task was especially troubling, given that Congress decided to throw the Northwest Ordinance’s precepts out the window rather than face the prospect of admitting minority-majority territories into the Union on an equal footing with the states.

At best, statehood advocates outside the continental US saw Gingrich’s musings the way the media and most mainlanders did, as Gingrich espousing yet another ridiculous but ultimately dead-end idea. At worst, it was a reminder of the horrible prejudice and racial policies that prevented the spirit of Manifest Destiny from being applied to the insular possessions in the first place.


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