Author Archive for
Sam Erman

Resurrecting Gonzales: Sam Erman Comments

by Sam Erman

[Sam Erman is a Ph.D. Candidate in American Culture and recent J.D. recipient at the University of Michigan]

The scholarly attention that Burnett devotes to Gonzales v. Williams (1904) is long overdue. The case is crucial to understanding the relationship between U.S. imperialism, U.S. citizenship, and the U.S. constitutional order in the early twentieth century. She shows us how in it voices at the center and at the periphery of the U.S. empire-state struggled over still-unsettled boundaries of U.S. citizenship, and how these struggles and the decision that resulted from them altered the U.S. constitutional system. The case, as I summarize below and discuss further elsewhere, is also an opportunity to integrate U.S. histories of race, immigration, gender, and empire into a single story and to explore how Isabel González’s struggle to preserve her individual honor launched a Supreme Court action seeking honor for her people. Burnett’s article suggests future inquiries too, most notably into relationships between international and constitutional law.

The insight that Gonzales merits scholarly attention owes much to Burnett’s efforts. Until recently, relatively few academics researched the Insular Cases, especially cases other than Downes v. Bidwell (1901). In 2001, in Foreign in a Domestic Sense, Burnett and Burke Marshall collected essays by many of the scholars who were grappling with the constitutional changes that resulted from the deliberate U.S. turn toward formal empire in the late nineteenth century. Four years later, in Untied States, Burnett questioned the scholarly conventional wisdom that portrayed Downes as establishing “that the Constitution did not ‘follow the flag.’” She showed that the case did not explicitly deny Puerto Ricans a panoply of constitutional rights. Instead Downes aided U.S. colonialism by perpetuating, “with slight modifications, an already ambiguous jurisprudence on the role of constitutional provisions in territories.” In many cases, it would be for future courts to say which constitutional provisions applied in Puerto Rico in what ways.

Gonzales matters because it gave the Supreme Court an opportunity to specify the citizenship status of Puerto Ricans at a time when the legal meaning of formal U.S. empire remained unsettled. As Burnett shows, in seeking to reconcile U.S. constitutional norms to U.S. empire, the Court departed from the conventional wisdom that the Fourteenth Amendment made U.S. citizenship and U.S. nationality coterminous. Instead, Gonzales introduced into U.S. legal culture—if not explicitly into U.S. case law—the category of non-citizen national.

The case was also an important chapter in the history of U.S. citizenship. As I have argued elsewhere, scholars too often conceive of U.S. citizenship either as an ahistorical ideal or as a stable, well-defined legal term that changed slowly. By contrast, Burnett observes how the lawyers for both parties stressed the plasticity of legal terms like citizenship. Their arguments demonstrated that both the content and distribution of U.S. citizenship remained contested long after the Fourteenth Amendment purported to settle both.

In Burnett’s hands, Gonzales also illustrates how the constitutional crisis and new constitutional order that U.S. empire produced did not merely result because empire created a difficult legal-analytical problem. Colonized peoples used U.S. forums to challenge actions and ideas of U.S. officials. For example, Burnett shows that Puerto Rican lawyer Federico Degetau was familiar with problems of formal empire that were new to the United States, having faced them repeatedly in prior political struggles under Spain. Those experiences shaped his arguments and claims before the Court and thereby altered the terrain upon which the Court ruled.

In a concurrent article this summer in the Journal of American Ethnic History, I argue that Gonzales also bears deeper scrutiny because it illuminates interrelationships between U.S. legal histories of race, gender, empire, and immigration. Turn-of-the-twentieth-century annexations did not occur in isolation. During those years federal courts sustained Chinese Exclusion, Jim Crow, and black disfranchisement. State courts continued to recognize aspects of coverture. And the federal political branches extended their control over American Indians via detribalization and allotment. Burnett describes Degetau’s efforts to demonstrate that Puerto Ricans were not racialized “semi savages” akin to “uncivilized native tribes.” I aim to show that other lawyers and litigants in Gonzales shared Degetau’s concern with the comparative capacity of Puerto Ricans, analogizing islanders to women, children, domestic U.S. minorities, and colonized peoples. As these advocates understood, the problem of the citizenship status of Puerto Ricans was inseparable from the many citizenship questions involving “dependent” and “unequal” populations in and around the United States.

The case also presents an opportunity to trace Isabel González’s trajectory from detained “alien” to Supreme Court litigant. Burnett explains how the pregnant González brought her judicial action after immigration authorities derailed her plans to find and marry the father of her unborn child by excluding her as an alien “likely to become a public charge.” I argue that in hearings at Ellis Island, González and her family focused not on citizenship, but on preserving González’s honor against a finding that threatened impugn her sexual propriety. Only after reaching court did González’s focus switch to the honor of all Puerto Ricans. While her appeal was pending, she found and married the man she had come to New York in search of, but she then hid the event, declining the public redemption and potential mooting of her case that disclosure could bring in favor of pressing her claim to U.S. citizenship for all Puerto Ricans. After the Court ruled, she wrote in published letters to the New York Times that the decision and surrounding events revealed a United States that failed to treat Puerto Ricans honorably, breaking promises to them and marking them as inferior to “full-fledged American citizens.”

Burnett’s essay also suggests future investigations. Though not her focus, she describes a case permeated by international law. González’s attorney was a prominent international-law lawyer; the U.S. attorney referenced European approaches to nationality; and Degetau was a Spanish-trained lawyer citing international-law documents. I hope I am not too forward in wishing that these initial observations by Burnett presage her more extended treatment of the relationship between Gonzales, international law, and the Constitution in future work.