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The Foraker Act: Definition, Summary & Significance

Instructor: Christopher Prokes

Chris is an instructional designer and college faculty member. He has a Master's Degree in Education and also umpires baseball.

In this lesson you will learn about the Foraker Act, a piece of Congressional legislation that set up a partially civilian-run government in Puerto Rico after the U.S. gained control of the island. It wasn't perfect, but it set a precent for how Puerto Rico is governed even today!

Beauty and Background

Thousands of travelers flock to the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico every year for vacation and tourism. It's elegant, relaxing, and beautiful. Many don't know that it was once controlled by Spain, and through military force, taken over by the U.S. in 1898. A partial civilian government was to be established and controlled by the United States. A civilian government refers to a government that is run by local citizens rather than citizens of the United States. This was achieved through the Foraker Act of 1900. Eventually, the law would be replaced, but it has a legacy of creating a relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico as a territory.

Manifest Destiny and Puerto Rico

Why did the U.S. get involved in the islands of the Caribbean? Not an easy question to answer. Let's just say that at one point, we believed it to be our destiny to control the Western Hemisphere. In fact, we called it manifest destiny. As such, our relationship was strained with European countries, especially Spain, who wanted a piece of the Western Hemisphere as well.

Puerto Rico, a beautiful island nation
Puerto Rico

To illustrate manifest destiny, you might know of the Panama Canal. It is obviously not part of the U.S., but we sought to influence its construction, and eventually we controlled it. We also used our military to get Spain out of Cuba in the late 1890s. During that time, we also invaded Puerto Rico to get the Spanish out.

Less than month is all it took for the U.S. to take over Puerto Rico. A treaty would be signed with Spain giving up the island along with others, such as Guam. Native residents were thrilled to see the Spanish go. One of their biggest problems with Spain was that they wanted independent control. They frequently reminded Spain how they did not fight against their colonial controllers as other islands had, like Cuba. To them, this justified governing themselves.

The Foraker Act

The idea of self-government was a dream to Puerto Ricans under U.S. control, just as it had been under Spain. The U.S. imposed military governments at first. In 1900, that stopped, but the U.S. didn't just walk away; Puerto Rico was vital for economic success. The U.S. wanted to control the island's economy and its trade with other nations. This would ensure viability of the American economy.

Raising the American flag after U.S. takeover.
Raising the American flag

Enter the Foraker Act of 1900. This legislative piece created a local government for Puerto Ricans, giving them what they wanted. Well, sort of. There would be a governor of the island who would be guided and directed by a two-part legislative branch, just like the U.S. Congress. This executive would have all of the power. Puerto Ricans were to be citizens of Puerto Rico, too, not of the U.S. Additionally, certain voters would elect a Resident Commissioner that was allowed into the U.S. House of Representatives, though he or she had no voting or speaking power.

Senator Joseph Foraker (Ohio), sponsor of the Foraker Act
Senator Foraker

Sounds great to Puerto Rico and its people, right? After all, they did want to control their own country. Yet there was a caveat to this set up: The U.S. would appoint the governor and one of the chambers of the legislature. The other chamber was to be elected by the people. There would also be a Supreme Court on Puerto Rico. Essentially, a good part of the new government would be controlled indirectly by the U.S., whose interests were going to be protected. So, while Puerto Rico would have a new government, the citizens only partially controlled it.

Changes to the Foraker Act

Many Puerto Ricans were unhappy with this new law, even though it was better than being under Spanish control. Opposition groups were formed by both Puerto Ricans and some politicians in the U.S. Though part of the government was controlled by citizens, the fact that the U.S. had its hand in the game meant full control would never happen. How could they truly be independent with the U.S. breathing down their necks?

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