Guest Essayist: Daniel A. Cotter


To date, fifty states have been admitted to the United States, with the last one, Hawaii, having been admitted on August 21, 1959.  However, in addition to the states, the United States has a number of major territories, including American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The Establishment of a United States Territory and Its Governance

As many of the essays after the first states’ ratification of the Constitution have described, the way to statehood has typically been through first being a territory or part of a territory, and then seeking statehood.  A territory is established by the passage of an organic act to organize it. Many have been enacted by Congress over the nation’s history, with the first being the Northwest Ordinance, passed in 1787 by the Continental Congress.

Current Major Territories and History

Currently, the United States has five major U.S. territories: American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Each such territory is partially self-governing that exists under the authority of the U.S. government.

Pursuant to the Organic Act of 1900, or Foraker Act, Puerto Rico became a territory of the United States. Puerto Rico became a possession pursuant to the Spanish-American War.  It has been a territory since that act passed.  It has often been mentioned as a new state, but no serious effort has been made by Congress.

Pursuant to the Organic Act of the Virgin Islands of the United States of 1936, the United Stated added the U.S. Virgin Islands to its territories.  In 1950, Guam became a territory pursuant to the Guam Organic Act of 1950.  In 1954, the Revised Organic Act of the Virgin Islands replaced the original 1936 act.

The Northern Mariana Islands have been administered by the United States since Japan surrendered in World War II, pursuant to Security Council Resolution 21.  The people of the Islands have by referendum voted to join with Guam, but in 1969, Guam rejected the proposal. American Samoa has no organic act, and as such is considered unorganized.  Despite that, American Samoa has remained connected to the United States. In addition to the five major territories, the United States has a number of other territories that are uninhabited.

Limitations of Territories

Territories are not states and do not have full recognition that states enjoy.  Notwithstanding not being states, each territory can send a delegate to the House of Representatives. With the exception of American Samoa, whose residents are U.S. nationals, those in the other four territories are U.S. citizens. Citizens of the territories can vote in primary elections for president, but they cannot vote in the general elections for president.

In 2016, the Supreme Court of the United States held, in Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle, 579 U.S. ___ (2016), that territories do not have sovereignty.  In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the Puerto Rico governor and others argued that the territories were powerless and had little understanding or support.  As noted, they send delegates to the House, but have no vote, and cannot vote in the general election for president, despite being citizens in four of the five territories.  While they have some self-governance, they do not have sovereignty, and the reality is that there are significant limitations when a land is a territory rather than a state.


In our nation’s history, many of the states that today constitute the fifty were originally territories or parts of larger territories.  Thirty-one territories or parts have eventually become states.  For example, from the Missouri Territory, we have Missouri, and then from the unorganized territory once Missouri became a state, we later had Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota, most of Kansas, Wyoming, and Montana, and parts of Colorado and Minnesota become states.

Dan Cotter is a partner at Latimer LeVay Fyock LLC and an adjunct professor at The John Marshall Law School, where he teaches SCOTUS Judicial Biographies. His book, “The Chief Justices,” (April 2019, Twelve Tables Press), is available now. He is also a past president of The Chicago Bar Association. The article contains his opinions and is not to be attributed to anyone else.

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6 replies
  1. Publius Senex Dassault
    Publius Senex Dassault says:

    This essay evokes several questions:

    1. What advantages does the USA have leaving these as territories? Taxation w/o …
    2. What disadvantages are the placed upon the USA with the territories?
    3. Why don’t we move to make them States? Diluted power for current Legislature? Higher government liabilities – share existing revenues with more citizenry?



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