The origins of the legal framework of U.S. overseas expansion can be traced to a largely forgotten mid-nineteenth campaign to secure a sprinkling of remote oceanic islands for the benefit of American commerce and industry. These "guano islands," which promised American farmers cheap and nearly miraculous fertilizer (in the form of deep deposits of seabird droppings), aroused enormous public passion in an agricultural nation poised to become a global power. Could the United States acquire these islands? If so, were they "part of the United States"? Who had jurisdiction over them, and what were the implications for the Constitution and the law of nations? This essay offers a legal history of the relationship between American-claimed guano islands and the United States. Examining American efforts to take control over guano islands in the nineteenth century, and to make sense of their legal status, the essay uses the story of these islands to shed light on more familiar features of American territorial expansion and imperialism. Not only were the meanings of specific terms central to the jurisprudence of the post-1898 American empire codified in the legal wranglings over guano islands, so too were larger principles of extra-territorial jurisdiction. In the end, the episode sheds light on a significant dynamic in the law of empire: expansions of power may be attended by legal retrenchments; from the nineteenth century through to the twentieth, the plus ultra of the flag and the creative inertia of the law mutually reinforce colonial ambitions.


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pp. 779-803
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