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  • The Insular Cases and the Emergence of American Empire
  • Laurel A. Monnig
The Insular Cases and the Emergence of American Empire, by Bartholomew H Sparrow. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006. ISBN paper, 978-0-7006-1482-0; ISBN cloth, 978-0-7006-1481-3; xii + 300 pages, notes, chronology, bibliographic essay, index. Paper, US$16.95; cloth, US$35.00.

This well-researched and very thorough book exposes the struggles of the early nineteenth century US Supreme Court to define a legal avenue for the United States to hold sovereignty over island territories occupied after the Spanish-American War of 1898. Through a detailed analysis of Supreme Court cases titled "The Insular Cases," which offer an often-overlooked [End Page 197] historical perspective, Sparrow gives the reader a rare glimpse into the mechanics of US colonial power. Sparrow demonstrates that it was this series of Supreme Court decisions over how to keep and rule these territories within the legal frame of the US Constitution that transformed "what the United States meant for constitutional purposes and for the US political system" (250).

This is a legal history of colonial power and of how the United States redefined itself as a nation, but it is neither ethnographic nor descriptive in its methodological or research focus. Because the book meticulously dissects US empire through constitutional cases and law, the inhabitants of the many US territories and colonies are almost completely lost, their voices only heard in brief descriptions of the constitutional cases.

The absence of colonized perspectives makes the book deficient in racial and cultural analyses and depth. But these facts should not diminish the importance of this work. After all, US colonialism at the very highest levels of theoretical power is interpreted and made, one ruling at a time, in the form of Supreme Court decisions. Thus, although the colonized are essentially invisible, the Insular Cases decisions, centered on theories of power and nation, have extreme consequence for the daily lives of the colonized. Colonial policies are based on these decisions and actuated on the ground.

The Insular Cases, Sparrow explains, were decided when the United States had a nascent overseas empire, still giddy with newfound notions of US sovereignty and wobbly on its colonial legs. Prior to 1898, historical precedent dictated a general pattern—"Every time the United States extended the domain of its sovereignty, the protections of the US Constitution followed"—in other words, the Constitution "followed the flag" (2). However, after both imperial Spain and the Hawaiian monarchy "lost" their island territories to the United States, the US Supreme Court began a momentous legal journey meant to sort out how these territories should relate to US constitutional law, and through the process delineated what the United States actually should be and look like as a nation-state. This journey was spurred because the United States as a colonial ruler was confronted with new experiences that moved the US administrations of the time into ambiguous landscapes. Never before had the United States been so poised to fulfill the desires of immense global (economic) power and influence, yet at the same time been so conflicted about those desires; never had the United States attempted to rule land that was not contiguous to its existing territory in such "remote" places; and never had the United States tried to tackle the dilemma of "governing" and potentially "incorporating" such large, seemingly "foreign," and far-off populations, while also attempting to enact such virulent racist hierarchies and ideals—all within the mythology of colonial benevolence.

Sparrow explores this legal process through nine chapters. In the first several chapters (including the introduction through chapter 3), Sparrow provides a historical and legal context of how the United States acquired the territories before the watershed [End Page 198] moments of 1898; how the United States envisioned and rationalized itself as a global empire; and how the United States tried to both claim and distance Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam, and Hawai'i according to its own interests. For those in the United States who desired US expansion, the newly acquired territories seemed to promise grand opportunities to create new markets and investments for US...


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pp. 197-200
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