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A Tale of Two Jones Acts

October 6, 2017

Because of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, more popularly known as the Jones Act, is a heated topic nowadays, with both conservative and liberal pundits calling it an “example of regressive regulation” as well as “obscure and protectionist”. But the Jones Act also has a lesser-known namesake, the Jones Act of the Philippines, enacted in 1916. How are they related? What caused these laws to be passed? And why are they still relevant today? In honor of Filipino American Heritage Month, this week’s feature article by Adrian Alarilla explores just that.

By the middle of the 19th century, the US had reached the limits of westward territorial expansion in continental America, and had growing imperialist notions. According to an essay by Thomas McCormick in the book “The Colonial Crucible” (edited by Alfred W. McCoy and Francisco A. Scarano), economic theories of the time posited that economic expansion was key to the maintenance of liberal capitalism in America, and since this expansion required political stability, it could only be obtained by the imposition of external power. After the US victory in the Spanish-American War in 1898, Spain seceded Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to the US. While Cuba gained formal independence from the US in 1902, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines remained unincorporated territories. The US saw the maintenance of these territories as central to its goal of economic penetration of heavily populated, emerging market areas such as Mexico and China. Thus the beginnings of what McCormick called an “informal empire,” the imperialism of free trade.

In this plan, the Philippines was going to be an “American Hong Kong”. However, it was soon realized that China was never stable or attractive enough to encourage systematic American initiatives. In addition, the colonial administration of the Philippines was perceived by ordinary Americans as a drain to national resources. Although the US government knew that it wanted to give the Philippines up eventually, there was still a debate as to when. To compromise, the Chairman of the House Committee on Insular Affairs, William Atkinson Jones, drafted the Philippine Autonomy Act, or the Jones Act. When it was passed in 1916, it became the first formal declaration of the US granting eventual independence to the Philippines. It also allowed both the lower and upper houses of the Philippine Legislature to be elected, therefore granting greater autonomy.

I think it’s interesting to note that it was also William Atkinson Jones who co-wrote the Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917, that granted US citizenship to Puerto Ricans, despite the entire Puerto Rican House of Delegates voting unanimously against it. This shows how differently the US thought about the Philippines and Puerto Rico. Whereas the Philippines may have been too distant, unwieldy, and unstable to be cost-effective, the smaller island territories of Guam and Puerto Rico may have been perceived to be more manageable. After losing Cuba, Puerto Rico became the American gateway to the Caribbean, as well as a source for cheap labor in the mainland. The US had to maintain its sphere of influence over Puerto Rico. One of the measures used to do so was the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, or the Jones Act. This law allowed only US citizen-owned ships constructed in the US and flying US flags to transport goods to US ports such as those in Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. Despite US notions of “imperialism by free trade”, this law was actually enacted to protect the US commerical shipping industry, very important at the time because of World War I and maritime blockades. Today, however, despite this legislation intended to nurture the US commercial shipping industry, only 2% of the world’s cargo is carried by US ships. But this has even more dire consequences in Puerto Rico, where the Jones Act prohibits receipt of goods from international relief ships.

These two Jones Acts show how American colonialism has developed through multiple trajectories, and that the effects of these colonial policies can still be felt today. Let us hope that our leadership today learns from our history, enough so that an age of foolishness can one day be transformed into an age of wisdom.