The Crisis of 1909, and the Other Crisis of 1909

The Crisis of 1909, and the Other Crisis of 1909

The Crisis of 1909, and the Other Crisis of 1909

Christina Duffy Ponsa*

Christina Duffy Ponsa

Christina Duffy Ponsa

It happened in 1909, the first year of William Howard Taft’s term as President of the United States and the tenth year of the colonial regime established in Puerto Rico by the U.S. Congress under the “Foraker Act” of 1900.[1] It was the spring of that year, as the legislative session of Puerto Rico’s House of Delegates, the elected house of the legislature, drew to a close. Several months earlier, the newly elected Luis Lloréns Torres had proposed that the House refuse to enact legislation until the United States recognized Puerto Rico’s right of self-government.[2] Although Lloréns spoke for a “radical” faction in the House, his discontent with U.S. colonial rule was widely shared by Puerto Ricans across the political spectrum, as it had been since the Foraker Act had subjected them to a colonial regime headed by a U.S.-appointed Governor and Executive Council vested with the power to reject legislation passed by the elective House—a power it wielded liberally.[3] Puerto Ricans had been dismayed and disappointed by the Foraker Act from the day it became law, and their discontent had only grown greater in the years since.[4] Even so, Luis Muñoz Rivera had opposed Lloréns’ proposal in favor of a more moderate approach of continued opposition to the Foraker Act through ordinary political means, without resort to the extreme of bringing legislative activity to a halt.[5] Lloréns’ proposal was defeated, but Puerto Ricans’ long-simmering discontent with the colonial regime kept rising, and it rose to a boil when, toward the end of the legislative session, the Executive Council once again rejected several measures that had been passed by the House. The House responded by refusing to pass a budget for the coming fiscal year.[6] Their refusal not only served as retaliation directly against this latest offense of the Executive Council against the House, but also gave voice to Puerto Rican’s longstanding, deep-seated, and broad-ranging discontent with the colonial regime.

Right around then is when it happened: President Taft got stuck in his bathtub.[7] On the heels of one crisis followed another. As Puerto Ricans raised their voices through their elected representatives in defiance of United States, President Taft lowered himself into his specially commissioned, seven-foot-long, three-and-a-half-foot wide, white porcelain bathtub, and became lodged there. Or so the story goes. The historical record is sketchy, ambiguous, and contested. As authors Mac Barnett and Chris Van Dusen explain: “Some people say President Taft got stuck in his bath on March 4, 1909, his inauguration day. Others say it happened later in his term. Depending on who’s talking, it took two men to pry out the president, or four men, or four men plus a gallon of loblolly, which is butter mixed with lobster liver. Of course, many say Taft never got stuck at all.” After summing up the admittedly sparse and circumstantial evidence they were able to uncover, Barnett and Van Dusen conclude: “So, did President Taft actually get stuck in the bath? Maybe. Maybe not.”[8]

Making sense of competing narratives is a staple of the historian’s trade. Competing narratives play a particularly salient and explosive role in imperial history: colonial subjects tell stories of invasion, domination, exploitation, hypocrisy, and unfairness (to which they have been subjected), while imperial agents counter with stories of benevolence, generosity, enlightenment, tolerance, and superiority (their own). Exploring these dynamics, historian Louis A. Pérez, Jr., uncovers the uses to which the concept of gratitude has been put in imperial narratives generally, and in Cuba’s in particular.[9] “The role of gratitude has long been recognized as a central factor in the moral calculus of power,” writes Pérez. Gratitude serves “as a means of social control,” he adds, quoting a range of thinkers and scholars such as psychologists, philosophers, sociologists, historians: “‘[A] favor tends to put pressure on the favored person to return the favor. The pressure to return the favor is a threat to the freedom of the favored person in his relations with the favorer.’ … ‘Historically, the powerful and the privileged have imposed their guardianship upon the powerless and have felt the latter should be grateful for their “care” … Power ‘actually consists, not in the return of a gift, but in the consciousness that it cannot be returned.’ … ‘[W]here equivalence is out of the question, gratitude enters as a substitute.’”[10] Imperial agents deploy gratitude in precisely this manner: as the “moral currency of empire.”

In the case of Cuba, a narrative of imperial benevolence and colonial indebtedness followed from the events of 1898 as told by Americans: theirs was the story of the “rescue and redemption of Cuba, for which the Americans sacrificed life and treasure,” thus “implicat[ing] Cubans unwittingly in a complex set of binding reciprocities wholly of North American origins. The Americans professed their purpose to be liberation, proclaimed themselves liberators, and pronounced the Cubans as liberated.” By way of this story, “Cubans were transformed from active to passive, from subjects to objects, from agents of their own liberation to recipients of American largesse.” Yet “Cubans had a different view. The source of the problem in this instance is not difficult to divine. The Americans judged their actions by their motives; the Cubans judged North American motives by their actions.” Cubans knew that it was Cubans who had struggled for independence from Spain for decades, with the most recent outbreak of violent fighting occurring in 1895; that it was Cubans who had destroyed Spanish infrastructure on the island and weakened Spanish forces during those years of relentless fighting before the United States appeared on the scene; that it was Cubans who had paved the way for what Americans, entering the fray in its final months, experienced as an “easy” victory. At that point, “Cubans acknowledged with appreciation American assistance, but they were also impatient to bid their allies farewell and get on with the project of nationhood.” But the Americans’ narrative of benevolence bestowed and gratitude owed did its work nevertheless, serving as “nothing less than a premise for domination.”[11]

Gratitude serves as a premise for imperial domination, but it is brute force—whether the threat or the actual use of it—that creates its conditions of possibility. Both have always featured prominently in Puerto Rico’s relations with the United States, including during the Crisis of 1909. Reacting to the House of Delegates’ refusal to pass a budget, President Taft delivered a message to Congress scolding Puerto Ricans for their act of defiance: “This spirit, which has been growing from year to year in Porto Rico, shows that too great power has been vested in the house of delegates and that its members are not sufficiently alive to their oath-taken responsibility for the maintenance of the government to justify Congress in further reposing in them absolute power to withhold appropriations necessary for the government’s life.” Taft here implicitly deployed the moral currency of gratitude by reminding Puerto Ricans that Congress had bestowed upon them their powers of self-government and what Congress bestowed, Congress could take away. Then Taft made the premise explicit: “Puerto Rico has been the favored daughter of the United States. The sovereignty of the island in 1899 passed to the United States with the full consent of the people of the island.” Segueing seamlessly from the logic of gratitude to the logic of brute force, Taft went on to propose legislation for Puerto Rico pursuant to which the failure to pass a budget would lead automatically to the adoption of the same budget as the previous year’s budget, thus stripping Puerto Ricans of this instrument of resistance.[12] Congress obliged with a law enacting Taft’s proposal, as well as placing Puerto Rico under the aegis of the War Department’s Bureau of Insular Affairs.[13]

Mindful of the interplay between the moral currency of gratitude and the buying power of brute force, Truman R. Clark’s account of the Crisis of 1909 suggests two alternative interpretations Taft’s response. Although Taft is remembered as a “jovial, pleasant, lazy, unperturbable, bumbling though intelligent man who was hopelessly out of his element cast as a politician,” a “good jurist but lacking [Theodore Roosevelt’s] knack for dealing with people,” Clark wonders whether “Taft’s strong reaction to the Puerto Rican appropriation crisis and his subsequent manipulations of some of the Puerto Rican leaders show another, perhaps more Rooseveltian, side to him.” Maybe. Maybe not. “It is also possible,” Clark continues, “that Taft’s skill in this situation, where he enjoyed a commanding position over the colonials, was due to the imperial relationship and implied no similar political acumen in his dealings with Americans.”[14] More likely. The latter interpretation of what Clark subsequently describes even more accurately as Taft’s “angry reaction” seems more plausible, though Clark might have been more precise: whatever might be said about Taft’s subsequent relations with Puerto Rican leaders, his angry reaction to the Crisis of 1909 was certainly not perceived by Puerto Ricans as a display of political acumen. Puerto Ricans understood Taft’s angry reaction for what it was: a condescending re-assertion of U.S. power made possible by the imperial relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States.[15]

Another possibility, perhaps, is that Taft was feeling angry that day because he had recently spent several hours stuck in his custom-made porcelain bathtub, and it had taken four men and gallon of loblolly to pry him out. Maybe. Maybe not. At any rate, this interpretation of Taft’s angry reaction to the Crisis of 1909 is just about as plausible as Taft’s own interpretation of the events of 1898-1899, as expressed in his statement that “[t]he sovereignty of the island in 1899 passed to the United States with the full consent of the people of the island.” Puerto Ricans, after all, were not even represented at the peace negotiations culminating in the Treaty of Paris, in which Spain took it upon herself to transfer sovereignty over Puerto Rico to the United States. Indeed, when asked why the United States had not consulted the people of Puerto Rico or the Philippines on their views on their annexation, then-President William McKinley scoffed at the notion that the United States should need their consent; his remark can only be described as a profligate expenditure of the moral currency of empire: “‘Do we need their consent to perform a great act for humanity?” asked McKinley rhetorically. “We have it in every aspiration of their minds, in every hope of their hearts.’”[16] How under the circumstances Taft arrived at the impression that Puerto Ricans had given their “full consent” to the United States accession of sovereignty over the island is a question to be pondered. Perhaps all those hours in the bathtub caused the blood to rush to his head. At any rate, we all have our favorite stories, right?

We all have our least favorite stories too, and the aftermath of the Crisis of 1909 may well count among mine. As we have seen, for Taft, the Crisis of 1909 served as evidence that Puerto Ricans were unprepared for self-government, a view translated into policy not only through the adoption of Taft’s proposals to Congress, but in an even more gradualist approach in Washington toward revising the Foraker Act.[17]   “The experience of 1909 left its mark in the local scene as well,” writes José Trías Monge. “Taft’s chosen method for resolving the conflict was humiliating for the House. The House being stripped of its most effective power made even more repellent a regime that was already intolerable for many.”[18] And then comes my least favorite part: the part where Puerto Ricans turn on each other. One group accused another of anti-Americanism; the other fired back with accusations of collaborationism; intra-party strife between radicals and moderates intensified.[19] It happened in the nineteenth century too; and just before 1898; and just after; and it did not stop for decades, continuing through the Crisis of 1909, and through the unrest of the 1930s, and through the events of 1950-1952 culminating in the adoption of the Constitution of Puerto Rico, and ever since, to this day, right now, as I write.

Perhaps therein lies the appeal of the story of Taft and his bathtub. It happened once, and then it was over. Taft, dislodged, wiped off the loblolly and went on with his life, no longer trapped. Is that it? Maybe. Maybe not. At any rate, this much I can say: Pérez describes how “[t]he question of 1898 insinuated itself deeply into Cuban sensibilities, which meant, too, that it developed into a subject of an unsettled national introspection.”[20] The same is emphatically true of Puerto Rico. One might say 1898 lodged itself in Puerto Rican sensibilities like Taft lodged himself in his bathtub, and that is why it is that the aftermath of 1909 is all about 1898. And yet, perhaps the metaphor better suits Cuba, where events after 1959 suggest that “the sway of hegemony can abruptly and unexpectedly dissolve when the discursive premise of its existence is challenged.”[21] Rolling in like a giant barrel of loblolly, Fidel Castro forcibly dislodged the American imperial narrative of 1898. Whereas in Puerto Rico, all the loblolly in the world wouldn’t be enough.

Notas al Calce

* George Welwood Murray Professor of Legal History, Columbia Law School.

[1] 31 Stat. 77 (April 12, 1900).

[2] II José Trías Monge, Historia Constitucional de Puerto Rico 21 (1981).

[3] See José Trías Monge, Puerto Rico: The Trials of the Oldest Colony in the World ch. 3-4 (1997).

[4] Id.

[5] Trías Monge, supra n. 2, at 21-22.

[6] Id. at 23.

[7] Mac Barnett and Chris Van Dusen, President Taft is Stuck in the Bath (2014).

[8] Id. The book contains no page numbers. The evidence is summed up on the last page, under the heading “Some Facts Pertaining to President Taft and Bathtubs.” As the heading suggests, the evidence is circumstantial at best.

[9] Louis A. Pérez, Jr., “On Gratitude as Moral Currency of Empire,” in Cuba in the American Imagination: Metaphor and the Imperial Ethos (2008).

[10] Id. at 179-181 (quoting psychologists Jack Brehm and Ann Himelick Cole; philosopher Claudia Card; sociologist Georg Simmel; and historian Eugene Genovese).

[11] Id. at 182-183.

[12] “Affairs in Porto Rico,” 44 Cong. Rec. 1866 (May 10, 1909), at 1867.

[13] II José Trías Monge, Historia Constitucional de Puerto Rico 24 (1981).

[14] Truman R. Clark, President Taft and the Puerto Rican Appropriation Crisis of 1909, 26:2 The Americas (Oct. 1969): 152-153 & 153 n.2.

[15] II José Trías Monge, Historia Constitucional de Puerto Rico 24-25 (1981).

[16] Quoted in Trías Monge, Puerto Rico, at 26-27.

[17] II José Trías Monge, Historia Constitucional de Puerto Rico 24 (1981) (though Trías adds, on a more positive note, that Taft came away from the experience convinced that revisions were necessary).

[18] Id. at 25. (original in Spanish; translation mine).

[19] Id.

[20] Louis A. Pérez, Jr., On Gratitude as Moral Currency of Empire, in Cuba in the American Imagination: Metaphor and the Imperial Ethos 211 (2008).

[21] Id. at 221-222.