March 20, 1918, was one of those typical early-spring days in the nation’s capital, partly cloudy and cool in the morning, but warm enough that the temperature eventually hit a pleasant 71 degrees. Just before the House opened at noon that day, more than 260 Members gathered on the East Front of the Capitol for a unique panoramic photo. Some sat, and some stood. Some held lit cigars. Nearly everyone squinted into the late-morning light. Seated in the middle of the group was Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the first woman elected to Congress, one chair over from Speaker Champ Clark.249
It had been 20 years since Clark ridiculed the idea of American expansion in the Pacific, his garish descriptions of cannibals serving in Congress, and the need for translators eliciting laughter and applause from his colleagues.250 America was at war with Spain then, in 1898. In 1918 America was fighting in Europe in what was being called the Great War, a world conflict that itself brought up a host of new immigration and citizenship issues.
Off to the side of the photo stood three men, seemingly by themselves: Filipino Resident Commissioners Teodoro R. Yangco and Jaime de Veyra and, in between them, Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner Félix Córdova Dávila. A few feet away, mixed in with some of the other Members, Hawaiian Delegate Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole stood slightly forward with his left hand on his hip, arm bent at the elbow, as if he was losing patience and was in a rush to get back to work.
By 1918 Hawaii and the Philippines had been American territories for two decades. The country’s decision to expand into the Pacific a generation earlier was, in a sense, a continuation of what it had done throughout the 19th century: American society spreading westward across the continent, displacing indigenous peoples in order to access new land and resources. There were, of course, major differences. Antebellum and Gilded Age Americans had considered it their “manifest destiny” to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans under one nation. But as the 1800s gave way to a new century, many wondered, especially in Congress, whether it was “manifest” that America should plant its flag in far-flung locations overseas. America had once been a colony itself. What would it mean if it now had colonies of its own?
As the country wrestled with that question, Americans based arguments both for and against expansion in the racially charged language and pseudoscientific theories of the day that placed people of Asian descent, including Filipinos and Native Hawaiians, below white people of European origin on the racial hierarchy. But even after the United States gained possession of the Philippines and Hawaii, Congress confronted a litany of new issues, setting up island administrations that tried, often awkwardly, to balance the interests of American industries doing business in the Pacific with the hopes and ambitions of the people who actually lived there. Hawaii had been annexed with the eventual goal of statehood. The Philippines, however, had fought Spain for its independence and continued to fight for it after the United States, despite protests at home, staked claim to the archipelago. Three years of bloodshed during the Philippine-American War may have led to an American military victory, but it also sparked the formation of a popular national identity in the Philippines. And it was that identity which underwrote the peaceful independence efforts of the islands’ leaders over the next four decades while the islands were under America’s sphere of influence.
To help the territories make their cases on Capitol Hill, Congress gave Resident Commissioners to the Philippines and it gave Delegates to Hawaii. Limited in their legislative tools, statutory representatives had to be resourceful as they fought on behalf of the interests of their home islands. For the Philippines, that meant beneficial trade terms and independence, which it gained in 1946. For Hawaii, that meant shoring up the Organic Act and dealing with the demands of the powerful sugar conglomerates.
The 13 Filipino Resident Commissioners and five Hawaiian Delegates in this section—18 statutory representatives who served without a vote—made up the extent of APA representation on the Hill from 1898 through World War II. Remarkably, not a single Representative or Senator of Asian descent served during this period. Simply put, federal law prevented them from taking part in the political process. Since the last quarter of the 19th century, the federal government had adopted a policy of exclusion, keeping Asian immigrants primarily from China and Japan from taking the oath as American citizens. From outright bans to immigration quotas, federal lawmakers limited who could participate in American society even as the country acquired new territory and governed millions of new people.
Although the Philippines’ story in Congress ended with its independence in 1946, Hawaii’s story continued into statehood in 1959. If APA Members once stood on the periphery as they did in that early-spring photo from 1918, soon they would be front and center as some of the most powerful elected officials on Capitol Hill, legislators like Daniel Inouye and Patsy Takemoto Mink of Hawaii and Norman Y. Mineta of California. Once again the legacy of war propelled that change, forcing a major recalculation of policies at home, including an overhaul of who could qualify for citizenship. As barriers began to fall around midcentury, an immigrant farmer from the Punjab region of northern India who had settled in Southern California staked his claim as the first APA Member to serve in Congress with the same constitutional standing as anyone else.
249“Representatives Pose for Group Pictures,” 20 March 1918, Evening Star (Washington, DC): 17; “Weather,” 21 March 1918, Washington Post: 1; Congressional Record, House, 65th Cong., 2nd sess. (20 March 1918): 3777.
250Congressional Record, House, 55th Cong., 2nd sess. (11 June 1898): 5792.