On this date, President Richard Nixon
signed into law H.R. 8787 (Public Law 92-271) creating a Delegate to Congress for the American territories of Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Beginning with the election of James White in 1794 as the first Delegate in American history from the “Territory South of the River Ohio” (modern-day Tennessee), statutory representatives—positions created by federal statute rather than the Constitution—have pursued the interests of U.S. territories in the national legislature. Until 1898, every Delegate had represented a territory from mainland North America. But as the United States acquired land overseas in a rush to expand its geopolitical footprint at the turn of the 20th century, Congress was hesitant to grant representation to island territories with predominantly nonwhite populations. For Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands, it would take decades to win a voice in Congress. In the words of Interior and Insular Affairs subcommittee chairman Phil Burton
of California, H.R. 8787 kept America in step “with the modern trend of democratic governments” in the territories, a reference to a broad international anti-colonial impulse following World War II. Beginning in the mid-1960s, the territorial governments for the Virgin Islands and Guam had elected “unofficial representatives” to lobby Congress and executive officials and to educate lawmakers on the unique needs of their home territories. Antonio Won Pat
of Guam characterized these positions as akin to “a Member of Congress in everything but name,” serving without “the ‘power tools’ . . . that other Members had.” He joined Virgin Islander Ron de Lugo
in testifying before Congress for the need for more official territorial representation the House. “We seek only, in a limited way, a voice to articulate the needs of the people of the Virgin Islands within the framework of the national legislature,” de Lugo told the Senate Subcommittee on Territories and Insular Affairs. After the passage of H.R. 8787, both de Lugo and Won Pat won election as Delegates to the 93rd Congress
(1973–1975), positions they had helped create. Joining Walter Fauntroy
of the District of Columbia and Resident Commissioner Jaime Benítez
of Puerto Rico, the four nonvoting Members had limited legislative agency. They were unable to vote on the House Floor, but won a change in House Rules permitting them to vote in committee. Congress later approved nonvoting Delegates from American Samoa in 1978 and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in 2008.