The first Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner in the United States Congress, Federico Degetau had a distinguished résumé as a celebrated legal scholar, novelist, and politician in Puerto Rico and Spain. He was thoroughly grounded in legal theory and political action, and as a student of American jurisprudence, Degetau welcomed the prospect of U.S. rule. But his reaction soured when the new administrators curbed Puerto Rican civil rights and denied them full American citizenship. When House Rules prohibited Degetau from speaking—or even sitting—in the chamber, he lobbied for greater parliamentary privileges and served Puerto Ricans by extralegislative means: speaking to the media, communicating with the executive branch, and representing constituents before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Federico Degetau y González was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, on December 5, 1862. He had no siblings. His mother, María Consolación González y Sánchez Páez, came from a prominent political family in San Juan. His father, Mathías Degetau, was a lawyer from a large German family. When the elder Degetau died in 1863, the family moved from San Juan to Ponce. Degetau’s mother relied on relatives to provide for the family, particularly for her son’s primary and secondary education. Six years later, the Degetaus returned to San Juan. In 1874 the family moved to Spain and lived in Cádiz and Barcelona. After studying at universities in Granada, Salamanca, and Valladolid, Degetau received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the Universidad de Madrid in 1879. He later studied civil engineering but after a year switched to medicine, and by 1883 had decided to study law. In 1888, Degetau graduated with a doctor of laws degree from the Universidad de Madrid and began publishing articles in a variety of newspapers and journals.
For a brief period, he pursued a career in literature and journalism, writing short novels and articles. His first novel, ¡Qué Quijote! (1883), was published in an anthology distributed in Puerto Rico and Spain. By 1895, Degetau had published five books ranging from short stories to an autobiography and a study of the pedagogical system of Froebel, a German educator who promoted kindergarten study.1
Degetau’s dual-career track informed his political views. In May 1882 he published his first essay in a Madrid newspaper, La correspondencia. In November 1887 Degetau founded the periodical Isla de Puerto Rico. Published for only three months, it was dedicated to the overthrow of the Spanish governor, General Romualdo Palacios. Degetau’s articles appeared in numerous Puerto Rican publications, enhancing his reputation as a political activist. He returned to Spain in 1896 with a commission of like-minded liberals to negotiate greater autonomy for the island. Degetau remained in Spain to represent Ponce in the Cortes, Spain’s parliamentary body. During the Spanish-American War, he traveled to France to celebrate the signing of the Treaty of Paris, and eventually returned to Puerto Rico in November 1898. He married Ana Moreno Elorza y Valeriano, on March 1, 1902, in Council Bluffs, Iowa. The couple adopted Fernando Bonifacio Sánchez and his sister, Plácida.2
With the cession of Puerto Rico to the United States via the Treaty of Paris, Degetau, along with many others, welcomed the new regime. After Degetau returned to the island, U.S. military governor Guy Henry dissolved the cabinet and, on December 6, 1898, established four posts: secretary of state, secretary of justice, secretary of the provincial government, and secretary of the treasury. Degetau was secretary of the provincial government until his resignation on March 23, 1899. He also served as minister of development, first deputy mayor of San Juan, and director of public instruction.3
In April 1899, Degetau initiated a campaign to organize new political parties on the island, based on his personal conviction that Puerto Ricans deserved U.S. citizenship and autonomy, which were not conferred by the Foraker Act, which had been approved the following year.4 Degetau and the Republicans had as a primary goal the “definitive… annexation of Puerto Rico to the United States,” through the “Declaration of Puerto Rico as a territory, as a means of later becoming a state of the Federal Union.”5 Degetau extolled the U.S. system of government, based on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, as a “new political society … in which individual freedom was safeguarded against all possible aggression of tyranny, in which the old, ruinous theory of ‘paternal governments’… was disappearing with the new affirmation of government of the people by the people themselves.”6 For Degetau, “these principles, by which order and social wellbeing are founded on the conscience of every people and not on soldiers’ bayonets in the service of a governor, are what we claim for our country,” he said in 1900.7
That year, as his party’s nominee for the newly created post of Resident Commissioner to the U.S. Congress, Degetau asked for support “not because of personal merit, but rather because [of ] your approval of the principles that I have just described.”8 Degetau’s opponent was Federal Party nominee Manuel Gatell, a former postal employee and pharmacist.9 Some critics painted Gatell as a puppet of Luis Muñoz Rivera, the Federalist leader. “What responsibility is Mr. Gatell assuming towards the country if he is elected? None,” rejoined a critic. “All his responsibilities would be towards Muñoz Rivera who chose him, and he will say what will be required of Gatell as Commissioner.”10
Degetau criss-crossed the island on a two-week campaign tour, speaking to crowds in both Republican and Federalist strongholds in major cities such as Arecibo, Aguadilla, Mayagüez, and Ponce.11 At the end of the trip, Degetau responded to a series of attacks by Luis Muñoz Rivera’s island-wide newspaper, La democracia, that claimed his stump speeches had been inflammatory: “The people of Puerto Rico are tired of the politics of insults and indecencies that can only establish hatreds and disorder within the country … upon announcing my modest name, the vast majority of the country has responded, because Federalists and Republicans throughout the Island can attest that in none, in not one, of my speeches or my articles have I offended or insulted Mr. Muñoz or anyone, as La democracia claims.”12 Indeed, Degetau’s popularity as a political dissident in Spain and his activities during the period of military rule in Puerto Rico conferred a large advantage.
Federalists eventually called for an election boycott to protest U.S. officials’ perceived bias toward Republicans, who had not been prosecuted for political violence. As a result, the Republicans swept the elections and gained majority control of the inaugural session of the island’s newly created house of delegates.13 Degetau defeated Gatell on November 6, 1900, with an overwhelming majority of the vote (98 percent). Renominated in September 1902, Degetau ran in the general election on November 4 against Federalist Felipe Cuebas Arredondo, earning 46 percent of the vote to his opponent’s 22 percent.14
When Degetau arrived on the mainland, he participated in a small media tour of New York and Washington, D.C. The press posed many familiar questions: Was Puerto Rico fit to be a territory? Did a majority of islanders prefer statehood or independence? Wasn’t benevolent U.S. rule preferable to the supposed cruelties of life under Spanish governance? Degetau expressed his admiration for the U.S. form of government and responded that most Puerto Ricans wanted a territorial government. “That is, they want t/he same privileges that you accord to the people of Arizona, Indian Territory, Oklahoma, and other Territories,” he noted, characterizing Puerto Ricans dissenting from this viewpoint as lower-class and ignorant of the U.S. system of government.15 Degetau suggested that by developing its natural resources to improve its infrastructure, educational system, and economy, Puerto Rico could achieve statehood. Describing the Republican approach as gradualist, he distanced himself from the Federalists, whom he portrayed as impatient and overly zealous in their pursuit of statehood. “My people want to become root and branch Americans [but] we cannot do it too quickly. We recognize that we are naturally Americans, and that our future is part of the future of this country,” he said.16
With the start of the 57th Congress (1901–1903), Degetau’s status as a Member of Congress became a matter of public speculation. Degetau had no floor privileges, nor was he permitted to hold committee assignments; yet his salary was commensurate with that of other House Members. Indeed, his role in the House resembled that of lobbyists, who sought to persuade Members to vote in a manner they deemed beneficial. One observer noted that Degetau’s primary function seemed to be to “advise and assist committees concerning Porto Rican legislation.” Nevertheless, the media treated Degetau like a celebrity, and Senators and Representatives “cordially welcomed” him. The House Post Office received a “considerable [amount] of mail” before his arrival, and Representative Henry Allen Cooper of Wisconsin, Chairman of the Committee on Insular Affairs, welcomed Degetau and strove to “make him at home in the quarters of that committee.” The Resident Commissioner told his colleagues, “The Porto Rican people … want to become Americans in the full sense as fast as possible, and they also hope their representative will be accorded the rank of delegate, for as commissioner the island has less representation than it had under Spain.”17
One of Degetau’s major goals was to put Puerto Rico on the path to statehood. Using a media-savvy strategy to circumvent his inability to speak on the House Floor, he announced his plans to propose a bill to provide Puerto Rico territorial status in preparation for statehood. “All that is required to make Porto Rico one of the most productive countries in the world is the introduction of American capital,” Degetau noted. “Millions of dollars are awaiting investment, but not a cent will be put into the island until the country is provided with suitable and stable laws for its government,” he said.18 In his second term he also pushed for H.R. 11592, a bill conferring U.S. citizenship on Puerto Ricans, but the bill was referred to the Committee on Insular Affairs and died there.19 During debate on an army appropriations bill (H.R. 17473), Degetau noted that colleagues referred to him as the “delegate from Porto Rico.” Gently correcting them, he explained, a “bill giving legal expression to that sentiment—providing for a delegate from Porto Rico—was unanimously recommended by the Committee on Insular Affairs and unanimously approved by the House during the last days of Congress. A similar bill … is at present on the Calendar, but until now I am, in the language of the law, only a ‘Resident Commissioner.’”20
Though barred by House Rules from serving on committees, Degetau participated in hearings before Chairman Cooper’s Committee on Insular Affairs—a recently formed panel with oversight of civil government and infrastructure in U.S. possessions overseas, including the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico—testifying on H.R. 14083, a bill to grant Puerto Rico a Delegate in place of a Resident Commissioner.21 Degetau argued that the Resident Commissioner’s status was muddled. While the Foraker Act provided for the election of an official to represent Puerto Rico, Degetau acknowledged, it was “difficult … for many people to determine whether the commissioner was elected by the people to represent them or to represent the government of the island, and also whether he represents the island as a part of the American Union or as a distinct political body; in other words, whether he is an official of the local or of the Federal Government.”22
In June 1902, 18 months after Degetau entered Congress, he finally received floor privileges when Representative Cooper submitted H. Res. 169, amending House Rule 34 to provide Degetau a seat on the House Floor.23 After a sustained campaign in which numerous Members submitted bills on Degetau’s behalf, he received floor privileges and membership on the Committee on Insular Affairs (without seniority) in February 1904 as a result of H. Res. 158, sponsored by John Dalzell of Pennsylvania.24
Congress lifted the moratorium on Degetau’s participation in floor debate so late in his career that he participated in debate in relatively few instances, although he eloquently defended his countrymen against racial stereotypes late in his final term in the House. During the debate of an annual army appropriation bill in the Committee of the Whole, James Beauchamp (Champ) Clark of Missouri, a future Speaker of the House, moved an amendment to strike out the appropriation for a provisional army regiment in Puerto Rico.25 In opposing that amendment, Degetau reminded his colleagues that Puerto Rico had avoided a bloody revolution because of its reasoned appeals to the Spanish government. “Without recourse to violence, [Puerto Ricans] accomplished as great reforms as any other people ever accomplished, [and] do not need military force to coerce them into the performance of their present duty,” he noted. Degetau also challenged racist arguments that Puerto Ricans were temperamentally unfit to serve as soldiers. “No, we are not ‘hot-blooded Spaniards,’” he declared. “It is true that the immense majority of us Porto Ricans are of Spanish ancestry.… It is true also that we have long loved American institutions, and through this love we are loyally Americans, who have won our American citizenship.”26 Degetau highlighted the distinguished record of the Puerto Rican regiment’s commanding officers and concluded his speech by emphasizing Puerto Rico’s sense of duty and patriotism. “Every Porto Rican who is aware of the sacredness of this civic duty feels proud of every opportunity that may be offered to him in the military as well as in the civic avenues of life,” Degetau said to prolonged applause, “of maintaining and defending, with the other American citizens, for the welfare and progress of mankind, the same ideal of justice articulated in the Constitution and symbolized in the flag.” Supporting Degetau’s position, Frank Mondell of Wyoming asserted that Puerto Rico should have a regiment for its protection, and Clark’s amendment was defeated, 89 to 47.27
Degetau maintained his status as a practicing attorney and was admitted to the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court in April 1901. His admission to the bar was controversial because of his uncertain status as a U.S. citizen, but when Solicitor General John K. Richards introduced him as a member of the Puerto Rican supreme court bar, “there was no objection to his admission and Mr. Degetau walked to the clerk’s office and took the oath of office.”28 Degetau sought to clarify the ambiguity surrounding Puerto Rican citizenship by participating in legal disputes that would force U.S. officials to specify the status of Puerto Ricans’ citizenship. He interacted with Members of Congress and corresponded with executive branch officials such as the Secretary of State and the President of the United States about matters affecting Puerto Rico, especially the inconsistent policies followed by the Department of the Treasury with regard to Puerto Ricans’ immigration status.29 Degetau also represented Puerto Ricans whose citizenship was in question. He successfully represented Juan Rodríguez, who challenged the Navy Department’s refusal to register him for employment at the Washington Navy Yard because his citizenship was in doubt. The District of Columbia Court of Appeals ruled that Rodríguez was eligible for civil service employment and ordered the navy to reverse its decision.30
Degetau participated in one U.S. Supreme Court case, Gonzalez v. Williams, by filing an amicus curiae brief. The case involved Isabel González, an unmarried pregnant woman who emigrated from Puerto Rico to New York City in 1902. Based on her ethnicity, gender, and pregnancy, immigration authorities at Ellis Island deemed her an alien and refused her entry. González challenged the ruling in court, arguing that she was a U.S. citizen. Degetau illustrated the inconsistencies between the Treasury Department’s enforcement of immigration restrictions toward González and its printed regulations. He challenged a circuit court’s decision against González, describing the implied legal assumptions of the transfer of sovereignty (and citizenship) from Spain to the United States resulting from the imposition of military government in 1898, the provisions of the Treaty of Paris, and Hawaii v. Mankichi.31 Asserting that the “accepted principle in international law [is] that the nationality of a person follows the nationality of the territory in which such person is born,” Degetau argued that the Puerto Rican case was “a clear case of collective naturalization as distinguished from individual naturalization, that happens when a country or province becomes incorporated in another country … the citizens of Porto Rico forming the same body politic with the other citizens of the United States and obeying and supporting the same Constitution and … the same statutory laws that all the other citizens of the United States obey and support.”32 Degetau’s view was that since the cession of Puerto Rico and its people by Spain to the United States released islanders from their political obligations to Spain, and since the islanders took an oath to support the Constitution of the United States, it followed that Puerto Ricans acquired de facto (or territorial) citizenship under Section 7 of the Foraker Act. The court narrowly ruled in González’s favor by declaring that Puerto Ricans were not aliens; however, the Justices did not rule that Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens.33
By August 1903, Degetau had split from the Republican Party, an action that contributed to his decision not to run for a third term.34 After his congressional term expired in 1905, Degetau served as chancellor at the Universidad de Puerto Rico and continued his career as a lecturer. He was also an accomplished painter. Degetau died in Santurce, Puerto Rico, on January 20, 1914, and was interred at Cementerio de San Juan (San Juan Cemetery).35
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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