Review of “George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father” by David O. Stewart

An experienced biographer, historian David O. Stewart focuses on how George Washington became a “master politician,” and how this skill helped him navigate the very treacherous shoals of the early years of the American Republic. The increasingly poisonous atmosphere, especially during Washington’s second term in office, won’t sound so foreign to the current audience.

Stewart devotes most of his attention to Washington’s early years, and especially to those events that defined his later character. He recounts Washington’s experiences in the French and Indian War; his terms of office in the Virginia House of Burgesses; service as a judge on Fairfax County Court; and commander of armed forces in the American War of Independence. Stewart documents how, over time, Washington gained control over his apparently fierce temper, and learned the importance of building political coalitions and avoiding controversies whenever he could.

Washington, Stewart reports, never minced words about what he wanted: his goal was renown. Moreover, he craved “the regard and esteem” of fellow countrymen. He had a lifelong dread of any smudge on his reputation, and therefore of failure in any of his endeavors. As he wrote to a relative in 1775, “reputation derives it principal support from success.”

Because he needed success to make a good impression, some controversies were more difficult to avoid than others, especially as they directly would determine the outcome of his biggest challenges. One was the matter of getting colonists to cough up money. The Revolution was tied to Americans’ hatred of taxes, a dislike that has never in fact been dented much. And yet, at the same time, Americans wanted much that depended on government funding, such as an army that could repel the British; protection by an army from Natives increasingly unhappy over the usurpation of their land; and roads and other infrastructure that crossed state boundaries. Washington, who spent so many years leading soldiers who had little food, clothes, equipment, and wages, knew firsthand that a resistance to taxation and demand for services were incompatible desires.

George Washington during the Revolutionary War

Washington’s awareness of the country’s need for money carried over into his presidency, during which he aligned with Alexander Hamilton on fiscal policies that would retire the war debts and get a standardized currency approved. These unpopular measures needed to have the force of law behind them. As Washington observed back in 1778, “Few men are capable of making a continual sacrifice of all views of private interest, or advantage, to the common good.” He went on to aver that no institution relying on that faulty premise would succeed.

Washington had several factors that worked in his favor in the early republic. One was that Americans then, like now, “craved a hero.” It was generally easier to find someone to fill that need who played a military role, in spite of the fact that Washington’s military victories were few and far between. Much of his success in the Revolution could be attributed just to outlasting the British, who were fighting far from home. But as Stewart points out, it was political savvy, rather than military prowess, that was central to Washington’s success. In the internecine battles for control over the army and influence in Congress, Washington was often just the last man left standing.

Washington always wanted to make sure that everyone knew he didn’t want all these responsibilities (a claim belied by his pursuit of them). Thus if he failed, it wasn’t really his fault because he kept trying to turn down all these positions to which he was unanimously elected.

Once he did accept a position, however, he exerted tight control over that institution. Today he would be called a “micro-manager.” He was deeply involved in every aspect of his army and with all the deal-making under his presidential administration, in spite of his seeming reticence publicly. In fact, one interesting passage in this book deals with the famous compromise over war debt assumption by the new country and the location of its capital. Most histories claim that Jefferson somehow engineered the deal at a dinner party; Stewart contends this was largely a re-writing by Jefferson of what happened. It was a long-term process, Stewart avers, and Washington manipulated all of it.

By Washington’s second term, however, Washington was no longer seen as someone who could do no wrong. The country had grown, and dissent had grown along with it. Opponents launched bitter and often untrue attacks on him. Stewart explores the factors that led to this increase in factionalism, including French interference in American politics; the growing rivalry of Jefferson, who co-opted Madison, a former ally of Washington’s, to his cause; and of course, taxes. Washington couldn’t wait to escape the growing acrimony of political life. On the day John Adams was inaugurated as the second president, Adams later wrote that Washington looked “as serene and unclouded as the day.” He added, “Methought I heard him say, ‘Ay! I am fairly out and you fairly in! See which one of us will be happiest!’”

President John Adams

Washington died in 1799 after a difficult illness that started out as a cold. In his will he freed what slaves he could (some were owned by Martha’s estate and not his to free), and provided for care of others. He never made a public condemnation of slavery, however. Stewart speculates that Washington knew how controversial slavery was and didn’t want to damage his standing any further. Stewart also thought Washington must have known he would have sounded hypocritical if he spoke out against slavery. [That consideration never stopped other Founding Fathers, such as Jefferson.] Moreover, Washington never seemed to have awareness of how awful the state of being “owned” must be to another person. When he was younger, for example, traveling to Barbados with his older half-brother Lawrence in 1751, he gushed in his diary about being “ravished” by the beauty of Barbados, the gorgeous mansions, and the great meals, but evinced no awareness of the harsh lives of the slaves there who made all that possible, especially the short-lived workers in the sugar-cane fields. And much later in life, when Martha’s favorite slave Ona Judge ran away, Washington fumed in a letter:

“. . . however well disposed I might be to a gradual abolition, or even to an entire emancipation of that description of People (if the latter was in itself practicable at this moment) it would neither be politic or just to reward unfaithfulness with a premature preference; and thereby discontent before hand the minds of all her fellow-servants who by their steady attachments are far more deserving than herself of favor.”

The Washingtons were incensed and offered a reward for Ona’s recapture.

In Washington’s view, Ona, who was money walking out his door, was “ungrateful.” What about a desire for freedom? It seems that for Washington, that wasn’t a relevant or legitimate desire for African Americans.

His blindness about “life, liberty, and happiness” for all extended to Native Americans. When fighting against them on America’s then western border, he reported how upset he was over “barbarous” Indians killing settlers – “poor innocent babes and helpless families.” He never considered why they might have acted that way, insofar as they were being evicted from their homelands, and subject to barbarous murders themselves by settlers covetous of Native property.

Stewart doesn’t make these flaws in Washington’s perception and character central, however, choosing to focus instead on Washington’s self-reinvention and political genius, and how he accomplished the former and developed the latter. In that respect, he does a fine job.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Dutton Books, 2021

May 15, 1862 – President Lincoln Establishes US Department of Agriculture

There were a number of precursors to the Department of Agriculture, including a division of the U.S. Patent Office established by Congress on March 3, 1839 (5 Stat. 354) for “the collection of agricultural statistics and other agricultural purposes.”

According to the USPO’s online history:

The grounds around the Patent Office were used as the garden to grow the nation’s living plant collection. For plants that were not winter-hardy in the Washington, D.C., area, two 50-foot long greenhouses were constructed. In 1849, however, the land that the greenhouses and garden occupied was needed for an expansion of the Patent Office Building. Congress appropriated $5,000 to relocate the greenhouses and garden to a site on the National Mall just west of the Capitol. This new and improved garden opened in 1856 and was known as the U.S. Propagation Garden.”

By the 1860s, the Agricultural Section of the Patent Office was annually distributing over 2.4 million packages of seed from the basement of Patent Office Building.

Lincoln in 1862

Today’s U.S. Department of Agriculture’s online library reminds readers that Abraham Lincoln was a strong advocate of farming and agricultural improvement, which intersected with his belief in the uplifting properties of compensated labor (as opposed to slavery):

Lincoln . . . urged more intensive cultivation in order to increase production to the full capacity of the soil. This would require the better use of available labor. Lincoln contrasted ‘mud sill’ and free labor, identifying ‘mud sill’ laborers as slaves or hired laborers who were fixed in that situation. Free laborers, who had the opportunity to become landowners, were more productive than the ‘mud sill’ workers.

Free labor could achieve its highest potential if workers were educated. As Lincoln put it: ‘…no other human occupation opens so wide a field for the profitable and agreeable combination of labor with cultivated thought, as agriculture.’”

Moreover, at that time, nearly half of all Americans lived on farms, and there was an increasing need to consolidate information and promote agricultural resources.

Thus Lincoln asked for a separate Department of Agriculture. It was authorized by Congress and the enabling legislation was signed by Lincoln on this day in history. A Commissioner of Agriculture was authorized “to receive & have charge of all property of the Agricultural Division of the Patent Office including fixtures & property of Propagating Garden” and to appoint a statistician, chemist, entomologist, and botanist.

You can read the text of the 1862 Act to Establish a Department of Agriculture here.

The newly founded USDA was still housed in the basement of the Patent Office until 1868, when it moved into its own building on 20 acres just east of the Washington Monument.

The first Department of Agriculture Building on the National Mall around 1895

In 1887, the House of Representatives and Senate passed separate bills giving Cabinet status to the Department of Agriculture and Labor, but the bill was defeated in conference committee after farm interests objected to the addition of labor. Finally, in 1889 the Department of Agriculture was given cabinet-level status.

May 10, 1950 – Creation of National Science Foundation Signed Into Law

On this day in history, after three more years of debate, Congress passed and President Harry S. Truman signed Public Law 81-507, creating the National Science Foundation. 24 part time members and a director as chief executive officer, all appointed by the president.

The stated mission of the NSF is “To promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure the national defense.”

NSF’s headquarters: 2415 Eisenhower Avenue, Alexandria, Virginia 22314. Credit: NSF

Today, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is still considered to be an independent agency of the United States government that supports fundamental research and education in all the non-medical fields of science and engineering. Its medical counterpart is the National Institutes of Health. With an annual budget of about $8 billion (fiscal year 2020), the NSF funds approximately 25% of all federally supported basic research conducted by US colleges and universities. In some fields, such as mathematics, computer science, economics, and the social sciences, the NSF is the major source of federal backing.

The NSF’s director and deputy director are appointed by the President of the United States and confirmed by the United States Senate, whereas the 24 president-appointed members of the NSB do not require Senate confirmation.

As a Congressional Research Report on the NSF observes about the agency’s independent status:

However, the President and Congress retain authorities and powers over the agency. For example, NSF’s authorizing statute expressly references the President’s authority to remove the director. Further, both Congress and the President retain the power to govern the NSF through the budget, appropriations, and oversight processes.”

You can find the text of the enabling law here.

May 7, 1941 – Glenn Miller records “Chattanooga Choo Choo” for RCA Victor

“Chattanooga Choo Choo” was written in 1941 by Mack Gordon and composed by Harry Warren. On February 10, 1942 the song received the first Gold Record ever awarded for sales of 1.2 million copies in 1942.

The big-band/swing song was featured in the 1941 movie “Sun Valley Serenade,” starring Sonja Henie, John Payne, with music provided by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra. Notably, the song was featured in the film as two back-to-back production numbers. The first, showcasing white artists, had vocals by Tex Beneke, Paula Kelly, and The Modernaires. This was followed by a production number starring black artists Dorothy Dandridge and the Nicholas Brothers. (The separate production numbers were a fitting metaphor for the separate compartments the white and black performers would have had to occupy on a train.)

Glenn Miller

Glenn Miller

While the white and black artists were separate, there was an interesting departure. In an interview with NPR, playwright Murray Horwitz pointed out:

At one point, the Nicholas Brothers are dancing in the foreground with the Miller Band in the background. Now, I checked with the National Jazz Museum in Harlem to make sure, and it turns out I was right. This was unusual for a Hollywood movie in 1941. Usually, if there was a racially integrated musical scene, it was shot so that the scene could be excised for exhibitors in the South. And that didn’t happen.”

You can see both versions on Youtube.

The first video shows the white part of the production number and ends at the entrance of Dorothy Dandridge. The second video features the black production number.

May 4, 1886 – Deadly Bomb Explodes at Chicago’s Haymarket Square During Labor Demonstration

In 1886, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions organized a May Day general strike to demand an eight-hour day.  A PBS online history avers that because Chicago had a sympathetic mayor in Carter Harrison, the nationwide movement focused on that city. On May 1st, 80,000 workers lay down their tools and marched up Michigan Avenue behind August Spies, the editor of the English-language anarchist newspaper, “The Alarm.” That day ended peacefully.

Meanwhile, a strike was on at the nearby McCormick Reaper Works. The factory was located on the north bank of the Chicago River, east of the Michigan Avenue Bridge. On May 3, strikers attacked scabs leaving the McCormick building. (A scab is a strikebreaker who willingly crosses the picket line.) Immediately, two hundred policemen attacked the crowd, swinging nightsticks and firing their guns. Two workers were killed.

The anarchists called for a rally the next night at Haymarket Square to protest the deaths.

Mayor Harrison was there, but after he left the rally, the Chief of Police sent in his troops. From somewhere in the crowd, a bomb was thrown in front of the columns of police. The explosion left seven police officers were dead and sixty wounded, many of them hit by wild shots from fellow policemen. Reportedly a similar number of civilians were killed or injured but, as PBS notes, “the number is uncertain because few would admit to being at the rally.”

The police rounded up suspicious foreign workers and anarchist leaders. Seven men stood trial for murder. On June 21, they were joined by an eighth — Albert Parsons, leader of the American branch of the International Working People’s Association (I.W.P.A.), an anarchist group whose stated goal was to engineer a social revolution that would empower the working class. Parsons had fled the city after the bombing, but turned himself in to be tried with his comrades. No one had been identified as the bomber, but the eight defendants were tried as accessories to murder based on their inflammatory speeches.

Sketch of the seven men complicit in the Haymarket Affair. November 16, 1887. Watertown Republican (Watertown, WI), Image 3. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, LOC

The defense lawyer provided alibis for all eight men. The only two who were at the rally at the time of the bombing had been on stage, in full view of the crowd and police.

The prosecuting attorney, Julius S. Grinnell declared:

Law is on trial. Anarchy is on trial… Gentlemen of the jury, convict these men, make examples of them, hang them and you save our institutions, our society.”

The jury reached a verdict in three hours: death by hanging for seven of the men, including Parsons and Spies, 15 years in prison for the eighth, August Neebe.

Two men had their sentences commuted to life and prison and one man committed suicide in prison.

On November 11, 1887, the remaining prisoners were brought out to the hangman’s platform. Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engel, and Adolph Fischer stood before the crowd with hoods covering their faces. And then Spies spoke: “The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today.”

The Library of Congress has an online research guide for the Haymarket Affair, including links to digitized historic newspapers from that time, here. For more background, also see the account by the Illinois Labor History Society, here.

April 29, 1899 – Birth of Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington

The jazz musician and composer known as Duke Ellington was born into Washington, D.C.’s black elite on April 29, 1899. As James Collier, author of the biography Duke Ellington (Oxford University Press, USA, 1987) observed in his essay in Harlem Renaissance: Lives from the African American National Biography edited by Henry Louis Gates and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham (Oxford University Press, USA, 2009), “Ellington developed a strong sense of his own worth and a belief in his destiny, which at times shaded over into egocentricity. Because of this attitude, and his almost royal bearing, his schoolmates early named him ‘Duke.’”

Duke Ellington in 1933

Duke Ellington in 1933

Ellington began studying piano at age seven but didn’t have much interest in it until, in his early teens, he heard a pianist play “swinging music.” He began to rehearse with some other youngsters, and by age sixteen or seventeen Ellington was playing occasional professional jobs.

In 1923 the group ventured to New York and landed a job in Harlem. In early 1924, Ellington was chosen to take over the group. Very quickly he began to change the sound of the band.

As a composer, Ellington liked to break the musical rules. He also would bring in scraps of musical ideas and let his band help develop them.

Beginning with a set of records made in November 1926, the group had a distinctive “Ellington” sound. Increasingly, Ellington was seen by critics who wrote in intellectual and music journals as a major American composer.

In December 1927 the group was hired as the house band at the Cotton Club, rapidly becoming the country’s best-known cabaret. Ellington also added some new musicians who became notable in their own right.

Through the 1920s and 1930s Ellington created masterpieces including “Mood Indigo,” “Creole Love Call,” “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” and “Daybreak Express.” He also came into his own as a songwriter and composed many popular standards including “Prelude to a Kiss,” “Sophisticated Lady,” and “Solitude.” By 1931, through broadcasts from the Cotton Club and recordings, Ellington had become a major figure in popular music.

Duke Ellington in the 1940s

Duke Ellington in the 1940s

In 1939 the character of the band began to change again with the addition of tenor sax player Ben Webster and the composer Billy Strayhorn. This led to the collaborations of “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Cotton Tail,” “Harlem Air Shaft” and “Ko-Ko.”

Collier opined that “by the late 1940s, it was felt by many jazz writers that the band had deteriorated. The swing band movement, which had swept up the Ellington group in the mid-1930s, had collapsed, and musical tastes were changing. A number of the old hands left, taking with them much of Ellington’s tonal palette, and while excellent newcomers replaced them, few equaled the originals.”

Not long after the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott in 1955, some black civil rights activists criticized Ellington for not having been more outspoken about the movement. Ellington told Nat Hentoff, the noted jazz critic, “People who think that of me have not been listening to our music. For a long time, social protest and pride in the Negro have been our most significant themes in talking about what it is to be a Negro in this country – with jazz being like the kind of man you wouldn’t want your daughter to be associated with.” He also told the story of how he dealt with Jim Crow in the South when they had engagements there. “Without the benefit of federal judges we commanded respect. We had two Pullman cars and a 70-foot baggage car. We parked them in each station, and lived in them. We had our own water, food, electricity and sanitary facilities. The natives would come by and say, ‘What’s that?’ ‘Well,’ we’d say, ‘that’s the way the president travels.’ We made our point. What else could we have done at that time?”

In 1956 Ellington was asked to play the closing Saturday night concert at the recently established Newport Jazz Festival and an inspired performance and enthusiastic crowd gave a boost to Ellington’s career.

In later years, Ellington faced the loss of several long-term orchestra members, including Billy Strayhorn, who died in 1967, and Johnny Hodges, who died in 1970.

Ellington gave little sign of slowing down in the early 1970s, but in 1973 he learned that he had lung cancer. He died on May 24, 1974.

You can listen to “the Ellington sound” in this video below, in which the Duke Ellington Orchestra plays “Satin Doll.” “Satin Doll,” a jazz standard, was written in 1953 by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn with lyrics by Johnny Mercer. The song has been recorded countless times, by such artists as Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, 101 Strings, and Nancy Wilson.

April 25, 1919 – Herbert Hoover Explains the Importance of Feeding Europe to Defeat Anarchy (i.e., Bolshevism)

As the Hoover Institution points out, when the U.S. entered WWI in 1917, Herbert Hoover was named food administrator under President Woodrow Wilson:

His assignment was to enlarge the food supply of the United States and the Allies. This meant boosting food production and also promoting food conservation. ‘Food Will Win the War’ was Hoover’s slogan. This was the moment when Hoover became a household name in America: To ‘Hooverize’ entered the vocabulary as a synonym for economize.”

At the conclusion of the war, Hoover was named principal executive of the Allied Supreme Economic Council. In the first nine months after the Armistice, Hoover organized the distribution of more than $1 billion in food relief for Europe. After the Treaty of Versailles came into effect, Hoover created a private agency to continue the relief work, delivering food and money for economic reconstruction to 21 countries for the next two years.

Herbert Hoover (right) poses in a publicity photo for postwar European relief in 1919.
National Archives & Records Admin

Part of Hoover’s motivation was “to stem the tide of Bolshevism.” On this day in history, Hoover wrote:

Of course, the prime objective of the United States in undertaking the fight against famine in Europe is to save the lives of starving people. The secondary object, however, and of hardly less importance, [is] to defeat Anarchy, which is the handmaiden of Hunger.”

April 23, 1933 – Birth of Annie Easley, African American Female Rocket Scientist

Annie Easley was one of the unsung Black women who worked for NASA as mathematicians and computer scientists at the beginning of the space age.

Annie Easley, Central Control Room of NASA’s Lewis Engine Research Building in Cleveland, Ohio, 1981

Annie was born in Birmingham, Alabama and originally aspired to be a pharmacist. After moving with her new husband to Cleveland, Ohio, however, she discovered the only pharmacy school in the area had closed. She read about “computers” – women who performed mathematical computations for the engineers at the Cleveland National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), a forerunner to modern NASA, and applied successfully for a job.

As a biography of Easley on the Massive Science website points out, “Easley was an eclectic, multi-talented mathematician,” and she learned assembly language and FORTRAN and became a programmer. She also worked on batteries, shuttle launches, and helped test and design the NASA nuclear reactor at Plum Brook outside of Cleveland.

Her most celebrated work however was on the Centaur rocket, which powered the first American space probe to land on an extraterrestrial body.

A NASA history of Easley recounts that when she was hired, she was one of only four African-American employees at the Lab. She often experienced humiliating discrimination, but persevered, saying later, “My head is not in the sand. But my thing is, if I can’t work with you, I will work around you. I was not about to be [so] discouraged that I’d walk away. That may be a solution for some people, but it’s not mine.”

In the 1970s, Easley returned to school to earn her degree in mathematics from Cleveland State, doing much of her coursework while also working full time. Easley was dedicated to outreach efforts at NASA, participating in school tutoring programs and in the speaker’s bureau, trying to convince female and minority students to consider STEM careers.

She stayed at NASA for over 30 years, retiring in December 1989, but remained an active participant in the Speaker’s Bureau.

Annie Easley also pioneered women wearing pant suits to work at NASA

Reflecting on her life and the obstacles she overcame, in a 2001 interview she said, “I think of the poem, ‘Mother to Son’ [by Langston Hughes] “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair” but you got to keep struggling.”

(You can read this interview with Easley recorded as part of the NASA Oral History Project, here. Her observations about racism and discrimination – she was an EEO counselor at one time – are well worth reading.)

Easley died on June 25, 2011.

April 14, 1906 – President Theodore Roosevelt First Likens Crusading Journalists to “Muckrakers”

At Dickinson State University’s Theodore Roosevelt Center, a page devoted to “Muckraker” explains: “Muckraker is the word used to describe any Progressive Era journalist who investigated and publicized social and economic injustices.” Theodore Roosevelt applied the term in his important speech entitled “The Man With the Muck-Rake,” in Washington, D.C., on this day in history – April 14, 1906.

The kind of reporting later called “muckraking” began with the new century in the 1900s, when magazines such as McClure’s began featuring exposés. In January 1903 three still famous articles were published in the same issue – “The History of Standard Oil” by Ida M. Tarbell, “The Shame of the Cities,” by Lincoln Steffens and “The Right to Work by Ray Stannard Baker.

In Roosevelt’s speech, he referred to a character in John Bunyan’s classic book Pilgrim’s Progress, “the Man with the Muck-rake,” who rejected salvation to focus on filth. Roosevelt acknowledged that “the men with the muck rakes are often indispensable to the well being of society; but only if they know when to stop raking the muck.”

You can read the entire text of the speech here.

President Theodore Roosevelt

April 12, 1900 – Foraker Act Establishes Civilian Government on Island of Puerto Rico

The Foraker Act, Pub.L. 56–191, 31 Stat. 77, replaced the governing military regime in Puerto Rico with a limited form of civil governance. Puerto Rico had recently become a possession of the United States as a result of the Spanish–American War. The legislation was known as the “Foraker Act” after its sponsor, Ohio Senator Joseph B. Foraker, although its main author has been identified as Secretary of War Elihu Root.

The new government had a governor and an 11-member executive council appointed by the President of the United States, a House of Representatives with 35 elected members, a judicial system with a Supreme Court (also appointed) and a United States District Court, and a non-voting Resident Commissioner in Congress. In addition, all federal laws of the United States were to be in effect on the island.

In this 1898 cartoon, Uncle Sam offers a suit of “stars and stripes” to a young Puerto Rican. The question of Puerto Rico’s assimilation and status remained a constant source of political friction on the island and in Congress. Image via Library of Congress

As the Pulitzer-Prize winning dramatist Quiara Alegría Hudes pointed out in her memoir, “My Broken Language”:

Language differences threatened then new colonizers’ ability to rule. Four hundred years of Puerto Rican literature, history, laws, and business records were in Spanish, but neither the U.S. government nor American sugar corporations hungry to buy up land spoke it. A few years into the acquisition, the Foraker Act foisted English, virtually unknown on the island, onto every level of the culture. Overnight, government departments were mandated to use English coequally with Spanish. . . . School days now began with the United States pledge of allegiance and national anthem. Students learned both phonetically, oblivious to their meaning. Teachers and students were forbidden to speak Spanish in schools. . . . English enforcement (for the ease of stateside governors and sugar corporations) was justified as moral imperative. New leaders touted their will to bestow the blessings of enlightened civilization on the island’s masses. English was not simply a language, but a betterment project.”

The Foraker Act was superseded in 1917 by the Jones–Shafroth Act (Pub.L. 64–368, 39 Stat. 951, enacted March 2, 1917) This act superseded the Foraker Act and granted U.S. citizenship to anyone born in Puerto Rico on or after April 11, 1899. It also created the Senate of Puerto Rico, established a bill of rights, and authorized the election of a Resident Commissioner (previously appointed by the President) to a four-year term. The act also exempted Puerto Rican bonds from federal, state, and local taxes regardless of where the bondholder resides.

In 1991 the government of Puerto Rico, under the administration of the Popular Democratic Party’s Rafael Hernández Colón, made Spanish its sole official language through a law commonly called the “Spanish-only Law.” On January 4, 1993, the 12th Legislative Assembly, with the support of the newly elected New Progressive Party (PNP) government of Pedro Rosselló González passed Senate Bill 1, establishing both Spanish and English as official languages of the government of Puerto Rico.

2019 cartoon on America’s continued colonization of Puerto Rico

As James Baldwin wrote for the New York Times in 1979 on the uses of language as a political tool:

Language, incontestably, reveals the speaker. Language, also, far more dubiously, is meant to define the other. . . . People evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances, or in order not to be submerged by a reality that they cannot articulate. (And, if they cannot articulate it, they are submerged.)”