An incorporated territory of the United States is a specific area under the jurisdiction of the United States, over which the United States Congress has determined that the United States Constitution is to be applied in its entirety, in the same manner as it applies to the individual U.S. states. In contrast, an unincorporated territory is an area under U.S. jurisdiction, to which Congress has determined that only select parts of the U.S. Constitution apply. Incorporated territories, therefore, are considered an integral part of the United States, as opposed to being merely possessions.
The term "incorporated" in this sense does not refer to the act of creating a civil government entity (e.g. a city or a town).
Incorporation as it applies to territories is regarded as a permanent condition. Once incorporated, an incorporated territory can no longer be de-incorporated; that is, it can never be excluded from the jurisdiction of the United States Constitution.
Most of the historic territories of the United States, including all the ones that eventually became U.S. states, were incorporated organized territories, that is, incorporated territories for which Congress established a local civil government. The distinction between unincorporated and incorporated territories did not arise until the 20th century, following the acquisition by the United States of possessions arising from the Spanish-American War, including the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. Previously, the United States had acquired territory only through annexation, with all territories being de facto incorporated territories.
The distinction between incorporated and unincorporated territories was clarified in the 1937 United States Supreme Court case People of Puerto Rico v. Shell Oil Co. , in which the Court determined that the Sherman Antitrust Act, which had referred only to "territories", applied to Puerto Rico even though it was not an incorporated territory of the United States. See also: Insular Cases, and Guano Islands Act.
In the contemporary sense, the term "incorporated territory" refers only to insular areas. There is currently only one incorporated territory, Palmyra Atoll, an archipelago of about 50 small islands about 1.56 mile² (4 km²) in area that lies about 1,000 miles (1,600 km) south of Honolulu. The atoll was acquired by the United States in the 1893 annexation of the Republic of Hawaii. When the Territory of Hawaii was incorporated on April 30, 1900, Palmyra Atoll was incorporated as part of that territory. However, when Hawaii became a state in 1959, Palmyra Atoll was explicitly separated from the state, but it remained an incorporated territory.
A territory can be organized without being an incorporated territory, a contemporary example being Puerto Rico.
Classification of current U.S. territories
Incorporated unorganized territories
Incorporated organized territories
- none since 1959
Unincorporated organized territories
Unincorporated unorganized territories
American Samoa, technically unorganized, but self-governing under a constitution last revised in 1967
Baker Island, uninhabited
Howland Island, uninhabited
Jarvis Island, uninhabited
Johnston Atoll, no indigenous inhabitants, only military personnel and contractors
Kingman Reef, uninhabited
Midway Islands, no indigenous inhabitants, currently included in the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge
Navassa Island, uninhabited (claimed by Haiti)
Wake Island, no indigenous inhabitants, only contractor personnel (claimed by the Marshall Islands)
Classification of former U.S. territories & administered areas
Former unincorporated territories of the United States (incomplete)
Areas formerly administered by the United States (incomplete)
Last updated: 05-17-2005 04:25:42
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04