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  • By Robert A. Underwood

Our rights are unalienable

Updated: Mar 3, 2021

In formal conferences, public meetings and private conversations over self-determination and self-government, we are treated to a series of ideological statements that should cause us to reflect upon our ultimate goals.

Some people state that they just want to be first class American citizens and long for citizenship equality. Some seek separate citizenship while others argue that things are just fine. We should be allowed to hold on to status quo. I can understand being for independence and for statehood. I can’t understand arguing for the status quo.

When it comes to territories, there is a startling blind spot, perhaps willful ignorance, about where power comes from in a democracy. William Henry Harrison stated, “The only legitimate right to govern is an express grant of power from the governed.” This is the core principal of American government and provides the ideological basis for representative democracy. Absent consent of the governed, we have a very un-American form of government.

That is exactly what we have in the territories. It is even more acute in the territories of Guam and the Virgin Islands than the other territories which are ostensibly not governed by a congressionally powered Organic Act. At least, Puerto Rico and the Northern Marianas Islands can argue that they have an arrangement which both sides agreed to. Of course, at the end of the day, all the territories lack real sovereignty and representative democracy. We are just mere appendages to the American body politic as unincorporated territories.


When it comes to territories, there is a startling blind spot, perhaps willful ignorance, about where power comes from in a democracy. When it comes to territories, there is a startling blind spot, perhaps willful ignorance, about where power comes from in a democracy.


Congress has almost unlimited “plenary authority” over the territories and can apply or exempt the application of federal law on their own without asking the territories what their preference might be. Moreover, the citizens of the territories have no formal role in how those very laws are made. They have an informal mechanism through Delegates to the U.S. House of Representatives. But these positions cannot vote for or against legislation which would apply to them. Moreover, the Delegates are creatures of legislation rather than the U.S. Constitution. The Congress may decide to eliminate the delegates or re-cast their role at any time. Senators and Representatives are established by the U.S. Constitution.

William Henry Harrison was not only the last British subject to become President, he is the only territorial delegate to ever reach America’s highest position. I point this out not to provide unnecessarily false hope that delegates can become president in the future, but to teach a realistic lesson in understanding the essence of being a delegate. No one knows powerlessness more than Harrison (and all other subsequent delegates) so his motivation for the statement was perhaps both philosophical and personal.

Revolutions are based on the lack of power and nations are created out of a desire to develop governments which are reflections of the popular will. Only in places like Guam do we find people who are afraid of exercising popular sovereignty and having a government of their own. Many of us are just comfortable in our own lack of power and fear manipulation by others. So, we manipulate ourselves into thinking that having an un-American, tyrannical form of government is defensible and even desirable. We point to the American Highway Trust Fund, food stamps and federal largesse as strong points to accept our inferior status.

This is the sum total of our total degradation of our own muddled political philosophy. We don’t even understand the construction of the American Republic and the lessons it has historically tried to teach the world. The basis of American Exceptionalism is that it is unique in its determination to serve as a democratic example of representative democracy where all are equal before the law. Yet we find out that America has made an exception to this example when it comes to territories. We have become the unattractive child of American exceptionalism.


How we articulate our political aspirations determines the capacity of our society. If we limit our vision, we limit our potential. If we teach our children that accepting second best is okay, they will settle for anything and even third best. When hope ceases to be the motivator for a society, fear takes over. We not only do not want to govern ourselves, we fear it. We criticize anyone who seeks a different vision as being ungrateful or anti-American. In the tortured logic of federal-territorial relations, it becomes anti-American to criticize the un-American government we live under. We also point to the misbehavior of local officials as the reason to not trust local people and fear self-government. Local people lack political maturity and are therefore not fit to enjoy political equality or offer consent to their own government.

We can and should pursue greater autonomy as the basis for a healthier society. We should do so employing all of the tools available to us as Americans. We need to rededicate ourselves to the pursuit of self-government and the consent of the governed as our primary goals as political beings in the territories. We have a fundamental right to do so because our rights are unalienable and come from the Creator. Today, we call these human rights.

For those who wonder about the origins of these sentiments which should motivate us, they are clearly outlined in the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson wrote,

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

American exceptionalism doesn’t just belong to Americans.

Robert A. Underwood, served as Guam’s delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives from 1993 to 2003. He was the president of the University of Guam from 2008 to 2018. Send feedback to


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