This Day in History, Feb. 28, 1823: U.S. Supreme Court Adopts ‘Discovery Doctrine’

On this day in history, Feb. 28, 1823, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Johnson v. M’Intosh, effectively adopting a secular form of 15th Century Papal edicts as the basis for the relationship between the U.S. government and Native nations.

The Papal edicts provided the legal and religious justification for European explorers to claim indigenous lands on behalf of their monarchs by right of discovery. Collectively, these edicts (or bulls) are known as the Doctrine of Discovery. In Johnson v. M’Intosh, the Court wrote that the United States, as the successor nation to European monarchies, maintains those same land rights.

The United States civilized inhabitants “hold, and assert in themselves, the title by which it was acquired. They maintain, as all others have maintained, that discovery gave an exclusive right to extinguish the Indian title of occupancy, either by purchase or by conquest …”

Columbus operated under the Doctrine of Discovery. (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Here is another key passage from the decision, written by Chief Justice Marshall:

On the discovery of this immense continent, the great nations of Europe were eager to appropriate to themselves so much of it as they could respectively acquire. Its vast extent offered an ample field to the ambition and enterprise of all; and the character and religion of its inhabitants [Native Americans] afforded an apology for considering them as a people over whom the superior genius of Europe might claim an ascendency. The potentates of the old world found no difficulty in convincing themselves that they made ample compensation to the inhabitants of the new, by bestowing on them civilization and Christianity, in exchange for unlimited independence. But, as they [European monarchs] were all in pursuit of nearly the same object, it was necessary, in order to avoid conflicting settlements, and consequent war with each other, to establish a principle which all should acknowledge as the law by which the right of acquisition, which they all asserted, should be regulated as between themselves. This principle was that discovery gave title to the government by whose subjects, or by whose authority, it was made, against all other European governments, which title might be consummated by possession.

In more vernacular language, here are three claims these passages asset.

  1. The character and religion of Native Americans made it OK for Europeans and their “superior genius” to claim domination over them.
  2. Even though Native Americans lost their land, they still got a fair deal because the Europeans gave them civilization, Christianity, and “unlimited independence.”
  3. “Discovery” of the land by European monarchs gave them title. (Therefore, as the United States bought the land from European nations, or won it in war, the United States now is the title holder.)

Several Native American organizations have been putting pressure on the Pope and the Catholic Church to officially reverse the Doctrine of Discovery.

Filmmaker Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota) has produced a documentary called: The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code. It is available for purchase on line. Healing Minnesota Stories can help coordinate a screening at your congregation or civic organization.

Several Christian denominations have taken formal action to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. Here is a list of denominational statements.

The legal impact of rescinding the Doctrine of Discovery is not immediately clear, but it would certainly open up important, difficult, and painful conversations.

Check on the Healing Minnesota Stories website for more resources on the Doctrine of Discovery.

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