2 minute read

Newsflash: Property law in the U.S. is not rooted in the Constitution.

America’s legal foundation for property law (possession), “anti-Indian law,” and the concept of nation-states is religious, not secular.

Where did this deep sense of entitlement, hierarchy and dominion over unknown lands and its original sovereign peoples originate?

How was this wilderness continent, upon which its people depended – for millennia – for survival, end up being converted into “real estate” by a bunch of European Christian princes and pirates?

Most people who own real estate, work and live on this settler-colonized land we now call “America,” cannot answer the question. So, how can we discern a proper answer?

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, the fourth, and longest-serving chief justice (1801-1835), told us so – more than 200 years ago. 

The Doctrine of Christian Discovery originated in Europe in the 15th Century and is melded into the U.S. Supreme Court’s precedent case, Johnson vs. McIntosh (1823). 

Careful decoding of the imaginative legal language in this seminal U.S. Supreme Court case reveals the fascinating history that informs present legal thinking and how we arrived at this place and time. 

To grasp a deeper comprehension of how the age-old doctrines of settler-colonialism, religious discrimination and wars of conquest influence our lives today, Steven T. Newcomb’s book “Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery” (2007) is essential reading. 

Old Testament stories provide the underpinnings, retold in the Roman Church’s 15th Century papal bulls. Centuries later, these Vatican policy documents helped to ‘legitimize’ the conceptual source of U.S. government legal doctrine that persists today to define nation-states, property, and anti-Indian law. 

Legal precedents written in the early 19th Century remain hidden under opaque strata of human imagination, cultural conditioning and consciousness.

In 1493, the bull Inter Caetera, issued by Pope Alexander VI, granted the monarchs of Spain ownership of roughly half the “discovered” world. Representatives contracted by Spanish and Portuguese monarchs exploited that official church license to claim “discovered” lands, with extensive state military backing to guarantee success. 

“English Royals” crafted their own (legal) rights of imagined ownership, certified by its homegrown Anglican form of “civilized Christianity.” In 1578, Sir Humphrey Gilbert was granted a charter from the Crown authorizing him to “…discover and take possession of such remote, heathen, and barbarous lands, as were not actually possessed by any Christian prince or people…”

Decades later, the Crown granted others charters to conquer, loot and plunder unclaimed territory in the “New World.”

Comprehending the relationship between settler-colonialism, Old Testament stories, European monarchs and the Vatican’s holy decrees is essential to understanding the chaos and war in the world today. What is most important to understand is how the Doctrine of Christian Discovery impacts our world, here and now.

This 500-year-old religious dogma is still being used. In the 21st century the U.S. Supreme Court continues to rationalize the “dominion” and “chosen people” dogma and mindset of the Old Testament and 15th century Christendom. 

Property: “The exclusive right of possessing, enjoying and disposing of a thing; ownership. In the beginning of the world, the Creator gave to man dominion over the earth, over the fish of the sea and the fowls of the air, and over every living thing. This is the foundation of man’s property in the earth… Prior occupancy of land and of wild animals gives to the possessor the property of them,” according to an 1828 Webster’s dictionary.

This is the pathology of the hierarchical dominating mentality that moves all settler-colonizer societies.

“Their god was on their side.” 

Where have we heard that lately? Enough of this nonsense.

Steve Kelly is an artist, gardener and environmental activist who lives in Bozeman, Montana. 


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