Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States (1833)
by Joseph L. Story
Origin of the Title to Territory of the Colonies
§ 1. THE discovery of the Continent of America by Columbus in the fifteenth century awakened the attention of all the maritime States of Europe. Stimulated by the love of glory, and still more by the hope of gain and dominion, many of them early embarked in adventurous enterprises, the object of which was to found colonies, or to search for the precious metals, or to exchange the products and manufactures of the old world for whatever was most valuable and attractive in the new.1 England was not behind her continental neighbours in seeking her own aggrandizement, and nourishing her then infant commerce.2 The ambition of Henry the Seventh was roused by the communications of Columbus, and in 1495 he granted a commission to John Cabot, an enterprising Venitian, then settled in England, to proceed on a voyage of discovery, and to subdue and take possession of any lands unoccupied by any Christian Power, in the name and for the benefit of the British Crown.3 In the succeeding year Cabot sailed on his voyage, and having first discovered the Islands of Newfoundland and St. Johns, he afterwards sailed along the coast of the continent from the 56th to the 38th degree of north latitude; and claimed for his sovereign the vast region, which stretches from the Gulf of Mexico to the most northern regions.4
§ 2. Such is the origin of the British title to the territory composing these United States. That title was founded on the right of discovery, a right, which was held among the European nations a just and sufficient foundation, on which to rest their respective claims to the American continent. Whatever controversies existed among them (and they were numerous) respecting the extent of their own acquisitions abroad, they appealed to this as the ultimate fact, by which their various and conflicting claims were to be adjusted. It may not be easy upon general reasoning to establish the doctrine, that priority of discovery confers any exclusive right to territory. It was probably adopted by the European nations as a convenient and flexible rule, by which to regulate their respective claims. For it was obvious, that in the mutual contests for dominion in newly discovered lands, there would soon arise violent and sanguinary struggles for exclusive possession, unless some common principle should be recognized by all maritime nations for the benefit of all. None more readily suggested itself than the one now under consideration; and as it was a principle of peace and repose, of perfect equality or benefit in proportion to the actual or supposed expenditures and hazards attendant upon such enterprises, it received a universal Acquiescence, if not a ready approbation. It became the basis of European polity, and regulated the exercise of the rights of sovereignty and settlement in all the cis-Atlantic Plantations.5 In respect to desert and uninhabited lands, there does not seem any important objection, which can be urged against it. But in respect to countries, then inhabited by the natives, it is not easy to perceive, how, in point of justice, or humanity, or general conformity to the law of nature, it can be successfully vindicated. As a conventional rule it might properly govern all the nations, which recognized its obligation; but it could have no authority over the aborigines of America, whether gathered into civilized communities, or scattered in hunting tribes over the wilderness. Their right, whatever it was, of occupation or use, stood upon original principles deducible from the law of nature, and could not be justly narrowed or extinguished without their own free consent.
§ 3. There is no doubt, that the Indian tribes, inhabiting this continent at the time of its discovery, maintained a claim to the exclusive possession and occupancy of the territory within their respective limits, as sovereigns and absolute proprietors of the soil. They acknowledged no obedience, or allegiance, or subordination to any foreign sovereign whatsoever; and as far as they have possessed the means, they have ever since asserted this plenary right of dominion, and yielded it up only when lost by the superior force of conquest, or transferred by a voluntary cession.
§ 4. This is not the place to enter upon the discussion of the question of the actual merits of the titles claimed by the respective parties upon principles of natural law. That would involve the consideration of many nice and delicate topics, as to the nature and origin of property in the soil, and the extent, to which civilized man may demand it from the savage for uses or cultivation different from, and perhaps more beneficial to society than the uses, to which the latter may choose to appropriate it. Such topics belong more properly to a treatise on natural law, than to lectures professing to treat upon the law of a single nation.
§ 5. The European nations found little difficulty in reconciling themselves to the adoption of any principle, which gave ample scope to their ambition, and employed little reasoning to support it. They were content to take counsel of their interests, their prejudices, and their passions, and felt no necessity of vindicating their conduct before cabinets, which were already eager to recognise its justice and its policy. The Indians were a savage race, sunk in the depths of ignorance and heathenism. If they might not be extirpated for their want of religion and just morals, they might be reclaimed from their errors. They were bound to yield to the superior genius of Europe, and in exchanging their wild and debasing habits for civilization and Christianity they were deemed to gain more than an equivalent for every sacrifice and suffering.6 The Papal authority, too, was brought in aid of these great designs; and for the purpose of overthrowing heathenism, and propagating the Catholic religion,7 Alexander the Sixth, by a Bull issued in 1493, granted to the crown of Castile the whole of the immense territory then discovered, or to be discovered, between the poles, so far as it was not then possessed by any Christian prince.8
§ 6. The principle, then, that discovery gave title to the government, by whose subjects or by whose authority it was made, against all other European governments, being once established, it followed almost as a matter of course, that every government within the limits of its discoveries excluded all other persons from any right to acquire the soil by any grant whatsoever from the natives. No nation would suffer either its own subjects or those of any other nation to set up or vindicate any such title.9 It was deemed a right exclusively belonging to the government in its sovereign capacity to extinguish the Indian title, and to perfect its own dominion over the soil, and dispose of it according to its own good pleasure.
§ 7. It may be asked, what was the effect of this principle of discovery in respect to the rights of the natives themselves. In the view of the Europeans it created a peculiar relation between themselves and the aboriginal inhabitants. The latter were admitted to possess a present right of occupancy, or use in the soil, which was subordinate to the ultimate dominion of the discoverer. They were admitted to be the rightful occupants of the soil, with a legal as well as just claim to retain possession of it, and to use it according to their own discretion. In a certain sense they were permitted to exercise rights of sovereignty over it. They might sell or transfer it to the sovereign, who discovered it; but they were denied the authority to dispose of it to any other persons; and until such a sale or transfer, they were generally permitted to occupy it as sovereigns de facto. But notwithstanding this occupancy, the European discoverers claimed and exercised the right to grant the soil, while yet in possession of the natives, subject however to their right of occupancy; and the title so granted was universally admitted to convey a sufficient title in the soil to the grantees in perfect dominion, or, as it is sometimes expressed in treatises of public law, it was a transfer of plenum et utile dominium.
§ 8. This subject was discussed at great length in the celebrated case of Johnson v. McIntosh, (8 Wheat. 543); and one cannot do better than transcribe from the pages of that report a summary of the historical confirmations adduced in support of these principles, which is more clear and exact than has ever been before in print.
§ 9. “The history of America, (says Mr. Chief Justice Marshall, in delivering the opinion of the Court,)10 from its discovery to the present day, proves, we think, the universal recognition of these principles.
“Spain did not rest her title solely on the grant of the Pope. Her discussions respecting boundary, with France, with Great Britain, and with the United States, all show, that she placed it on the rights given by discovery. Portugal sustained her claim to the Brazils by the same title.
§ 10. “France, also, founded her title to the vast territories she claimed in America on discovery. However conciliatory her conduct to the natives may have been, she still asserted her right of dominion over a great extent of country not actually settled by Frenchmen, and her exclusive right to acquire and dispose of the soil, which remained in the occupation of Indians. Her monarch claimed all Canada and Acadic, as colonies of France, at a time when the French population was very inconsiderable, and the Indians occupied almost the whole country. He also claimed Louisiana, comprehending the immense territories watered by the Mississippi, and the rivers, which empty into it, by the title of discovery. The letters patent granted to the Sieur Demonts, in 1603, constitute him Lieutenant General, and the representative of the King in Acadie, which is described as stretching from the 40th to the 46th degree of north latitude, with authority to extend the power of the French over that country, and its inhabitants, to give laws to the people, to treat with the natives, and enforce the observance of treaties, and to parcel out, and give title to lands, according to his own judgment.
§ 11. “The States of Holland also made acquisitions in America, and sustained their right on the common principle adopted by all Europe. They allege, as we are told by Smith, in his History of New York, that Henry Hudson, who sailed, as they say, under the orders of their East India Company, discovered the country from the Delaware to the Hudson, up which he sailed to the 43d degree of north latitude; and this country they claimed under the title acquired by this voyage. Their first object was commercial, as appears by a grant made to a company of merchants in 1614; but in 1621, the States General made, as we are told by Mr. Smith, a grant of the country to the West India Company, by the name of New Netherlands. The claim of the Dutch was always contested by the English; not, because they questioned the title given by discovery, but because they insisted on being themselves the rightful claimants under that title. Their pretensions were finally decided by the sword.
§ 12. “No one of the powers of Europe gave its full assent to this principle, more unequivocally than England. The documents upon this subject are ample and complete. So early as the year 1496, her monarch granted a commission to the Cabots, to discover countries then unknown to Christian people, and to take possession of them in the name of the king of England. Two years afterwards, Cabot proceeded on this voyage, and discovered the continent of North America, along which he sailed as far south as Virginia. To this discovery the English trace their title. In this first effort made by the English government to acquire territory on this continent, we perceive a complete recognition of the principle, which has been mentioned. The right of discovery given by this commission is confined to countries ‘then unknown to all Christian people;’ and of these countries Cabot was empowered to take possession in the name of the king of England. Thus asserting a right to take possession, notwithstanding the occupancy of the natives, who were heathens, and, at the same time, admitting the prior title of any Christian people, who may have made a previous discovery.
§ 13. “The same principle continued to be recognized. The charter granted to Sir Humphrey Gilbert, in 1578, authorizes him to discover and take possession of such remote, heathen, and barbarous lands, as were not actually possessed by any Christian prince or people. This charter was afterwards renewed to Sir Walter Raleigh, in nearly the same terms.
§ 14. “By the charter of 1606, under which the first permanent English settlement on this continent was made, James the First granted to Sir Thomas Gates and others, those territories in America lying on the seacoast between the 34th and 45th degrees of north latitude, and which either belonged to that monarch, or were not then possessed by any other Christian prince or people. The grantees were divided into two companies at their own request. The first, or southern colony, was directed to settle between the 34th and 41st degrees of north latitude; and the second, or northern colony, between the 38th and 45th degrees.
§ 15. “In 1609, after some expensive and not very successful attempts at settlement had been made, a new and more enlarged charter was given by the crown to the first colony, in which the king granted to the ‘ Treasurer and Company of Adventurers of the city of London for the first colony in Virginia,’ in absolute property, the lands extending along the sea-coast four hundred miles, and into the land throughout from sea to sea. This charter, which is a part of the special verdict in this cause, was annulled, so far as respected the rights of the company, by the judgment of the Court of King’s Bench on a writ of quo waarranto; but the whole effect allowed to this judgment was, to revest in the crown the powers of government, and the title to the lands within its limits.
§ 16. “At the association of those who held under the grant to the second or northern colony, a new and more enlarged charter was granted to the Duke of Lenox and others, in 1620, who were denominated the Plymouth Company, conveying to them in absolute property all the lands between the 40th and 48th degrees of north latitude. Under this patent, New England has been in a great measure settled. The company conveyed to Henry Rosewell and others, in 1627, that territory which is now Massachusetts; and, in 1628, a charter of incorporation, comprehending the powers of government, was granted to the purchasers. A great part of New England was granted by this company, which, at length, divided their remaining lands among themselves; and, in 1635, surrendered their charter to the crown. A patent was granted to Gorges for Maine, which was allotted to him in the division of property. All the grants made by the Plymouth Company, so far as we can learn, have been respected.
§ 17. “In pursuance of the same principle, the king, in 1664, granted to the Duke of York the country of New England as far south as the Delaware bay. His royal highness transferred New Jersey to Lord Berkeley and Sir George Carteret.
§ 18. “In 1663, the crown granted to Lord Clarendon and others, the country Iying between the 36th degree of north latitude and the river St. Mathes; and, in 1666, the proprietors obtained from the crown a new charter, granting to them that province in the king’s dominions in North America, which lies from 36 degrees 30 minutes north latitude to the 29th degree, and from the Atlantic ocean to the South sea.
§ 19. “Thus has our whole country been granted by the crown while in the occupation of the Indians. These grants purport to convey the soil, as well as the right of dominion to the grantees. In those governments, which were denominated royal, were the right to the soil was not vested in individuals, but remained in the crown, or was vested in the colonial government, the king claimed and exercised the right of granting, lands, and of dismembering the government at his will. The grants made out of the two original colonies, after the resumption of their charters by the crown, are examples of this. The governments of New England, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and a part of Carolina, were thus created. In all of them, the soil, at the time the grants were made, was occupied by the Indians. Yet almost every title within those governments is dependent on these grants. In some instances, the soil was conveyed by the crown unaccompanied by the powers of government, as in the case of the northern neck of Virginia. It has never been objected to this, or to any other similar grant, that the title as well as possession was in the Indians when it was made, and that it passed nothing on that account.
§ 20. “These various patents cannot be considered as nullities; nor can they be limited to a mere grant of the powers of government. A charter, intended to convey political power only, would never contain words expressly granting, the land, the soil, and the waters. Some of them purport to convey the soil alone; and in those cases, in which the powers of government, as well as the soil, are conveyed to individuals, the crown has always acknowledged itself to be bound by the grant. Though the power to dismember regal governments was asserted and exercised, the power to dismember proprietary governments was not claimed. And, in some instances, even after the powers of government were revested in the crown, the title of the proprietors to the soil was respected.
§ 21. “Charles the Second was extremely anxious to acquire the property of Maine, but the grantees sold it to Massachusetts, and he did not venture to contest the right of the colony to the soil. The Carolinas were originally proprietary governments; In 1721 a revolution was effected by the people, who shook off their obedience to the proprietors, and declared their dependence immediately on the crown. The king, however, purchased the title of those, who were disposed to sell. One of them, Lord Carteret, surrendered his interest in the government, but retained his title to the soil. That title was respected till the revolution, when it was forfeited by the laws of war.
§ 22. “Further proofs of the extent, to which this principle has been recognized, will be found in the history of the wars, negotiations, and treaties, which the different nations, claiming territory in America, have carried on, and held with each other. The contests between the cabinets of Versailles and Aladrid, respecting the territory on the northern coast of the gulf of Mexico, were fierce and bloody; and continued, until the establishment of a Bourbon on the throne of Spain, produced such amicable dispositions in the two crowns, as to suspend or terminate them. Between France and Great Britain, whose discoveries, as well as settlements, were nearly contemporaneous, contests for the country, actually covered by the Indians, began as soon as their settlements approached each other, and were continued until finally settled in the year 1763, by the treaty of Paris.
§ 23. ” Each nation had granted and partially settled the country, denominated by the French, Acadie, and by the English, Nova Scotia. By the 12th article of the treaty of Utrecht, made in 1713, his most Christian Majesty ceded to the Queen of Great Britain, ‘all Nova Scotia or Acadie, with its ancient boundaries.’ A great part of the ceded territory was in the possession of the Indians, and the extent of the cession could not be adjusted by the commissioners, to whom it was to be referred. The treaty of Aix la Chapelle, which was made on the principle of the status antc bellum, did not remove this subject of controversy. Commissioners for its adjustment were appointed, whose very able and elaborate, though unsuccessful arguments, in favour of the title of their respective sovereigns, show how entirely each relied on the title given by discovery to lands remaining, in the possession of Indians.
§ 24. “After the termination of this fruitless discussion, the subject was transferred to Europe, and taken up by the cabinets of Versailles and London. This controversy embraced not only the boundaries of New England, Nova Scotia, and that part of Canada, which adjoined those colonies, but embraced our whole western country also. France contended not only, that the St. Lawrence was to be considered as the center of Canada, but that the Ohio was within that colony. She founded this claim on discovery, and on having used that river for the transportation of troops in a war with some southern Indians. This river was comprehended in the chartered limits of Virginia; but, though the right of England to a reasonable extent of country, in virtue of her discovery of the seacoast, and of the settlements she made on it, was not to be questioned; her claim of all the lands to the Pacific ocean, because she had discovered the country washed by the Atlantic, might, without derogating from the principle, recognized by all, be deemed extravagant. It interfered, too, with the claims of France, founded on the same principle. She therefore sought to strengthen her original title to the lands in controversy, by insisting, that it had been acknowledged by France in the 15th article of the treaty of Utrecht. The dispute respecting the construction of that article has no tendency to impair the principle, that discovery gave a title to lands still remaining in the possession of the Indians. Whichever title prevailed, it was still a title to lands occupied by the Indians, whose right of occupancy neither controverted, and neither had then extinguished.
§ 25. “These conflicting claims produced a long and bloody war, which was terminated by the conquest of the whole country east of the Mississippi. In the treaty of 1763, France ceded and guarantied to Great Britain all Nova Scotia, or Acadie, and Canada, with their dependencies; and it was agreed, that the boundaries between the territories of the two nations in America should be irrecoverably fixed by a line drawn from the source of the Mississippi, through the middle of that river and the lakes Maurepas and Ponchartrain, to the sea. This treaty expressly cedes, and has always been understood to cede, the whole country on the English side of the dividing, line between the two nations, although a great and valuable part of it was occupied by the Indians. Great Britain, on her part, surrendered to France all her pretensions to the country west of the Mississippi. It has never been supposed, that she surrendered nothing, although she was not in actual possession of a foot of land. She surrendered all right to acquire the country; and any after attempt to purchase it from the Indians would have been considered and treated as an invasion of the territories of France.
§ 26. “By the 20th article of the same treaty, Spain ceded Florida, with its dependencies, and all the country she claimed east or southeast of the Mississippi, to Great Britain. Great part of this territory also was in possession of the Indians.
§ 27. “By a secret treaty, which was executed about the same time, France ceded Louisiana to Spain; and Spain has since retroceded the same country to France. At the time both of its cession and retrocession, it was occupied, chiefly, by the Indians.
§ 28. “Thus, all the nations of Europe, who have acquired territory on this continent, have asserted in themselves, and have recognized in others, the exclusive right of the discoverer to appropriate the lands occupied by the Indians. Have the American States rejected or adopted this principle?
§ 29. “By the treaty, which concluded the war of our revolution, Great Britain relinquished all claim, not only to the government, but to the ‘ propriety and territorial rights of the United States,’ whose boundaries were fixed in the second article. By this treaty, the powers of government, and the right to soil, which had previously been in Great Britain, passed definitively to these States. We had before taken possession of them, by declaring, independence; but neither the declaration of independence, nor the treaty confirming it, could give us more than that, which we before possessed, or to which Great Britain was before entitled. It has never been doubted, that either the United States, or the several States, had a clear title to all the lands within the boundary lines described in the treaty, subject only to the Indian right of occupancy, and that the exclusive power to extinguish that right was vested in that government, which might constitutionally exercise it.
§ 30. “Virginia, particularly, within whose chartered limits the land in controversy lay, passed an act, in the year 1779, declaring her ‘ exclusive right of preemption from the Indians of all the lands within the limits of her own chartered territory, and that no persons whatsoever have, or ever had, a right to purchase any lands within the same from any Indian nation, except only persons duly authorized to make such purchase, formerly for the use and benefit of the colony, and lately for the Commonwealth.’ The act then proceeds to annul all deeds made by Indians to individuals for the private use of the purchasers.
§ 31. “Without ascribing to this act the power of annulling vested rights, or admitting it to countervail the testimony furnished by the marginal note opposite to the title of the law forbidding purchases from the Indians, in the revisals of the Virginia statutes, stating that law to be repealed, it may safely be considered as an unequivocal affirmance, on the part of Virginia, of the broad principle, which had always been maintained, that the exclusive right to purchase from the Indians resided in the government.
§ 32. “In pursuance of the same idea, Virginia proceeded, at the same session, to open her land-office for the sale of that country, which now constitutes Kentucky, a country, every acre of which was then claimed and possessed by Indians, who maintained their title with as much persevering courage, as was ever manifested by any people.
§ 33. “The States having within their chartered limits different portions of territory covered by Indians, ceded that territory, generally, to the United States, on conditions expressed in their deeds of cession, which demonstrate the opinion, that they ceded the soil as well as jurisdiction, and that in doing so, they granted a productive fund to the government of the Union. The lands in controversy lay within the chartered limits of Virginia, and were ceded with the whole country northwest of the river Ohio. This grant contained reservations and stipulations, which could only be made by the owners of the soil; and concluded with a stipulation, that ‘ all the lands in the ceded territory, not reserved, should be considered as a common fund, for the use and benefit of such of the United States as have become, or shall become, members of the confederation,’ etc. ‘according to their usual respective proportions in the general charge and expenditure, and shall be faithfully and bona fide disposed of for that purpose, and for no other use or purpose whatsoever.’ The ceded territory was occupied by numerous and warlike tribes of Indians; but the exclusive right of the United States to extinguish their title, and to grant the soil, has never, we believe, been doubted.
§ 34. “After these States became independent, a controversy subsisted between them and Spain respecting boundary. By the treaty of 1795, this controversy was adjusted, and Spain ceded to the United States the territory in question. This territory, though claimed by both nations, was chiefly in the actual occupation of Indians.
§ 35. “The magnificent purchase of Louisiana was the purchase from France of a country almost entirely occupied by numerous tribes of Indians, who are in fact independent. Yet, any attempt of others to intrude into that country would be considered as an aggression, which would justify war.
§ 36. “Our late acquisitions from Spain are or the same character; and the negotiations, which preceded those acquisitions, recognize and elucidate the principle, which has been received as the foundation of all European title in America.
§ 37. “The United States, then, have unequivocally acceded to that great and broad rule, by which its civilized inhabitants now hold this country. They 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; and gave also a right to such a degree of sovereignty, as the circumstances of the people would allow them to exercise.
§ 38. “The power now possessed by the government of the United States to grant lands, resided, while we were colonies, in the crown, or its grantees. The validity of the titles given by either has never been questioned in our courts. It has been exercised uniformly over territory in possession of the Indians. The existence of this power must negative the existence of any right, which may conflict with and control it. An absolute title to Lands cannot exist, at the same time, in different persons, or in different governments. An absolute, must be an exclusive title, or at least a title, which excludes all others not compatible with it. All our institutions recognize the absolute title of the crown, subject only to the Indian right of occupancy, and recognize the absolute title of the crown to extinguish that right. This is incompatible with an absolute and complete title in the Indians.”