‘Because the Bible tells me so’: Manifest Destiny and American Indians

‘Because the Bible tells me so’: Manifest Destiny and American Indians

Steven Paul McSloy

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those
who have a different complexion or slightly fatter noses than ourselves, is
not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the
idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretense but an
idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea - something you can set up, and
bow down before.

- Joseph Conrad, The Heart of Darkness

Why were American Indian lands taken? The easy answer, of course, is that
the Europeans wanted land and the Indians had it. But why did the Europeans
think they could take it? We are told that the first settlers of America
were moral and religious people. Why then did even the first poor and
hungry Pilgrims, pious people with no military power whatsoever, believe
that they were entitled to dominion over Indians and their lands?

In thinking about the encounter between American Indians and
Euro-Americans, the question is one of means: How were American Indian
lands taken? The answer is not, as it turns out, by military force. The
wars, massacres, Geronimo and Sitting Bull - all that was really just
cleanup. The real conquest was on paper, on maps and in laws. What those
maps showed and those laws said was that Indians had been "conquered"
merely by being "discovered." As put by Supreme Court Chief Justice John
Marshall in the famous case of Johnson v. McIntosh, "[h]owever extravagant
the pretension of converting the discovery of an inhabited country into
conquest may appear, if the principle has been asserted in the first
instance ... if a country has been acquired and held under it; ... it
becomes the law of the land, and cannot be questioned."

This Discovery Doctrine was the "idea of it," as Conrad put it, and it is
appropriate that Conrad also spoke of "bowing down before" the idea. For
though Johnson v. McIntosh was a judicial decision made by the government
of a secular republic committed to the separation of church and state, the
Supreme Court’s adoption of the Discovery Doctrine was merely the latest
invocation of a concept that had been born at the very beginning of the
Judeo-Christian tradition, on the first page of the Bible, in the Book of
Genesis. This concept had, long before John Marshall, been used by the
Jews, the Catholics and the Protestants to justify the dispossession of
indigenous peoples.

But before getting into the deeper roots of the Discovery Doctrine, what
exactly is it that Johnson v. McIntosh says? The Johnson case is the
foundation of all United States law regarding Indians, and what it says is
that by virtue of discovery, the Europeans (and by succession, the
Americans) have dominion and sovereignty over Native peoples, lands and
governments. The New World, on paper, was legally "vacant" - terra nullius
or vacuum domicilium in Latin. Title to all Indian land is thus held by the
discoverer, and Indian people are subject to the overriding political
sovereignty of the discoverer. How was this justified? In Chief Justice
Marshall’s words:

[T]he character and religion of [the New World’s] inhabitants afforded an
apology for considering them as a people over whom the superior genius of
Europe might claim an ascendancy. To leave them in possession of their
country was to leave the country a wilderness ...

[A]griculturalists, merchants, and manufacturers, have a right, on abstract
principles, to expel hunters from [their] territory ...

[E]xcuse, if not justification, [could be found] in the character and
habits of the people whose rights ha[d] been wrested from them ...

The potentates of the Old World ... made ample compensation to the
inhabitants of the new, by bestowing upon them civilization and

How is it that in 1823 when Johnson v. McIntosh was written, a time when
less than one-quarter to one-third of the United States was settled and
hundreds of Indian nations lived free and independent, the Discovery
Doctrine was already so firmly entrenched in the western legal tradition
that Marshall was merely applying it, not inventing it?

The answer is because the land of Canaan was inhabited.

When Abraham began the long march of civilization ever westward, leaving Ur
of the Chaldees to go west across the River Jordan to Canaan, he, like
Marshall, needed a reason for dispossessing the Canaanites who lived there.
The reason, according to the Bible, was that God had given the land to
Abraham’s people, the Canaanites notwithstanding. As God said through
Joshua, "I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and cities which
you had not built, and you dwell therein." (Joshua 24:13)

In the Bible, wars of extermination were sanctioned against local
inhabitants who stood in the way of the "chosen people." Speaking of
Joshua’s war with the city of Hazor, the Bible tells us: "They smote all
the souls that were therein with the edge of the sword utterly destroying
them. There was not any left to breathe and he burnt Hazor with fire."
(Joshua 11:11)

The Lord’s gift, and the actions taken by the Hebrews to realize it, were
justified on the grounds that the indigenous inhabitants were idolaters,
cannibals and human sacrificers, neither civilized nor of the true faith.
Some ancient Hebrew apologists also advanced terra nullius arguments,
claiming that Canaan was uninhabited; that is, that the land of Canaan had
no Canaanites. Others claimed that the Canaanites had stolen the land from
ancestors of the Hebrews, and thus that the Hebrews were the original

All of this was by way of legalistic apologetic, for as a matter of faith,
according to the Bible, the Jews believed that Canaan was their destiny
and, in fact, it was a manifest one. They were the "chosen people," the
inheritors of God’s covenant with Abraham, who had himself inherited God’s
promise to Adam, made on the first page of the first Book of the Bible,
where God said, "Let us make man ... and let them have dominion over the
... earth ... Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it;
and have dominion ... over every living thing." (Genesis 1:26 - 28)

This promise was renewed to Noah after the Flood, with the further
provision that: "[t]he fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every
beast of the earth ... upon everything that creeps on the ground ... into
your hand they are delivered." (Genesis 9:2) Man was given power over God’s
creation, and also the right to name God’s creatures: "[O]ut of the ground
the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air ...
and whatever [Adam] called every living creature, that was its name."
(Genesis 2:19) Man was thus given the power of the Word, and it is a
straight line from Adam’s naming of the animals to Christopher Columbus’
mistakenly naming all the indigenous peoples of two continents as

The people of Abraham were the "chosen people." The colonizing religions of
the Old World - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - all trace back to
Abraham, and through him to Noah and to Adam, in order to inherit this
"chosen" status and thus to inherit the earth and dominion over it. Judaism
and Christianity trace to Isaac, Abraham’s son by his wife Sarah, whereas
Islam traces to Ishmael, Abraham’s son by his servant Hagar. As it is
written in the Book of Psalms, God said, "Ask of me, and I will make the
nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession." (Psalms

Jesus Christ brought forth a new Covenant, but it was with the old "chosen
people," who needed to accept Christ as the Messiah to remain "chosen." The
early Christian writer Justin Martyr made this clear when he was confronted
by a Rabbi who asked, "What is this? Are you Israel?" The Martyr answered,
"yes." On the basis of Christ’s Covenant, the medieval Popes formalized and
legalized the Church’s jurisdiction over the entire world, Christian and
heathen alike. They further undertook to grant and take heathen lands
notwithstanding their inhabitation. Various Papal Bulls were issued to
Catholic sovereigns, the most notorious being the 1493 Inter Cetera Bull
dividing the world between Spain and Portugal and sanctioning their actions
to "subdue the said mainlands and islands and their natives and
inhabitants, with God’s grace and to bring them to the Catholic faith."

The Protestant translation of the Discovery Doctrine was simply that, a
translation of the basic doctrine into the language of the Reformation,
meaning the repudiation of Papal supremacy. Protestant kings, therefore,
ruling by divine right, were in their own minds as free as the Pope to
grant and charter new lands, and all Christian nations had a destiny to
fulfill God’s covenant and undertake the continuing move westward begun by

In 1492, therefore, when the Christian kings of Europe, in Justice
Marshall’s words, "conducted some of [their] adventurous sons into this
western world," they believed, as a religious matter, that whatever they
found belonged to them as the "chosen people." The entire Western
Hemisphere was terra nullius - "vacant land." If beings were found there
who seemed human, but were not Christian, then they were, in the words of
one colonial writer, "little superior, in point of Civilization, to the
Beasts of the Field," a formulation neatly tied to the mandate in the Book
of Genesis that the sons of Adam shall have dominion over "every beast of
the field." (Genesis 2:19)

Being practical men, as they could not realize upon their "extravagant and
absurd" claims, as Justice Marshall called them, for fear of military
defeat by the Indians, and, in their own way, perhaps even concerned for
Native people, the Europeans recognized that Native people had some rights
to occupy and use their land. But it was nonetheless clear to the Europeans
that Native people did not own their land and thus that the Indians had no
power to sell it or otherwise to convey title. The land was owned, and
title was held, by the Christian king whose explorers "discovered" it.

The English Crown’s charters to Cabot, Gilbert and Raleigh were nearly
identical to the Pope’s Bulls in commissioning expeditions to "heathen and
barbarious lands." Pilgrim and Puritan sermons were replete with references
to God’s covenant with them, and their divine mission, their "errand into
the wilderness," their "manifest destiny." Such a belief is all the more
remarkable given the Pilgrims’ famous dependence upon Indian peoples for
food and the means to farm, celebrated today as Thanksgiving. This was
rationalized by the Pilgrims through the belief that Indian hospitality was
due not to the Indians but to the workings of the Pilgrims’ God. As
historian Wilcomb Washburn noted, "[w]e read frequently such statements as
‘God caused the Indians to help us with fish at very cheap rates.’" The
Puritans called America "Canaan," meaning the land of promise - God’s
promise. Civilization moved west, and with it the Cross, even going out
into the Pacific as Hawaii was subdued by the United States Marines. A year
later, President McKinley told the nation of how it was revealed to him in
prayer that it was America’s responsibility to bring Christianity to the
"little brown brothers" of the Philippines.

Chief Justice Marshall was thus heir to an ancient religious tradition.
This theory of a God-given dominion over Native peoples’ lands, held by a
divine king tracing himself back to Adam, however, sounds a little
old-fashioned, even medieval, and by 1823 the United States had overthrown
a king and put "We the People" on the throne. But the principle remained:
The sovereign federal government, as successor to the English Crown, held
dominion over, and title to, all Indian lands. Marshall, writing as a
secular judge, was careful in enshrining the Discovery Doctrine as the
basis for United States Indian law to avoid explicitly endorsing its
religious and covenantal roots. But that was all he left out. All the other
ideas about vacant land, savagery, lack of civilization, heathenism,
nomadic hunters without a conception of property, all were deployed to
strip Indians of their rights. Americans were the new "chosen people," with
a "manifest destiny" to own the continent.

Later Supreme Court decisions were not nearly as careful to hide the roots
of federal power over Indians. For example, in 1877 in Beecher v. Wetherby,
the Court stated that when dealing with Indians, "[i]t is to be presumed
that ... the United States would be governed by such considerations of
justice as would control a Christian people in their treatment of an
ignorant and dependent race."

Federal Indian Law, therefore, rests on ancient religious ideas about the
rights and powers of the chosen people, which principles are so deeply
embedded that no one even questions "why" anymore. Congress’ plenary power
over Indian people and the United States’ ownership of Indian lands are
just seen as givens, and the laws affecting Indians are made without
constitutional or judicial restraint.

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