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Property as a Right of Despotic Dominion

In 1776, a white aristocratic slave owner from Virginia named Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. He did so on behalf of thirteen British colonies on the Atlantic seaboard of North America that desired to rebel and break away from the British Empire that had created them. Jefferson opened the Declaration of Independence with the line “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” And he expressed the first such “truth” as, “all men are created equal.”

Because he owned slaves when he wrote that all men are equal, some people might view Jefferson as a hypocrite. However, according to the “legal system” in place in Virginia at that time, Jefferson’s slaves were his rightful property. He even had to pay a tax on his slave-property. Slaves were a form of property which merely resembled humans. Thus, in Jefferson’s mind, chattel slaves, including his own, did not fall into the category of “men.” The existence of slaves in a slave owning society did not in any way interfere with “all [white , property owning] men” being equal to one another, at least in principle.

Pointing out that slaves such as Jefferson’s were his “property,” leads to a quite sensible question: “What is property?” I recently posed a question about the idea property to Professor Lance Liebman who teaches at Columbia Law School (He is co-author of the legal textbook, Property and Law, and has been teaching law for 45 years). Liebman kindly provided me with a quote from William Blackstone’s Commentaries. According to Blackstone, “property” is “... that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world ..." Thus, for example, a slave owner such as Jefferson, possessed a despotic dominion (a right of domination) over his slave-property. For this reason, we might say that slavery is the central model or case of the very idea of domination. It provides a prototype (best example) of domination.

Property (despotic dominion) has been characterized as the foundation of “civilization.” This makes perfect sense when we consider that “the process of civilizing” is a process by which “men” first of all claim “absolute dominion” over an ever-larger geographical area, and then use violence and force to make despotic dominion an experienced reality over that geographical area. What is the reason or purpose for expanding despotic dominion? It is to increase the wealth that results from domination (dominium, ownership). An expanding domination is the background frame of reference for the metaphors “progress” “advancement” and “Manifest Destiny” (the ‘divinely destined’ domination gets manifested).

Colonization is one of the principal means by which despotic dominion is moved forward or “advanced” over lands not yet colonized, meaning “not yet dominated.” When the dominating society characterizes free and independent nations and peoples as being “uncivilized,” it is, in effect, declaring them to be “not yet dominated,” or not yet forced under the despotic dominion of the colonizers. Colonization and civilization go hand in hand when we remember that “civilization” is defined as “the forcing of a particular cultural pattern on a population to which it [that cultural pattern] is foreign.” (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary).

Colonization is one of the means of forcing such a cultural pattern on a foreign population. Historian Samuel Morison, in The Oxford History of the American People (1965), made this imagery quite clear. He defined “colonization” as “a form of conquest in which a nation takes over a distant territory, thrusts in its own people, and controls or eliminates the native inhabitants” (p. 34). This describes some of the activities involved in the first establishment of a “despotic dominion” over the nations and peoples living in an area that had not been previously under such domination.

What Morison terms the “nation” that engages in these kinds of activities, is typically characterized as an empire, or sovereignty (which Jonathon Havercroft calls “an unjust system of domination, that "limits human freedom”). The goal of colonization is the expansion of the imperium, which Richard Van Alstyne defined as “a dominion, state or sovereignty that would expand in population and territory, and increase in strength and power” (The Rising American Empire, 1960, p. 1). Max Weber characterized the state as “relations of men dominating men.” What the foregoing adds up to is this: The history of the United States is about the Elite sector of U.S. society using a claimed right of domination to expand the extent, sphere, and scope of domination of the American empire, and to increase the amount of population and territory deemed to be under that empire’s control, while simultaneously expanding the wealth (based on despotic dominion) of the Elite sector of the domination society of the United States.

Claus Meuller in his excellent book, The Politics of Communication (1977), defines domination as “the control” by “a limited number of individuals over the material resources of society,” and “over access to positions of political [decision-making] power” (p. 129). He then points out that legitimacy “confers authority on a system of domination.” Legitimacy, says Meuller, makes “rightful” the decisions made by those in control of the system of domination. This does not necessarily mean that those decisions are rightful; it merely means that those who have internalized the domination system and its view of legitimacy will regard both the domination system and its decisions as rightful.

There are those of us as Native people who have not internalized the justifying rationale of the domination system. Because we have not been successfully socialized into the domination system, we are still capable of entertaining what the Japanese society has characterized as kikenshiso, “dangerous thoughts,” about the conceptual foundation of the domination system. We are able to ask, “Is there such a thing a valid right of domination (despotic despotism, dominium, etc.) over our original nations and peoples of Great Turtle Island (‘North America’)?” Here’s my answer: “From the viewpoint of the original free and independent existence of our Native nations, there is no such thing as a valid right of domination, or despotic dominion, over our existence.”

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author ofPagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery(Fulcrum, 2008). He is a producer of the documentary movie,The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code, directed and produced by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota), with narration by Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree).My deep appreciation to Professor Glenn T. Morris (Shawnee) for assisting me with the drafting of this column.