We Missed Our Exit

Discovering America, part 3

What we’ve seen so far in our journey to look for America, is a tale that seems to have a certain sad inevitability to it. Once the Agricultural Revolution had led to standing armies, then all the rest of it -- unending cycles of mass warfare and conquest with attendant rape, pillaging, enslavement -- looks unstoppable. Europe seems to have been bound and doomed to do in the Americas exactly what it did do.

But it wasn't unstoppable. It could have been different -- could easily have been different. It didn’t have to be this way. We had the wherewithal from early on to know better – and that’s the deeper tragedy. We had ideas of social justice going back to the Hebrew prophets. We had ideas of democracy from the ancient Athenians. We had, as we shall see, learned European voices in the 16th century arguing for recognizing the rights and dignity of indigenous Americans. There was a clearly discernible exit ramp off of the dehumanization highway -- but we missed our exit.

As we kicked off one side of the story with one great American poet, Carl Sandburg, we launch this side of the story with another one -- a winner of the Nobel prize for literature: Bob Dylan.

New York city, Columbia Record Studios, 1965
We see Bob Dylan recording a song that will go on his fifth Album, Bringing It All Back Home. The song is called “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” and it describes a surreal dreamlike coming to America.
I was riding on the Mayflower
When I thought I spied some land
I yelled for Captain Arab
I have yuh understand
Who came running to the deck
Said, “Boys, forget the whale
We’re going over yonder
Cut the engines
Change the sail." . . .

“I think I’ll call it America”
I said as we hit land
I took a deep breath
I fell down, I could not stand
Captain Arab he started
Writing up some deeds
He said, “Let’s set up a fort
And start buying the place with beads”

This bit about "buying the place with beads" is a famous part of the origin story of the country. Our search for America has got to drop in on that.

Manhattan, 1626
What we see is that it’s not quite literally true that the island was bought with beads. In 1626, Peter Minuit of the Dutch West India Company, met, by his report, with “the principal chiefs of nearby tribes.” He paid 60 guilders for Manhattan.

Four years later, 1630, the Dutch bought Staten Island, also for 60 guilders, paid in the form of 60-guilders-worth of supplies: kettles, axes, hoes, Jew’s harps, and drilling awls. The drilling awl was very useful for increasing production of the shell-beads that were used as currency, hence the story about buying the place with beads.

Historians now say the Lenape did have a tradition of property rights. They did not, as popularly believed, hold that no one can own land. However, they probably did not understand the transaction to be as complete and permanent as the Dutch did. They may indeed have thought they were merely offering the Dutch hunting rights.

But here’s the thing. Whatever the Lenape interpretation of the transaction, the Dutch believed they had bought the land from someone who had the right to sell it.

Rhode Island, 1630s
We take a short jump over to Rhode Island just a few years later, and there’s Roger Williams purchasing Providence Plantation from the Massasoit, and then an adjoining area from the Narragansetts. He goes back to England to make sure the crown recognizes his acquisition, and King Charles II issues the Royal Charter of Rhode Island that acknowledges that it was the Indians’ land, and they sold it.

It still wasn’t fair – the full terms of the deal were understood differently by the two sides, and the price paid too low, but the point is the Doctrine of Discovery wasn’t the European’s universal approach. Indeed, a general notion of "law of peoples" was a part of European thought -- as we shall see with a quick visit to Ancient Rome, Aquinas' Italy, and 16th-century Spain.

Ancient Rome
Zipping back for a minute to ancient Rome, we see a concept called “law of peoples.” It’s not a body of statute law, but rather a notion of certain customary law thought to be common to all people. Certain basic principles of right and justice are found in -- and may be presumed to hold in -- all human communities, howsoever alien they may seem.

Italy, 1260s
And, staying on the Italian peninsula and jumping to the 13th century, we see Thomas Aquinas developing this concept of law of peoples and integrating it into Catholic thought.

Salamanca, Spain, 1532
Francisco de Vitoria
And then jump over to Spain in 1532, and we see the Roman Catholic philosopher and theologian Francisco de Vitoria writing a work, De Indis – Of the Indians – in which he draws on Aquinas’ development of law of peoples and concludes that Indians are rightful owners of their property, and chiefs have valid jurisdiction over their tribes. We see Francisco advancing an idea that Unitarians would adopt: the intrinsic dignity of humans, and we see him criticizing Spain’s violation of that dignity in the New World.

This is 1532. Europe had within its own traditions the resources of thought and understanding to have done much better than it did. Indeed, those are the traditions of dignity and rights we draw upon today to recognize the moral failure that was colonialism. The roots of these concepts are deep.

Much of Europe turned away from those lines of thought and instead embraced the Doctrine of Discovery: "we discovered it, its ours, the people on it aren’t really people." But not all of Europe. The Dutch and Roger Williams – and also the Quakers in Pennsylvania – understood that the people on the land owned the land, and to transfer ownership, one had to pay for it -- pay at least something.

Back to Washington, DC, Supreme Court building, 1823
So if we swing back by Chief Justice John Marshall’s office in Washington DC in 1823 as he’s getting ready to write the opinion of Johnson v. M’Intosh, we see he really could have gone a different way. Instead of saying, as he did, that the Doctrine of Discovery was universally recognized, he could have pointed to Francisco de Vitoria, Peter Minuit, Roger Williams, and the Pennsylvania Quakers.

He could have interpreted the Doctrine of Discovery not as giving exclusive right to lands discovered, but as creating only an exclusive right, among European powers, to treaty with the inhabitants of those lands. He could have thrown in a little Obiter Dicta to emphasize that those treaties must be negotiated fairly, and the US must be committed to honoring its side.

Our Supreme Court let us down. History hung by a thread that day, and when the thread snapped, the sword fell on Native Americans and all of us searching for an America of equality and justice.

Final stop on our tour:

Phoenix, Arizona, 2012
Youth Caucus speaks in favor of
resolution to repudiate Doc of Disc 
It's the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly. Why, look, there’s me -- holding up my voting card as a delegate. I’m voting for a resolution – which did pass – that repudiates the Doctrine of Discovery and calls on Unitarian Universalists to study the Doctrine and eliminate its presence from the current-day policies, programs, theologies, and structures of Unitarian Universalism. (See HERE.)

In the documentary about the Doctrine of Discovery (below) you will hear Native Americans calling on churches to be involved in this. And so we are. And so shall be. For so we shall discover our truer self – and find a truer America.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Discovering America"
See also
Part 1: Call Me When You Find America
Part 2: The Power of Principle -- For Good and Bad

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