Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Document Type



Civic standing in the formative era of the United States was defined by land ownership. Landless white Americans demanded access to western lands, while the American government regulated settler pressure on the borderlands in order to preserve peace, and maintain its authority over citizens. Simultaneously, the U.S. depended upon western lands for revenue and on settlers for expanding its domain. As acquisition of property by white Americans depended in very real terms on dispossessing Indians of their lands, justifying that dispossession became one of the most fraught intellectual processes in American thought.

This project explores how civic identity was not only tied to land ownership, but how it was premised on elevating white Americans into independent yeoman while lowering Native nations into the landless poor. The language of exclusion defined this pivotal difference: “fit” citizenship came with owning land. White male legal personhood was defined through Native exclusion. The perception that Natives desired to keep land outside the risks of the commercial marketplace kept them outside the ideological framework of citizenship. And this landed notion of civic identity contributed to emerging concepts of race, adding one more layer of justification in the systematic exclusion of Natives.

The problem of Indian status could not be solved by simple, wholesale exclusion. Legal theorists like Chief Justice John Marshall situated Indians in a unique gray area between fit citizens and other marginalized classes such as slaves and squatters. Just as important, Native nations acted as a negative reference which legal thinkers used to define unfitness for citizenship. While the most famous contests over Indian citizenship and sovereignty took place before the Supreme Court, state and local actors often shaped the actual practices used to divest Indians of their land and legal personhood, through their interactions with and understanding of the overall legal culture. They often used this language with incomplete understandings of the theories they invoked to justify Native dispossession. This language enabled white Americans to overlook the system’s contradictions, and brought anti-Indian hardliners and benevolent reformers to the same conclusion that Indians must relinquish their territorial claims.



Committee Chair

Isenberg, Nancy



Available for download on Monday, May 19, 2025