The History Wars and Property Law: Conquest and Slavery as Foundational to the Field
93 Pages Posted: 1 Mar 2021 Last revised: 7 Mar 2022
Date Written: February 1, 2022
This Article addresses the stakes of the ongoing fight over competing versions of U.S. history for our understanding of law, with a special focus on property law. Insofar as legal scholarship has examined U.S. law within the historical context in which it arose, it has largely overlooked the role that laws and legal institutions played in facilitating the production of the two preeminent market commodities in the colonial and early Republic periods: expropriated lands and enslaved people. Though conquest and enslavement were key to producing property for centuries, property-law scholars have constructed the field of property law to be largely devoid of these histories and without a strong conception of the formative role of race. As a result, recent movements to reintegrate these topics into the field generally reflect a broader trend in the legal academy of treating race as an elective rather than fundamental topic. This Article shows that these histories contain insights that are crucial for understanding their legacies in our present legal system. It offers an account of how current conceptions of the field of property law evolved and what we learn from suppressed histories. It shows that the histories of conquest and slavery explain aspects of the system—its construction of jurisdictions, property value, ground-level institutions, and organization of force, for example—that belong at the core of the curriculum and the field.
First, this Article examines patterns of erasure in the property-law canon to explore how we came to understand property law as primarily a collection of doctrines derived from English law regulating relations between neighbors. It uses property-law casebooks as an index and offers the first comprehensive study of the tradition. This analysis shows that many of the norms of erasure and validations of racial hierarchy that casebooks exhibit were set during the period of their emergence—the time of the formal close of the frontier and the Jim Crow Era. It was not until the 1970s that casebooks began to critically examine the histories of conquest and slavery for the first time, but the query into their consequences for the property system has remained partial and inconsistent.
I then examine three ubiquitously taught topics in property law—discovery, labor, and possession— in light of the contexts in which they arose, to highlight their role in the creation of new markets for land and people in early America. I show that Chief Justice Marshall’s iteration of the Discovery Doctrine drew from an international legal tradition that authorized European conquests and the transatlantic slave trade to establish racial hierarchy as the basis of U.S. jurisdiction and trade in lands. In addition to affirming that hierarchy, as scholars have shown, the labor theory also captured the ways that colonists attributed property values to land and people only when they came into white possession. I further argue that the labor of property creation in the colonies in significant part comprised legal work, beyond agriculture labor, including the passage of laws creating homesteading incentives, making enslavement racial, permanent, and hereditary, and establishing systems such as the rectangular survey, comprehensive title registry, and easy mortgage foreclosure. Finally, taking possession of property in this context entailed a process of dispossession turning the principle of honoring possession on its head. Looking at possession as part of the Discovery Rule and fugitive-slave laws reveals that the state largely delegated enforcement of possession—and the concomitant racial violence of dispossession—to private actors in ways that simultaneously invested them in property interests and racial hierarchy.
This Article opens a new inquiry into what these long-buried histories teach us about property law. It argues that they are indispensable for understanding the unique fruits of the colonial experiment that define American property law today—the singular land system that underpins its real estate market and its structural reliance on racial violence to produce value.
Keywords: property law, legal history, curriculum, slavery, conquest, race, real estate, canon
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