How the Colonial Doctrine of Vacuum Domicilium Continues to Influence American Foreign Policy

When the first European visitors to the North American continent landed upon the shore there were two immediate impressions made upon them; first, and most obvious was the presence of Native Americans and the richness of the land.  Second, was the shocking differences in which Native Americans interacted with their surroundings vis-à-vis Europeans, especially the English.  Generally speaking, Native culture and religion emphasized a semi-migrant lifestyle that often focused on seasonal hunting, fishing, agricultural, and gathering while ennobling the land itself and certain animals with religious, deistic significance in a paganist fashion.  Essentially, while Natives definitely exploited natural resources to a certain extent, there was a spiritual partnership between most Native groups and their perceptions of the real world around them which provide some semblance of balance between consumption and regeneration.  Accordingly, land was not enclosed, nor held by individuals, but rather in common, by a tribe or kin group to provide for the wellbeing of the group in general.  On a larger scale, tribal territories were recognized by neighboring tribes and quite often these groups would feud over the rights to the land or to acquire further territory depending on the demographic needs to their populations.

These customs departed quite a bit from the centuries of natural, civic, and common law upon which English property law was founded.  Although this is an oversimplification of a long and complication legal history, essentially, the English viewed religion as the primary basis for property law.  The Scriptures taught that God had given all mankind the right to possess the Earth in common and through a Christianized (and Humanist) doctrine, individuals could possess the land to work it with the Lord’s blessings for the purpose of their survival.  In the sixteenth-century classic Utopia, Thomas More theorized that making improvements upon the land, such as clearing, tilling, or enclosing it, would give that individual, or group, legal title to that land, as he was doing the Lord’s work in a diligent, pious fashion.  These conceptualizations merged with later theories of “natural rights” to individual property ownership in the work of Enlightenment thinkers like Hume and Locke to forge the basic rights to personal possession of land that our property laws are founded upon.

The space between these two pseudo-religious, culturally-based legal doctrines required European settlers to make some form of legally recognizable claim to the lands of Native Americans if they were to settle and possess them “legitimately.”  In some cases, Natives sold land to Europeans, but in most cases John Winthrop’s (a leading figure in the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony) conceptualization of the “New World” as a vacuum domicilium (“empty dwelling” in Latin) provided exactly the justification needed to claim legal title to this “vacant” land, especially in the early years of colonial interactions.  In Winthrop’s view, piggybacking on More’s theories, was that because the Natives did not enclose or improve the land, they could not legally own it.  Further, all the English had to do to claim rightful legal title to the land was make improvements upon it in the English legal cultural fashion.  These competing cultural views of property rights (along with other factors stemming from cultural collision) would lead to the bloodiest conflict ever fought on American soil in proportion to population, King Philip’s War.[1]

The choice of viewing another culture by the standards of the viewer seems somewhat uncommon in the present day, given the twentieth century explosion of the social sciences, especially, anthropology, sociology, and ethnography, yet it was and still is very much a Western tradition. Vacuum domicilium largely ignored the customs and culture of the people who had dwelled upon the land for centuries.  Yet, as one more astute historian has noted, the land was more widowed than empty given the dramatic population decrease that Natives suffered from their early interactions with Europeans and their lack of immunity to deadly diseases.[2]  Many contemporaries went as far as to comment that divine providence had brought these plagues to empty the “New World” of savage heathens for its express settlement by Christian Europeans.[3]  Further delegitimizing European views, in retrospect, most Native groups did actively practice some form of agricultural which almost certainly involved making some kind of “improvement” upon the land including developing urbanized dwellings and complex irrigation systems,[4] although apparently these were not enough to be recognized as “legitimate” in English eyes.  In hindsight, it may seem easy to spot the legal, philosophical, and ethical flaws in this doctrine, but to the contemporary English it provided all the justification needed for dispossessing the Natives.

Great, but what does all this have to do with a legacy of American foreign policy?  There are some very important historical lessons to be gleaned from this discussion.  First, the use of circular reasoning and a sort of “the ends justify the means” argument can be seen in the doctrine of vacuum domicilium.  Because Natives did not do as Europeans would have (and later, did) do, they were incapable of or disqualified from truly possessing the land, they merely lived upon it as nomads did.  This is both the justification for dispossessing Natives under colonial European concepts of international property law (which were totally foreign to Natives, naturally) and a reason to view them as developmentally inferior, which ushered in a whole range of different reasons for the further imposition of forced acculturalization.  Even though Natives possessed significant skills and in some cases technological superiority to their European counterparts in the terms of surviving the in American “wilderness,” because they lacked European cultural, customs, and religion they were savages.  This is the same exact argument employed in so many foreign policy decisions throughout American history.  We can change the rhetoric slightly and update it with a scientific sounding basis, but essentially the simple perceived differences between “our” culture and “their” culture and the assumption of the former’s inherent superiority was the justification for American treatment of Natives in the nineteenth century, American imperialism, and even most American foreign policy in the twentieth century in terms of course of action involving “developing nations.”  The argument was no longer that these countries did not have legal title to their land; it was that their leaders, economies, or governments were illegitimate simply because they were or are unlike ours.  The argument could be made that a lack of cultural empathy in terms of viewing a society by its own merits is largely responsible for most diplomatic misunderstandings.

A second important lesson is that the mixing of religious and economic motives, usually while making little logical sense, provides an intoxicating cocktail for differentiating a native population from ours and then dispossessing it of its resources.  While we no longer live with an official missionary purpose to our foreign policy, the Europeans that colonized the “New World” had at the top of their list, the spread of the Christian faith.  Whether this was Catholicism, in the case of France, Spain, and Portugal, or some variant of the Protestant creed, in the case of the English, the need to spread the faith was both a basis and justification for colonialization in and of itself.  Thankfully, many contemporaries and modern scholars alike saw that strong economic motivations also existed for colonialism.  The search for new material resources, markets for domestic goods, and sources of cheap (i.e. slave or forced) labor were all the immediate queries of expansionism.  Returning to today, if we substitute the words “liberal democracy” for whatever variant of Christianity and tone down the aggressiveness of the economic language, transforming it into something that sounds like, “the need to increase both foreign and domestic economic growth while providing a natural symbiotic relationship between the developed and developing world in a fashion that will benefit all those involved,” then little has changed in the past five hundred years except our ability to belie ethical and moral concerns with more flowery public relations statements to both domestic and international audiences.

Finally, the legacy of vacuum domicilium still lives with us today in our basic approach to international political ideology.  While in retrospect most of us sneer and quip, while feeling a little squeamish at the literal application of this colonial doctrine, we feel less squeamish about using cultural differences as a basis for justifying political action which will bring about the kind of ideological and economic gains we seek both domestically and abroad.  Logically speaking, this is convicting the criminal before the evidence is presented.  If we think about some important historical phenomena in terms of policy designs such as the Monroe Doctrine, Manifest Destiny, Isolationism, or even the Cold War, we can clearly see the stare decisis which vacuum domicilium set, intellectually, in terms of allowing our political culture to judge another based upon our own precepts which in turn provide justification for a preset underlying religious, political, and/or economic imperative.  In reality, these concepts probably work even more closely in a circular fashion (psychologically speaking) than we would like to admit, perhaps yielding even further evidence of the legacy of our colonial past in modern times.

We no longer need to legitimize our legal claims to the land in this country by any other means than a trip to the Registrar of Deeds.  Yet, we should not forget the basis on which we first “acquired” these lands.  While we would never argue nowadays that people should be dispossessed of their land based on its inefficient material use…oh wait, eminent domain.  Cynicism aside, the roots of many our foreign policy decisions can be traced directly through our colonial heritage and our first encounters with Natives; that first culture that we (speaking in terms of “us” as descendants of “would-be Americans”) wanted something from and viewed as inferior to us on some sort of developmental spectrum.  We may have changed the spectrum, fluffed up and softened the language, and provided less personal and collective accountability for the use of force now that we no longer have to see the “enemy” at our front door as in colonial times, but essentially, the game is the same.  This may point to something deeper within Western civilization (or maybe human nature given similar themes in Eastern history) as a whole that material acquisitiveness and the yearning for cultural monotony and hegemony can be justified thoroughly by a concept as simple as “you do not do it as I would.”



[1] Information for this paragraph and further reading on the subject can be found in: Jill Lepore, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origin of American Identity (New York: Vintage Books, 1999); Cristobal Silva, “Miraculous Plagues: Epidemiology on New England’s Colonial Landscape,” Early American Literature 43, 2 (2008): 248-275.

[2] Francis Jennings, The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest (New York: W.W. Norton, 1975), 15-31.

[3] See Silva, “Miraculous Plagues, “ discussing the works of Thomas Morton, Winthrop, and Edward Johnson, among others.

[4] William M. Denevan, “The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 82, No. 3 (1992): 369-385, 369-370.


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