Published On: July 15th, 2023

“This land is stolen land and black people are still not free.”  Cori Bush, Congresswoman from Missouri, regarding Independence Day, July 4, 2023.

This is one of those public statements that represents the genius of the 1st Amendment to the United States Constitution.  Many nations would ban such a thing as hate speech.  Not in America; hate speech regarding public policy is protected here from direct government censorship or proxies acting on behalf of the government.  So, too, what some say is misinformation or disinformation is also protected.  There is no such thing as misinformation, disinformation, or hate regarding public policy – only one’s (or a group’s) protected opinion.

But what about the accusation?  Did America steal the land we now call our country?  Are black Americans still not free?

The answer is, some of our land was acquired after successful wars, some of it was acquired by treaty, some of it was acquired by lawlessness, and some of it was acquired by purchase.  The most lawless acquisition involves defiance by the State of Georgia to a Supreme Court ruling that the Indian Removal Act of 1830 was unconstitutional.  Martin Van Buren, who followed Andrew Jackson as President, removed native occupants in defiance of the Court.  The subsequent Trail of Tears, a 1,000-mile trek from Georgia to Oklahoma left dead one-quarter of the Cherokee who were forced to leave their land and march to reservations in the west.  It did not help that gold had been discovered on this land a few years earlier.  Congresswoman Bush is correct that this land was essentially stolen in defiance of the Supreme Court of the United States.

American land acquired by war must go back to the days of our existence as a British colony.  Britain vied with the Dutch, French, and Spanish for colonization of parts of North America now part of the United States.  Early colonists from England were primarily religious exiles from the Church of England who wanted to practice their special form of Protestantism in defiance of Anglicanism, were private individual proprietors, or corporations who sought trade.  The Crown itself chartered several Royal Colonies and encouraged emigration to America, sometimes using the colonies as a dumping ground for malcontents.

England replaced the Dutch by conquest in 1664, acquiring lands in New York and surrounding colonies.  Great Britain (the union of England and Scotland, 1707) defeated the French in 1763 in the French and Indian War, and doubled the land size of America, all the way to the Mississippi.  American colonists created the United States of America by winning the American Revolution against Great Britain, 1776-1783, and much of the southwest was obtained in winning the Mexican War, 1846-48, in a dispute over the annexation of Texas into the United States. Congresswoman Bush is incorrect that this land was stolen by America; some of it was, in fact, annexed as a result of various wars and revolution.

What American land, then, was purchased by consenting parties?  Let’s take a walk up the Wickquasgeck Trail. . .what is now Broadway, a north-south route all the way through Manhattan and into Westchester County, New York, first used by the Lenape, and then other tribes on the island.  Claimed for the Dutch by Henry Hudson, New York was first settled by thirty-one Dutch families in 1623, locating near Albany.  To protect them and the fur trade they hoped to establish, Peter Minuit, in 1626, purchased part of Manhattan Island from the Lenape for the price of 60 guilders, or $1,000, to build Fort Amsterdam.  Staten Island was later purchased, as was more of Manhattan Island.

Was this purchase fair?

By today’s standards, of course, the purchase seems unfair.  But the Dutch, unlike the Spanish, French, and British, were meticulously scrupulous in their trade dealings.  The indigenous tribes knew that their land was valuable, and they knew that it was land that could be used to trade for the advanced products of Europe (guns and ammunition, for example) and for Dutch military protection against enemy tribes.

The Lenape and others also had a different view of the land they traditionally controlled – it was thought to always be available for their use, even if not “owned” by them.  The arrangement, at first, seemed a “have your cake and eat it, too” kind of proposition for the indigenous peoples. Eventually, as private ownership of property with its conveyance to heirs and subsequent improvement and development, the arrangement reflected a collision of civilizations. “In general, the Dutch tended to be fair when buying land and cases of fraud and high-pressure tactics were the exception rather than the rule. The Dutch bought the land around New Amsterdam before they needed it and the Indians continued to occupy it undisturbed for years after the purchase.”  Native American Netroots, May 2011.

Congresswoman Bush is incorrect that all land belonging to indigenous peoples was stolen. The concept of private ownership that includes inherited land parcels and subsequent development over generations was a type of thinking that was simply not part of most indigenous cultures.

This leaves us with the contention by Congresswoman Bush that American blacks are still not free.

Not free to run for Congress?

Not free to own a home or business?

Not free to worship as they choose?

Not free to take risks, lose, and take risks again?

Not free to speak their minds regarding public policy?

If we close our eyes and imagine we are walking that dusty trail on Manhattan Island in 1620, we are going to encounter exactly what we encounter today – the sweet and lovely, the angry and mean, the honest and sincere, and the cruel and heartless.  That the physical landscape has changed does not mean human nature has changed, or that all civilizations are the same.

While America’s history is not without the corrupt, it is also not without the inspirational.  Congresswoman Bush’s ancestors possibly endured great suffering that she might prosper.  Her own life story has pain – as do all life stories.  Would that in her public service to America she might find an ability to rise above her pain, to love and be grateful for her country, and to positively acknowledge the nation’s break with Great Britain reflected in the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776, and the unalienable rights from God that the document so beautifully enunciates.

“Great Turtle spirit, I invite you into my life.”  Lenape prayer.

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    About the Author: Miss C

    M.E. Boyd, "Miss Constitution" is an attorney, author, and instructor in Business, Educational, and Constitutional Law. She has appeared on television and radio and speaks publicly on American history, the founding documents, and current political issues. Her mission is to help citizens understand the Founding philosophies behind the system so that we can-together-help preserve the blessings of liberty and prosperity. Read more about Miss C