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If Your World Was Built on Dispossession: Strategies of Conquest by Settlement in America


This dissertation explores the role of the history of conquest in the formation of American legal institutions. The histories it presents begin during the early colonial period, and argue that American legal practices—of property-making, contract, and the creation of federal alliances, for example— grew out of colonial relationships and practices aimed at resource extraction, colonial expansion, and indigenous removal. The dissertation also describes how colonial practices of land dispossession developed to become the basis of basic social, political and legal formations in the United States. It considers the relationship between and the past and the present, and how conquest informs an American social world divided by race, class, ancestry and different relationships to money and speculation.

Specifically, the chapters examine 1) the history of mortgage foreclosure, 2) the relationship between contracts and social contracts, 3) an early federal tort system, which showcases one aspect of the nation’s civil-military approach to war, and 4) how removal policies that constitute the genealogical antecedents of administrative immigration law first emerged in the context of colonial and then federal laws of Indian Affairs. Each chapter examines these histories through the lens of a well-known narrative about American legal and political institutions: respectively, the ideas that speculation and credit can be a healthy fount of economic growth, without concomitant costs; that by virtue of its democratic social contract, America is a government by, for and of the people, based on their consent; that the U.S. has the duty of benevolent intervention in conflicts abroad to keep the world safe from terror; and the idea that the United States is a nation of immigrants, with a long and proud history of offering asylum to the world’s tired and poor.

The chapters thus together, by performances and analysis, emphasize knowledge production as a form of agency and of historical event. Each chapter presents a counter-narrative to a “settled” legal story that integrates the story of the conquest of America into it. At the same time, each also offers a meditation on the transmission of narratives and concepts and how these carry historical matter into the present.

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