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The Meaning of Land in American Political Thought

Land is more than matter--the visible and dry portion of the Earth's surface. Land is a concept that acquires different meanings in discursive contexts, be these ecological, economic, legal, or political. Instead of reducing these meanings to a general definition, my dissertation endeavors to expand the meaning of land by examining how the concept is configured across three textual encounters in American political thought. These encounters map onto three key phases in the history of U.S. land policy: territorial acquisition from the Founding period through the mid-1800s, mass distribution of the public domain from 1862 to the mid-1900s, and a contemporaneous but oft-neglected phase of reservation-making and allotment. The analysis of these textual encounters exemplifies how land informs and is informed by ideas central to American political thought, such as sovereignty, justice, freedom, empire, nationhood, and citizenship. 

 

 

 

The first chapter interprets the Indigenous autobiography, Life of Mà-ka-tai-me-she-kià-kiàk, or Black Hawk (1833), alongside the Treaty with the Sauk and Foxes (1804) and related state documents to show how each articulates contrasting theories of sovereignty over the land in the Upper Mississippi Valley. Emissaries of the settler state, like then-governor William Henry Harrison, code the land in terms of a unitary sovereignty that guarantees multicultural justice, but, in fact, renders Indigenous claims illegible. In contrast, Black Hawk describes a more anarchic approach to sovereignty that rejects abstract notions of justice and situates all claims to land as fundamentally contestable. 

The second chapter explores the way both freedom and empire are linked with land in congressional debates over the Homestead

Act of 1862 and the children's novels of America's most well-known homesteader, Laura Ingalls Wilder. Pro-homestead lawmakers

argued a land grant would emancipate urban laborers from class domination and promote virtuous self-sufficiency. Yet, this

vision of individual freedom is complicated by concurrent claims that homesteading would also foster an integrated national

economy and achieve the violent "rescue" of western land from Indigenous populations. In her Little House novels, Wilder

presents the prairie landscape of the Great Plains as a site for liberating experiences of individuality and discovery, both of which

reject the gendered, settler-colonial logics of the late-nineteenth century. Nonetheless, Wilder's linkage between freedom and

land cannot escape the pressures of settlement. Although she entertains a complex coexistence of settler and Indigenous

populations in frontier spaces, she ultimately succumbs to a settler anxiety to belong to the land that problematically incorporates

and replaces Indigenous subjects.

 

 

The third chapter reads congressional discourse around the General Allotment Act of 1887 and the work of Zitkala-Ša (Gertrude Bonnin) to explore the way land is imbricated with nationhood. Allotment, or the subdividing of communally-owned tribal land into privately-owned tracts, attacks Indigenous nationhood and effects a tepid inclusion of some Indigenous subjects into the settler nation. Reacting to the consequences of allotment, Zitkala-Ša's literary oeuvre and political essays cast land as a locus and source of Indigenous nationhood that variously exists independent of, contrary to, and within formal inclusion (i.e. citizenship) in the settler state. 

 

 

These three textual encounters are far from the only examples in the history of American political thought; many more may be devised, especially with regard to a fourth important phase of land policy: twentieth-century conservation. Nonetheless, they illuminate the ways in which the concept of land refracts other ideas, and demonstrate the complex politics of an aspect of our world that can no longer be dismissed as "merely" material. 

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Publications
Peer-reviewed Articles

“Tocqueville in the Wilderness: The Tragedy of Aristocracy in the Democratic Age,” The Political Science Reviewer 42, no. 1 (2018): 34-61.

Book Chapters

Can You Be Free If You’re Not Real? Emily St. John Mandel on Freedom and the Simulation Hypothesis” with John C. Merfeld and Tom Richards, in Figures of Freedom in 21st-Century American Fiction, ed. Randy Laist (forthcoming from Fourth Horseman Press in 2024).

 

“Praying Alone: Tocqueville on the Present State and Future of Quebec,” with Richard Avramenko, in Canadian Conservative Political Thought, ed. Lee Trepanier and Richard Avramenko (New York: Routledge, 2023).

“Looking Down Tocqueville’s Nose: On the Problem of Aristocratic Etiquette in Democratic Times,” with Richard Avramenko, in Aristocratic Souls in Democratic Times, ed. Richard Avramenko and Ethan Alexander-Davey, 275-296 (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2018).

Reviews
Works In Progress

“Democracy, Acquiescence, and Machiavelli’s La Mandragola

“Free Land? Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Homestead Act, and Settler Freedom”

“From Her Eyes Only: Reading Locke’s Second Treatise from the Perspective of Jephthah's Daughter” (under review)

“For the Love of Humanity: A Pedagogy for Justice in Rousseau’s Emile,” with Timothy Tennyson

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