The Literature of JustificationHistory on Trial Main Page

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Our provocative starting point: Washington Irving's "gigantic question"

Literature of Justification is an ongoing project by students at Lehigh University that takes as its provocative starting point the "gigantic question" that Washington Irving asks in his1809 History of New York (Book I, chapter v): "What right had the first discoverers of America to land, and take possession of a country, without asking the consent of its inhabitants, or yielding them an adequate compensation for their territory?"

Our patron saint: Wilcomb E. Washburn

We coin the genre "literature of justification" from Wilcomb E. Washburn's "The Moral and Legal Justifications for Dispossessing the Indians" and find our motivational cue in his insight that "Many studies tell us what the first explorers were trying to do.  Many others tell us why they were trying to do it.  But very few have attempted to describe the justice or injustice of the quest" (Seventeenth-Century America: Essays in Colonial History .  Ed. James Morton Smith.  New York: Norton, 1972: 15-32.).

Our central text: Robert A. Williams, Jr., The American Indian in Western Legal Thought

We owe our organizational framework spanning from St. Peter to John Marshall to the magisterial The American Indian in Western Legal Thought: The Discourses of Conquest (New York: Oxford UP, 1990) in which Robert A. Williams, Jr., writes that his book "arose out of the desire to retrieve and reconstruct [the] idea of the West's mandate to conquer the earth, and to examine its inaugural applications in the New World."

Our noble mission: questioning justification

Our leading questions can be found in this paraphrase from the introduction of L. C. Green and Olive P. Dickason's The Law of Nations and the New World (Alberta: U of Alberta P, 1989).  What was the method of claiming title in the New World?  How did the Europeans justify making war on and taking land from the Native Americans?  How did Christian nations justify their actions in regard to Native America?  What were the philosophical and legal justifications of imperial and colonial expansion?  What were the arguments advanced to defend the subjection of Native Americans and to establish European hegemony?  Were any voices raised in opposition, and, if so, what was the basis for such opposition?  Were the actions of the colonizers lawful from the perspective of contemporary law? 


Our ongoing Literature of Justification project is a "collaborative shared resource" of the kind described by Randy Bass and Bret Eynon in Intentional Media (Works and Days 16.1-2 [1998]: 56), their groundbreaking work on new opportunities for learning in electronic environments.  The current Papacy, New Spain, Newfoundland, Roanoke, Jamestown, Pennsylvania, and Supreme Court chapters were initiated during an "America's Many Beginnings" graduate seminar in fall 2003, and "second generation" work was added to the Jamestown chapter in the spring 2006 seminar. At the moment, then, the Jamestown chapter is the most developed in the project.  Future plans include not only second generation work on the other existing chapters but new chapters on New France and New England.

In the spirit of a "collaborative shared resource" and the new possibilities for national and international community provided by web technology, we actively invite other students and faculty anywhere in the world who are studying this important topic to contribute valuable additions to the project ranging from bibliographical entries and hyperlinked comments to full essays.

For further information, contact Professor Edward J. Gallagher, Department of English, Lehigh University via e-mail at .