Terrace V. Thompson and the Legacy of Manifest Destiny

Jean Stefancic

reprinted from: Jean Stefancic, Terrace V. Thompson and the Legacy of Manifest Destiny , 12 Nevada Law Journal 532 (Summer 2012) (140 footnotes Omitted)


The first of a number of state anti-alien land law cases to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, Terrace v. Thompson affirmed that Japanese farmers in the state of Washington could not own agricultural land because they could not in good faith declare their intention to become citizens of the United States.

On a first reading, the Terrace case does not seem like one of manifest destiny. Yet, earlier in Washington's history, a dispute had occurred over property rights of the indigenous people in the Washington Territory, which foreshadowed later antagonistic relations between white settlers and Japanese immigrants, which eventually led to Terrace.

I argue that both events illustrate the interplay of manifest destiny--the notion that newly discovered land belonged in the hands of white settlers--and its close cousin, nativism, which still plays a role in current discriminatory treatment of undocumented aliens. Part I examines the early development and role of manifest destiny in U.S. history. Part II describes the dispute over the Medicine Creek treaty between the Nisqually tribe and Washington territorial governor Isaac A. Stevens regarding land ownership. Part III reviews the background and facts of Terrace. Part IV addresses the current treatment of undocumented immigrant workers in Washington state today in light of its past relations with subordinated groups. As the reader will see, a recurrent sense of entitlement, fear, and resentment is the force that links society's mistreatment of Native people, the Japanese, and the undocumented.

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