THE ORIGIN AND PURPOSE
CESSION OF PROPRIETARY “RIGHT AND TITLE” IN PUBLIC LANDS IN THE TEXT OF STATE ENABLING ACT COMPACTS
by Bill Howell
In 2012 the Utah legislature issued a demand to Congress. By H.B. 148, the legislature demanded that federal title in most of the federal public lands in the State be extinguished and title in those lands be transferred to the State where they would become State public lands. Opponents of the demand quickly cited a provision in the State enabling act of 1894 whereby the State agreed to “forever disclaim all right and title” in these lands. As quickly, proponents replied that the “forever disclaim” language is followed by the words “and that until the title thereto shall have been extinguished by the United States, the same shall be and remain subject to the disposition of the United States.”
The purpose of this paper is to summarize the history behind use of the phrase “forever disclaim all right and title” in State enabling act compacts. This summary involves several “pieces” of historical fact that must be “assembled.” It involves unappropriated former British Crown lands and cession of “portions” of these lands to the United States by seven of the original States, the Northwest Ordinance, admission of Vermont and Kentucky into the Union, admission of Tennessee as the first new State established out of federal territory and several early acts of Congress.
Former British Crown Lands and State Land Cessions
When the original thirteen States declared their independence on July 4, 1776, they also asserted claim to both proprietorship1 in and sovereign jurisdiction over the unappropriated British Crown lands lying within their asserted borders. For all practical purposes, these lands had become State public lands. These claims gave rise to divisive conflicts between the States. Congress sought to resolve these conflicts. By the resolution of October 10, 1780, Congress made five commitments to the States if they would cede “portions” of their unappropriated land claims it.2 Two of these commitments were that ceded lands would be “granted and disposed of for the benefit of all the Unites States” and disposal would be carried out by congressional “regulation.”
State Land Cession Compacts in Response to the Resolution of Congress of October 10, 1780
Between 1784 and 1802, seven States entered into land cession compacts with the United States in response to the terms of the resolution of October 10, 1780. Pursuant to these compacts, large “portions” of unappropriated former Crown land were ceded by the States to the United States. These lands became the first federal territories. The Virginia act of land cession became the basic model for all subsequent State land cession instruments. With this act, Virginia released to the United States “all right, title and claim, as well of soil as of jurisdiction, which the said Commonwealth hath to the territory or tract of country within the limits of the Virginia charter, situate, lying and being to the northwest of the river Ohio….” In other words, by these State land cessions the federal government became the sole proprietor of and the sovereign government over the ceded lands. And with this clear title, the United States is empowered and duty bound to transfer this title, over a reasonable period of time, to non-federal holders. The Virginia land cession compact affirms this federal duty, which Congress imposed upon itself by terms of its resolution of October 10, 1780, as follows: “That all the lands within the territory so ceded …shall be considered as a common fund for the use and benefit of … the United States … and shall be faithfully and bona fide disposed of for that purpose, and for no other use or purpose whatsoever.” The land-ceding States, including Virginia, retained the remainder of their unappropriated former Crown lands and over these lands these States retained full proprietary right and title and complete sovereignty and jurisdiction.
The Northwest Ordinance of July 13, 1787
Among other purposes, the Northwest Ordinance was written with the intent of reserving to the United States the exclusive right of disposal of the unappropriated lands ceded to them by the States. This reserved and exclusive right of disposal was express recognition of Congress’ promise to dispose of the ceded land which it set down in its 1780 resolution. This promise and exclusive duty to dispose of the unappropriated lands now belonging to the United States remained attached to the land even when portions of it would be “captured” within the external limits of new States and termed “public lands.” At Article IV the language of the ordinance in this regard is “The Legislatures of those districts, or new States, shall never interfere with the primary disposal of the soil, by the United States in Congress assembled, nor with any regulation Congress may find necessary for securing the title in such soil to the bona fide purchasers.”
Admission of Vermont and Kentucky
Vermont (1791) and Kentucky (1792) were admitted into the Union directly without enabling act compacts. Each of these States was considered a complete State because of their prior association with New York and Virginia respectively. The land of which these States are comprised was never ceded to the United States. Since the land in these two States was never federal territory, the United States never held proprietorship or “right and title” in it. Accordingly, these two new States, like their parent States, held proprietorship in, and sovereignty and jurisdiction over all of the land within their borders including the unappropriated “public” lands.
Admission of the State of Tennessee
Tennessee was the third new State admitted into the Union of States. It was the first new State established out of federal territorial lands. Tennessee did not have an enabling act compact. However, by an act of Congress, 1 Stat. 491, ch. 47, the State was admitted into the Union on June 1, 1796. By this act, Tennessee was admitted into the Union “on an equal footing with the original States in all respects whatever.” There was no provision in this act requiring that the new State “forever disclaim all right and title” in the public lands within its borders or that it “never interfere” with the regulations of Congress adopted for the purpose of disposing of those lands. Accordingly, for a decade after its admission, Tennessee claimed that the Equal Footing Doctrine entitled it to proprietorship (possession of right and title) in the public lands within its borders in addition to sovereignty and jurisdiction over them. In advancing its demand, Tennessee pointed to the fact that the original States, as well as Vermont and Kentucky, held proprietorship in the unappropriated former Crown lands within their borders. Tennessee apparently discounted the fact that by 1 Stat. 123, ch. 14, dated May 26, 1790, Congress had extended the benefits AND obligations of the Northwest Ordinance to the Territory of Tennessee.3 And by Article IV of this ordinance, as above, the legislature of the new State of Tennessee “shall never interfere” with the primary disposal by Congress of the public land within its borders. This language effectively reserves proprietorship in these lands to Congress but only for the purpose of their disposal. Parenthetically, in 1829, the State of Indiana, by resolution, returned to the same claim as that of Tennessee but to no apparent consequence.4
Congressional Response to Tennessee’s Demand
On April 18, 1806, ten years after Tennessee statehood, Congress enacted 2 Stat. 381, ch. 31. With this statute, Congress consummated an agreement5 between itself and the State of Tennessee settling the dispute. By this act, the parties mutually agreed that the United States would possess, as sole proprietor and subject to its disposal, all unappropriated public lands lying south and west of a particularly described line and the State of Tennessee would possess, as sole proprietor, all of the like lands lying north and east of the same line. The relevant language in this act is as follows:
Tennessee ceding to the United States: Tennessee declared “that all right, title, and claim which the State hath to the lands lying west and south of the line above described shall thereafter forever cease, and that the lands aforesaid shall be and remain at the sole and entire disposition of the United States and shall be exempted from every disposition or tax made by order or under the authority of the State of Tennessee while the same shall remain the property of the United States, and for the term of five years after the same shall be sold;
The United States ceding to the State of Tennessee: “The United States do thereupon cede and convey to the State of Tennessee, all right, title and claim, which the United States have to the territory of lands lying east and north of the line herein before established,….” … “And the said State of Tennessee shall thereupon have as full power and authority to issue grants and perfect titles of all lands lying east and north of the before described line … as Congress now have ….”
Advent of Disclaimer Wording in State Enabling Act Compacts
In consequence of the decade-long dispute with the State of Tennessee over the possession of proprietary right and title in the unappropriated public lands remaining within its borders, and to prevent recurrence of this dispute in the future, Congress began entering text into State enabling act compacts expressly requiring that the inhabitants of new States either “never interfere” with the regulations of Congress adopted for the purpose disposing of these lands or, in the alternative but to the same effect, “forever disclaim all right and title” in those lands.
Interchangeable Use of “never interfere” or “forever disclaim all right and title” in State Enabling Act Compacts
As the western settlement advanced, State enabling act compacts varied in their use of the terms “never interfere” with the regulations of Congress for conveying title in public land to “bona fide purchasers” and “forever disclaim all right and title” in the public lands lying within State borders. President Jackson, in his December 5, 1833 veto message to the U.S. Senate, recognized that these “disclaimer” terms were used interchangeably and to the same effect:
“This condition (never interfere) has been exacted from the people of all the new territories; and, to put its obligation beyond dispute, each new State, carved out of the public domain, has been required explicitly to recognise (sic) it as one of the conditions of admission into the Union. Some of them have declared through their conventions, in separate acts, that their people ‘forever disclaim all right and title to the waste and unappropriated lands lying within this State, and that the same shall be and remain at the sole and entire disposition of the United States.’”
The following chart illustrates that, insofar as State enabling act “disclaimer” language is concerned, it is of no consequence whether a new State was established out of lands ceded by an original State or out of lands acquired directly by the United States from a foreign nation.6 A State enabling act compact may be written with either “never interfere” or “forever disclaim” as the States’ disclaimer of proprietary right and title in the public lands within its borders. The object of these alternative approaches is the same. This object is to secure to the United States what President Jackson referred to as “the unshackled power to execute in good faith the compacts of cession made with the original States.” It should be noted that neither of these rhetorical approaches diminishes a State’s claim to sovereignty and jurisdiction over the public lands within its borders, nor could they under the Equal Footing Doctrine.7
It is noted that at least four States besides Tennessee were established out of federal territorial lands without the benefit of an enabling act compact: Idaho, Kansas, Oregon and Wyoming. Having witnessed the requirements for admission into the Union that were placed upon other new States, these States adopted constitutions acceptable to Congress and were subsequently admitted into the Union. Clearly, the procedures followed by Congress for admitting new States varied in some particulars. However, two facts remain constant with the admission of each new State; and these facts remain constant simply because they are functions of immutable constitutional dictates. These facts are: 1) Pursuant to the Article IV Admissions Clause, each State is admitted into the Union upon an equal footing as to political rights and sovereignty with the original States8 including territorial sovereignty and jurisdiction9 and, 2) Pursuant to the Article IV Property Clause, Congress is constitutionally burdened with the responsibility to extinguish the federal title in all pre-statehood territorial and post-statehood public lands because the power delegated by this clause is “to dispose” and not to retain.10 Congress cannot do the opposite of its delegated powers other than through an “exercise of arbitrary and intolerable power.”11
Conclusion: The origin of disclaimer language in State enabling act compacts can be traced to the decade-long assertion by the State of Tennessee that proprietorship in the public lands within its borders transferred to the State upon the instant of its admission into the Union of States; and this transfer, the State asserted, occurred as a consequence of the Equal Footing Doctrine. Tennessee had apparently discounted the fact that the Northwest Ordinance reserves to the United States exclusive authority to dispose of federal territorial and public lands and that this ordinance was extended to the Territory of Tennessee in 1790 by 1 Stat. 123; and reservation of exclusive authority to dispose of the federal territorial and public lands necessarily entails reservation of proprietary right and title in the land. The Equal Footing Doctrine, by contrast, only ensures new States equality with the original States as to political rights and sovereignty. The sole purpose of State enabling act disclaimer language is to clarify proprietorship. Disclaimer language provides the United States with uncontested title in the public lands remaining within the confines of new States. In the words of President Jackson, enabling act disclaimer language provides the United States with “the unshackled power to execute in good faith the compacts of cession made with the original States” including disposal of the public lands by means of congressional regulation.
1. Definition of “proprietorship”: possession of exclusive right or legal title in anything.
Black’s Law Dictionary, 4th ed. 1951.
- Elements of the Resolution of Congress of October 10, 1780:
(A) all ceded lands “shall be granted and disposed of for the benefit of all the United States.”
(B) all ceded lands would be “formed into distinct republican States.”
(C) new States formed within the territories would “have the same rights of sovereignty, freedom and independence as the other States.”
(D) the United States would “guaranty the remaining territory of the said States respectively.”
(E) all ceded lands shall be “granted and settled at such times and under such regulations as shall hereafter be agreed on by the United States in Congress assembled, or any nine or more of them.”
On March 2, 1805, Congress enacted 2 Stat. 322, ch. 23. With this statute Congress extended the principles of the Northwest Ordinance to the Territory of Orleans thereby providing that “the territory of Orleans shall be entitled to and enjoy all the rights, privileges, and advantages secured by the said (Northwest Ordinance) and now enjoyed by the people (inhabiting States carved out of the Northwest Territories).” Also by this act, Congress established precedent for extending the benefits and obligations of the Northwest Ordinance to territories acquired by the United States directly from foreign nations including Spain (Florida), Mexico (Mexican cession and purchase) and Great Britain (Oregon Territory). The Northwest Ordinance is, therefore “a continent-wide expression of the rights of Americans.” Hall, Kermit L., ed. The Oxford Companion to American Law. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, 64. “(T)he Northwest Ordinance established the basic framework of the American territorial system.” Hall, Kermit L., ed. in chief. The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992, 600.
4. In 1829, the State of Indiana adopted a resolution asserting the same claim as that asserted by the State of Tennessee and on the same Equal Footing grounds. This resolution was submitted to the U.S. Senate on Feb. 10, 1829. In pertinent part, this resolution of Indiana reads, “Resolved by the general assembly of the State of Indiana, That this State, being a sovereign, free, and independent State, has the exclusive right to the soil and eminent domain of all the unappropriated lands within her acknowledged boundaries, which right was reserved for her by the State of Virginia, in the deed of cession of the Northwest Territory to the United States, being confirmed and established by the articles of confederacy and the constitution of the United States.” (American State Papers – Public Lands, 20th Cong., 2d Session, No 733, 630) This resolution was also submitted to Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama requesting them to “adopt similar measures if they should deem it expedient.”
5. For further reading if desired, the 1806 compact was discussed in Burton’s Lessee v. Williams, 16 U.S. 529 (1818).
6. “Upon the acquisition of a territory by the United States, whether by cession from one of the states, or by treaty with a foreign country, or by discovery and settlement, the same title and dominion passed to the United States, for the benefit of the whole people, and in trust for the several states to be ultimately created out of the territory.” Shively v. Bowlby, 152 U.S. 1 (1894).
7. “On (the admission of Illinois into the Union) she at once became entitled to and possessed of all the rights of dominion and sovereignty which belonged to the original states. She was admitted, and could be admitted, only on the same footing with them. The language of the act of admission is, ‘on an equal footing with the original states in all respects whatever.’ Equality of constitutional right and power is the condition of all the states of the Union, old and new.” Escanaba & Lake Michigan Transp. Co. v. City of Chicago, 107 U.S. 678 (1883). “Alabama is therefore entitled to the sovereignty and jurisdiction over all the territory within her limits, subject to the common law, to the same extent that Georgia possessed it before she ceded it to the United States. To maintain any other doctrine is to deny that Alabama has been admitted into the Union on an equal footing with the original states ….” Coyle v. Smith, 221 U.S. 559 (1911) citing Pollard v. Hagan, 44 U.S. 212 (1845).
8. “The ‘equal footing’ clause has long been held to refer to political rights and to sovereignty.” See Stearns v. Minnesota, 179 U.S. 223, 245.” United States v. Texas, 339 U.S. 707 (1950).
9. “Each (former colony) declared itself sovereign and independent, according to the limits of its territory.” “[T]he soil and sovereignty within their acknowledged limits were as much theirs at the declaration of independence as at this hour.” Harcourt v. Gaillard, 25 U.S. 523 (1827).
10. “It may be admitted that a power given for one purpose cannot be perverted to purposes wholly opposite, or besides its legitimate scope.” 2 Story, Commentaries on the Constitution. sec. 1077.
“The power can only be exercised as prescribed.” Downes v. Bidwell, 182 U.S. 244 (1901). “The power being given, it is the interest of the nation to facilitate its execution.” McCulloch v. Maryland,17 U.S. 316 (1819).
11. Senator Clay, Gales and Seaton’s Register, p. 1095, June 20, 1832.