The Supreme Court has described the Indian Commerce Clause as the primary constitutional basis for federal exclusive and plenary power over Indian affairs. Recently, Justice Clarence Thomas, citing current scholarship, has argued that the Clause’s original understanding does not support this authority, with radical implications for current doctrine.
This Article uses unexamined historical sources to question this debate’s fundamental premise. It argues that the Indian Commerce Clause, open-ended when written, was a minor component of eighteenth-century constitutional thought. This Article instead posits alternate sources for federal authority over Indian affairs, drawing particularly on the Washington Administration. Asserting federal power against the states, the Administration embraced a holistic constitutional reading akin to present-day field preemption. With respect to authority over Indians, the Administration, through law-of-nations interpretations, asserted ultimate U.S. sovereignty over tribes, while acknowledging Native autonomy beyond these limitations. Yet these supposedly narrow legal principles ultimately formed the basis for the later elaboration of plenary power over tribes.
On the one hand, this history provides a more solid foundation for doctrinal principles derided as incoherent. On the other hand, it suggests more cabined federal authority over Indians. Ultimately, the Article demonstrates the value of more historically grounded reconstructions of constitutional understandings.