Worcester v. Georgia - 101 –
An Analysis of Federal Indian Law “Ultimate US Dominion”
Worcester v. Georgia (1832) is the final case in the so-called “Marshall Trilogy” of decisions that form the foundation of the system of ideas called “federal Indian law.” The case declared that the US has “ultimate domain” over relations with Native nations, to the exclusion of the states. Worcester cited Johnson v. McIntosh and affirmed its “principle…that discovery gave title” to the “discoverer.”
Many readings of Worcester focus on positive sounding language in the opinion; for example, that the Cherokee Nation is “a distinct community occupying its own territory…in which the laws of Georgia can have no force” and that “it is difficult to comprehend” how a “discoverer” could have “rightful original claims of dominion” over Native inhabitants.
But these readings ignore subsequent language saying Georgia could have authority in Cherokee territory “in conformity with acts of Congress” and that “power, war, conquest, give rights, which, after possession, are conceded by the world.” Marshall celebrated the 1819 Indian Civilization Act as an example of Congressional power, saying it promoted "those humane designs of civilizing the … Indians.” He didn’t mention the 1830 Indian Removal Act that authorized the Trail of Tears.
The "ultimate" federal power declared in Worcester became a key part of the doctrine of "plenary power," the US claim of total control over Indigenous peoples and lands. That doctrine persists to this day, whereas the language about Native nations being “separate from the states” was explicitly set aside by the Supreme Court in 2001 in Nevada v. Hicks.