Throughout most of American history Andrew Jackson was revered as a great president. Jackson’s military leadership made him a national hero following the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815. There he fended off attempts by the British to seize New Orleans. The battle was itself unnecessary as the two parties were in the process of ratifying the Treaty of Ghent. Nonetheless, his heroism still stands.
He was also a populist. He fought the big banks, stood up to the political “swamp”, and represented the common man. His principles of Jacksonian Democracy further consisted of: Suffrage for all adult white men; manifest destiny, which would provide more lands to peasants; and laissez-faire economics, as opposed to government providing funding for infrastructure.
Yet, in recent decades the legacy of Andrew Jackson has been tarnished by his treatment of Native Americans. This period of history, particularly the relationship between Cherokee Chief John Ross and Jackson, is the subject of Jacksonland by Steve Inskeep.
The Legacy of Andrew Jackson
Jackson played a major role in the policy of Indian removal in the early to mid 1800’s, which ultimately culminated in the “Trail of Tears”, which was the process of moving Native Americans from the southeastern United States to areas west of the Mississippi river. Not only did this undermine Indian culture and livelihood, but it caused the deaths of many natives in the process.
Naturally, Jackson has been criticized because of this policy, especially with the rise of social justice movements and cultural marxism. While while these dark spots upon his legacy shouldn’t, and can’t, be exonerated, it is necessary to be objective when discussing Jackson’s legacy.
As one of Jackson’s biographers James Parton wrote: “He was a democratic autocrat, an urbane savage, an atrocious saint.”
Jackson exemplifies the great opportunities that have existed in America for centuries. He was orphaned as a boy and had little formal education. In spite of that, he rose to become president. Had he been born in Europe, a lack of aristocratic background would have inhibited this rise. His presidency, and the tenets of Jacksonian Democracy, exemplify what it means to be American.
Motivations for Indian Removal
Another large part of this book is the motivation for Indian removal. The common misconception of Indian removal is that the evil whites simply wanted to drive out the natives from their land due to pure greed. This is not quite accurate.
First of all, there was no desire to ethnically cleanse natives by the government. While certain tribes were looked down upon and called savages, the relationship between natives was much better than of whites and blacks. Many founding fathers revered Native Americans and viewed them as equals. Moreover, many who were part of the Cherokee nation were predominantly white or of mixed-race. John Ross, one of the leading figures of this story, was 7/8 Scottish, and only 1/8 Cherokee, but was Cherokee due to the matrilineal heritage. As you can see to the left, he was hardly a “Red” as natives were often called.
Moreover, the decision to remove Indians was a pragmatic decision. If one reads Jackson’s address to Congress regarding Indian removal, one can see there is little malice involved. Calling the policy “benevolent” was a stretch, but a main point of Jackson’s speech is that he viewed conflict between natives and whites as inevitable. Therefore, somebody had to go, and it wasn’t going to be the whites. Instead of letting conflict ensue in the southeastern United States, and let whites wipe out the Cherokee and other tribes, or what would have been a true genocide, Jackson sought to move the natives west of the Mississippi. There they would have their own lands away from whites, thus avoiding conflict.
In his speech he states that:
[Indian Removal] puts an end to all possible danger of collision between the authorities of the General and State Governments on account of the Indians. It will place a dense and civilized population in large tracts of country now occupied by a few savage hunters.*
It will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; free them from the power of the States; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers, and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.
The tribes which occupied the countries now constituting the Eastern States were annihilated or have melted away to make room for the whites. The waves of population and civilization are rolling to the westward, and we now propose to acquire the countries occupied by the red men of the South and West by a fair exchange, and, at the expense of the United States, to send them to land where their existence may be prolonged and perhaps made perpetual.
Jackson also recognizes the hardship and pain Indians would face in the process of moving west:
Doubtless it will be painful to leave the graves of their fathers; but what do they more than our ancestors did or than our children are now doing? To better their condition in an unknown land our forefathers left all that was dear in earthly objects. Our children by thousands yearly leave the land of their birth to seek new homes in distant regions. Does Humanity weep at these painful separations from everything, animate and inanimate, with which the young heart has become entwined? Far from it. It is rather a source of joy that our
country affords scope where our young population may range unconstrained in body or in mind, developing the power and facilities of man in their highest perfection.
These remove hundreds and almost thousands of miles at their own expense, purchase the lands they occupy, and support themselves at their new homes from the moment of their arrival. Can it be cruel in this Government when, by events which it cannot control, the Indian is made discontented in his ancient home to purchase his lands, to give him a new and extensive territory, to pay the expense of his removal, and support him a year in his new abode? How many thousands of our own people would gladly embrace National Park Service, Park Museum Management Program Teaching with Museum Collections the opportunity of removing to the West on such conditions! If the offers made to the Indians were extended to them, they would be hailed with gratitude and joy.
*Note the term “savage hunters” here. The Cherokee were one of the Five Civilized Tribes, and the word “savage” juxtaposes them.
As for the natives land, it was not stolen per se, but instead traded for lands in the west. The United States had taken on vast amounts of new land following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. They sought to give away these lands to natives in exchange for lands in the southeast. To do this, Jackson used dubious treaties with a few tribal officials who didn’t speak for their nations outright, but it provided him the justification, at least as he saw it, to move forward with this process.
Greed certainly played a role too. There was a gold rush in Georgia in the 1830’s. Miners would benefit greatly by excavating these lands. And land in general was valuable, so land speculators, of which Jackson was for many years, benefited. Yet, this likely did not ultimately decide the fate of natives.
An Objective and Unique View of an Unpleasant Historical Memory
This book takes a calm and measured approach to the Trail of Tears and the events leading up to it. It would be easy for the author, a former NPR employee, to rail against Jackson. Yet, Inskeep avoids doing so. Certainly, he does not venerate Jackson, nor does he paint a positive picture, but I wouldn’t say that it was an unfair portrayal.
The book highlights an interesting point in history, one that I am glad I was able to explore further. I’d recommend fans of American history check out this work.