Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Robert Remini, a eminent scholar and biographer of Andrew Jackson, addresses perhaps the most controversial aspect of the seventh President's political career in Andrew Jackson and His Indian Wars. Remini is interested not so much in defending or rehabilitating Jackson's reputation as in placing his actions in relation to the Indians in the context of his life and of the history of the southern frontier. Jackson was by far the most influential figure in the southern backcountry during the first quarter of the nineteenth century, and his actions, especially his involvement in Indian wars and in Removal itself, were at the center of this history.
The first chapters of the book are devoted to Jackson's experiences as a young man, particularly with Indians. "Old Hickory," as he would come to be known, grew up near what is now the border of North and South Carolina, a region that was then backcountry. There he and his family experienced violence at the hands of Native Americans who were allied with the British, another group that would be the subject of Jackson's lifelong hatred. In many ways, Jackson followed the course of the southern frontier, moving first to North Carolina and then to Tennessee, where he became a lawyer, a planter, and then a politician.
The pivotal event in Jackson's emergence as a politician—along with his performance at the Battle of New Orleans—was his participation in the bloody wars against the Creeks that occurred in the broader context of the War of 1812. In what was actually a Creek civil war, militia under Jackson destroyed one faction of the powerful Creek nation, forcing the other (nominally his allies) to accept a treaty that completely eroded their power in the region. Jackson proceeded to lead militia forces against many of the region's other Indian tribes, including the Chickasaws and the Choctaws. Later, in the 1820s, he invaded Florida as part of the first of several wars against the Seminole people of the region.
All of this is familiar to students of the nineteenth century United States, but Remini's goal is to put Jackson's actions in a broader context. He points out that Jackson was an obsessive nationalist and emphasizes that his actions against the Indians enjoyed the broad support of white Southerners and had in fact been embraced by Democratic leaders, including Thomas Jefferson, at earlier dates. In fact, Indian Removal was really the centerpiece of his election campaign for the presidency. In other words, Remini argues, Jackson's Indian policies cannot be understood separately from what we often call "Jacksonian democracy" and his appeal to the "common man." At the same time, Remini does not directly address in detail what many historians have pointed out in recent years, namely that Jackson's Indian policy was key to the growth of slavery, the cotton economy, and the broader market revolution in the United States.
Following this line of thinking, Remini claims that there was a kernel of truth in Jackson's claims that he was acting paternalistically to protect the "five civilized tribes" from extermination by southern whites. He argues in his final chapters that if not for Jackson's intervention and insistence that they be forced to Indian territory in what would become Arkansas and Oklahoma, Native peoples would have been wiped out entirely by aggressive white settlers who coveted their lands. To summarize Remini's argument, Jackson's Indian policy was consistent with his early life experiences, consonant with the beliefs of virtually all of his peers in the old southwest, and inseparable from his fierce and highly racialized nationalism.