Last Updated on February 25, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 594
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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1866
Andrew Jackson’s earliest memories were of the Revolutionary War in rural South Carolina, of fleeing British raiders led by Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, of Tory atrocities, of Indian attacks incited by British agents, of losing one brother to the Indians, and of his mother nursing ill soldiers past the limits of her strength and dying of disease. At age fifteen he was an orphan living on an economically depressed frontier, without even the hope of prospects. Whatever Andrew Jackson would become depended solely upon his own efforts.
For two years he was a gambler, fighter, and drinker. Then, at seventeen, he became a law clerk in upcountry North Carolina, yet without fully giving up his interest in girls, cards, and horses. Two years later, in 1786, he joined a party of emigrants crossing the mountains into Tennessee. There he learned to face the Cherokee, who were trying to drive the newcomers back across the Appalachians. Established as a frontier lawyer in Nashville, he traveled wherever his services were needed. That travel was dangerous, with many parties ambushed by Indians. Moreover, those Indians were being armed by the British and Spanish in Florida and Louisiana.
With the Continental Congress unable to protect the frontier, Governor William Blount ordered the Tennessee militia to strike back at the “savages.” When Blount rushed through statehood for Tennessee in 1796, he arranged for Jackson to become the state’s first representative, and for himself to be elected one of the state’s two senators.
In Washington, after the government had declined to pay frontiersmen for military service, Jackson made a name for himself defending the militiamen’s claims for compensation. When Blount resigned from the senate in 1797, Jackson ran for the office and won. He quickly discovered that he had made a mistake—he was not sufficiently informed about the many issues he had to discuss and vote on, and after a year of embarrassed silence, he resigned his seat and returned to Tennessee as a judge of the state superior court.
After six years of competent but unexceptional service on the bench, he audaciously ran for major general of the militia against a highly respected veteran of the Battle of King’s Mountain (1780). The legislative vote was a tie, but a friendly governor gave the nod to Jackson. At age thirty-five, he was the military commander of a frontier district that was under constant siege.
What was lacking was a formal declaration of war. Unable to act against what he considered to be national enemies, he drilled the militia units, speculated in land, presided at court, supervised business enterprises, and fought duels. He was most frustrated by Indian agents’ effort to explain the Native Americans’ viewpoints. When Jackson pointed to provisions in the treaties that required Native Americans to turn over for trial anyone who murdered American citizens, the agents insisted that Native Americans be allowed to punish criminals themselves. Jackson was right as far as the law went, but the agents were attempting to prevent another outbreak of war. The argument became moot after the War of 1812 began, because the radical Red Stick faction of the Creeks allied themselves with Tecumseh and the British. The Red Sticks attempted to persuade other Native Americans that this war was their last chance to drive the European Americans back across the mountains. Even so, the conflict was not drawn along purely racial lines, because most Native Americans supported the United States (though not always enthusiastically) and the British were as white as one gets.
As an Indian fighter, Jackson had few peers. He generally had numerical superiority in the 1813-1814 conflicts, but his militiamen were fractious and eager to go home, while his Red Stick enemies were skilled warriors with good weapons, who built formidable fortifications mounted with cannons, and who had no illusions about the consequences of defeat. Jackson protected his supplies in adequate forts, moved quickly to the attack without being foolhardy, and was innovative in strategy and tactics. If his effort at a double envelopment at Talladega was unsuccessful, his assault on the fort at Horseshoe Bend resulted in a total victory. Part of his success has to be attributed to using friendly Indians against hostiles, usually members of tribes who remembered ancient rivalries with their common foe. Jackson finished crushing the Creeks just in time, as a British army arrived at the mouth of the Mississippi only months later. The redcoats learned what the redskins meant by saying that “Sharp Knife”—their nickname for Jackson—was a dangerous foe, a man never to be underestimated.
Jackson’s Indian policy was consistent throughout his lifetime, but it became most clear during his term as territorial governor of Florida in 1821. There he expressed unambiguously the principles that he acted upon as president. First of all, he argued, the Native Americans could not be allowed to become once again a threat to the United States. As long as they existed as organized tribes and could be supplied with weapons by foreign powers, they were dangerous. Jackson argued for seizing Florida and expelling British and Spanish agents, then for taking strategic lands from the Native Americans so that it would be impossible for them to assist any future invading army. (Today it may seem strange that anyone would worry about an British invasion, but the generation that had fought the Battle of New Orleans and witnessed the burning of Washington, D.C., was less skeptical.)
Second, Jackson believed that the Native Americans could not be allowed to continue to act as sovereign nations east of the Mississippi. Repeatedly he gave the Native Americans the choice—either become American citizens and live by American laws, or move west. Most Native Americans were appalled by the thought of becoming simple farmers, mechanics, or merchants. Yet they, too, could see that their hunting-and-gathering way of life was doomed—there were simply too many Americans moving in, cutting down the forest, and eliminating what remained of the once-plentiful game. Moreover, both Jackson and Native American leaders were agreed that not only were the tribesmen learning the worst of American culture—overindulgence in alcohol most of all—but also were exposed to disease and racial enmity. Jackson understood that Americans who would seize Native American lands and cattle illegally would also deprive them of their rights in court. Moreover, there was little the federal government could do about it without violating states’ rights, and Jackson believed in a Jeffersonian form of democracy, where decisions were made locally by involved citizens, not in distant Washington by bureaucrats.
Third, he rigorously enforced existing treaties, expelling white squatters from Native American lands, demanding that agents pay subsidies fully and promptly, and assisting the relocated tribes in every way to adjust to life in their new homes. Whatever Old Hickory did, he did with all his heart and soul, with fire in his eyes. When he made war against the Native Americans, he did so fiercely; and when he enforced treaties, he was equally passionate. The Native American leaders never questioned his word, nor doubted his sincerity.
Fourth, he was a racist, like most men of his time, but his comments about Native American culture were never as disparaging as those of Henry Clay, who felt no sadness at the imminent disappearance of the Red Man. Quietly, Jackson adopted an Native American boy he had rescued on a battlefield and raised him as one of his own children. His policy toward the tribes was “hard and cruel,” as one contemporary wrote, but it was “now universally felt to have been as kind as it was necessary.” Jackson saw only the horrors that awaited the Native Americans in the east, not those that awaited on the way west
As Jackson saw it, if hostilities reopened, as seemed likely given the irreconcilable cultural differences between Indians and whites, the Native Americans would be massacred. Unless the Native Americans were willing to become Americans in every sense, they would be much safer, happier, and healthier in the west. Once individual Native Americans had learned the arts of farming, raising stock, or commerce, and understood the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, they could be amalgamated into civic life much as immigrants were.
Jackson was, in fact, stunned by the widespread public resistance to his Indian Removal Act of 1830. It was not actually a bill for removal, but a grant of authority to the president to exchange the Native Americans’ present eastern lands for western lands, with the federal government paying the cost of transporting the tribes west. Moreover, it gave the Native Americans the option of remaining where they were as ordinary citizens of their states. The Native Americans, well aware that military resistance was hopeless, had little choice. Some refused to sign the treaties, but others recognized that moving west was the only way to survive as a tribe. A few leaders took bribes or guaranteed for themselves preferential treatment.
The Cherokees, the most Americanized of the Five Civilized Tribes (the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole), fought back with legal arguments. They sent delegations to Congress, lobbied American churches effectively, appealed to the American people’s sense of fair play, and petitioned the Supreme Court. Against any president other than Andrew Jackson they might have prevailed. In 1832, John Marshall, speaking for the court, first ruled in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia that the Cherokees were not a sovereign nation, but neither were they subject to state law; instead, they were wards of the federal government. Then, in Worcester v. Georgia, he declared all Georgia laws regarding the Native Americans unconstitutional. Jackson never said the oft-quoted challenge, “Well, John Marshall has made his decision: now let him enforce it!” However, because the Supreme Court had adjourned, there was no way for Marshall to interfere with the removal program already underway for most tribes, northern as well as southern.
The Trail of Tears took place after Jackson left office, but it was his insistence on haste that caused some of the greatest suffering. Moreover, when the Seminoles saw Creeks being taken west in chains, they chose to fight what became one of the fiercest, bloodiest, and most costly wars in American history. Jackson has to bear the blame, yet his policy was neither foolish nor genocidal. Jackson saw the absurdity of federal policy up to this time—signing treaties that the government lacked the will or power to enforce, pretending that the tribes were sovereign nations which could control their own people, and ignoring the practical difficulties caused by the combination of western migration and the decline in Native American numbers. As he saw it, and as many Christian Americans reluctantly agreed, the removal of the Native Americans was necessary for the good of the nation, and it was also the only way to preserve Native American lives and culture. As Remini concludes, “although that statement sounds monstrous, and although no one in the modern world wishes to accept or believe it, that is exactly what he did. He saved the Five Civilized Nations from probable extinction.”
Sources for Further Study
American History 36 (August, 2001): 48.
Library Journal 126 (May 15, 2001): 142.
The New York Times Book Review 106 (July 15, 2001): 106.
Publishers Weekly 248 (May 14, 2001): 60.
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