Unworthy Republic Summary

Unworthy Republic by Claudio Saunt is a 2020 nonfiction book about the causes and consequences of the mass expulsion of Native Americans from their homelands in the 1830s.

  • In 1830, a key piece of legislation set into motion the mass deportation of Native Americans from their ancestral homelands to designated territories in the West.
  • The operation was a logistical catastrophe, marred by bad information and underfunding, but its central goal was eventually achieved.
  • Although certain groups resisted fiercely, Native Americans suffered immense losses of life and property, the effects of which are still felt today.

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Last Updated on July 15, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1036

In Unworthy Republic, Claudio Saunt examines the period of Native American deportation in the 1820s and 1830s and discusses how the effects of the deportation are still felt in the United States today. In his introduction, Saunt sets out his three core arguments: first, that the murder of indigenous people by the American state was unprecedented; second, that the deportation marked a turning point for Native Americans and for the United States as a whole; and third, that in an alternative world, this course could easily have been avoided. Different routes could have been taken to confront what was known as the “Indian question.”

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The first section of the book, “White Supremacy and Indian Territory,” introduces Isaac McCoy, a preacher who wished to create an “Indian Canaan” and believed that this was the only way to “save” the Native Americans. At this time, much native territory was already being ceded to the government, but in many places, Native and white Americans worked well together, something which alarmed the government due to the complex racial politics in the United States at this time. 

Many white Americans believed that Native Americans were in “decline,” an opinion which suited the politicians as they began to consider how to move Native Americans westward. George Troup of Georgia was particularly determined to expel the Creeks and Cherokees from Georgia. Groups of Southern senators banded together to make plans to forcibly evict Native people; they argued that because Native Americans were “persons” rather than citizens, the states’ rights applied rather than federal rights. However, they needed the federal government to pay for the deportation. In this, they were fortunate that Andrew Jackson was elected in 1828 and that McCoy had a friend, Wilson Lumpkin, on the Committee for Indian Affairs.

The second section discusses the political scene in Washington, D. C., at the time when countless local newspapers debated the “Indian question.” Southerners argued that Northern objections to the removal were hypocritical, even as violence erupted in Appalachia and other native lands. In 1830, the Senate and the House debated the possibility of expulsion in the form of the proposed Indian Removal Act. While the act passed easily in the Senate, “threats and terrors” were necessary to pass it through the House. The South had an undemocratic advantage due to the additional votes they wielded as slave states, and so the act passed, allowing the president to demarcate territory west of the Mississippi to which indigenous families could be moved.

Indigenous people did not want to leave voluntarily. Much coercion was necessary, as the indigenous people found the promised lands to be poor, and the government still had no real plan for the deportation.

Section Three discusses the first deportations, which removed Choctaw families from their land. George Gibson, who oversaw the operation, was notoriously reluctant to spend money, and many Choctaw people died on the way due to winter storms and disease. Even with Gibson’s stringency, the deportation was hugely expensive and the Choctaws received little to no compensation. The Seneca expulsion was equally slow and painful. Lewis Cass, the secretary of war, was determined to make operations more systematic in future, but made no provision for winter storms and other unforeseen events.

Cholera then arrived in North America, and around the same time, the United States government launched the Black Hawk War against the Sauk people. Many troops caught cholera and died, and Sauk prisoners contracted cholera and took it back to their communities. Many Choctaw people also caught the disease and died. Meanwhile, the first group of Choctaw to have journeyed to the West were running out of food, as floods destroyed their houses and crops.

The Cherokee Nation was led by the well-educated John Ross, who challenged the authority of the Georgia Guard over his nation. He won, but the federal government did not step in to enforce this decision when Georgian authorities began appropriating and selling Cherokee lands.

Section Four of the book discusses the enormous expense involved in the deportation. The Creek Nation, like the Cherokees, refused to leave, but white people continued to invade and then sell off their lands. The federal government refused to step in. Financiers voted to fund the whole process by selling bonds, and some, such as J. D. Beers, profited enormously from these enterprises. The promise to investors was that the fertile indigenous lands, now vacated, could be used to expand cotton businesses.

The terms of the United States’s treaties with the Choctaws were ignored, with few receiving any compensation. In many cases, white Americans simply moved into the Choctaws’ houses, and the Choctaws’ land was sold from under them. The same happened to the Creeks. Meanwhile, in Florida, where the Seminole refused to move, deportation was becoming extermination.

Section Five of the book discusses this shift from “expulsion to extermination” for those groups who still refused to move. The Seminoles, led by Osceola, a Creek who had come to Florida as a child, were remarkable warriors and won significant victories over federal troops as they defended their lands. White Americans began to worry that the Cherokees and Creeks would join forces with the Seminoles and possibly also with enslaved Black Americans. When several Georgia planters were murdered by Creeks, the army was sent in to confront the Creeks with force. Many Creeks, not wanting to be murdered, laid low and were ultimately marched out of their lands in chains.

By 1838, only the Cherokees and Seminoles remained in place. The final Cherokee expulsion began in May 1838, with many dying on the way to the West. In Florida, thirty thousand soldiers were committed to the cause of exterminating the militarily powerful Seminole. By the end of May 1842, almost four thousand Seminole people had been deported.

In the afterword to his book, Saunt discusses the fates of the key figures in his book and also considers how indigenous populations have fared in the United States to this day. Many of the white people who became rich from the process of deportation and extermination are still rich. Many of the native people of the United States continue to live in poverty, on lands not their own, and suffer the aftermath of the deportation.

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