Unworthy Republic

by Claudio Saunt

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What are the core arguments of Unworthy Republic?

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The core arguments of Unworthy Republic are that the deportation of Native Americans in the 1830s was not inevitable and that the forced expulsions were financed by bankers and speculators both in the United States and Europe, who stood to gain most from the expulsions.

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When many people think about the forced expulsions of Native American tribes west of the Mississippi, they tend to think of this dark chapter in American history as somehow inevitable. White Americans wanted more land, and the Native American tribes who lived on that land were in the way, and so at some point, it was inevitable that they would be forcibly removed.

This common version of events is challenged by Claudio Saunt in Unworthy Republic. Far from being inevitable, he argues, the forced resettlement of countless Native Americans almost never happened. Due to the resistance of the Indigenous people and the support of white political allies, the Jackson Administration's plans for deportation were highly contentious and did not enjoy anything like universal support.

That it did happen was down largely to the support of powerful financial institutions, both in the United States and Europe. It is ironic, to say the least, that one of the main policies of Andrew Jackson, a man who heartily despised big banks and, in particular, the East Coast banking establishment, relied to a considerable extent on finance from bankers in Boston, London, and elsewhere to make dispossession a reality.

To be sure, Southern plantation owners, staunch supporters of Jackson, also played their part in the forced removal of Native Americans. But without financial backing from the big banks, the policy simply could not have been carried out.

The bankers profited considerably from the acquisition of Native American land. This was an ironic outcome indeed in a country whose president prided himself on being an implacable foe of the American and international banking establishment.

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What are the weaknesses of the core arguments presented in Unworthy Republic?

The weaknesses of the core arguments presented in Unworthy Republic could relate to the omission of examples, the identification of the “turning point,” and the close connection between politics and inevitability.

First, it'd be helpful to identify Claudio Sant's three main theses. In the introduction, Saunt spells out the book's "three related arguments." The first thesis claims that "the state-administered mass expulsion of indigenous people was unprecedented." Saunt admits the statement is weak or "foolish" but stands by his argument due to America's "formal state-administered process." Saunt sees some connections between what the United States did to the Indigenous people and how European colonists treated them but ultimately concludes that the United States was significantly more orderly and officious.

Here, one could claim that the treatment was different because it was a colony or a set of colonies, and not a united independent nation, so the argument is extraneous. One could also fault Saunt for not providing more examples of official expulsions and violence. During the French Revolution, the government systematically expelled and killed supposed anti-revolutionaries through a “formal state-administered process.” The revolutionary government created the Law of Suspects, which listed people to arrest and kill.

Saunt’s second argument is that “the state-sponsored expulsion of the 1830s was a turning point for indigenous peoples and for the United States.” While this seems like a strong point—if a country is deliberately trying to displace and kill a community, it’s going to have a huge impact on that community—it’s possible to argue that the key “turning point” came when Western colonists began occupying the land centuries earlier.

As for Saunt’s third argument—the “expulsion of indigenous people was far from inevitable”—the weaknesses seem to come down to how Saunt separates inevitability from politics. Saunt describes the expulsion as "a piece of legislation, not the inevitable result of some fundamental incompatibility of indigenous and European peoples." Yet Saunt and the reader might want to consider how the people passing that legislation held an ideology and ambition that made the expulsion likely to happen or inevitable. In other words, laws and fate aren’t so separate.

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