Friday, December 4, 2009

"Year Of" History Moment: December 6, 1830

On December 6, 1830, President Andrew Jackson delivered his second State of the Union address, in which he praised the Indian Removal Act passed that year.

"It gives me pleasure," Jackson said, "to announce to Congress that the benevolent policy of the government... in relation to the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements is approaching to a happy consummation" (emphasis mine).

This address particularly demonstrated the paternalism Jackson felt toward the indigenous nations. Those native leaders who protested removal (such as Chief John Ross of the Cherokee, Speckled Snake of the Muscogee and George W. Harkins of the Choctaw) obviously did not understand how being forcibly ejected from their own homelands was really for their own good.

"The consequences of a speedy removal will be important to the United States, to individual States, and to the Indians themselves..." Jackson said. "Toward the aborigines of the country no one can indulge a more friendly feeling than myself, or would go further in attempting to reclaim them from their wandering habits and make them a happy, prosperous people." Jackson also claimed that the Cherokee and Choctaw had with "great unamity" agreed to accept the "liberal offers" presented to them by the US government.

Ross, on the other hand, made it very clear in his 1836 letter to Congress that the Treaty of New Echota, which dictated the terms of Cherokee removal, was not authorized by the Cherokee Nation. "The instrument in question is not the act of our Nation; we are not parties to its covenants; it has not received the sanction of our people. The makers of it sustain no office nor appointment in our Nation, under the designation of Chiefs, Head men, or any other title, by which they hold, or could acquire, authority to assume the reins of Government..."

Harkins, in an 1831 letter to the American people, compared his people's situation to a man, led on by false pretenses, finding himself lost and surrounded on all sides by fire and water. "The fire was certain destruction, and a feeble hope was left him of escaping by water. A distant view of the opposite shore encourages the hope; to remain would be inevitable annihilation. Who would hesitate, or who would say that his plunging into the water was his own voluntary act?"

Most of the displaced indigenous peoples rightly opposed removal. Some, such as the Cherokee, tried legal channels, taking their case to the Supreme Court (they won, but were forcibly removed anyway). Some, like the Seminoles in Florida and the Sacs and Foxes in the Midwest, tried to resist by force. But in the end, Jackson had his way.

Sources: Fighting Words: Competing Voices from Native America, edited by Dewi Ioan Bell and Joy Porter; The Trail of Tears and Indian Removal by Amy H. Sturgis; and Encyclopedia of American Indian Civil Rights, edited by James S. Olson, Mark Baxter, Jason M. Tetzloff and Darren Pierson.

All of these documents were found on American Indian Experience, an excellent database we have from Greenwood Publishing. I can't urge you enough to give it a look. It's fascinating and profoundly touching to read primary documents from this time in particular, to read the actual words of the peoples affected. Recommended!

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