The Trail of Tears

Brian sits down with historian Daniel Feller, to talk about Jacksonian America and the so-called “humanitarian” claims made on both sides of the Cherokee removal question.

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PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute. We’re back with BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.

BRIAN: I’m Brian Balogh.

ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. Today on the show, we’re trying to better understand the debate over intervention in Syria with a look back at history. We’re going to turn now to a much earlier case of a government turning on a group within its own borders. But in this case, that government was the United States itself.

EDWARD EVERETT: Gentleman who favor the project of Indian removal cannot have viewed it as it is. They think of a march of Indian warriors penetrating with their accustomed vigor, the forest, or the cane break. They think of the youthful Indian hunter going forth exaltingly to the chase. Sir, it is no such thing.

ED: This is a speech Massachusetts Congressman Edward Everett in May of 1830. And the project he’s referring to is a plan by the brand new president, Andrew Jackson, to remove four southeastern Indian tribes– by force, if necessary– hundreds of miles to the west.

EDWARD EVERETT: A community of civilized people of all ages, sexes, and conditions of bodily health are to be dragged hundreds of miles over mountains, rivers, and deserts, where there are no roads, no bridges, no habitations. And this is to be done for $8 a head, and done by contract. Will the contractor stop for the old man to rest? For the sick to get well? For the fainting women and children to revive?

He will not. He cannot afford to. And this process is to be extended to every family in a population of 75,000 souls. This is what we call the removal of the Indians.

ED: From our vantage point, Everett’s words sound prescient, because we know that a few years later, Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal plan culminated in what those peoples called the Trail of Tears, during which thousands of Indians died. But when Jackson first proposed the plan, it wasn’t at all clear that removal would even happen. Many Americans, especially in the North, pointed out that the Indians had a legal right to their land. And those opponents of removal made their positions clear in magazine essays, letters to the editor, and petition drives– efforts that nearly stopped Indian removal in its tracks.

BRIAN: But here’s the thing. At the same time that these people were making a humanitarian case against removal, Andrew Jackson was making a humanitarian case for it. Daniel Feller is a Jackson scholar at the University of Tennessee. He read me a bit of President Jackson’s first annual speech to Congress, in December of 1829.

DANIEL FELLER: Surrounded by the whites with their arts of civilization, which by destroying the resources of the savage, doom him to weakness and decay. The fate of the Mohican, the Narragansett, and the Delaware is fast overtaking the Choctaw, the Cherokee, and the Creek. That this fate surely awaits them if they remain within the limits of the States does not admit of a doubt. Humanity and national honor demand that every effort should be made to avert so great a calamity.

And so Jackson’s argument is we have a humanitarian crisis here. We are trying to save the remaining Indian nations from the fate of all those vanished Indian nations.

BRIAN: So because removal was going on in a kind of de facto way, Jackson was arguing that, look, we need to make this an explicit policy. We need to move them west of the Mississippi in order to save their civilization.

DANIEL FELLER: That’s exactly it, to put them in a kind of quarantine to the west. Removal, by one name or another, of course, have been going on ever since Europeans landed on American shores. And that removal, that pushing back of Indians, had always been accompanied by efforts to, in the words that whites used, to civilize and to Christianize the Indians. The argument Jackson made is that those efforts weren’t working, and the legacy of those efforts were a bunch of Indian nations that had vanished from the face of the earth.

And what his opponents say is all the humanitarian motives are really a charade. They’re a facade. What this all comes down to is whites want Indian land, and they’re willing to make up whatever argument they can to try to get it.

BRIAN: Were there any people who truly believed this argument about the humanitarian intent?

DANIEL FELLER: Certainly, there were a lot of people who believed that removing the Indians was for their own best interests. Jackson believed it. Now whether that was his prime motive– because he also believed that the Indians had no right to govern themselves where they were within the limits of a sovereign state, and he also believed that they were savages. Whether that was his prime motive, we can’t say.

But there were a lot of people who believed this. Presidents Adams and Monroe believed it. I would even say that Jackson’s opponents believed it to a degree.

One thing that handicapped Jackson’s opponents is they really didn’t have a better solution. They also believed that it would be for the best interest of the Indians to move in their own time, at their own free will. What bothered them about Jackson’s removal was not necessarily its ultimate aim. It was the means that Jackson was willing to use. It was the virtual tearing up of treaties.

BRIAN: Professor Feller, when you step back and look at this whole episode, what does it tell you about claims to humanitarian objectives when it comes to military intervention?

DANIEL FELLER: Humanitarianism can be very much in the eye in the beholder. From our point of view, the humanitarian solution of acculturating the Indians, assimilating them, teaching them Christianity, enabling them to survive and thrive within white society– it self-strikes us as often as something between misguided and evil. One person’s humanitarianism is another’s cultural genocide. Everyone on every side of this question claimed to have the Indians’ best interest at heart. And the kind of irony– I would say the tragedy here– is that there were certainly people on every side of the debate who sincerely believe that.

BRIAN: Daniel Feller directs the Papers of Andrew Jackson at the University of Tennessee.