Frontier Injustice | The Nation


Frontier Injustice

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The most bitter and enduring issues that Jackson's memory raises about democracy and the American tradition concern the Cherokee question: Jackson's refusal as President to implement the decision of the Supreme Court under John Marshall in 1831 giving protection to the Cherokee against new measures passed by the State of Georgia making them subject to its law. This, as Jackson was well aware, laid the basis for the Indians' expulsion beyond the Mississippi to make way for white settlers. "John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it," he is reported to have said. Whether he uttered them or not, these words faithfully reflected the spirit in which he acted. The US government refused to defend the Cherokee against Georgia, Jackson warned them that they had no choice but to leave and within a few years (though after Jackson himself had left office) they were driven from their ancestral homeland to Oklahoma on the "Trail of Tears," on which a large number died of disease and malnutrition.

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Anatol Lieven
Anatol Lieven, a professor at King's College, London, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author...

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Brands tackles this issue head on--in marked contrast to Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who in The Age of Jackson (1945) amazingly evaded the issue altogether, even in a chapter titled "Jacksonian Democracy and the Law." Brands takes the line of Remini and other recent defenders of Jackson in arguing--as indeed Jackson did--that the "attitudes" of Southern white society made it impossible for the Cherokee to remain. As Brands writes:

The Indians must either adopt the ways of the Whites, including the laws of the states in which they lived, or move. To stay where they were, under their old customs, was not an option. Jackson knew the Indians' neighbors [i.e., Southern whites] having lived among such people for most of his life. They wouldn't leave the Indians alone, nor let them keep large tracts of land lightly occupied. The status quo was untenable; for the Indians it risked "utter annihilation."

Realistically, therefore, their only choice was deportation or extermination. Indeed, it was only their removal west of the Mississippi that allowed even a remnant of the Cherokee to survive as a people, rather than following the other eastern tribes into oblivion.

There is a good deal of truth to this argument, but what Brands and others fail to realize is that it is less a defense of Jackson than an indictment of his society. The reason the case of the Cherokee has caused such disquiet throughout the generations is that they were not "wild Indians" like the Comanche or the Kiowa. Given the nomadic and raiding life of the latter, including truly bestial treatment of prisoners, it is hard to imagine how they could have coexisted in peace not only with white Americans but with any settled society. The Cherokee, by contrast, were a settled people who became literate and Christian, and who tried to play by American rules--including the appeal to the Supreme Court. They had also been America's, and Jackson's, allies against other tribes and against the British. Most of the empires of the time, including the French and Spanish, would have protected them as trusted allies.

It is instructive in this regard to contrast their treatment with that of the Maori of New Zealand by the British Crown at around the same time. The British conquered the Maori and seized much of their land. But when they made a treaty with the Maori, they stuck to it. They protected the Maori from the white settlers in New Zealand and guaranteed their possession of enough land to live on--with the result that today, the Maori are a powerful, growing (and perhaps in the future, dominant) section of New Zealand society.

In the case of the US frontier, the alternatives always seemed to be either assimilation, deportation or extermination. Coexistence with indigenous groups has always been especially difficult for the United States, at least as long as those groups retained any autonomous power. The drive either to Americanize or destroy such communities is the flip side of the often admirable American desire to spread democracy and freedom. Or in Andrew Burstein's words, Jackson "expected Indians to be either diabolical or pliant."

The fate of the Southern Indians, however, also illustrates some wider and uncomfortable truths about democracy and "freedom," which Americans would do well to consider before they plunge into any more attempts to democratize countries in the Muslim world. The first is that through most of history and in most societies, from ancient Athens on, ideas of "freedom" have been closely allied to ideas of personal or group "privilege"--just as the whites of the South and of the frontier interpreted their freedom vis-à-vis the Indians and the blacks.

Another point is that people have always been willing to make trade-offs between democracy and the rule of law on the one side and security on the other. In the case of the Cherokee, Jackson and his followers were willing to ignore US law not only because they were greedy for land but also because of the horrible frontier experiences of the previous century, including in many cases personal experience of Indian raids. They saw the Cherokee as a real threat and potential fifth column, if backed by a European power like Britain or France.

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