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On Native Grounds | The Nation

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On Native Grounds

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As impressive as such initiatives were, Federalist policies eventually petered out. In 1795 the Washington Administration backed away from a showdown with New York over land purchases, which were somehow still continuing. The Administration had hoped for greater state cooperation when Federalist John Jay replaced George Clinton as governor in 1795, but Jay deferred to the land grabbers in the state legislature. While a supporter of the new federal government, Jay was also "the proud author," in Taylor's words, of New York's new state Constitution, which provided no authority for blocking an act of the state legislature once it had survived a veto by a special "Council of Revision." The coup de grâce came when Jefferson and his fellow "Republicans" (soon to be known as Democrats) swept the Federalists from office in the election of 1800. Although historian Sean Wilentz lauds Jefferson's triumph as a "democratic revolution" in his massive new study The Rise of American Democracy, it was something very different: a victory for states' rights advocates, Southern slaveholders and their racist-populist allies in the North and West. Taylor notes that the Federalists, despite their faults, were at least "willing (in the short term) to treat Indian sovereignty with some respect." The Jeffersonians, by contrast, "were eager, wherever possible, to dissolve diplomatic relations and to subject natives to the laws of particular states." The new President made his views known in 1803: "We presume that our strength and their weakness is now so visible, that they must see we have only to shut our hand to crush them." The message to his ally Clinton, back in the governorship after a brief Federalist interregnum, was unmistakable: New York could proceed with its expropriatory land policy with federal blessings.

About the Author

Daniel Lazare
Daniel Lazare is the author of, most recently, The Velvet Coup: The Constitution, the Supreme Court, and the Decline of...

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The Divided Ground nicely complements Taylor's 1995 study William Cooper's Town, which received both a Pulitzer Prize and a Bancroft. Whereas the first exhaustively examined settler politics and society in frontier New York from the Revolutionary period on, the second turns its gaze on the Indians, whose demise allowed the settlers to flourish. William Cooper's Town was successful because it was structured as a portrait of Cooper and his family, including his son, James Fenimore Cooper, whose novels helped create the myth of the noble but doomed Indian. The Divided Ground, perhaps because it lacks an equally dramatic focus, seems excessively microcosmic. While presenting us with a wealth of data about Indian land sales, it tells us less of what we would like to know about policy debates at the federal level or of Indian-settler relations elsewhere in the new republic or, indeed, elsewhere in the world. After all, this was not the only spot in which Europeans and aboriginal peoples were encountering one another. The eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries would see many such collisions, in Central and South America, in Australia and the Pacific islands, in Siberia under both the czars and the Soviets, and so on. It would be nice to know if the experience in western New York was exceptionally bad or more or less the rule, but Taylor offers little in the way of context or comparison.

Still, what he does tell us is damning enough. Following their victory over France in the Seven Years' War (known in these parts as the French and Indian War of 1754-63), the British found themselves masters of what Taylor describes as a "composite" empire in North America consisting of British colonists along the Atlantic seaboard, French settlers along the St. Lawrence, Africans in southern coastal areas and various Indian tribes deeper in the interior. London regarded all of them as so many pawns to be moved about the imperial chessboard. In order to soothe ruffled feathers in Quebec, for instance, the British awarded it control over the entire Ohio Valley in 1774 with little thought as to the effect on neighboring New England. New Englanders were aghast. They coveted the territory themselves and were now astonished to see it in the hands of French Papists. In moving to the New World, they, like other English colonists, had assumed that they retained all the rights of freeborn Englishmen back home. But even though they had been on the winning side of the Seven Years' War, they now found themselves being treated in the same way as the losers, or even a bit worse.

We are required to recalibrate our view of the revolution that erupted a short time later as a consequence. Rather than a revolt against imperialism, it was a revolt against being denied the full fruits of imperialist victory. Rather than a struggle for equality, it was a struggle by British North Americans for primacy among the various New World elements contending for control. Thus, the Continental Congress maintained immediately after the war that the Indians, having for the most part sided with the British, would have to bow to the dictates of their American conquerors and accept their fate as a defeated people. Siding with the Patriots was no guarantee of fair treatment, as the Oneidas were to discover. The Anglos were in control, which meant that all others would be reduced to drawers of water, hewers of wood. The Federalists strove for something a bit more equitable and civilized, but following Jefferson's "Revolution of 1800," the old "conquest theory," as Taylor calls it, was back in force. Although Taylor does not follow the story line beyond the 1810s, the conquest theory continued right up to the Civil War and, one way or another, has been with us ever since (the war in Iraq being merely the latest example of its externalization). Not only did the Indians pay a terrible price as a result, but so did blacks and other minorities. It is a legacy that no one wants to talk about, at least none of the oligarchs currently in control of the attenuated American Republic, which is why the old myths about freedom-loving patriots continue to hold sway.

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