Friday, November 12, 2021

Review: Unworthy Republic

From Unworthy Republic, by Claudio Sant:

Open quote "Indians," like Jews, Gypsies, slaves, and "free negroes," wrote the Georgia Journal in 1825, were "a kind of citizens of an inferior order." What was to be done with them? By the 1830s, the expression "the Indian question" was circulating widely in the United States." Unworthy Republic

The answer to the question posed by Georgia whites in 1825, was voluntary self-deportation, forced expulsion, or not necessarily as a last resort, extermination.

Grade: B+

I don't know how many American school children are taught about the so-called "Indian Removal" from Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi in the 1830s. I'm not sure when I first heard about the "Trail of Tears." I suspect my own knowledge came slowly over decades. I do remember as a child placing Andrew Jackson among our great presidents. That was due to "Jacksonian democracy." But gradually I learned that Jackson's championing of the "common man" didn't include Blacks or Native Americans. Today I rank Andrew Jackson as one of America's worst presidents. This history cements his place.

The "Indian Removal Act" of 1830 was a signature achievement of Jackson's presidency. It also stands with America's worst legislation ever. Its consequences are extensively detailed in Claudio Sant's history, "Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory."

The Creeks, Cherokees, Chickasaws, and Seminoles owned territory covering much of the southeastern United States in the 1830s. I say "owned" loosely, because their ownership depended on federal government respect for the treaties it signed with the sovereign indigenous nations and military defense against white aggression. That defense was never strong, and when Andrew Jackson gained control of the presidency, the federal government not only quit recognizing native nations' rights, it joined with the southern states in working to expel the indigenous people from their ancestral homelands.

Sant's book shows how closely "Indian removal" was tied to slavery. The presence of indigenous people in the southeastern states presented the white slaveholders with an existential threat. They were constantly fearful of slaves joining "Indians" in uprisings against the white slaveholders. Expulsion of the indigenous people was doubly beneficial. It removed an existential threat and simultaneously freed up huge swathes of new land for expansion of slave labor camps (euphemistically called plantations). "Indian removal" created one of the biggest land grabs the country has ever seen. Land speculators made fortunes. Cotton growers made fortunes. Indigenous people lost everything — their land, their possessions, and for too many, their lives.

Southern whites agreed on removal, but removal to where? Everyone decided west of the Mississippi was best. The problem was that no one knew anything about the land there, or the challenges of getting there. No matter. "White southerners at first gave little thought to the practical details of expelling native families 'to the waste public lands over the Mississippi.' But the general goal already appeared perfectly achievable to them, even if it seemed unreasonable or fantastical to others." Much of Sant's book is devoted to hardships suffered by the people who were removed and to the extermination of the indigenous people who refused deportation.

I was struck by the detailed record keeping kept of the expulsion. The costs of the deportation borne by government agents and contractors was meticulously kept, in part to ensure reimbursement and in part to deduct those costs from the money given to the native nations for the confiscation of their lands. It reminded me of the detailed record keeping the Nazis kept during the Holocaust. Sant even provides an historical connection. "Notoriously, during the Nazi conquest of Eastern Europe, Hitler equated 'indigenous inhabitants' with 'Indians' and declared that 'the Volga must be our Mississippi.'"

For those who think I am trying to impose a modern way of thinking on an America in the distant past, that the way we treated indigenous peoples was inevitable, maybe some kind of law of nature, this book provided plenty of evidence that the sins we committed were recognized at the time. It didn't have to be this way. The sins our nation made in the 1830s were conscious acts made out of self-interest. Andrew Jackson defeated John Quincy Adams for the presidency in 1828. After Jackson's decade of "Indian Removal", Adams wrote, "It is among the heinous sins of this nation, for which I believe God will one day bring them to judgement." That was written in 1841, not 2021.

This book isn't trying to "change history." It's a long overdue presentation of our history that has for too long has been suppressed. I can understand why many of today's Americans don't want to learn this part of history. It's ugly. It's sinful. It's truth. It's time we learn it.

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