Friday, April 19, 2013

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2013, April 19: Abolitionists against Indian removal

Natalie Joy has an article on another issue that was a major theme for the Jackson Administration, Indian Removal. As I've said more than once here, even though this blog's name is a recognition of the vital democratic tradition that Jacksonianism represented, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 was one major accomplishment of his that was a bad decision, and an immoral one by the standards of the time.

Joy's article is on Cherokee Slaveholders and Radical Abolitionists: An unlikely alliance in antebellum America Common-Place 10/4 (July 2010). She gives the background of the Act this way:

The election of Andrew Jackson to the presidency in 1828 famously signaled a new era in U.S. Indian policy, one that had dire consequences for thousands of Native Americans. Once in office, Jackson urged Congress to pass federal legislation authorizing him to sign removal treaties with all Indians living east of the Mississippi River, thus freeing up millions of acres of land for white settlement. The states most eager for such legislation were in the South, not coincidentally a region that had offered Jackson significant support precisely because he promised to make Indian removal a top priority of his administration. Georgia was particularly eager for the federal government to make good on its 1802 promise to extinguish Indian land titles within its borders, which included a significant portion of the Cherokee Nation. But Jackson's plan did not go unchallenged. In 1829, as both houses of Congress prepared their own version of what would become the Indian Removal Bill, reformers throughout the northern United States joined with Native Americans to fight its passage. [my emphasis]
I won't go into the complexities of Old Hickory's general approach to Indian policy here. I discussed it in this earlier post, Old Hickory and the Indians 04/08/2004, a review of Robert Remini's Andrew Jackson and His Indian Wars (2001). My focus here is more on the "antiremoval" coalition, as Joy calls them. "Antiremovalists," she notes argued against removal on moral grounds and defended the sovereign rights of the native tribes. "Most importantly," she notes, "antiremovalists believed that Anglo-Americans had a moral duty to bring Christian civilization to Native Americans, a project that would be greatly hampered by removal."

Morality in their eyes was deeply connected to Christianity and capitalism:

Making Indians "civilized" had been a central component of federal U.S. Indian policy since George Washington's administration, but it was not formalized until the passage of the 1819 Civilization Act, which provided funds for missionary organizations eager to participate in the conversion of "savages." "Civilization," it was commonly understood, was the only way for Indians to avoid extinction—the inevitable fate of uncivilized peoples who came into contact with more advanced cultures. What exactly "civilization" entailed was a matter of debate in the nineteenth century, but most people agreed that to be civilized, Indians would have to be guided by Christian morality, live as settled farmers, and abide by a written system of laws and government. Most importantly, Indians needed to acknowledge and embrace private property, including individual landownership. In 1789, no less a figure than Henry Knox, Washington's Secretary of War and the architect of early national Indian policy, argued that the key to civilizing Indians was "to introduce among [them] a love for exclusive property."

Abolitionists believed, as did most Americans, in the myth of the "noble savage," whose innocence of civilization was the source of his virtuous purity, but also his greatest weakness, for it left him vulnerable to the introduction of unwanted vices ... [my emphasis]
This is a reminder to be cautious about anachronism, the projecting of current understandings onto an earlier time. By liberal or left standards of 2013, even the Indians' white partisans weren't interested in assisting the Indians by putting them under white American laws, practices and institutions, especially the institutions of Christian churches and private property.

The irony acknowledged in the title of Joy's article is that the Abolitionists opposing Indian removal to prevent the spread of slavery found themselves in coalition with Cherokee slaveowners:
Most Cherokees did not own slaves, nor did they radically alter their traditional ways of living to conform to the standards of American civilization, but those who did were part of a growing class of wealthy and politically powerful elites who lived on large plantations like their white neighbors. And it was this elite class with whom antiremovalists, including abolitionists, had the most contact in print and in person.
And that coalition had many of the problems of such the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend alliances:

Throughout the debate over Indian removal in the 1830s, abolitionist support of the Cherokee cause was contingent upon a romanticized picture of Indian slaveholding. As part of their support for the Cherokee Nation's fight against removal, abolitionists found themselves in the unusual position of acting as apologists for Indian slaveholding, mounting a defense that drew heavily from the testimony of Cherokee leaders. Abolitionists accepted such testimony as fact, even when they had good reason to doubt its truthfulness, because it reinforced their own ideas about Indians, slavery and civilization. [my emphasis]
Politics is politics, as Joe Stalin said shortly before he signed the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact in 1939.

The antiremoval Abolitionists found themselves defending slavery in a kind of Hegelian way, arguing that the adoption of black slavery by the Cherokees was evidence of their progress in the American Christian form of civilization, including this unfortunately element of it. Joy observes that the establishment of classical liberal notions of constitutions and the rule of law, and slaveowning Cherokees were on board with that part of the program to some extent:

In 1827 the Cherokee Nation had written its own constitution, which included numerous provisions protecting the interests of slaveholders, including barring slaves and their descendants, free or enslaved, from holding office or voting. Many other laws including those against interracial marriage attest to the legal and political institutionalization of black chattel slavery in the Cherokee Nation.

... Abolitionists accepted that Cherokee slaveholding—at least in the short term—was compatible with and even evidence of civilization. The Cherokees' adoption of black chattel slavery, and the larger cultural, legal and political changes it wrought, proved their inherent capacity for progress. Because abolitionists did not believe slavery to be the basis of a civilized society, Indian slaveholding had to be merely an intermediary stage, not the end result of the process of civilization. [my emphasis]
But even given the complexities and moral ambiguities that politics often produce, the Abolitionists were fighting for the rights of the Indians, as they understood them. "Even after passage of the Indian Removal Act in May 1830, abolitionists continued to support Indian rights, often folding the plight of Indians into their condemnation of black chattel slavery," Joy writes.

Even though the Abolition movement was still relatively small, the conflicts between the North and the South due to slavery were already beginning to affect issues not directly connected with slavery as such:

Abolitionists joined the Indian cause because they saw in removal the influence of the slaveholding South. "One would think that the guilt of African slavery was enough for the nation to bear," one writer lamented in 1829, "without the additional crime of injustice to the aborigines." Although the Indian Removal Bill applied to nearly all Indians living east of the Mississippi River, southern slaveowners were clearly the most eager to obtain fertile Indian land, and abolitionists feared that removal would hasten the westward expansion of slavery at the expense of national honor. [my emphasis]
The Hegelian World Spirit was evidently at work in the alliance of the Abolitionists with Southern Cherokee slaveholders revealing to some of them the problems with their supported for colonization of African-Americans back to Africa after the abolition of slavery, i.e., mass deportation:

The fight over the Indian Removal Bill immediately preceded the radicalization of the antislavery movement in the early 1830s. This was no accident, as several historians have noted. Many reformers who supported the American Colonization Society and other moderate antislavery activities in the 1820s had been radicalized by their involvement with the antiremoval cause. Antiremoval activism convinced many antislavery reformers to reconsider the colonization of free blacks to Africa. They found themselves increasingly unable to justify their support for one policy (colonization) that bore such strong similarities to another (removal) which they strongly opposed. By 1831, leading abolitionists, including, most famously, William Lloyd Garrison, were denouncing the gradualism of colonization in favor of immediate emancipation, a crucial shift brought about, at least in part, by the debate over Indian removal in the late 1820s and early 1830s. [my emphasis]
The colonization idea for black Americans, which never gained more than marginal popularity among black Abolitionists, was nevertheless still seen by many whites as a viable option up until the Civil War.

And, if we count Theodore Bilbo, even long after.

But that's a topic for tomorrow's post.

Tags: , , , , ,

No comments: