Saturday, March 07, 2015

Andrew Jackson, Indian removal and the Enlightenment

I've been reading up a bit on the history of the Enlightenment with a particular view to the contradictory nature of its heritage.

The German journal Geschichte und Gesellschaft.Zeitschrift für Historische Sozialwissenschaft did a special issue in 2010 on the topic Die Aufklärung und ihre Weltwirkung (The Enlightenment and Its Effects in the World). One of the essays is by Volker Depkat, "Angewandte Autklärung? Die Weltwirkung der Autklärung im kolonialen Britisch Nordamerika und den USA."

Andrew Jackson, too Enlightened for the good of American Indians?

Depkat uses the worst act of my man Andrew Jackson to illustrate the dark side of the Enlightenment. Specifically, Jackson's 1830 message to Congress justifying the Indian Removal Act. See Transcript of President Andrew Jackson's Message to Congress 'On Indian Removal' (1830).

Depkat says the arguments in that speech "came out of a intellectual world whose essential elements and figures of thinking were bound to the Enlightenment" ("einer Vorstellungswelt entsprang, deren wesentliche Elemente und Denkfiguren der Aufklärung verpflichtet waren").

I think Jackson actually believed what he said in that speech, not that it was any excuse for the policy. The opponents of the Act argued that the Indians could be more effectively Christianized if they stayed put, and also that some of these Indians were slaveholders who upheld the Peculiar Institution.The white Enlightenment meant disaster for the Indians either way.

Jackson's speech got it tragically right on that point, too, when he argued that the relocation of the tribes "will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers, and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community." No Happy Ending for the tribes subject to this civilizing tutelage.

The rest of the paragraph of which that passage is the conclusion is:

It puts an end to all possible danger of collision between the authorities of the General and State Governments on account of the Indians. It will place a dense and civilized population in large tracts of country now occupied by a few savage hunters. By opening the whole territory between Tennessee on the north and Louisiana on the south to the settlement of the whites it will incalculably strengthen the southwestern frontier and render the adjacent States strong enough to repel future invasions without remote aid. It will relieve the whole State of Mississippi and the western part of Alabama of Indian occupancy, and enable those States to advance rapidly in population, wealth, and power. It will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; free them from the power of the States; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions ...
As Depkat points out, here was the Enlightenment notion of continual historical progress and the civilizing effects of knowledge and Christian - white European Christian - civilization. There was the Enlightenment notion that white Christian civilization had the deeply moral and ethical duty to raise the lesser peoples, the "savages," to a higher (European) level of life.

This was a confusion of ideas, not lacking in cynicism and hypocrisy. But they were also ideas that grew out of concrete conditions in Europe, where the civilized Christians had mutually butchered each others in the Wars of Religion of the 16th century, followed by the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648, then the largest slaughter in the history of humanity. Christian Europe would not exceed that record until the 20th century, when they far exceeded it twice.

Jackson was right in his calculations. And the opponents of the Indian Removal Act were right in theirs. Both were working from a concept of civilization that excluded the Indians from any concept of participating in American civilization as a distinct culture, as practitioners of their aboriginal religions. There were two types of "Indian lovers" among American whites in those times. There were urban idealists who were justifiably critical of the treatment of the native tribes but who had limited knowledge of real existing Indians. And there were those who were actively interacting with the Indians, like fur traders. The author Herman Melville, who actually lived among native tribes in the South Seas, was one such contemporary. The historian Francis Parkman took the time to become personally acquainted with native tribes and their languages, making his histories of enduring relevance for historians and anthropologists to this day.

Jackson's German contemporary Hegel painted a famously grim picture of what he saw as the inexorable but amoral progress of Reason in history (Philosophy of History III.2 §24; paragraph breaks added here for ease of reading; my emphasis in bold):

The first glance at History convinces us that the actions of men proceed from their needs, their passions, their characters and talents; and impresses us with the belief that such needs, passions and interests are the sole springs of action — the efficient agents in this scene of activity. Among these may, perhaps, be found aims of a liberal or universal kind — benevolence it may be, or noble patriotism; but such virtues and general views are but insignificant as compared with the World and its doings.

We may perhaps see the Ideal of Reason actualised in those who adopt such aims, and within the sphere of their influence; but they bear only a trifling proportion to the mass of the human race; and the extent of that influence is limited accordingly. Passions, private aims, and the satisfaction of selfish desires, are on the other hand, most effective springs of action. Their power lies in the fact that they respect none of the limitations which justice and morality would impose on them; and that these natural impulses have a more direct influence over man than the artificial and tedious discipline that tends to order and self-restraint, law and morality.

When we look at this display of passions, and the consequences of their violence; the Unreason which is associated not ... only with them, but even (rather we might say especially) with good designs and righteous aims; when we see the evil, the vice, the ruin that has befallen the most flourishing kingdoms which the mind of man ever created, we can scarce avoid being filled with sorrow at this universal taint of corruption: and, since this decay is not the work of mere Nature, but of the Human Will — a moral embitterment — a revolt of the Good Spirit (if it have a place within us) may well be the result of our reflections.

Without rhetorical exaggeration, a simply truthful combination of the miseries that have overwhelmed the noblest of nations and polities, and the finest exemplars of private virtue, — forms a picture of most fearful aspect, and excites emotions of the profoundest and most hopeless sadness, counter-balanced by no consolatory result. We endure in beholding it a mental torture, allowing no defence or escape but the consideration that what has happened could not be otherwise; that it is a fatality which no intervention could alter. And at last we draw back from the intolerable disgust with which these sorrowful reflections threaten us, into the more agreeable environment of our individual life — the Present formed by our private aims and interests.

In short we retreat into the selfishness that stands on the quiet shore, and thence enjoy in safety the distant spectacle of “wrecks confusedly hurled.” But even regarding History as the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of States, and the virtue of individuals have been victimised — the question involuntarily arises — to what principle, to what final aim these enormous sacrifices have been offered. From this point the investigation usually proceeds to that which we have made the general commencement of our enquiry.

Starting from this we pointed out those phenomena which made up a picture so suggestive of gloomy emotions and thoughtful reflections — as the very field which we, for our part, regard as exhibiting only the means for realising what we assert to be the essential destiny — the absolute aim, or — which comes to the same thing — the true result of the World's History. We have all along purposely eschewed “moral reflections” as a method of rising from the scene of historical specialties to the general principles which they embody. Besides, it is not the interest of such sentimentalities, really to rise above those depressing emotions; and to solve the enigmas of Providence which the considerations that occasioned them, present.

It is essential to their character to find a gloomy satisfaction in the empty and fruitless sublimities of that negative result. We return then to the point of view which we have adopted; observing that the successive steps (Momente) of the analysis to which it will lead us, will also evolve the conditions requisite for answering the enquiries suggested by the panorama of sin and suffering that history unfolds.
Depkat also points to this passage from Jackson's speech as exhibiting the Enlightenment view of the duty of humanity to master Nature:

What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization and religion?
Depkat writes:

Sein Argument gründet somit in einem scharfen Kontrast zwischen der vorzivilisierten Wildnis und der durch Städte und Farmen bestimmten U.S.-amerikanischen „Fortschrittslandschaft". Letztere steht für Kontrolle über die Natur, für die rationale Nutzung der natürlichen Ressourcen, für soziale, ökonomische und kulturelle Komplexität sowie für eine fortlaufende, alle Bereiche des Alltags erfassende Verbesserung der Lebenssituation („improvements"). Damit verbunden wird ein ästhetischer Aspekt, denn die sichtbaren Manifestationen des Fortschritts werden als Verschönerung („embellishment") einer zuvor wilden und deshalb häßlichen Landschaft gesehen. Ferner bemerkenswert ist, dass die Verwandlung der Landschaft als Ergebnis der unablässigen Arbeit und des ausdauernden Fleißes („industry"), des Wissens und der Fertigkeiten („art") freier Individuen gesehen wird. Jackson entwirft damit einen kausalen Zusammenhang von Freiheit und Fortschritt, durch den die Fortschrittlichkeit des Geschichtsprozesses selbst befordert wird.

[His argument is thereby grounded in a sharp contrast between the pre-civilized wilderness and American "progressive landscape" defined by cities and farms. The latter stands for control over Nature, for the rational use of natural resources, for social, economic and cultural complexity as well as for a continuous bettering of the life situation ("improvements") encompassing all spheres of everyday life. Bound up with that is an aesthetic aspect, because the visible manifestations of progress are seen as beautification ("embellishment") of the landscape that was previously wild and ugly. Further noteworthy is that the transformation of the landscape is seen as the result of unrelenting labor and of sustained industriousness ("industry"), of knowledge of the skill ("art") of free individuals. Jackson thereby project a causal connection between freedom and progress, through which the progressive nature of the historical process itself is advanced.]
Also important to Depkat's argument is that groups including women, native peoples, labor, slaves and free African-Americans used Enlightenment arguments, especially as embedded in the Declaration of Independence and the 1787 US Constitution, to argue against the limits that earlier Enlightenment thought and political institutions based in Enlightenment concepts had imposed on them.

And uses as examples arguments for women's rights from Abigail Adams and the 1790 essay from Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820), On the Equality of the Sexes.

No comments: