In dealing with Jackson's Indian policies, I've always tried to state clearly that they were bad and not "defend" them. With the criticism I'm discussing in this post, I'm not going to worry much about whether it sounds like I'm "defending" policies of which I have made my criticisms clear.
What Jackson symbolizes in particular for me is what I've stated in the statement that's been on the blog for years, "He stood up against the secessionists and the economic royalists." And he did, in the Nullification Controversy and the fight against the Second Bank of the United States. At the time, Jacksonians referred to the latter as the chief representative of the Money Power, which meant basically the same as Theodore Roosevelt's "malefactors of great wealth" and Franklin Roosevelts "economic royalists." The use of the latter is, I suppose, doubly anachronistic, because I'm using a term from the 1930s that's not so common today and applying it to the situation a century earlier.
This opinion column by Albert Bender is a reminder that Jackson's Indian policy remains a challenge for the democratic tradition: Democrats shouldn't praise Jackson The Tennessean 11/02/2015.
In a way, selecting historical figures as present-day symbols is similar to identifying saints in the Catholic Church. Despite Mary's Immaculate Conception, the Church assumes that even she sinned in life, even though it also claims that she got an Ascension without death at the end.
But the Catholic Church and most Protestant Christians could generally agree - in theory anyway - with the chorus of this song Sinners & Saints "The only thang different in sinners and saints/One is forgiven and the other one ain't."
Bender has written numerous columns for People's World, such as An American Indian should replace Jackson on the $20 bill 06/12/2015.
The People's World says explicitly of itself and its affiliated websites that they "enjoy a special relationship with the Communist Party USA, founded in 1919, and publish its news and views." It's the paper of what is left of the US Communist Party, in other words. I don't mention that to dismiss it as a source of news or opinion but as an identifier of the trend of thought in which Bender is working.
And the Communist Party's official histories of Andrew Jackson have never been particular flattering. William Z. Foster's 1954 book The Negro People in American History was written while he was in prison after being successfully prosecuted by the Truman Administration for the crime of conspiring to advocate the overthrow of the American government. Under those circumstances, it's not surprising that his book wasn't particularly flattering to Jackson, one of the patron (secular) saints of the Democratic Party. On the other hand, in the same book he followed the Communist Party habit of praising Thomas Jefferson as a (bourgeois) revolutionary and advocate for the abolition of slavery.
Foster's account there of pre-Civil War politics is generally a decent account from a consciously pro-Abolitionist point of view. Though his purpose in the book is clearly political, not academic historiography. Historian Theodore Draper would later credit Foster for recovering the history of black nationalism in the US, which he also did in that 1954 volume.
But the tangle of ideologies over the last century and more, the fact is that Jackson and the politics associated with him as President represented a major step forward for popular democracy in the United States.
So, here's Bender's case against Jackson, from his November 2 column:
Some things you just don’t see coming. That was my reaction to the column by Mary Mancini, chairwoman of the Tennessee Democratic Party, praising that mass murderer, Andrew Jackson.Was Jackson supported by racist white people? Yes. It would be safe to say that nearly every person who voted for him was a racist white man. The same was true of Presidents Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, JQ Adams, Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, Polk, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan and Lincoln, to name only those elected before the Civil War. Women couldn't vote during that period (with minor exceptions). And virtually every white man and women believed that the white race was superior to blacks and Indians ("the Red Man"). Even among white Abolitionists, it was unusual to find ones that believed in the basic equality of the races that is recognized as the official conventional wisdom today, though a large percentage of whites still don't believe it in practice.
The column was posted in connection with the party’s annual Jackson Day Dinner.
As I have known Mancini as a voice of liberalism and reason in this community, I shall not engage in personal invective. I will just address the position of the state Democratic Party as manifested by Mancini.
The column states “Jackson was elected because he captured the imagination of the American people."
He captured the imagination of racist white people who imagined an America without Indians, an America where there was no place for Native Americans.
Did Jackson advocate "an America without Indians, an America where there was no place for Native Americans"? Did he campaign on such a platform in 1924, 1928 or 1932? No, he did not. Were there many Indian haters who more-or-less wanted that? Yes. In fact the only people who fit the category of "Indian lovers" in the first half of the 19th century in the US fell into two groups were people who had spent their entire lives in Eastern cities or nearby, and who had a more-or-less romanticized view of Indians, the kind of view contained in the Leatherstocking novels of James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851).
The other group contained the relatively small number of whites who had actually lived and worked among Indians, like the fur trappers and the "mountain men." That last number included even a few intellectuals. The great historian Francis Parkman (1823-1893) lived among Indian tribes and learned some native languages, enabling him to write some detailed accounts of Indian life that are stilled valued by anthropologists and historians today. Because he did good work, and took the time to understand his Indians objects of study on their own terms. But even he has been criticized by historians for displaying some degree of racial prejudice against Indians. Even in his own lifetime, Herman Melville (1819-1891) criticized him for advocating harsh measures against Indians. Melville himself didn't live among American Indians, but he did spend a significant period of time among Polynesian natives in the South Seas, an experience he wrote about in fictionalized for in Typee (1846). Melville had a more tolerant view of other races than was common in his time. Yet that didn't prevent some element of nostalgic sympathy toward Confederate soldiers and officers from showing itself in his definitively pro-Union poems in Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866).
This is part of the dilemma of simply dismissing major American leaders and thinkers of the early 19th century as simply racists. Because carried through in the way Bender seems to envision, that would mean a ban on relying on any of them for any kind of positive, democratic and patriotic symbolism - on the part of people who oppose white racism and xenophobia today. Those who demagogue in favor white racism and xenophobia will be happy to use George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Robert E. Lee, John Calhoun and Henry Clay, and anyone else they choose to portray themselves as the Real Americans. The only conservatives you hear praising Andrew Jackson these days are those who somehow got the idea that Jackson stood for a militarized foreign policy. You do see today's Republicans and advocates of white supremacy making use of neo-Confederate ideas and symbolism. So as long as John Calhoun's ghost haunts American politics, I'm happy to invoke Old Hickory's ghost to remind people that there is a democratic tradition of national unity that was the radical opposite of Calhoun's treason. And a large-d Democratic one, too.
Apart from politics as such, it's also a matter of how we approach history both professional and popular. History isn't made by pure thoughts. It's made by impure people, some of whom can do bad things and still achieve good things that advance democracy,or enhance our understanding of the world. Francis Bacon (1561–1626) is a significant figure because of his important influence in advancing science and philosophy. The fact that he may have been a prick doesn't change that.
Bender attacks Jackson for the Indian Wars of his day:
Jackson carried out the most murderous removal campaign against Native Americans — Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws and Seminoles — in U.S. history. He was directly responsible for the hideous, agonizing deaths of tens of thousands of Native Americans, beginning with the Creek War of 1813-14.The two basic positions among white Americans on Indians in those days were that they either had to be pushed out of the way and/or killed off, and that they could be integrated into white Christian society through mission work and education. The opponents of the Indian Removal Act argued that it would be more difficult to Christianize the affected tribes if they were moved to Oklahoma. Some argued that since some Indians were owners of black slaves, their continued presence in the southeast US would strengthen the institution of slavery.
Jackson was accountable for the deaths of thousands of Muscogee Creek people in that conflict. He envisioned an America without Indians. Jackson led armies that conducted a war of extermination against noncombatants — women, children, the elderly.
According to present-day Creek sources, hundreds of Creek women and children were also sold into slavery. They were starved and many murdered in captivity.
Many of the women were also raped. Creek children, particularly little boys, were sold for $20 each as “pets.”
Orphaned children were taken off the battlefields from the bodies of their dead mothers as “trophies.” Three such children were taken by Jackson himself, including the tragic Lincoya.
The Indian Wars are nothing for Americans today to be proud of.
When it comes to Jackson, though, we also have to consider whether he was especially brutal or deliberately instigated the kinds of actions that Bender uses in that brief polemic just quoted to suggest that it is what Jackson wanted. So far as I'm aware, that was just not the case. The Army units that Jackson commanded in the Creek War Bender cites wasn't the professional and disciplined army of today, so there were surely atrocities committed. But criminal behavior on the part of individual ill-trained short-term volunteers doesn't make it "a war of extermination against noncombatants." That's quite a charge, one that deserves more citation than Bender provides.
The phrase, "According to present-day Creek sources," strikes me as odd there. Was there no well-known historian, Creek or otherwise, who he could have cited by name? I'm also not aware that Indians were "sold into slavery," as Benton claims. Slavery was inflicted almost exclusively on people of some kind of African descent. It's also not clear whether he's talking only about the Creek War of 1813-14 in those paragraphs, or a larger number of conflicts.
Richard Blackmon in The Creek War of 1813-1814 (US Army Center of Military History, 2014) says of that war, "Poor communications and loose command arrangements further increased the challenges." The body counts are always a grim subject. But the number and type of casualties are a part of the story. They can also tell us something about the nature of the war. Blackmon writes, summarizing the entire conflict (p. 40), "Total deaths for U.S. forces, regulars and militia, are estimated at 575. About 1,600 Red Stick [Creek] warriors died. Many Indian civilians died of starvation or disease brought on by the loss of their homes in winter."
Blackmon writes of one phase of the war in 1813 (p. 21):
After [Col. John] Coffee’s victory at Tallushatchee, many nearby Creek towns pledged their loyalty to the United States. About one hundred loyal Creeks sought refuge at Fort Leslie near the Creek town of Talladega in what is now the state of Alabama. About one thousand Red Sticks led by William Weatherford surrounded Fort Leslie, stating that he would kill all inside unless the occupants joined him in warring against the United States. A Creek Indian from the fort managed to elude the besiegers and carry word of the situation to Jackson at Fort Strother. [my emphasis]When you look at the specifics of that Creek War, it becomes hard to picture it as "a war of extermination against noncombatants."
Blackmon also says of the immediately preceding battle, "Red Stick losses amounted to 186 warriors killed and some 80 women and children captured, while Coffee sustained less than 50 casualties." Coffee was under Jackson's command at the time. And the subsequent events Blackmon relates (p. 22) don't picture General Jackson in a war of extermination against the whole Creek people, nor even one indifferent to casualties among Creek men:
The battles at Tallushatchee and Talladega significantly diminished Red Stick strength, and by rescuing friendly Creeks at Talladega, Jackson further cemented the relationship between National Council Creeks and the United States. Impressed by American power, the Creeks of the Hillabee towns, located in the northern Creek territory, pledged not to war any further against the United States. In return, General Jackson promised not to attack their towns.As that incident shows, there were also conflicts among the Creeks themselves.
Unfortunately, General [John] Cocke knew nothing of these arrangements. On 10 November, he directed General White with his mounted East Tennessee militia and some three hundred Cherokee warriors to attack the Hillabee towns. Since the Creeks did not expect an attack, they were completely defenseless when White attacked on 18 November. In fact, when White attacked at first light, many residents came out to greet the Tennesseans and Cherokees. The towns contained many warriors wounded from the battles at Tallushatchee and Talladega as well as women and children. White took the women and children prisoners and reported killing sixty-nine Creek warriors. His own command sustained no casualties. When Jackson heard of the attack he became furious. He viewed the slaughter as evidence of Cocke’s insubordination. The surviving Hillabees believed they had been double-crossed by Jackson and henceforth pledged to war against the United States.
The Creek War took place during the War of 1812 against Great Britain. Blackmon remarks that in the period before the US declared war on Britain, the Americans "suspected British encouragement of Indian opposition to further American settlement on the western frontier." (p. 5)
Bender writes the following of the Indian Removal Act and its consequences and goes all Godwin's Law with a Hitler reference:
Jackson signed the Indian Removal Bill of May 30, 1830, and militarily enforced fraudulent treaties that brought further death to thousands of Native American men, women, children and elderly. Of the Cherokee “Trail of Tears,” it is said that no one younger than 6 or older than 60 survived the hideous march of death.Not just Hitler, but a "racist monster" and "racist devil incarnate"! I'm surprised he didn't throw in "mean poo-poo head."
Much of the Cherokee past and future perished on the trail of genocide that killed two generations.
Yet the Tennessee Democratic Party wants to praise this racist monster — this racist devil incarnate — this early-day American Hitler whose deadly legacy for American Indians remains extant to this very day.
The Indian relocations under the authority of that law took place over several years. I'm willing to argue that an alternative should have been found. But the real history also does not suggest the alternatives would necessarily have been more favorable for the longer-term survival of the affected tribes. Whites in the region wanted Indian land. And many of them were more like John Cocke in their thinking than like Andrew Jackson.
Again, the Indian Removal Act was a bad idea. Yet even with bad ideas, it's important to get the history right. Yes, the Act was a signature policy and legislative achievement of Jackson's. But Bender is careful to give a precise date for the signing date of the law. But not for the dates of the "Trail of Tears." This undated PBS webpage, Indian Removal 1814-1858, gives the following account of the Trail of Tears.
The Cherokee, on the other hand, were tricked with an illegitimate treaty. In 1833, a small faction agreed to sign a removal agreement: the Treaty of New Echota. The leaders of this group were not the recognized leaders of the Cherokee nation, and over 15,000 Cherokees -- led by Chief John Ross -- signed a petition in protest. The Supreme Court ignored their demands and ratified the treaty in 1836. The Cherokee were given two years to migrate voluntarily, at the end of which time they would be forcibly removed. By 1838 only 2,000 had migrated; 16,000 remained on their land. The U.S. government sent in 7,000 troops, who forced the Cherokees into stockades at bayonet point. They were not allowed time to gather their belongings, and as they left, whites looted their homes. Then began the march known as the Trail of Tears, in which 4,000 Cherokee people died of cold, hunger, and disease on their way to the western lands.The year 1938 was two years into the Van Buren Administration. I'm not willing to call Van Buren a racist devil monster Hitler, either. But Ben Carson and David Barton aside, people don't get to just make up the history to fit their political point of the moment.
Robert Lindneux did this painting called The Trail of Tears in 1942:
That website gives this account of the earlier relocations:
For the next 28 years [after 1930], the United States government struggled to force relocation of the southeastern nations. A small group of Seminoles was coerced into signing a removal treaty in 1833, but the majority of the tribe declared the treaty illegitimate and refused to leave. The resulting struggle was the Second Seminole War, which lasted from 1835 to 1842. As in the first war, fugitive slaves fought beside the Seminoles who had taken them in. Thousands of lives were lost in the war, which cost the Jackson administration approximately 40 to 60 million dollars -- ten times the amount it had allotted for Indian removal. In the end, most of the Seminoles moved to the new territory. The few who remained had to defend themselves in the Third Seminole War (1855-58), when the U.S. military attempted to drive them out. Finally, the United States paid the remaining Seminoles to move west.
The Creeks also refused to emigrate. They signed a treaty in March, 1832, which opened a large portion of their Alabama land to white settlement, but guaranteed them protected ownership of the remaining portion, which was divided among the leading families. The government did not protect them from speculators, however, who quickly cheated them out of their lands. By 1835 the destitute Creeks began stealing livestock and crops from white settlers. Some eventually committed arson and murder in retaliation for their brutal treatment. In 1836 the Secretary of War ordered the removal of the Creeks as a military necessity. By 1837, approximately 15,000 Creeks had migrated west. They had never signed a removal treaty.
The Chickasaws had seen removal as inevitable, and had not resisted. They signed a treaty in 1832 which stated that the federal government would provide them with suitable western land and would protect them until they moved. But once again, the onslaught of white settlers proved too much for the War Department, and it backed down on its promise. The Chickasaws were forced to pay the Choctaws for the right to live on part of their western allotment. They migrated there in the winter of 1837-38.