[March 15th marks the 250th anniversary of Andrew Jackson’s birth. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five sides to this controversial, influential figure and president, leading up to a special weekend post on Jackson and Trump!]
On what’s unquestionably horrific about Jackson’s signature policy, and what might have been different.
I’ve written a great deal in this space—perhaps as much as I have about any single historical event or issue—about the early 1830s federal policy of Indian Removal and its effects and contexts, and yet I haven’t focused much at all in those pieces on Andrew Jackson. There’s this post, on how we can expand beyond the story of the Trail of Tears to include the Cherokee Memorials in our histories of both that tribe and Removal more broadly. This one, on the Native American preacher, orator, and activist William Apess whose voice, writings, and acts of political and social resistance overtly and crucially resisted and challenged the rhetoric and narratives of Removal. Or this one, on Chief Justice John Marshall and the Supreme Court’s decisions in two crucial early 1830s cases that had arosen in direct response and challenge to the Removal policy. Given my belief—stated most succinctly in this Talking Points Memo piece—that we need to work to extend our understandings of American eras and history beyond the presidents whom we too often used as both shorthand for and focal points in our collective memories (something I myself did by using “Jacksonian democracy” throughout yesterday’s post), I would certainly argue in this particular case that our narratives of Indian Removal should include the Cherokee Memorials, Apess, and the Marshall Court at least as much as they do President Andrew Jackson.
Yet while Jackson wasn’t the only contributor to the creation of a federal Removal policy—it was James Monroe’s Secretary of War (and future proto-Confederate) John Calhoun who first devised such a plan as early as 1818 and continued to argue for it throughout Monroe’s presidency (1817-25)—he was absolutely the most influential factor behind its development and enforcement. Calhoun’s plan had stalled by 1825, but when Jackson took office in 1829, two of his first presidential actions were to define all Native American tribes as one people under federal law (rather than as separate nations, as had been the default policy of his predecessors) and to instruct Congress to pass an Indian Removal Bill. When that controversial bill narrowly passed both chambers in early 1830, Jackson not only immediately signed it into law, but became its most vocal and impassioned advocate, most famously in refusing to heed the Supreme Court’s decision in Worcester v. Georgia (1832) and proceeding full force with the Removal policy. Whether Jackson actually uttered the words, “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it,” his subsequent and consistent actions certainly represented that position and attitude very fully. Indeed, I would argue that it’s impossible to read any documents or details related to Indian Removal and not come away feeling that the issue was a personal and emotional as well as cultural and political one to Jackson—that these efforts, that is, were not simply about aiding the states or white settlers, but also reflected a president hell-bent on removing as many native communities east of the Mississippi as he could.
Psychoanalyzing historical figures is of course a fraught and inevitably limited exercise, but nonetheless it’s hard to imagine that Jackson’s formative years spent as first a notorious “Indian fighter” and then a military officer in a series of bloody wars against Southeastern Native American tribes didn’t play a role in developing that hateful passion. Yet even within that specific frame, a very different formative military conflict and community reveals how Jackson could have come away with a far more inclusive vision of American history and identity. During the 1814-15 Battle of New Orleans that culminated the War of 1812, Jackson was, along with the French privateer Jean Lafitte, the general in charge of the U.S. forces. Thanks in part to Lafitte’s presence, and in part to the very unique history and demographics of New Orleans and Louisiana, the U.S. forces in that battle were among the most diverse in our history: featuring not only Anglo soldiers but also French Creoles, free and formerly enslaved African Americans, Filipino fisherman from nearby Manila Village and other longstanding towns, and, yes, Choctaw Native Americans. Members of the same Choctaw tribe, that is, who fifteen years later (in September 1830) would become the first community removed under Jackson’s Removal policy. Might better remembering their contribution to his 1815 army and victory have changed Jackson’s position on that horrific subsequent action and result? Perhaps not, but at the very least we should make sure to remember the Choctaw for not only the worst of what was done to them but also those longstanding histories and stories that Jackson’s Indian Removal sought to destroy.
Next JacksonStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Jackson histories or contexts you’d highlight?
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