In this day when we’re apparently more cognizant of human rights, I find the fact that many polls rank Andrew Jackson as one of the top 10 Presidents of the United States an interesting choice.
Jackson’s fame began with the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in March, 1814, when he defeated the Creek Indians along with Indian allies (the Cherokee) effectively ending the Creek war.
During his first Inaugural Address on March 4, 1829 Andrew Jackson stated the following: “It will be my sincere and constant desire to observe toward the Indian tribes within our limits a just and liberal policy, and to give that humane and considerate attention to their rights and their wants which is consistent with the habits of our Government and the feelings of our people.”
It should be noted that Jackson’s successful campaign for President was largely attributed to his pro-Indian removal platform. In 1828, after he was elected, white settlers were permitted to move onto Cherokee land. He also permitted the state of Georgia to include the Cherokee Nation in their laws which, in turn, declared Cherokee laws null and void. Aha! Gold had been discovered on what was Cherokee land in western Georgia and the white settlers wanted to get them moved out of the way
With immediate fulfillment of his electoral promise in mind, in his 1830 address to Congress promoting The Indian Removal Act, Jackson stated, “It will separate the Indians from immediate contact with the 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; will retard the process of decay, which is lessening their numbers, and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.”
What Jackson did with great purpose and impressive rhetoric, was to paint a picture of the Cherokee as uncivilized and illiterate when, in fact, they were farmers, with 90% of the population able to read and write, not only in Cherokee but also able to read and write in English. The Christian conversion too, was already taking place.
The Indian Removal Act of 1830 was very popular among voters. Nevertheless, not everyone supported Indian removal. The Act’s strongest opponent was Congressman Davy Crockett, but it was passed with a majority of one, regardless of the opposition. Once passed, President Andrew Jackson quickly signed the bill into law.
The Cherokee fought the law by challenging it in the Supreme Court (not bad for a bunch of illiterate savages), who refused to take the case based on their belief that the Cherokee Nation did not represent a sovereign nation.
Justice John Marshall, however, in the case of Worcester vs. Georgia, in 1832, stated that the Cherokee Nation was sovereign and declared the forced removal of the Cherokee to be illegal and unconstitutional, and against treaties already made. Jackson was very unhappy with this turn of events.
President Jackson then decided to finagle the Cherokees into another treaty and pressured the members of the tribe with an offer to which they finally agreed, called the Treaty of New Echota, which signed away Cherokee lands of for $5 million dollars and stipulated that they had to move across the Mississippi. The majority of the tribe, however, believed the treaty was invalid because their chief didn’t sign it. After another losing one final round with the Supreme Court, all hope was lost when the Senate ratified the treaty.
In 1838, when Martin Van Buren became President of the United States, the majority of Cherokees hadn’t started their migration, so Van Buren sent 7,000 troops to force them into temporary camps at bayonet point. They were not allowed to take their possessions with them and their homes were ransacked.
As is typical in camps with poor sanitary conditions, the Cherokee were plagued by dysentery and other illnesses. Many died. The tribe was then organized into groups and forced to march from Georgia to Oklahoma. Along the way more than 4,000 people died of disease, starvation and hypothermia. This involuntary trek was aptly named “The Trail of Tears”, which tragically demonstrated that the Cherokee, regardless of political propaganda, didn’t want to move.
The fact remains evident today that George Washington originally guaranteed the Cherokees ownership of their tribal lands in 1794, effectively winning the right to be recognized as a sovereign people.
One might wonder if Andrew Jackson absolved himself of guilt because he was no longer President and, showing the nation that he was a great guy, considered it inappropriate to criticize his successor. On the other hand, did Van Buren point the finger at Jackson and consider himself blameless because he had no choice but to enforce the law of the land. Besides, the removal of the Cherokee ensured America’s future prosperity and greatness. And, after all, the new settlers in Oklahoma now had access to fertile lands perfect for growing crops.