No Idle Past: Uses of History in the 1830 Indian Removal Debates

By Meyers, Jason | The Historian, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

No Idle Past: Uses of History in the 1830 Indian Removal Debates


Meyers, Jason, The Historian


In April and May 1830, heated debates occurred in Congress over whether to remove the Cherokee Indians from certain sections of Georgia and resettle them further west, in what would become Oklahoma. Numerous accounts exist examining the events surrounding removal, which resulted in the notorious "Trail of Tears," and the various motivations of the debate participants. Historians have attributed desire for removal to land hunger, humanitarian concern for the Indians' welfare, a desire to shore up national security, and blatant racism. Some see it as part of a continuing struggle against the perceived Indian enemy, and even as a component of the new rhetorical struggle between the Democrats and Whigs as they sought to define political participation during the Second Party system.(1) No author yet, however, has undertaken an examination of the ways in which the debaters manipulated past events in constructing their arguments either in support of removal or against this policy. This article deals specifically with the uses to which history was put in the 1830 congressional debates on Indian removal.

Since the beginning of settlement, Europeans in North America had struggled with Native Americans for possession of the land they both coveted, attempting to secure title either through official treaties or, when these failed, by unscrupulous acts. As more and more Europeans immigrated to the New World and needed land, they began to view the aborigines already there as a hindrance to growth. However, until the nineteenth century, the colonial governments and later the United States generally cooperated with many Native American groups in an effort to avoid full-scale continental strife, since costly wars would drain vital resources that could otherwise assist in developing the colonies and later states.(2)

The United States's first Indian policy, the Indian Trade and Intercourse Act formulated by Secretary of War Henry Knox in 1790, sought to maintain peace with as many native peoples as possible, especially in the South, as the young nation seemed to be in constant conflict with the Indians in the Ohio River Valley. Knox believed that the various Indian nations would eventually adopt European manners, speaking, dressing, working, worshiping, and even thinking like white Americans. President George Washington recognized Indian sovereignty and promised Native Americans economic assistance, education, and protection when he secured passage of the Indian Trade and Intercourse Act, which required all purchase of Indian land to be made through treaties between tribal leaders and federal commissioners.(3)

For the following 40 years, Washington's successors generally maintained this policy of requiring treaties for land purchases, even if they did not make good on his promises of education, assistance, and protection. But in 1830, a bill was submitted to Congress that would officially change the United States's position on Indian relations from education to removal. In his first State of the Union address on 8 December 1829, President Andrew Jackson urged the passage of an Indian removal bill for the benefit of the state of Georgia. Subsequently, fellow Tennessean and southern Democrat Hugh Lawson White introduced a bill to the Senate that eventually passed both houses and was immediately signed by Jackson. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 empowered the president to divide federal lands west of the Mississippi River into districts that could, by treaty, be exchanged for Indian land east of the river. The government thus abandoned the civilization policy instituted by Knox 40 years earlier. The federal government would pay for any improvements that Native Americans had made to their land, assist them in removing west, and provide for their subsistence for one year in their new homes. The act also expressly promised Indians protection from trespassers and guaranteed them title to the exchanged land forever.(4)

Before, during, and even after the passage of the 1830 Removal Bill, heated debates appeared in newspapers, official reports and addresses, in Congress, and in the courts. …

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No Idle Past: Uses of History in the 1830 Indian Removal Debates
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