Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans

Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans

Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans

Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans

Excerpt

In his Notes on the State of Virginia, which Thomas Jefferson began writing in 1781 and first published in 1785, he inserted an English rendering of a speech by the Indian leader Tachnedorus, or John Logan. The address had been delivered to the victorious Lord Dunmore, governor of Virginia, on the occasion of the signing of a peace treaty with the Shawnees in 1774. It was the valedictory address of a defeated warrior.

Jefferson introduced Logan's Lament, as the speech came to be called (see opposite), ostensibly as part of his refutation of the claim of the famous French naturalist, the Comte de Buffon, that the American aborigines, like other products of the New World, were deficient in natural abilities in comparison with Europeans. An elegant writer but no speechmaker himself, Jefferson was an admirer of eloquence in any mode, and he declared that Logan's speech was in no way inferior to the best examples of classical rhetoric, including Demosthenes and Cicero.

The impact on the public of Jefferson's story of Logan the Great Mingo and of the speech itself was extraordinary. Its popularity derived in part from its succinct expression of an apocalyptic view of Indian history that was becoming increasingly prevalent in Jefferson's time, helped along in various ways by Jefferson himself. Logan, the last of his line, was symbolically the last of a dying race, consumed in the holocaust brought by the European invaders, tragically destined to become extinct, yet facing annihilation without surrender. He had sought, too late, to join the white man's world. Now, a doomed but unrepentant savage, he must die alone.

Logan's Lament has been endlessly reprinted, beginning with Washington Irvings Sketch Book and later in the McGuffey Readers, and has been memorized and recited by millions of schoolchildren. It still endures as an example of rhetorical excellence; a few of my own colleagues and students report learning it in their youth. At a small park in Ohio, on the site of the treaty-signing, there stands a memorial monument with Logan's speech . . .

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