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

By Sabo, George, III | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

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


Sabo, George, III, The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans. By Anthony F. C. Wallace. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999. Pp. ix, 394. Preface, introduction, conclusion, notes, acknowledgments, list of illustrations, list of documents, index. $29.95.)

In Jefferson and the Indians, Anthony F. C. Wallace seeks to reconcile the striking contradiction between Thomas Jefferson's concern for Native American welfare and his legacy as planner and administrator of a determined program of indigenous cultural genocide. The result is a rich and compelling examination of how Jefferson's personality, philosophy, and experiences shaped his beliefs and behavior toward Indians. Historians have long regarded Jefferson as a paragon of conflicted ideals. For Wallace, these conflicts are nowhere better seen than in Jefferson's attitudes toward Native Americans in the formative years of our nation's history.

Wallace centers his study on the tension between Jefferson's humanitarian idealism and the contradictory results of his public policies. The book begins with an examination of Jefferson's association with land companies involved in the opening of colonial frontiers to American settlement and the resulting wars that erupted as Native Americans sought to preserve their territory. Next, Wallace delves into Jefferson's scholarly studies of Native American languages, his critical assessment of European views of Native Americans, and his archeological investigations of ancient earthworks in Virginia. These chapters reveal the subtle interplay between his experiences and the development of Jefferson's singular ability to rationalize the moral implications of removing from their homelands the very people his interests had led him profoundly to admire.

Jefferson's rationalizations were not limited to Indians. The behavior of white frontiersmen and the associated legal and moral issues of colonial expansion likewise posed challenges to the democratic and egalitarian ideals guiding Jefferson's vision for the nation. Prominent in late eighteenth-century public debates were the issues of whether Indian groups allied with the British during the Revolutionary War had forfeited their rights to land under the so-called "conquest theory," and whether states possessed rights to acquire Indian lands. The tendencies of frontier settlers, land companies, and individual states to trample Indian rights (resulting not infrequently in violence and bloodshed) in the march westward were resisted by Jefferson and other like-minded "gentlemen of the Enlightenment" (p. …

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