Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Gallinacious Indian Policy

At the NEH Seminar I attended earlier this summer, my colleagues and I spent part of one morning discussing the shift in U.S. Indian policy from "civilization" (that is, re-educating and assimilating Indian peoples as citizens) to Removal, and identifying the rise of scientific racism as one of the crucial intellectual preconditions for this shift. Those of us who were historians were interested in the origins of this conceptual change; one of our seminar leaders attributed it to the rise of linguistic nationalism in the early 19th century, and your humble narrator suggested that it first manifested itself in Americans' growing repulsion with the idea of intermarriage. Officials from Spain, France, and the United States had in the 18th century promoted Indian-white marriages as the surest way to assimilate Native peoples; in 1786 the Virginia legislature came close to passing a bill that would have paid bounties to interracial couples. By the early 1800s the tide was turning: in 1816 Secretary of War William Crawford felt free to propose Indian-white intermarriage as a federal policy, but just eight years later his political opponents used Crawford's pro-intermarriage speech to help derail his presidential bid. (On this subject see Mary Young, "Racism in Red and Black," Georgia Historical Quarterly 73 [Fall 1989].)

While intellectual change is always a moving target, I'm glad to report that I've found another data point that suggests a growing trend toward anti-Indian "scientific" racism in the early 1820s. In 1819 the U.S. Congress approved the Civilization Act, which provided $10,000 a year for schools for Native Americans. Three years later, in 1822, Thomas Metcalfe of Kentucky offered an amendment to an Indian trade bill that would have eliminated this subsidy. Metcalfe noted, quite reasonably by modern standards, that the recipients of this federal aid were Christian missionaries, and argued that Protestants shouldn't be paying taxes to support Catholic missions and vice-versa. He went on at greater length about the supposed futility of "civilizing" Indians. Drawing on a report by Jedidiah Morse on the United States' Native American peoples, he argued that the Indians who had enjoyed longest exposure to missionaries were also the most degenerate. The Saint Regis Mohawks, for instance, were supposedly "a lazy, dirty and degraded band of savages, unchristian, immoral, and vicious" despite nearly two centuries of Catholic missions. Those who did not enjoy the benefit of missions and schools, Metcalfe continued, said they wished to retain the freedom of their traditional lifeways, not be yoked to the plow. The Congressman closed his remarks with a significant comparison: he compared human beings to turkeys, and asserted that wild turkeys, even when raised alongside the domestic variety, always returned to the wild when they matured. Humans, he concluded, were similarly divided into such irreconcilable varieties, and it was fruitless to try to change them: "I do most sincerely believe that such is the barrier which nature interposes between the two people, together with the powerful force of habit operating upon them, that all our attempts to civilize those Indians who are dispersed and scattered in the wilderness will be fruitless and unavailing...We had much better mind our own business." (Proceedings of 4 May 1822, Annals of Congress, 17th Congress, 1st Session, pp. 1794, 1800.)

Were I an intellectual historian, I would stop and let Mr. Metcalfe's remarks stand on their own. Since I lean more toward political history, I will add that as soon as Metcalfe finished his speech, the House rejected his proposed amendments out of hand, thereby choosing to continue funding the civilization program. (This despite the wave of retrenchment that had been passing through Washington for a year, producing deep cuts in military and Indian-department spending.) Other House members might have agreed with Metcalfe's sentiments, but for the moment they decided to let public money do their talking for them.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

What I Wrote to My Congresscritter


Once in a while, your humble narrator rouses himself from his apolitical torpor and sends a check to an advocacy group, or writes a letter (these days, an email) to his elected representatives. Concerning the danger of a politically-motivated default on the United States' debts, which at the moment appears entirely possible, I wrote my Congressmen the following:

"Dear Congressman Bucshon:

I am writing to express my dismay at your co-sponsorship of the 'Cap, Cut, and Balance' resolution which passed the House of Representatives last week. As a former employee of the Concord Coalition, I share your concern with the United States' budget deficit and your belief that Congress must address this critical problem. However, I also believe that in the short term, our government must pay its debts and meet its other commitments. Since we are currently in a recession and fighting two wars, the federal government must - as George W. Bush observed under similar circumstances ten years ago - run a short-term deficit to pay its bills. By voting to link an increase in the federal debt ceiling to a Constitutional balanced-budget amendment, an amendment which would take months if not years to pass, you effectively declared that you no longer believed it was a priority for the United States to pay its creditors. Should the United States default on its debts, even for a brief period, the results would be catastrophic: bank failures throughout the developed world, a collapse in the value of the dollar, a return to recession in the United States, and a chain reaction of credit downgrades not just for the U.S. government, but for state and local governments as well (including Indiana). I urge you to reconsider your position and vote to approve an increase in the federal debt ceiling prior to the default deadline on August 2nd.

Sincerely Yours,
David Nichols
Terre Haute, Indiana "
(July 24, 2011)

I hope this soon becomes an artifact of an obscure early-21st-century political spat, but given the ideological extremism of the current House Republicans, I fear my mildly-hysterical tone may prove justified. It's always unsettling when one has to invoke George II as an example of moderate statesmanship.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Gallant Trousers, or the Lack Thereof

In her recent article on the Chickasaw-Creek war of the 1790s ("How the Chickasaws Saved the Cumberland Settlement," Tennessee Historical Quarterly 68 [2009]: 2-20) , Wendy St. Jean noted the close military alliance that grew up between that nation and their white neighbors in the Cumberland settlements (Nashville and environs), which extended to Nashvillians' sending militia and artillery to help defend Chickasaw towns from Creek attack. The alliance had an emotional component, as well: at a July 4th dinner in Nashville, one of the toasts was to "our gallant sans-culotte allies of the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations" (p. 13). The toast was a nice play on words: it referred to the breech cloths and leggings that Chickasaw warriors wore in lieu of knee-breeches (or trousers), and also to western white settlers' sympathies for the more radical and ill-clad elements of the French Revolutionary movement, sympathies which some frontiersmen (in Kentucky and western Pennsylvania) expressed by forming Democratic-Republican societies to support the French Republic. One tends to think of the French Revolution as an Atlantic phenomenon, so I was pleasantly surprised to see pro-Revolutionary sentiments expressed in such remote settlements - and used to refer to people who (in the case of the Chickasaws) were fairly staunch opponents of France for most of the 18th century.