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 nineteenth century, and your humble narrator suggested that it first manifested itself in Americans' growing repulsion against the idea of intermarriage. Officials from Spain, France, and the United States had in the eighteenth 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.


Andrew Lee Feight, Ph.D. said...

A fascinating topic. Perhaps, in a Turnerian way, I was wondering whether the so-called frontier's movement westward might not also have played into the change. The speculation as to the origins of the Ohio mounds became quite prominent in American scientific circles and popular culture (what else can you say about the Book of Mormon?). For many, the Indians of the 1820s were a separate and inferior race from the original moundbuilders.

Dave Nichols said...

Good point, Drew. If memory serves, some 19th-century Euro-American commentators speculated that modern Native Americans were either the degenerate descendants of the Mound-Builders, or were the "barbarians" who destroyed their civilization. Both theories reinforced the idea that 19th-century Indians were unfit for civilized life.