American presidents, as I've said before, have generally been a dull lot, but some still inspire genuine passion. Andrew Jackson was certainly one of these. Historians like Arthur Schlesinger and Sean Wilentz have characterized Prez Seven as a populist hero who slew the aristocratic Bank of the U.S. and stood up to South Carolina nabobs during the Nullification Crisis. Others have noted that Jackson spent much of his life scrambling into the planter aristocracy, and that his most significant accomplishment as president, Indian Removal, killed perhaps 20,000 people and drove 100,000 more from their homes. I tend to side with the latter group, but when I talk about Removal with my students I argue that that what drove this shameful episode was not only hatred for Indians but also a desire for economic development.
Jackson believed that most eastern Indians remained hunters, and occupied lands that white farmers should take and make productive. "What good man would prefer a country covered with forest and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic...embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute?” he asked in his 1830 State of the Union message. The president's unfairly characterized the eastern Indians, nearly all of whom practiced agriculture and many of whom raised livestock and cotton. But Jackson and his partisans, like Lewis Cass (his secretary of war), identified agriculture with capitalism, and classified land itself as a marketable resource that one could and should sell to the most productive commercial farmers. Most eastern Indians practiced subsistence rather than commercial agriculture, and carefully restricted the ownership and sale of land by individuals, so Jackson and many of his contemporaries did not consider them “proper” farmers. In many Native American communities women rather than men did the farming, and to the Jacksonians women's activities mattered less. Moreover, as Mary Young and Ginette Aley have noted, eastern Indians remained politically autonomous in the 1830s, and thus they were a giant null to local politicians counting their states' resources: they didn't pay taxes, they weren't counted in the Census, and their lands lay athwart rights-of-way for internal improvements. Removing them would promote political and economic growth: railroads and canals could stretch across former Indian lands, states' measured populations and tax bases would grow, and commercial farms would replace Indian “hunting grounds.” Indian Removal was, in short, a giant development program, which explains why Jackson and his successors spent upwards of $90 million and fought three wars on its behalf.
This is not to say that the proponents of Indian Removal weren't racists. That they clearly were, as demonstrated by their belief that Indians could not adapt to change and would surely succumb to hunger and alcoholism – or attack their new white neighbors – if not removed. “Existing for two centuries in contact with a civilized people,” Lewis Cass charged in 1830, “they have resisted, and successfully too, every effort to...introduce among them the most common arts of life.” Mary Young and Thomas Ingersoll have noted another important racist motive for Removal: like supporters of African-American colonization, proponents of Indian Removal wanted to prevent racial intermarriage, which they believed would degrade the white race. As early as the 1810s, southern newspaper editors argued that “the disgusting habits and vices of the Indians” made intermarriage unthinkable, and characterized “half-breed” children as innately crafty, shifty, and morally dissipated. Biracial Indians also allegedly endangered their own Native American kinsmen, in that they tended to oppose Removal – a policy Jacksonians thought would benefit “full-blooded” Indian hunters – in order to protect the property they had inherited or finagled from whites. (This also provided Removal supporters with a ready reply to anyone arguing that many eastern Indians were becoming more “civilized:” only the “mixed-bloods” were doing so. In other words, “These fellers is miscegenated!”) Separate the races, and ultimately both would benefit.
I've moved some distance away from the putative subject of this essay, Andrew Jackson, but I hope my readers will understand why. Increasingly, modern Americans associate Jackson with Indian Removal, and I think it important to stress that this was a huge undertaking, requiring as much money and organization, and generating as many fatalities, as a war. No one person can rightly shoulder all of the blame for so massive an enterprise. Jackson championed the Indian Removal Act, but Indian Removal itself was a national, not a personal crime.
Sources: Mary Young, “Racism in Red and Black,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 73 (1989): 492-518, “disgusting habits” at 493; idem, “The Exercise of Sovereignty in Cherokee Georgia,” Journal of the Early Republic 10 (1990): 43-63; Nichols, “Land, Republicanism, and Indians,” Georgia Hist. Quarterly 85 (2001): 199-226; Thomas Ingersoll, To Intermix with Our White Brothers (University of New Mexico Press, 2005); Theda Perdue and Michael Green, eds., The Cherokee Removal (Bedford/St. Martin's, 2005), “Existing for two” at 118, “What good man” at 127; Ginette Aley, “Bringing about the Dawn,” in Daniel Barr, ed., The Boundaries Between Us (Kent State University Press, 2006), 196-218. “These fellers is miscegenated” is adapted from O Brother, Where Art Thou? by Joel and Ethan Coen (2001).