Monday, November 30, 2015

Alexander McGillivray Strikes a Pose


Midway through my graduate studies, the editors of American National Biography commissioned me to write two entries on early American congressmen. Both of my subjects, William Loughton Smith and William Vans Murray, shared a common regional and party identity, apropos of which my adviser Lance Banning said I would soon become an expert on obscure Southern Federalists. Not a terribly marketable specialty, I had to admit. Fortunately, Lance's prediction did not come to pass, and the assignment instead brought me more tangible benefits: one of my first professional writing credits, a modest but welcome paycheck, and some useful bits of research.



Of the two congressmen Smith proved the less likable. He struck me as a typical spoiled conservative rich kid: born into money in South Carolina, educated abroad, lukewarm about the American Revolution but keen to draw a salary from the new national government it created, and supportive of Alexander Hamilton's elitist national economic program. After his few mildly consequential terms in Congress, W.L.S. became the United States' minister to Portugal, a suitably obscure last chapter to an obscure public career. The men with whom Smith worked, however, were often quite famous, and one particularly intriguing acquaintance became directly relevant to my dissertation and first book.



In 1790 William Smith attended the formal signing of the United States' first treaty with the Creek Indian confederacy, the Treaty of New York. After the main event, Smith exchanged a few pleasantries with the most famous Creek man at the conference, Alexander McGillivray. Since the end of the Revolutionary War, the biracial warlord had harried Southern white frontiersmen and perturbed American officials. Now assuming a more pacific and magnanimous posture, McGillivray told the congressman that “his Nation [the Creeks] had been always much pleased with the conduct of South Carolina and had been well treated by us.” By contrast, he continued, the white inhabitants of neighboring Georgia “thought too highly of their own power and too meanly of that of his [McGillivray's] nation.” The new treaty gave Georgia “a line more favorable than they had any right to expect” - an allusion to the Creeks' recent raiding campaigns against that state's frontier, the military power they had displayed, and Creek chiefs' subsequent willingness to give Georgians some of the Creek lands they demanded. Smith closed by noting that George Washington and his secretary of war, Henry Knox, had been competing with one another in expressions of courtesy and hospitality toward the Creeks. Their solicitousness may have contributed to McGillivray's good humor, but probably had no bearing on the outcome of the treaty itself. 

Indeed, McGillivray displayed rather more hauteur in his conversation with Smith than one would expect from a southeastern Indian leader, especially one on a diplomatic mission. His arrogant posture toward Georgia, I suspect, was just that, a pose. Native American diplomatic conferences were always stagy and dramatic events, though they differed in one significant way from stage plays: the Indian "actors" usually got to write their own parts. McG had apparently, in this exchange at least, decided to adopt the role and dialogue of a triumphant but magnanimous general. Perhaps he modeled his part on some of the reading he had done while he was a boy, attending school with white colonists' children in Smith's own hometown of Charleston, back in South Carolina. The cultural distance between nabob and warlord wasn't always as great as one might assume.


Sources: George Rogers Jr., ed., "Letters of William Loughton Smith to Edward Rutledge" (8 Aug. 1790), South Carolina Historical Magazine 69: 135; Michael D. Green, "Alexander McGillivray," in R. David Edmunds, ed., American Indian Leaders: Studies in Diversity (Lincoln, 1980), 41-63.

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