In which we see how some passionate women in the 1830s sought the levers of political power on behalf of Native Americans.
Jonah, you are one angry woman.
You are. And I don’t blame you. More than that: I admire you. It’s easy to get mad. You’re actually trying to do something.
—Well, it would help if Jonah dressed a little better. That shirt is a disaster.
—What’s wrong with the Alabama Shakes?
—Hey, Adam! Don’t slut-shame Jonah!
—Who called Jonah a slut, Em?
—You’re attacking him for what she wears. That’s sexist!
—Is it sexist to think that how you present yourself, whoever you are, may be a factor in how people treat you? How seriously they take you?
—Yeah, Adam, it is. Judge Jonah on his—I mean her—I mean whatever—ideas. Not how Jonah’s looks.
—I can’t judge him—I mean her—I mean whatever—on his taste in music?
—I don’t get it: What’s wrong with the Alabama Shakes?
Nothing as far as I’m concerned, Jonah. I like that song “Hold On” But—
—You do? You know the Alabama Shakes, Mr. K.?
As astounding as it may seem, I do. I’ve got that album on my phone. But for the moment, I’m much more impressed by your stand for Cherokees, Creeks, and other tribes. Many of whom happen to inhabit what we now think of as Alabama, in fact.
—Oh, that. I promise you, Mr. K.: Jonah has no ideas on the Cherokees.
That’s not what I hear, Em. I hear that Jonah has really been out in front on the Cherokee issue. He’s one of the signers of the Ladies’ Circular organized by Catherine Beecher. Now there’s another impressive woman. Actually, there’s another impressive family. Beecher’s father, Lyman Beecher, is as you probably know, a Presbyterian minister.
—Of course we know Mr. Lyman is Presbyterian. What do you take us for, Mr. K? A bunch of idiots?
My bad. Perhaps you’d like to update us from this point, Em?
—No, no. You go ahead. You need the practice.
Right. Anyway. Anyway, Lyman Beecher is really at the forefront of the Second Great Awakening (which we’ll be talking about soon), and really trying to edge the New England ministry toward social reform. And his oldest daughter is an activist, too. She’s started a school for girls. And she’s really been at the forefront of the whole Cherokee question. There’s another daughter Harriet—
—You keep referring to this Cherokee thing. What are you talking about?
Wait: you mean you haven’t heard? About President Jackson? How can you not know?
—You’d be surprised. Kylie doesn’t get out much.
Well, you all know that the President is no friend to Indians. He treated them roughly during the War of 1812 and during the Seminole Crisis.
—I thought you said a while back that Jackson fought with Indians in the War of 1812. At the Battle of New Orleans.
That’s true, Yin. It’s also true that he adopted a Creek orphan named Lyncoya in 1811 who died of tuberculosis in 1828 (though there’s some controversy about how he was treated). But there’s never been any question that Jackson viewed the United States as a white man’s country—and that includes disputed territory in Georgia, Florida and Alabama. The settlers in that region want the local tribes there out, and Jackson supports them. So he’s sent a bill to Congress to clear them out.
—Does he have the right to do that?
Not if you ask Jonah. No siree. She regards it as an outrage. Don’t you, Jonah?
—Um, yes. An outrage. I am really very angry.
Can’t you just hear the fury in her voice, kids? Sadie, you will surely lend your good name to the Ladies Circular protesting this outrage, will you not?
Probably? The great moral crisis of our age and all you can say is “probably?”
—Well, I’m a little curious about your agenda in pushing this whole thing. What’s really going on?
What’s really going on is a murderous land grab. There are settlers in western areas of the South who are encroaching—more than encroaching, occupying—territory that rightly belongs to the Indians. They have no right to those lands. The state governments are siding with the settlers, and are passing laws to expel them. But they can’t do that. The Constitution is very clear: relations with the Indians is a federal, not a state, matter. But the states are ignoring federal law. And now the Jackson administration wants to help them do that.
—So what’s Jackson’s argument? If all of this is so illegal, how is he justifying what he’s doing?
You know, Yin, I don’t have a good answer for you. There’s a clear political answer: the state legislators are sensitive to pressure from their voters, who are not Indians. And Jackson himself wants to support the states: that’s his philosophy generally, and he wants to keep Southerners in particular happy as he looks ahead to re-election in 1832. There’a also a clear racist answer: again, all these people think of the United States (and, for that matter, the whole North American continent) as a white man’s country. The Indians aren’t civilized. That’s a ridiculous argument. There’s a Cherokee man named Sequoyah, for example, who has developed a written Cherokee language. He’s started a Cherokee newspaper. Cherokees are doing a lot of the same things white people are doing (among them owning slaves). And they’re using the courts to press their case. The whole Jackson argument is a pack of lies.
That’s why Jonah and the women behind the Ladies Circular have to stand up to them. As women, we are the repositories of virtue in our society. It’s important that we know, and stay, in our place. That means being good helpmeets for our husbands, and raising good republican children. But how can we do that when such wretched corruption is thrown in our face? Sometimes we have to step out of our sphere to protect what happens in our sphere. And this is one of those moments. And so, dear Sadie, I again beseech you: will you lend your good name to this petition? Good names like yours can supply the margin of difference between virtue and evil.
—Well, Mr. K. or Mrs. K., or whoever you are right now, you make a pretty good case. Sure, I’ll sign your petition.
Wonderful. And how about the rest of you ladies gathered at this meeting? Will you lend good your names to this glorious cause? Will you help us prevent the grave injustice that is now perpetrated in the name of our sacred Union? Let me see a show of hands.
O my goodness! It looks like a unanimous vote! Jonah, we did it! Miss Beecher will be so pleased!
—Well, I couldn’t have done it without you.
—You’re not kidding, Jonah. Seriously, though, Mr. K.: did any of this stuff make a difference?
It depends what you mean by a difference, Adam.
—Not really. Did the petition stop the Indians from getting kicked out of Georgia or didn’t it?
The short answer is no. The Ladies Circular and similar efforts generated an enormous—an unprecedented, really—level of attention in Washington. There had never really been what you might call a mass mobilization for a social justice issue like this in American history. The pressure was so great that it forced President Jackson to put off another controversial decision he was about to make, the Maysville Road veto, because he didn’t want to have two big ones clustered so close together. Anybody remember that Maysville Road veto?
—That was the one about the road in Kentucky. It was whatshisname, Henry Clay’s thing. Internal improvements. American System. But Jackson was against it because it was only in a single state.
Anyway, Jackson delayed that a little. The Senate approved Indian removal bill 28-19. But in the vote in the House, much more responsive to public pressure, was 102-97. Most of the pro vote came from the South, whose numbers in Congress were inflated by the 3/5th compromise. So the removal crowd got their way. Which they were happy about. Gold was discovered in Cherokee territory. So now white people are more eager than ever to get on that land.
—So all that women’s stuff was for nothing.
I’ll let you be the judge of that. But before you do, let me keep running the story forward, because this wasn’t the end of it.
Next: The Trail of Tears