In which we witness of the most the most disgraceful chapters of U.S. History.
So kids, yesterday we talked about the impressive, but unsuccessful, efforts of New England women to stop one of the great evils of their time: the Jackson administration’s illegal effort to push Native Americans from their legally held territory. But the story didn’t end there. That’s because the Cherokees were resourceful people, and they had friends in their lands as well as in Washington. So they could, and did, wage their own struggle.
—I’m not sure what you mean the “illegal effort.” Was there a specific thing that happened?
I’m referring to the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Ethan. We talked about it yesterday, but I don’t think I ever named it as such. The law, narrowly passed in the Senate, allowed the state governments to push Native American tribes off their ancestral lands into territory the federal government designated for their settlement west of the Mississippi. One of the terms of the new law is that white missionaries were not allowed to operate down there without a license (obviously, racist whites were trying to prevent what they considered troublemakers from entering contested territory). One such missionary, Samuel Worcester, was arrested, tried, and convicted for this. He and his allies appealed the decision by suing the state of Georgia, a case that worked its way all the way to the Supreme Court.
Question, and I realize I’m pushing my luck here: Who was the chief justice of the Supreme Court when this case was heard in 1832?
—You really are pushing your luck, Mr. K.
Well, here’s a hint, Em: It was the same guy John Adams had appointed back in 1801. The guy who drove Thomas Jefferson crazy.
—Oh, the same guy Adams had appointed in 1801! Why didn’t you say so!
Hey! Nice job, Chris! How’d you get that one?
—Don’t sound so surprised, Mr. K. Chris is a fragile flower. Don’t want to make it seem it was that unlikely.
You’re right Em. On the other hand, Chris is high-fiving Ethan.
—Yeah, well, Ethan is a fragile flower, too. And an idiot. Just kidding. See, Mr. K.? Ethan is blowing me a kiss.
I’m sure he’s every bit as sincere as you are. Anyway, John Marshall is the chief justice of the Supreme Court. And he’s a super-Federalist extraordinaire.
—I thought the Federalists were over by this point. Didn’t they get wiped out during the War of 1812?
And another brilliant play, this one by Sadie! Yes, they pretty much were gone by that point. But Marshall kept the Federalist flame, the spirit of Alexander Hamilton, alive all through this period, repeatedly reaffirming the power of the federal government over that of the states. And now, in 1832, he’s presented with a case where the state of Georgia is saying it doesn’t have to follow federal law when it comes to Indians. So what does Marshall say?
—Duh. He says no, you can’t do that.
Well yes, Ethan. But who does he say it to?
Yes. But not only Georgia. Whose job is it to make Georgia do the right thing?
Yes. But why?
—Because he’s the president?
Right. But why is that relevant?
—Because it’s his job.
Yes, but how is it part of his job?
—Because it’s in the Constitution?
—Jesus, Mr. K! I dunno.
Yes you do, Ethan. The Constitution has a bunch of sections, known as articles. The first is about the legislative branch. The second is about—
—The executive branch! Jackson is the executive. It’s his job to uphold the law.
You see? You did know. And what does Jackson say? Why don’t you take this one, Adam.
—He says, “Don’t fuck with me, John Marshall!”
I see we’re still on that.
—Forever, Mr. K.
You’re more or less correct. Jackson is reputed to have replied, “Marshall has made his ruling. Now let him enforce it.” Think about that for a minute.
—He’s saying he won’t stop the takeover of the Cherokees’ land.
Right, Sadie. But to review: Congress makes the law. The Supreme Court interprets the law. And the president is the one who’s supposed to enforce the law. Using the armed forces, which he commands, if necessary. So when the Supreme Court makes a ruling—
—Jackson is supposed to be the guy who makes it happen.
Right. And here he is telling Marshall that if he wants to kick the Georgians out of Cherokee land, he should do it.
More than weird, Sadie.
—Sounds kinda illegal.
More than “sounds.” It’s a direct violation of the Constitution.
—So what happens?
Well, as you know, Jackson gets impeached. He goes to trial, and is convicted. He goes to jail. And in 1832 John Calhoun becomes president of the United States. So it is that the Constitution gets vindicated.
—Didn’t you say—
—He’s kidding, Kylie.
—How do you know?
—Calhoun never became president. Mr. K. said so last week.
—Also, Jackson was never impeached. That was another guy.
—Who was he?
—We haven’t gotten to him yet.
Fine. I lied about Jackson getting impeached. The important thing is that the Constitution was vindicated.
—You’re lying about that, too.
Oops. Silly me. I take that back. The Constitution was not vindicated.
—What’s a few facts among friends, right Mr. K.?
—So what happened with the Indians?
Here’s where the story gets really grim. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 allowed the mass expulsion of the Native American tribes. The Jackson administration gained a fig leaf in the form of the Treaty of New Echota in 1836, in which cooperative Native American leaders agreed to leave in exchange for cash and other considerations. (This was a typical way whites dealt with Indians: by finding Indians willing to play ball who the U.S. would consider legitimate representatives of Indian tribes.) Over the course of the decade, tens of thousands of Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and other tribes are forcibly expelled from part of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.
—Where did they go?
West of the Mississippi River to the unorganized territory on the outer perimeter of the Louisiana Purchase. They ended up in what is now Oklahoma. (Oklahoma, by the way, was created in 1890 when that land was taken away from the Indians, when settlers rushed in to see who could get their soonest—hence the nickname of Oklahomans as “Sooners.”) This mass migration came to be known as the Trail of Tears. It was one of the great humanitarian disasters of American history. Over 10,000 Native Americans died from disease, weather and other conditions.
—I don’t understand how Jackson could have gotten away with that.
Very clearly, Yin, Jackson is a villain here. Certainly there were a lot of people vehemently opposed to his policies toward the Indians—not just the women we were talking the other day, but also political insiders like John Quincy Adams (who by this point had returned to Washington as a member of the House of Representatives) and Henry Clay. But the important thing to keep in mind is that Jackson had the support—or maybe it’s more accurate to say that he was supporting—his core constituency. Lots and lots of white people wanted those Indians out. And they were willing to do what it took to make that happen. Just as there were lots and lots of people who were willing to buy, sell, and own slaves. And lots and lots of people—many, many more people—who didn’t care and therefore didn’t object when such things happened.
I’m not going to argue with you, Sadie. Except to ask this: Have times changed?
—What do you mean?
I mean, are there equally disgusting things happening now?
—He’s saying maybe something just as bad is happening right now.
—In the United States? I don’t think so, Adam.
—Yeah, but you don’t know, do you. People being ripped off, or living as slaves. You hear stories like that on the news sometimes about illegal immigrants.
—I can believe that. But this seems pretty bad. And I think saying something like ‘Well it’s always bad’ is just a way of minimizing and ignoring problems.
—All I’m saying is that we shouldn’t assume we’re so much better than people in the past.
—So there’s no such thing as progress?
—I don’t know if there is. Sometimes I think so. And sometimes not.
What about you, Paolo? Do you believe in progress?
—Me? I’m not sure. I don’t think so. I mean, I think it’s possible in some ways. People’s lives get better. But not everybody’s.
Fair enough. Kids, we’ve spent a lot of time looking at the career of Andrew Jackson. He was a guy who was very controversial in his time, and somebody who’s been controversial ever since. I wonder if any of you would like to offer an overall assessment.
I know, Kylie That’s why I asked. Brianna, what do you think?
—I think he was pretty bad. Jackson was a racist. He did a lot of damage.
That’s true. Does him standing up to the nullifiers in South Carolina matter to you? That he was a champion of the little guy?
—Not really. The “little guys” he cared about weren’t that little.
So you’re glad he’s being taken off the front of the $20 bill?
—I gotta confess that I kinda like Jackson. I mean, I know that he did some things that were wrong. But he was kind of a badass in ways that were cool. He was a real leader.
Ethan, is the fact of leadership more important than where he led people?
—I don’t think so at all. It’s what you’re for, not how you’re for it that matters most.
Does that mean, Em, that if you’ve got the right cause you can be a jerk in the service of that cause?
—Maybe not always. Let’s put it this way: I’d be more likely to forgive someone who went overboard if his heart was in the right place.
Hmmm. Interesting. And I guess that means you’re less likely to be impressed by someone who does the right thing but has a cold heart?
—He didn’t do the right thing.
The guy who adopted the orphan Indian boy?
—Oh, now you’re playing hardball, Mr. K. Look, nobody’s perfect. And nobody’s a saint. And Andrew Jackson is pretty damn far from a saint.
You know, I had this idea that you kinda liked Jackson, Em.
—You’re right. I kinda did. But he lost me today.
So be it, Em. But before we call it a day, I want to go back to a question that Adam said a while back with regard to the Ladies’ Circular, that petition to try and save the Cherokees. He said, “So all that women’s stuff was for nothing.” You still think so, Adam?
—How could I not?
Well, let me try this. The Trail of Tears was terrible. And those women failed to stop it. They tried—they really did, even if there were limits to their vision and their effort—and they failed. But no one had ever done anything quite the way they had before since the United States had been created. That effort to mobilize mass opinion, and develop arguments, and influence leaders, despite the fact they had no real standing. But those women had learned something from their effort. And they applied its lessons. Infused by the moral ardor of the Second Great Awakening (we’re doing that next), they continued to agitate for a better world—for progress, which they believed in, even though Paolo is surely right that there is reason to doubt that such a thing exists. It was in this movement that we talked about today that the drive to end slavery first began to crystallize, an effort that did ultimately succeed (though it took so horribly long). And it was in this movement that women began to think that there could be progress for themselves, as well. They supplied us with the logic land language that we continue to apply long after Andrew Jackson left office.
—I dunno, Mr. K. That’s a lot of spin you’re doing there.
I take your point. And if the women’s logic and language lingered, so too did that of Andrew Jackson. And it’s his face that’s still on the $20 bill.
—Don’t fuck with me, America.
—I am America.
—But is he?
—I hope not.
Keep hoping, Yin.
Next: A revival meeting