Sunday, November 9, 2008

What If...Andrew Jackson had Obeyed the Constitution?

Andrew Jackson has quite an historical record. On one hand, it was truly he that turned our country on the road to democracy. While he was president, it was the people's house literally...meaning they could even drop in for a snack. Then again, Jackson's record on slavery was as mixed as most of his contemporaries'. Not an abolitionist, him, but for what little it's worth Jackson did keep in mind the humanity of slaves more clearly than did many Americans. He also faced down the first movements of secession during the nullification crisis.

On the other hand. Hm. He perfected the "spoils system" of distributing government largesse to supporters. But that is a mere trifle compared to the horrific way that Andrew Jackson approached our land's first inhabitants. Having met Native Americans as combatants, Jackson stood against justice -- and his own Supreme Court -- in his zeal to persecute them. And the lowest moment, the dirtiest splotch on this docket, is the Trail of Tears.

The story itself is a fascinating one. The Cherokee of Northern Georgia had a settled, agricultural mode of existence in the early 19th century when settlers were seeking to expand the land under their control. The Cherokee had permanent transportation and educational infrastructure, representational government, a dedicated alphabet, and remarkable leaders such as John Ross and Sequoyah. When Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, intended to appropriate the land under usage by the Cherokee, the Cherokee sued for relief in the American court system. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the Cherokee were a duly recognized sovereign nation, and should be treated as such. This is a remarkable and perhaps unique course of action -- to use the law of the occupier against it. It's tantamount to the Sudetens winning a judgment from the highest court in the Nazi government to cease the occupation.

In one of America's worst moments, Jackson reportedly reacted by declaring "John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!" Jackson then proceeded with actions to force the Cherokee to resettle in the barren wastes of what today is called Oklahoma. This compulsory migration has been remembered as the "Trail of Tears", during which about 4,000 Cherokee died. (Further reading on this sad episode can be found here, here, or here.)

So today I seek to investigate the question: what if Andrew Jackson had acceded to the Supreme Court and instructed the United States to recognize the Cherokee as an independent, sovereign nation?

Well, it wouldn't have been too large a nation, perhaps the northwesternmost sixth of Georgia, if that. At this time, it would have been surrounded by land entirely under American sovereignty. There are a couple nations surrounded entirely by others: Lesotho in South Africa being the largest one. Lesotho, however, gained independence in roughly the same process and period as South Africa; they avoided absorption due to the protection provided by a third party. Had Lesotho tried to take independence from South Africa rather than being given it at the same time as South Africa, I don't know how it would have gone.

So, too, with the land of the Cherokee. Despite this rather mature polity and approach, this country would have been literally surrounded by a hostile nation -- or more accurately, hostile neighbors from an indifferent nation. Though those lands would provide decent agriculture, there are little unique resources that I can imagine nurturing Cherokee independence. Cut off from neighbors, the highest that the Cherokee could hope for would be tolerance from their much more powerful neighbor. Though I can posit Jackson's acceptance of the legal and moral suasion of the Cherokee Supreme Court victory, I can't imagine that imperative would long remain. Eventually, even Oklahoma was claimed by American settlers; they'd not have given up on the Cherokee lands.

Furthermore, any Cherokee country would have had to survive the shifting sovereignties of the Confederate secession and Union capture. In essence, it would have had to receive tolerance from not only antebellum America, but also the CSA and the conquering Union army. Not too hard to imagine the Republicans occupying the Cherokee Nation had the Cherokee unduly supported their slave-owning neighbors in rebellion.

Finally, there would be assimilation. Intermarriage and movement would probably lead to a real demographic shift in Cherokee lands, and only careful policy would keep the population distinct from its neighbors. Granted, such a thing is possible (Gibraltar is very British, despite years of free interaction with Spain), but not always likely in such a small space.

I do sincerely want to find a case that with the "right" strategy, the First Peoples of the Americas could have stalled the European encroachment on these lands. I'm just not sure I can find one. Given the nearly inexorable determination to occupy the Americas, and the advantages which the occupiers enjoyed, it's tough to imagine the Cherokee enjoying long-term freedom from their legal victory, even had Andrew Jackson chosen to obey the Constitution.

1 comment:

Ryan said...


It doesn't really speak well of us in anyway, shape or form, but it's probably true. American independence was pretty much the end the native americans maintaining their lands.