Review: Unworthy Republic by Claudio Saunt

Progress is a funny little word. As we have trudged forth with our comprehension of “other” United States history – that is a sort of bottom-up, from the margins view of those that have been discriminated and oppressed, we have uncovered uncomfortable truths and perspectives. These views have widened our focus on the American story from a narrow view of nostalgia for founding fathers and liberty to one of a battle of power, whether the contestants be centered on race, class, ethnicity or gender. As we have learned and uncovered many instances of specific insults against aggrieved people, those interested have offered scapegoats large and small as symbols of the unsteady footing our country has often had, leading to an underappreciation of the specific instances of many atrocities and massacres.

I bring this up because while cognizance of Native American mistreatment in this nation is at an all-time high, many attribute the causes to militaristic individual characters (a la Columbus and Cortez and Jackson) or “accidental” causes (disease, alcohol abuse, technological capabilities) rather than the official policies of nations. Claudio Saunt’s new book, Unworthy Republic, reminds us that the most intense and focused of indigenous removal was not the act of individuals but of governments, not in conquest but borne out of ethnic preference. Saunt, professor of history at the University of Georgia, uses government records, letters, national archives, Cherokee newspapers, and journals to illuminate the true intentions of the crafters of this policy, acts that saw the indigenous populations east of the Mississippi collapse from 100,000 people in 1818 to under 20,000 twenty years later.

Saunt notes that the idea of removal of peoples was not really a radical concept. Scholars of race relations in America will note the American Colonization Society that sought to remove free blacks from American society by finding them a home back in Africa or Canada, or some other place as long as it was not “here.” Benefactors ranged from evil to sincere, the most humane of whom thought it best to relocate blacks because they were distinct and would never be able to acclimate or assimilate in a hostile American society. Remember, these overtures were in the free north, not the slave south, and it was utterly unfeasible for even the most ardent of abolitionists to think that free blacks would be able to live side-by-side with former slave owners. (Southerner’s were hostile to any disruption to slavery in general, and the ACS branded a sort of quasi-terrorist organization in the South.)  

These gestures had been replicated by whites against the native populations since the beginning of colonization, to varying degrees, in a multitude of places. While the French were seen as more amicable with natives, and the Spanish more willing to intermarry with native peoples, the English are viewed as more focused on property. The property was obviously already owned when they arrived, so they stole, bartered, or took by force native lands. Afterwards, as a rule they sought complete separation from Native peoples, especially after they instituted multiple failed religious and cultural re-education centers in the 17th and 18th– centuries.

By the 1800’s, the original colonies (Georgia being a major exclusion) were largely devoid of indigenous populations. As states were admitted to the union, they too wished to be free of the restraints of indigenous populations. Uprisings were always a threat, and the states did not have the right to tax native populations as they would regular citizens. Most importantly, native populations were still in control of valuable land, which became glaring after the value in producing cotton rose after 1790. As populations grew, so too did the pressure to be in control of these lands. In addition, if southern planters could make new states like Mississippi and Alabama synonymous with cotton, the case for slavery in these states would be solidified and southern representation in the government would be relatively stronger vis-a-vis northern states. For whites in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi, this was a way to extend their way of life, grow rich, and expand their political power.

Similar to the moral justification slave owners would conjure for their peculiar institution, whites in the south presented their case for removal as an altruistic measure to ensure the survival of indigenous societies. Indian culture, to many, was seen as a snow in sunlight, sand with incoming crashing waves, or a thousand other metaphors that would depersonalize indigenous people and customs. To emphasize their points, many state governments passed laws that were unfavorable to Native Americans, and then pointed to these laws as reasons native peoples couldn’t live in the state. Changing laws, or not enacting them in the first place, didn’t seem to be an option for these statesmen.

These machinations by southern politicians did not run unopposed. Many in the north fought vociferously to ban the proposals for removal, arguing that it would stain the character of the nation forever. Yet, as Saunt notes, many times the same people that opposed removal were often those the government looked to finance the operation once it became policy. In addition, after it became law, the more humane of undertones disappeared and the act became just another part of government to be funded at minimum cost, despite that human value of the “cargo” to be moved. Directors operated like they were filing away folders, paying attention to expense reports and “all the while shielding their eyes from the full scope and impact of the extraordinary human operation that they were directing from afar.”

Where Saunt really shines is in reporting the individual removal nation by nation. Rather than one all-encompassing removal, the policy worked in stages and had many moving parts, routes to the west, and final landing spots for indigenous peoples. The Choctaws were moved first (1830), and as they began their trek west, the inadequacies of the program came to light. A strand of v. cholerae decimated the travel routes, especially the water routes that the refugees would take. (The strain lasted years and disease of some sort would be a killing agent throughout the decade of removal.)

As disease ravaged the party, coordinators struggled to keep pace, but faced a party reluctant to move as fast as planned, dwindling supplies and rations more quickly than anticipated. The strict budgets enforced in Washington left little latitude for these issues, as plans were “precise and methodical, with the single defect that it was divorced from reality” and incapable to adapt to changing circumstances on the ground. Not enough money was allocated for the initial transports while the multiple routes that the government designed to ease travel complicated resupply missions, which were woefully stocked or not stocked at all. Therefore, a removal that started in September grew to include moving people in cold through swamp with no blankets and not enough food.

Contrary to southern expectations, many Native Americans refused to move. Removal disregarded indigenous ways of life, political alignments, sovereignty, customs, and religious practices, among many more items that policy advocates simply did not care about. As the 1830’s wore on and many tribes did not wish to move, the US blamed not their misinformed policies but the natives, arguing that they were “blind to their own interest” and were under the spell of this-or-that “selfish” leader. All native tribes relied on the nutrients and plants animals and fauna of an area, developing habits and lifestyles that took generations to master. (One committee found that only about 70% of the plants available to the Cherokee were available in Indian Territory of Oklahoma.) In addition, many based their reluctance on basic principle. The American government had promised native nations these lands after colonizers and settlers took their original lands, and yet it came again them to move. What would stop the American government from asking twenty years henceforth to move just a little bit further?

As the decade wore on, indigenous people resisting removal were met with more and more hostility. In theory, if natives did not want to move they could join a register and would be granted a stay. As Saunt recounts, however, the process for announcing they wanted to stay was inefficient, corrupt, and often ignored. (Sant notes one instance of a drunk officer who didn’t record the names of over 90% of the people that wanted to stay.) White Americans committed theft violence as states turned a blind eye, going so far to seize native land and dismantling their houses, plowing their fields, stealing livestock, and forcing them from the land. Some natives chose to sell their land, accepting a down payment of $20 for their deed. However, the purchaser would often never pay the remaining balance, yet they did continue to sell the deed for the full amount (thousands of dollars) to others, leaving the Native with no right to land and no money for their home.

The decade saw the removal of the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creek, Cherokee, and Seminole people. I can’t do the trials and tribulations that each nation faced in removal justice here, and I highly recommend the reading for its importance in shaping the American nation, for better and for worse. Suffice to say, as the decade wore on, violence ticked up as exasperated whites attempted to rid themselves of Native American neighbors. Arson, theft, and abuse by Americans turned into even more threatening actions, from denying Native Americans the right to purchase guns (by this time essential for hunting) to arrests and finally to outright war. The end results, from the indigenous dying to protect their right of home to the “Trail of Tears” came at a cost to both actors. For every four people deported for the Seminoles (3,824 souls) the government spends $8.5 million, killed one Seminole, and lost three white soldiers to war.

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Author: Rich Collins

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