Washington's Indian Policy: the Ideal
Considering our Indian policy as a foreign policy, Knox and Washington embarked on a course of action that was anything but isolationist, as many conservatives and libertarians want to imagine. One can go even further and argue that our very first President embarked on a foreign policy of nations-building that has overtones of Wilsonian idealism and undertaken with the utmost stoic posture of upright principle.
Joseph J. Ellis, in his recent book, “American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic,” describes the transformation of Washington’s Indian policy. At first, according to Ellis “The American Revolution, as Washington saw it, was a continuation of the French and Indian War for control of the eastern third of North America. The Peace of Paris (1763) had eliminated France from contention. Now the Treaty of Paris (1783) had eliminated Great Britain.” [p87] American colonists sought to settle the land from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River. With the aid of aboriginal populations, first the French and then the British sought to limit westward expansion by the colonists. The Declaration of Independence lodges the follow charges against the King of England:
“He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
Fully aware of the fate of aboriginal tribes along the Atlantic cost, Washington knew that the primitive hunter-gatherer cultures were no match for a expanding civilization rooted in the cultivation of the soil, able to sustain a population several order of magnitudes greater than the primitive means native to the North American continent. As noted at the time: “As our settlements approach their country … they … must, from scarcity of game, retire further back, and dispose of their lands, until they dwindle comparatively to nothing, as all savages have done … when compelled to live in the vicinity of civilized people.” [p132]
Washington’s outlook was radically influenced by Henry Knox, his Secretary of War. According to Ellis, Knox advocated regarding Indian tribes as sovereign states. The federal government could and would use its constitutional powers to make treaties with foreign powers. However, the viability of these sovereign territories would require a cultural transformation and modernization. Ellis says [p139]:
“All treaties would also contain a provision whereby the tribes would be provided with tools and instruction in husbandry so that they could make a gradual transition from hunting and gathering to agricultural economies, which would simultaneously allow Indian culture to evolve from a savage to a more civilized status and reduce the size of the territory necessary for Indian survival.”
“What Knox and Washington envisioned as the outcome of the new policy was a series of Indian enclaves or homelands east of the Mississippi whose political and geographic integrity would be protected by federal law. The wave of white settlements would be required to bypass these Indian enclaves, leaving several Indian territories east of the Mississippi that would eventually, over the course of the next century, be assimilated as new states.”
The spirit of the Washington administration is summed up as follows: [p161] “Knox and Washington, with an assist from Jefferson, chose to defy the odds and transform American policy toward the Native Americans. They did not do so because it was politically expedient, quite the opposite. They did so because the revolutionary fires still burned inside them and they knew, deep down, that Indian removal was incompatible with the republican values they cherished. … For, make no mistake, a referendum among the white citizenry would have produced an overwhelming majority for Indian removal.”
The problem was apparent almost immediately.
Alexander McGillivray was the head of the Creek nation. An educated man with a command of several ancient and modern languages, he was an accepted member of the Creeks by his tribal ancestry through his mother’s mother. For Ellis, he is the equivalent of an autocratic third world dictator playing one super power against the other. His rule was symptomatic of the corrupt leadership that rises in oppressive collectivist social systems.
The Creek nation encompassed present day Alabama and an equal-sized area from surrounding states. Homesteaders were expanding into Creek territory in western Georgia alarming McGillivray; uprooting farm communities once established is nearly impossible. To stop the expansion, McGillivray came to our nation's capital, New York, to sign the monumental treaty between the Creek nation and the federal government. “What became known as the Treaty of New York passed the Senate on August 7, 1790, by a vote of 15-4. Both Georgia senators voted in the negative …” [p156]
The treaty was unenforceable. What McGillivray wanted most was an end to the ‘illegal immigration’ into the Creek nation. It is the responsibility of a sovereign nation to secure its own borders; something beyond the ability of the Creeks. America had an open border policy welcoming immigrants to settle, work the land, and provide for their family. It certainly wouldn’t have an emigration policy restricting a person’s exit like a modern totalitarian state. Yet McGillivray had hoped the treaty would bring federal force against those seeking to settle in the Creek territory.
The federal government could not restrict travel across the Creek border; its army was minuscule during a period when the union relied on state militias. It had little desire to use the federal troops to confront one of its constituent states. Even John Quincy Adams, several decades later, would refuse to use federal troops to force Georgia to abide by the terms of federal treaties. Let’s remember that this was the late 18th and early 19th century. Eisenhower’s use of federal power in “Little Rock” would be more than a century away. The Creeks had more under arms than the federal government but the size of the border was too great. McGillivray turned to the Spanish for help but they had no manpower or desire to do what was virtually impossible.
A primitive hunter-gather nation of a few ten thousand could not protect a communal tribal enclave nor conceivably secure the borders of a nation twice the size of Alabama next to a country of four million, and doubling every 25 years. The dynamic of an expanding agricultural society that empowered and enfranchised the individual family overwhelms more primitive social orders. As settlers streamed into uncultivated lands seeking to “mix their labor with the soil” and provide for their families, a new social order was spreading west. Even without federal or state government interference, the influx would be overwhelming. Especially without federal interference!
Washington understood the ultimate clash with civilization and supplemented his foreign policy of recognizing sovereign rule with an outreach program to help transform these tribes into modern civilized entities by providing the tribes “with tools and instruction in husbandry so that they could make a gradual transition from hunting and gathering to agricultural economies” and thus transition “from a savage to a more civilized status.”
Instead of annihilation, nations-building was the policy. The creation of viable neighboring states, under the rule of law, living peacefully, and interacting profitably was the goal. This was an extremely ambitious program—and it failed. What went wrong?
(to be continued ...)