Tuesday, June 24, 2008

From Washington to Jackson: the Expansion West

Washington and Jackson viewed westward expansion as necessary to the growth of the country. Both knew the frontier firsthand where the expansion of civilization was challenged by the savagery of the aboriginal inhabitants. When Washington was President and Jackson a young man the frontier lay beyond the Allegany and included the western parts of the great states of Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia. The frontier culture created a divide between the west and east greater than that between the north and the south.

Thomas P. Slaughter, in “The Whiskey Rebellion” writes “During the 1780s many, if not most, Americans believed that the nation would inevitably divide in two. As a foreign traveler remarked in 1781, the possibility of ‘a separation of the federal union into two parts, at no distant day … was a matter of frequent discussion … and seemed to be an opinion that was daily gaining ground.” [Pp29-30] “As early as 1783 George Mason was predicting that continued neglect of the westerners’ needs would ‘occasion another war in less than seven years.’” [P30]

Indian attacks between the years 1783 and 1790 “killed, wounded, or took prisoner an estimated 1,500 whites … Massacres were widely reported in the East to the goriest last detail. Seldom did a week pass without some account of horror in the West. Massacres of peaceful Indians were no less brutal and were also repulsive to easterners.” [P94]

The settlers on the western frontier were constantly besieged by aboriginal terrorists with little help from the Continental Congress to establish order and security. The continuous butchery by the these savages was reported in a steady stream of horrific stories; the attacks had the intended effect of scaring away prospective settlers … but only the most genteel of early Americans. As a consequence, the frontiersmen were rugged and self-reliant but when they took the law into their own hands their vigilante actions could become ugly and indiscriminate.

Washington observed frontier culture firsthand during his long life. In 1748, at sixteen, George Washington journeyed west with a team of surveyors and formed his first impressions of the frontier. It was a dismal place of “the worst road that was ever trod by man of beast” and frontier settlers “amongst a parcel of barbarians and an uncouth set of people” that were “as ignorant a set of people as the Indians.” [P79]

In the 1780s eastern writers would report equally appalling conditions. “… all sorts of wickedness was carried on to excess, and there was no appearance of morality or regular order.” “Drunkenness almost universal...” “Men lived “beyond the arm of government and freed from the restraining influence of religion …” “… a parcel of abandoned wretches … [who lived] like so many pigs in a sty.” And this was just the western counties of Pennsylvania!

The new Federal government could not defend the settlers. In 1791, the expedition against the Miami Indians ended in humiliating defeat—the worst defeat by Indians in American history. The frontiersmen believed they had to take the law into their own hands. This and other disappointments with the newly formed Federal government increased the resentments to the tax on whiskey. This tax, requested by Alexander Hamilton, was against the very spirit of the revolution and even Hamilton’s own opposition to internal taxes in Federalist #12: " ...the people will ill brook the inquisitive and peremptory spirit of excise laws ..."

Slaughter writes, “the frontier of every state south of New York experienced unrest … there was little to mark western Pennsylvania as unique. The law was a dead letter in Kentucky, where no one would pay, no one would dare to collect, and no sheriff would try to enforce the excise.” [P118] “The situation was similar in North Carolina.” By contrast, “… little opposition manifested itself in the coastal areas …” [P119]

Western Pennsylvania, the site of the Whiskey Rebellion, was made an example; it was singled out by the Washington administration as the easiest place to fight and suppress the rebellion. This gives an estimate of the limits Federal power to impose law on the settlers on the Western frontier. Barely was it able to inforce Federal law over the settlers. To bring the Indians under federal law was unimaginable. It was in this context that Andrew Jackson moved to Nashville, then part of North Carolina, to establish his career as a lawman.

In Nashville, Jackson continued to practice law, became district attorney, attended the convention to draft a constitution for the new state of Tennessee, and became its first Congressman. In each of these roles he helped to bring law to the frontier. As Congressman he gained support for the Tennessee militia’s response to Cherokee attacks (1793) in the eastern part of the state—after the militia’s expedition.

He was appointed to the Senate, which he found tedious and unfulfilling. After a year, he resigned and accepted a Tennessee judgeship. In 1802, while still judge, he also became Major General of the Tennessee militia. As judge he traveled a circuit dispensing justice in a straightforward decisive clear and common sense manner that won respect for the law in this frontier land. As head of the militia Jackson made his name. (... to be continued ...)