Friday, June 27, 2008

Jackson’s Indian Policy

To understand Andrew Jackson’s Indian policy it is necessary to understand his view of the proper role of the federal government, the constitution, and the rights of the states. Jackson’s self-proclaimed political philosophy was anti-federalist in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson. He was a strict constitutionalist, as the term is currently used. He was an ardent defender of the Union as the only means of defending the sovereignty of the states from foreign threats. It was his belief that George Washington’s policy of recognizing Indian sovereignty was a violation of the constitution’s prohibition against removing land from existing states for the creation of new political entities.

The above summary is not without controversy in Jackson’s day or today. Let’s examine some of the evidence.

Andrew Jackson ran against John Quincy Adams in the 1824 and 1828 elections. Jackson had a plurality of electoral and popular votes in the first election but lacking a clear majority, the House of Representatives decided the election. Henry Clay, the third runner up, threw his support to Adams creating a popular uproar against what was viewed as an affront to democracy. Lacking a clear mandate for his big-government programs, Adams’ single term as President was severely hampered. “For all of his setbacks and suffering, John Quincy Adams had never abandoned his moral vision of energetic government and national uplift. Protective tariffs, federal road and canal projects, and the other mundane features of the American System were always, to him, a means to that larger end.” [p307]

Adams’ policies and programs, in Jackson’s opinion, violated the bounds of the constitution and invited the corruption of special privilege. In addition to protective tariffs and federal public works projects, Adams was a supporter of the Second Bank of the United States and Indian treaties going back to Washington. When the state of Georgia defied federal rulings on Cherokee boundaries, Adams rejected this early example of nullification but failed to take action against Georgia given his lack of political support.

After Jackson took over the White House, he systematically opposed the policies of his predecessors. He abolished the Second Bank of the United States, opposed a tariff to protect sectional interests, paid off the debt for the first and last time in American history, opposed the nullification of federal laws by the individual states, and completely discarded Washington’s Indian policy. Above all, he cited the constitution as the authority for his policies.

The extent of his policy of strict constitutionalism can be seen in this early example of First Amendment absolutism: When asked for a religious statement during an epidemic of cholera he said “Whilst I concur with the synod in the efficacy of prayer and in the hope that our country may be preserved from the attack of pestilence … I am constrained to decline the appointment of any period or mode as proper for the public manifestation of this reliance. I could not do otherwise without transcending those limits which are prescribed by the Constitution for the President, and without feeling that I might in some degree disturb the security which religion now enjoys in this country in its complete separation from the political concerns of the General Government.” [p451]

In each case, however, he saw the locus of decision-making in the states and not the individual. His opposition to a federal bank led to the use of state banks, corrupted by special granting of privilege on the state level. His opposition to federal civil engineering projects didn’t extend to state funding. Even as he opposed federal displays of religious sentiment he did not encourage similar restraint by the state Governments.

This then leads us to consider Jackson’s Indian policy. It was a simple issue of state sovereignty under Article IV, Section 3 of the Constitution. The creation of Indian nations within states of the Union was a clear violation of the constitution. There are two logical alternatives that exhaust the possibilities: either Indians comprise sovereign states or they are subject to the laws of existing states of the Union. The Supreme Court saw a third option by declaring, in 1831, that Indian nations are not foreign nations that can sue state governments but merely “domestic dependent nations.” In the next year, the Court decided to uphold federal treaties with these types of nations! [p488]

Woodrow Wilson, then Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, writes in his textbook on 19th century American history [1]:

“Jackson had, it should be remembered, in his message of December, 1829, taken his stand upon the Constitution in regard to this question. Those who would judge for themselves between Georgia and the Cherokees must resolve this point of law: if the power of the federal executive to negotiate treaties be added to the power of Congress to regulate commerce with the Indian tribes, do they together furnish a sanction for the erection of a permanent independent state within the territory of one of the members of the Union, and so override that other provision of the Constitution which declares that 'no new State shall be formed or erected within the jurisdiction of any other State' without the express consent of the Legislature of that State and of Congress? Judgment was passed upon the law of the case by the Supreme Court, and Jackson should unquestionably have yielded obedience to that judgment; but the point of law is a nice one.”

Jackson’s response was simple: if the Court was going to legislate from the bench they would have to enforce their own laws. He refused to act against Georgia, on principle, just as Adams had previously refused to act, albeit from weakness.

This then is Jackson’s outlook of the federal government’s proper role, the President’s power, his literalism in constitutional matters, and his imperial manner—all in the name of the will of the people—in conducting the dissolution of Indian nations east of the Mississippi. (… to be continued …)

[1] Woodrow Wilson, Epochs of American History: Division and Reunion 1829-1889, New York and London: Longmans, Green, and Co. 1898, p38

Update 4/6/09 My article above was based an analysis of several sources, all having major flaws in their approach. I now recommend the website of the University of Virginia for its brief but highly accurate treatment of Jackson's policies and motivation.