Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Original Trail of Tears

Jackson’s life spanned the early years of our nation's history from a loose association of rebellious colonies that hugged the Atlantic coast, to the emergence of a major continental power about to extend its reach to the Pacific. He lived to see the election of James Polk (“Young Hickory”) but not Polk's incorporation of Oregon, California, and the vast South West. Physically the nation matured but in its aspirations for a liberal order it faced formidable challenges.

Jackson saw strength in Union: it brought independence, gave us the ability to maintain that independence in the face of hostile enemies, and the power to liberate vast lands from imperial and autocratic rule. After the Revolution, however, union was all but certain. Indeed, it seemed highly unlikely. The early days of our nation were one of constant turmoil.

In the post-Revolutionary period, Loyalists were continuously subjected to intimidation and violence. From 1783 to 1785 about 100,000 Loyalists, approximately 3% of the population, were driven from our nation. Our Founding Fathers condemned the vigilante vengeance, at times at the risk of their own safety. “Hamilton was roundly abused, and his conduct was attributed to unworthy motives. But he face the people as boldly as he had faced the court … setting forth in the clearest light the injustice and impolicy of extreme measures against the Tories.” [p128] Our statesmen opposed mob violence that might have resulted in a Reign of Terror.

Friction between the States led to a tariff and trade war that strangled commerce. The issuance of paper money to absolve debt led to a general economic upheaval. Massachusetts faced Shay's rebellious mob. In Rhode Island, the advocates of paper money gained control of the legislature and instituted legal tender laws to force merchants to accept these worthless bills. “The merchants in the cities thereupon shut up their shops. During the summer of 1786 all business was at a standstill in Newport and Providence, except in the bar-rooms.” [p173] (See Federalist #10 and #44.)

Territory was in dispute. New York and New Hampshire both laid claimed to the district of Vermont. “New York sent troops to the threatened frontier, New Hampshire prepared to do like wise, and for a moment war seemed inevitable. But here, as in so many other instances, Washington appeared as peacemaker …” [p152] (See Federalist #7 and #28.)

Perhaps the most painful story was the fight over Wyoming Valley on the Susquehanna River just south of present-day Scranton, Pennsylvania. John Fiske describes what can be called the original trail of tears:

“The chronic quarrel between Connecticut and Pennsylvania over the valley of Wyoming was decided in the autumn of 1782 by a special federal court, appointed in accordance with the articles of confederation. The prize was adjudged to Pennsylvania, and the government of Connecticut submitted as gracefully as possible. But new troubles were in store for the inhabitants of that beautiful region. …

The people were starving with cold and hunger, and President Dickinson urged the legislature to send prompt relief to the sufferers. But the hearts of the members were as flint, and their talk was incredibly wicked. Not a penny would they give to help the accursed Yankees. … But the cruelty of the Pennsylvania legislature was not confined to words. A scheme was devised for driving out the settlers and partitioning their lands among a company of speculators. A force of militia was sent to Wyoming, commanded by a truculent creature named Patterson. … Patterson sent a letter to President Dickinson, accusing the farmers of sedition, and hinting that extreme measures were necessary. Having thus, as he thought, prepared the way, he attacked the settlement, turned some five hundred people out-of-doors, and burned their houses to the ground. The wretched victims, many of them tender women, or infirm old men, or little children, were driven into the wilderness at the point of the bayonet, and told to find their way to Connecticut without further delay. Heart-rending scenes ensued. Many died of exhaustion, or furnished food for wolves.” (See Federalist #7.)

It was the anarchy and gathering threat of war that prompted the Founding Fathers to assemble in Philadelphia to "form a more perfect union." Their leadership brought a fractious confederacy from the brink of war to forge a great nation--the United States of America--united to insure liberty, security, and peaceful coexistence. It was not at all obvious that this could succeed. The founders knew of few examples in history that could serve as an model for success on such a large scale. They knew the immensity of this task.

With all the commonalty of values and with a history of a common struggle, the peace and mutual respect among the colonies still required a long and hard struggle. Peace between the colonies and Indian tribes had far less of a foundation for success. (… to be continued …)