Unworthy Republic

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“The only reason why the negro has not been killed off, as the Indians have been, is that he is so close under your arm, that you cannot get at him.” So said Frederick Douglass, fugitive slave and anti-slavery campaigner.

Unworthy Republic is a timely reminder — following the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement — of the dispossession of Native Americans and how it relates to the enslavement of black Africans.

Native Americans were expelled from the east of the Mississippi River in the 1830s, and were treated with appalling barbarity. The book chronicles the outright racism which underscores modern white supremacy as well as the hypocrisy of many Northern self-declared supporters of the Indian nations.

Saunt details the driving forces behind this expulsion: the finance capital of the North twinned with the transcontinental aspirations of Southern slave owners.

The slave owners coveted the fertile native land to the east of the Mississippi to expand slave plantations and meet the increased demand for cotton. This in turn fed the slave owners’ belief that they would become rich and powerful enough to rival European empires.

So, one of the first state-sponsored mass expulsions of modern times became a model for colonial empire. It was not just the blood-soaked British Empire that Hitler admired. During the Nazi conquest of eastern Europe, he declared that “the Volga must be our Mississippi”.

The existing treaties between the various American Indian nations and the US state had established borders. Andrew Jackson, 10 years before his presidency, had negotiated such a treaty with the Cherokees. These treaties did not however stop sporadic sizeable land grabs by white settlers.

By 1830, however, Congress determined that a more thorough dispossession was required. One argument was that this would be in the interest of ‘uncivilised’ native Indians who would otherwise perish amid the more productive white settlers.

This of course ignored the varied nature of the nations. Some indeed had been ‘civilised’ so successfully they included Native American slaveowners.

In many cases, colonists and Native American neighbours were interdependent. In Alabama and Mississippi many Creek, Choctaw, and Chickasaw families were tightly woven into the regional economy. However, Native Americans were not even counted by the US Constitution as three-fifths of a person — the status awarded to slaves.

There was widespread opposition to the planned Indian Removal Act and proposals to give Native Americans full citizenship.

Alas, it had an inescapable logic, as Socrates of the Georgia Journal explained, “If they make a citizen of an Indian, what hinders them from making a citizen of a free negro, and if they can make a citizen of a free negro, what hinders them from naturalizing slave negroes?”

The South “had an undemocratic advantage. As a result of the Constitution’s three-fifths clause, slave states wielded an additional 21 votes in Congress in 1830”.

The Act was passed by a margin of 102 to 97 and signed into law by President Andrew Jackson on 28 May 1830.

Unworthy Republic details the underfunded and poorly organised expulsions of the following decade. The first, of Choctaws and Senecas, took place in batches partially by steamboat and partially by land. The mortality rate was nearly 10 percent.

But there was resistance. The Sauks initially abandoned their villages and crossed the Mississippi but, a year later, returned under the leadership of Black Hawk. An army of 450 regulars and 2,000 volunteers — including a 23-year-old Abraham Lincoln — was sent to ‘chastise’ them.

As troops boarded steamboats they brought with them cholera. It killed the soldiers first, later adding to the misery and death toll of expelled Native Americans.

The fate of the separate attempts to resist varied. Black Hawk was defeated in 1832, but the Seminoles in Florida proved more difficult to subdue. Their war lasted seven years. Soldiers and militia sent to fight them soon lost patriotic enthusiasm when ambushed by units of the 1,000 skilled Seminole marksmen.

Under the persecution of the Florida sun and mosquitos, class privilege in the army enabled officers to resign in droves, but privates had to remain. By the end of the decade the US government prevailed, but its policy of expulsion had turned into a policy of extermination.

Expulsion was wasteful and cost vastly more than originally predicted.

It could not have taken place without successful appeals both to Wall Street and European investors. Alabama officials appealed directly to Baring Brothers of London, “Like all new states, monied men are scarce amongst us – and capital much in demand.”

However, the expropriation succeeded in expanding both the slave plantations and the derived profits. Saunt writes, “The lands that the federal government expropriated in the decade of deportation furnished nearly 160 million pounds of ginned cotton in 1850, equal to 16 percent of the entire crop in the United States.

“Native lands produced 40 percent of the total value of the agricultural output in Mississippi and Alabama. In the nation as a whole, they produced 6 percent of the total value of agricultural output.”

But the expropriation of Native Americans and the exploitation of African slaves have one major economic difference.

“In the westward expansion of the United States,” Saunt explains, “common interest in acquiring land united white Americans to put Andrew Jackson in the White House and expel the continent’s long-time owners.

“By contrast, in the westward expansion of the slave empire, self-interest drove them apart, since Northern farmers and wage laborers feared being displaced in fields and factories by unpaid laborers.”

As the Georgia Journal’s Socrates foresaw in 1825, the North and South would eventually be forced to confront each other about the limits of federal power to regulate slavery.

Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory, by Claudio Saunt. Published by WW Norton & Company, £12.50