Today’s Washington Post has an op-ed by our old pal Jim Webb entitled, “We can celebrate Harriet Tubman without disparaging Andrew Jackson.” I’m not at all surprised to see the op-ed, nor about the argument Webb makes in it. In fact, as soon as I heard the news that President Andrew Jackson was being replaced on the $20 bill with Harriet Tubman, I was wondering when we’d hear from our Webb (who, I’d note, had largely gone silent after his comments in early March about possibly voting for Donald Trump).
Why am I not surprised to see Webb’s op-ed (which Raw Story calls “a repulsive love letter to Andrew Jackson”)? Because Webb has always been a huge fan of Jackson’s, writing in his book “Born Fighting” that Jackson “rewrote the book on American political leaders just as surely as Ernest Hemingway remade the narrative form of the novel,” that he “remains in a class by himself,” etc, etc. In short, Jackson is one of Webb’s great Scots-Irish warrior-heroes, not to mention political and economic heroes.
And Webb wasn’t totally wrong by any means, as surveys of historians consistently rank Jackson as one of our country’s top presidents. For instance, “A 2015 poll, administered by the American Political Science Association among political scientists specializing in the American presidency, had Abraham Lincoln in the top spot, with George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Bill Clinton, Andrew Jackson, and Woodrow Wilson cracking the top 10.”
However, there is one huge dark spot on Andrew Jackson’s presidency — the infamous “Trail of Tears“:
The removals, conducted under Presidents Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, followed the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The Act provided the President with powers to exchange land with Native tribes and provide infrastructure improvements on the existing lands. The law also gave the president power to pay for transportation costs to the West, should tribes choose to relocate. The law did not, however, allow the President to force tribes to move West without a mutually agreed-upon treaty.
In the years following the Act, the Cherokee filed several lawsuits regarding conflicts with the state of Georgia. Some of these cases reached the Supreme Court, the most influential being Worcester v. Georgia. Samuel Worcester and other non-Native Americans were convicted by Georgia law for residing in Cherokee territory in the state of Georgia without a license. Worcester was sentenced to prison for four years, and appealed the ruling, arguing that this sentence violated treaties made between Indian Nations and the United States federal government by imposing state laws on Cherokee lands. The Court ruled in Worcester’s favor, declaring that the Cherokee Nation was subject only to federal law and that the Supremacy Clause barred legislative interference by the state of Georgia. Chief Justice Marshall argued, “The Cherokee nation, then, is a distinct community occupying its own territory in which the laws of Georgia can have no force. The whole intercourse between the United States and this Nation, is, by our constitution and laws, vested in the government of the United States.”
Andrew Jackson did not, however, enforce the Supreme Court mandate barring Georgia from intruding on Cherokee lands. He feared that enforcement would lead to open warfare between federal troops and the Georgia militia, which would compound the ongoing crisis in South Carolina and lead to a broader civil war. Instead, he vigorously negotiated a land exchange treaty with the Cherokee. Political opponents Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams, who supported the Worcester decision, were outraged by Jackson’s refusal to uphold Cherokee claims against the state of Georgia. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote an account of Cherokee assimilation into the American culture, declaring his support of the Worcester decision.
Jackson chose to continue with Indian removal, and negotiated The Treaty of New Echota on May 23, 1836, which granted Cherokee Indians two years to move to Indian Territory (modern Oklahoma). Only a fraction of the Cherokee left voluntarily. The U.S. government, with assistance from state militias, forced most of the remaining Cherokee West in 1838. The Cherokee were temporarily remanded in camps in eastern Tennessee. In November, the Cherokee were broken into groups of around 1,000 each and began the journey west. They endured heavy rains, snow, and freezing temperatures.
When the Cherokee negotiated the Treaty of New Echota, they exchanged all their land east of the Mississippi for land in modern Oklahoma and a $5 million payment from the federal government. Many Cherokee felt betrayed that their leadership accepted the deal, and over 16,000 Cherokee signed a petition to prevent the passage of the treaty. By the end of the decade in 1840, tens of thousands of Cherokee and other tribes had been removed from their land east of the Mississippi River. The Creek, Choctaw, Seminole, and Chicksaw were also relocated under the Indian Removal Act of 1830. One Choctaw leader portrayed the removal as “A Trail of Tears and Deaths”, a devastating event that removed most of the Native population of the southeastern United States from their traditional homelands.
That this was utterly appalling (as were U.S. actions and policies towards Native Americans in general) is not in question, and Webb admits in his op-ed that the Trail of Tears a “disaster.” However, Webb also, implausibly, denies that the “motivation” for the Trail of Tears was not “genocidal.” Webb argues:
Robert Remini, Jackson’s most prominent biographer, wrote that his intent was to end the increasingly bloody Indian Wars and to protect the Indians from certain annihilation at the hands of an ever-expanding frontier population. Indeed, it would be difficult to call someone genocidal when years before, after one bloody fight, he brought an orphaned Native American baby from the battlefield to his home in Tennessee and raised him as his son.
As for the second sentence for that paragraph, it’s a non-argument beneath Webb’s intellect. I mean, seriously? Because someone did something good one time in their lives to a member of a religious, racial or ethnic group absolves them going forward, forever, that they could possibly do something heinous to that same group? Uhhhh….no. Logic 101 #FAIL.
As for the first sentence, that’s at least a serious argument, citing a major authority on Jackson. The only problem is that it leads to a battle of the esteemed, prominent historians. For instance, how about award-winning historian Alfred A. Cave, a specialist in the Jacksonian era? Here’s what Cave wrote about Jackson and the Trail of Tears.
…the impression that Jackson had received congressional authorization to remove Indians from their homelands at the point of a bayonet remains widespread…In fact “The Indian Removal Act passed by Congress in 1830 neither authorized the unilateral abrogation of treaties guaranteeing Native American land rights within the states, nor the forced relocation of the eastern Indians. Yet both occurred, on a massive scale, during Andrew Jackson’s administration and were the result, not of an explicit congressional mandate, but of an abuse of presidential power. In engineering removal, Jackson not only disregarded a key section of the Indian Removal Act, but also misused the powers granted to him under the Trade and Intercourse Act of 1802. Furthermore, he failed to honor promises made in his name in order to win congressional support of the removal, and he broke a number of federal treaty commitments to Indians, including some that he had personally negotiated. While Jackson was not the only president who abused powers granted to him by the legislative branch, disregard of the extralegal character of much of his Indian policy has contributed to the over-simplistic view of Indian removal found in much of the historical literature.
Quite a different account than the one Webb prefers for his hero, eh? As for the historian Webb cites (Robert Remini), Cave lumps him in with “apologists for Jackson, stressing not only the political constraints he faced, but his presumed benevolent desire to protect and preserve Indians through removal.” Cave continues, writing that Remini and other Jackson apologists:
…in this writer’s estimation, downplay and in some instances ignore the illegality of much of Jackson’s Indian policy. There is also a tendency among some writers to interpret the law in the light of the outcome of the removal controversy. Thus Jill Norgren, in The Cherokee Cases: The Confrontation of Law and Politics (1996), recognizes that the law ostensibly continued the voluntary, treaty-based removal program in place prior to Jackson’s election. Norgren claims, however, that “the tenor of the pro-removal debate and the very nature of the bill questioned tribal sovereignty and aboriginal land titles” (85–86). The result is a discounting of the very real opposition to coerced removal and an oversimplification of this tragic episode in American history.”
That Webb would cite an apologist for Jackson is not surprising, given that Jackson is one of Webb’s great, iconic heroes of American (and Scots-Irish) history. It’s sad, though, that Webb refuses to reevaluate his view of Jackson as benevolent, empathetic hero in light of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It’s even sadder that Webb would lower himself to the level of Donald Trump, railing against the ridiculous straw man of “how far political correctness has invaded our educational system and skewed our national consciousness.” Again, seriously Jim Webb? So Alfred A. Cave and anyone else who views Jackson more critically than the historical apologists is now infected with the right-wing bogeyman of “political correctness?” What a joke.
But wait, it gets worse, as Webb heads into truly bizarre territory:
This dismissive characterization of one of our great presidents is not occurring in a vacuum. Any white person whose ancestral relations trace to the American South now risks being characterized as having roots based on bigotry and undeserved privilege. Meanwhile, race relations are at their worst point in decades… The myth of universal white privilege and universal disadvantage among racial minorities has become a mantra, even though white and minority cultures alike vary greatly in their ethnic and geographic origins, in their experiences in the United States and in their educational and financial well-being.
Riiight. I mean, where does one even begin with this drivel? Actually, this blog post is already too long, and Webb’s comments are too ridiculous to even respond to, so let’s just let his own words speak for themselves. Or, as Webb himself always likes to say, “Res ipsa loquitur.”