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5NY Times, March 24, 2020
‘Unworthy Republic’ Takes an Unflinching Look at Indian Removal in the 1830s
By Jennifer Szalai

Unworthy Republic
The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory
By Claudio Saunt
Illustrated. 396 pages. W.W. Norton & Company. $26.95.

The steamboat: For many Americans in the 19th century, it was a symbol of power and progress, a triumph of technology that ferried goods and people upriver with impressive speed.

But for certain passengers, it represented something less glorious and more terrifying. In “Unworthy Republic,” the historian Claudio Saunt describes how the boats functioned as instruments of American expansion and — for the slaves and Indigenous people forced to travel on them — “as floating prisons.” The policy known as Indian Removal was signed into law by President Andrew Jackson in 1830. Transporting so many people up western rivers entailed squeezing them into cramped quarters, where diseases proliferated and a burst boiler could scald hundreds to death in an instant.

Saunt’s book traces the expulsion of 80,000 Native Americans over the course of the 1830s, from their homes in the eastern United States to territories west of the Mississippi River. This was one episode in a long history of colonial conquest that included waging war and spreading disease, but Saunt argues that Indian Removal was truly “unprecedented”; it was a “formal, state-administered process” designed to eliminate every native person to the east of the Mississippi — a systematic expulsion that would later serve as an ignominious model for other regimes around the world. The French in Algeria looked to it as an example, as did the Nazis in Eastern Europe. “The Volga,” Hitler announced in 1941, “must be our Mississippi.”

“Unworthy Republic” is a powerful and lucid account, weaving together events with the people who experienced them up close. President Jackson is an inevitable presence, but he’s relegated mostly to the background, expounding his policy in high-flown terms (“It will be my sincere and constant desire to observe toward the Indian tribes within our limits a just and liberal policy”) while gloating in his private letters (“I have in the chickisaw treaty destroyed the serpent”). Previously, as a general in the Tennessee militia and later the United States Army, Jackson had led brutal campaigns against the Creeks and the Seminoles. His election to the highest office, in 1828, meant that state governments in the South would get what they had long clamored for — federal resources to move Indigenous residents from the land, so that slaveholders could expand their cotton empire.

The entwined history of slavery and the expulsion of Indigenous people is a central theme in Saunt’s book. In antebellum America, both Native Americans and African-Americans were “subjects but not citizens.” Southern planters and politicians loudly declaimed states’ rights in defense of their “peculiar institution,” but they needed federal help to clear the land of native residents. Particularly enticing for slavers was the Black Prairie — a crescent-shaped swath of dark, rich soil through Mississippi and Alabama, where Chickasaws, Choctaws and Creeks lived.

But the unvarnished language of profits and exploitation wouldn’t be enough to get the Indian Removal Act passed in Congress, where some Northern representatives were already suspicious of Southern motives. Just as central to the cause of removal was the gauzy humanitarianism used to justify it. Essential to this effort was the work of Isaac McCoy, described by Saunt as a “sincere” and “naïve” Baptist missionary who envisioned a land uniting all the native peoples in “one body politic” called “Aboriginia.” Politicians learned to present expulsion as a protective policy, a benevolent program to rescue native people from “extinction.”

The Jackson administration had tacitly encouraged white settlers to move onto native land; having helped to stoke the problem, Saunt writes, the administration “was asked to provide a solution.” Jackson offered a “grand scheme,” but no proper plan. As Saunt meticulously documents, combing through government records and contemporaneous testimony, Indigenous people were caught in the teeth of a vast bureaucracy that combined penny-pinching austerity with terrible management, corruption and chaos on the ground.

Tens of thousands of people were supposed to be transferred “on the cheap,” with expired vaccines and imprecise maps. One drunken U.S. agent entrusted with the Choctaw removal recorded names on loose slips of paper that he then lost. During the ensuing war with the Seminoles, some officials became increasingly disillusioned; in the words of one Army officer, the treaty that arranged for the deportation of the Seminoles was made in “hard and unconscionable terms” that had been “extorted.”

Saunt doesn’t try to smooth over the knottier parts of his narrative, which include Northern financiers and Indigenous slave owners who profited from expulsion; families that withstood “compulsion, enticement and duplicity” to stay on their homelands in the east; and the violent punishments carried out by tribes in order to quell dissent. He’s also aware that the documentary record overrepresents the voices of those who left a paper trail. His account acknowledges the diverse experiences within and across Indigenous communities.

Having originally budgeted the meager sum of $500,000 for the enormous policy of Indian Removal, the federal government ended up spending about $75 million — the equivalent, Saunt says, of about a trillion dollars today. The cost to the government may have been dear, but for the native peoples who were moved to Indian Territory, being on the outside of the expanding republic proved to be deadly.

In 1869, after a spate of massacres of Indigenous communities in the West, Frederick Douglass told an antislavery audience: “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.” Saunt has written an unflinching book that reckons with this history and its legacy. “Expulsion,” he writes, “was the war the slaveholders won.”


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