Five Tough Questions about Jacksonland

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Jacksonland event, Knoxville, TN. Photo by Randall M. Brown


I recently toured a good part of Jacksonland, and took questions from nine different groups. The stops included Knoxville and Nashville, in Andrew Jackson’s home state of Tennessee; Asheville as well as Cherokee, North Carolina, where descendants of Cherokees he did not quite manage to remove from the South still live; and Atlanta, capital of Georgia, the state which pushed hardest to remove Indians from within its borders. At these stops, and in interviews, I’ve been asked an incredible variety of questions. Here are some of the most provocative, with my answers.

Why do you focus on Andrew Jackson’s mistreatment of Indians when he did so much else that was good?

This question may surprise readers who think Andrew Jackson was obviously and in all ways bad. He still has admirers, including in his home base of Nashville, where this question was asked at a reception. His fans know he rose from humble beginnings to become a war hero who strengthened the presidency and founded the Democratic Party. He could even be fair to Indians: when Cherokees joined his army in 1814, he promised equal pay and benefits. He won the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 with a multi-racial army. Yet his attitudes changed when real estate was at stake. It is fairest to all, including Jackson, if we are ruthlessly honest about all of his record, including his role in removing Indians from the East.

Are you just another white man making money off us? Or will you help us get our land back?

A Cherokee man asked that question in Cherokee, NC. He was a guide at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, where I spoke, and was wearing traditional Cherokee clothes. My job is not to get back Cherokee land, but it is to tell the truth. There seems, in any case, to be little prospect for restoring substantial land, or for other forms of reparations. In 2009 President Obama signed an apology for the mistreatment of native peoples, but the legislation included a clause saying the apology could not be used as a basis for legal claims. Freeman Owle, another Cherokee from western North Carolina, told me Cherokees did not expect their land back—but they did want the truth to be told.

Didn’t Andrew Jackson commit genocide?

The facts do not support the claim of genocide, although people in several cities asked about it. The policy of removing Indians from the South between about 1812 and 1838 was not designed to exterminate a people. Jackson, some supporters of Indians, and even some Indians argued that they were being destroyed by their contact with white civilization, and that it would be better for them to move farther west. A word other than genocide describes Jackson’s policy, and that word is bad enough: Segregation. Jackson favored the segregation of a continent, with whites (and their black slaves) to the East of the Mississippi and Indians west of it. It is also true that Jackson’s policy perfectly matched his interest in opening up Southern real estate. Many Indians opposed the policy, and Seminoles as well as Creeks staged uprisings. Cherokees went on record overwhelmingly against it, but the policy was enacted. Contemporary documents say hundreds of Cherokees died on the Trail of Tears. Scholars believe several thousand Cherokees died through the broader period of removal.

Was John Ross a better American than Andrew Jackson?

This provocative question came from Patt Morrison of KPCC in Los Angeles. It’s tempting to say yes. In resisting Indian removal through the democratic process, Cherokee Principal Chief John Ross demonstrated an abiding faith in the American system.  He may have had more faith than the men who ran the system. But some facts make me hesitate. Ross, like Jackson, was a slave owner. Like Jackson, he was also a businessman whose business and family interests sometimes merged with his political duties. And he was a politician. He made complex political decisions, and people were sometimes hurt. He was criticized in his time for being unbelievably stubborn, holding out oo long against removal instead of properly preparing his people to move as they inevitably must. The lack of preparation may help explain some of the suffering when people did move. I don’t agree with this last criticism: Ross was bargaining with the government to get the best deal for his people, and the bargaining went down to the deadline. But the criticism is understandable. Jacksonland is a story of imperfect people contending in an emerging democracy.

Should Jackson be removed from the $20 bill?

My proposal is to put John Ross on the $20. And then put Andrew Jackson on the other side. Together, they tell a story of our democracy—of very different, imperfect people fighting it out in the democratic system. That system outlasted them, and we have gradually achieved different results over time. In the New York Times I fleshed out this proposal, and also showed how all our bills could feature two people—differing faces of people who together would tell a story of our democracy.

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