In the first year of Andrew Jackson’s presidency, the removal of Native Americans from their lands became a top priority.
Jackson had campaigned on this platform and had considerable popularity in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi as a result. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 342. The five “Civilized Tribes,” the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole possessed wide swaths of land in the Deep South as well as Tennessee, North Carolina, and the Florida territory. See id.
Up to this point, the Cherokees had developed their own lives based on the federal government’s policy toward them. In 1791, the Treaty of Holston was designed to lead the Cherokees “to a greater degree of civilization,” and for them to “become herdsmen and cultivators, instead of remaining in a state of hunters.” Id. at 344 quoting John West, The Politics of Revelation and Reason: Religion and Civic Life in the New Nation (Lawrence, Kans., 1980), 182.
President Thomas Jefferson sought to help the Cherokees to assimilate into American society, encouraging intermarriage and the adoption of the white way of life. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 345. This happened to a limited extent.
Then, in the spring of 1829, Cherokees discovered gold on their land, which prompted a rush of whites onto the land for prospecting. Id. at 346. Violence ensued, and Congress acted quickly, passing the Indian Removal Act. Id. at 347. President Jackson saw it as a key for national development. Id. The Act embodied President Jackson’s belief that white men were superior to Native Americans and blacks, and he only saw them as threats to popular sovereignty. Id.
While President Jackson, in his State of the Union message, had claimed that the removal of Native Americans would be a voluntary process, everyone knew that it would be anything but voluntary. Id. at 348. President Jackson said thereafter for Native Americans “to emigrate beyond the Mississippi or submit to the laws of those States.” Id. citing Jackson, “First Annual Message,” Presidential Messages, II, 458-59.
Not all Americans were complicit in these acts, however. Robert Campbell of Georgia stated that: “In modern times in civilized countries there is no instance of expelling the members of a whole nation from their homes or driving an entire population from its native country.” Robert Campbell, “From The Georgian,” Niles’ Weekly Register, Aug. 30, 1828, 14.
As removal began, many Native Americans complied, but the federal government incurred significant cost: over $5 million to expel the Choctaws, which was $2 million more than Jackson publicly budgeted. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 353. Other Native Americans sought to elude the government. Some Choctaws hid in the forests of eastern Mississippi, eluding the government’s attention until 1918. Id.
Jackson’s policy of removal of the Native Americans “confirmed his support in the cotton states outside South Carolina and fixed the character of his political party,” the Democrats. Id. at 357. While Jackson had claimed to be a champion of democracy, he had created the strongest backlash that America has yet seen. Id. In fact, it became such a central issue that it was “the most consistent predictor of partisan affiliation.” Id. citing Fred S. Rolater, “The American Indian and the Origin of the Second American Party System,” Wisconsin Magazine of History 76 (1993): 180-201.
As thousands of Native Americans died through the relocation effort, and the Trail of Tears, President Jackson’s harsh policy was solely to blame. Jackson was continually reinforcing his populist tendencies, catering to the whims of the common man, even justifying and rationalizing the mass migration and partial extermination of a race of people who had lived on the land for centuries. Few policies have had such harsh ramifications for a group of people like Jackson’s policy of the removal of Native Americans. Remembrance of this fact is crucial.