Artifacts IV: The American Lion

A book review written for History 722, Topics in Early American History: American Indian History in Early America, an official title that is breathtakingly redundant, but anyway, here it is (I received a modest 93 on this, so not excellent, but not terrible either):

– Review: Satz, Ronald N. American Indian Policy in the Jacksonian Era. (University of Oklahoma Press, 1975)

Andrew Jackson is a somewhat chimerical figure within American historiography. A President who, through policy, attitude, and accomplishment came to define an entire era, Jackson has been cast in a variety of shades regarding his approach to Indians and national expansion and the lasting impression his relationship with Indian populations had on policies subsequent to his administration. Older scholarship tends to assert that Andrew Jackson was anti-Indian, that his authoritative posture, paternalism, and energetic drive to move tribes westward illustrates an innate and ethnocentric disapproval of native populations. Revisionist work, on the other hand, often describes Jackson as a victim of historical misinterpretation; that he did not hold anything against Indian populations due to their race or culture, but that he adopted an acutely pragmatic, realist view of the relationship between the United States and its earlier inhabitants. In this interpretation, Jackson is presented as a national leader with a clear, unambiguous strategy for achieving prosperity and stability in the United States: the acquisition of additional territory. While certainly paternalistic and prone to callous treatment of Indians, these actions are not the result of animosity but the byproduct of an ends-justify-the-means approach to accomplishing his goals.

While certain truths exist within both schools of analysis, both, through adherence to an overly rigid interpretive model, neglect the multifaceted nature of Andrew Jackson, offering a simplistic, uni-dimensional portrait of a President as era defining as he was controversial. American Indian Policy in the Jacksonian Era, written by Ronald N. Satz and published in 1975, does a tremendous job of rendering a nuanced, in-depth examination of Jackson and the underlying motivations for his policies. Satz presents Jackson as a man devoted more to “national growth, unity, and prosperity (Satz, 9),” than governed by negative attitudes about Indians. Indian removal, so often attributed uniquely to Jackson, had been considered a legitimate strategy by all previous administrations; and while Jackson undertook the implementation of this oft considered strategy with more effort than earlier leaders, Satz points out, rightfully, that its frequent discussion was legitimizing in itself.

For Jackson, Indian removal presented the clearest route to national security, and because in his view the Indians had only “possessory right to the land, they lived on and were thereby subject to American national sovereignty (Satz, 10).” The Removal Act of 1830 provided for Jackson a legal justification for the plan he had laid out earlier to secure Eastern Indian territory in exchange for territory beyond the Mississippi and to realize his goal of securing the Mississippi Valley from foreign intrusion. While at times Satz appears to wax apologetic, focusing on the “liberal provisions for Indians emigrating to the West and those remaining behind (Satz, 106),” he does not spare Old Hickory from criticism. Avoidable complications and unnecessary hardships on the native émigrés are detailed, arising from procurement shortcuts taken by contractors, cost-cutting policies by the US government which were disastrous for natives, and the profound flaws of the allotment system.

Satz also presents a deeply critical portrait of the changes wrought on the Bureau of Indian Affairs under the Jackson administration. Turning the office of Commissioner of Indian Affairs into a rotating position, the president effectively shaped it into vehicle by which he could dispense patronage. This action had direct negative consequences for Indians as the politicized environment surrounding the post allowed its inhabitants to exercise power for self enrichment rather than pursue any significant improvements in the lives of Indians or the relationship between the US and different tribes. While this work will surely generate controversy related to the apologetic tone it sometimes adopts, great value can be found in its examination of the complex political and social context in which Jackson operated. Perhaps the transgressions of US policy toward Indians, particularly those directly associated with Jackson, are underrepresented but it is a book rich in detail that offers a much more complete picture of the causes of consequences of Indian policy under Andrew Jackson.


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