Drawing parallels between Jackson’s era and our own is, according to President Trump, “really appropriate” for “certain obvious reasons.” Indeed, both are eras of rapid change characterized by anxieties over race, immigration, citizenship, and America’s destiny.
In the Jacksonian era, the United States, within the span of a few decades, transformed from an East Coast nation into a transcontinental empire. As it grew, the United States confronted diverse populations—dozens of Native American nations as well as settlers of former French and Spanish colonies. Meanwhile, immigrants from around the world poured into American port cities. The young nation, still debating its identity, fractured over how to deal with such diversity. Some favored extending the democracy born of the American Revolution to immigrants and people of color, while others argued that these groups lacked the qualifications for citizenship.
A progressive vision of the future prevailed at Great Crossings, a village in Kentucky where Indians, settlers, and slaves came together and tried to carve paths to the future. Great Crossings was the site of the first federally controlled Indian boarding school, Choctaw Academy. Initially a collaboration with the Choctaw Nation, the school eventually hosted over 600 students from 17 different Indian nations. Part of the US government’s “Civilization Policy,” whereby the United States sought to assimilate Indians, Choctaw Academy sought to transform foreign nationals into US citizens. Though ethnocentric, policymakers assumed that Native Americans’ intellects equaled those of whites. Unlike most Indian boarding schools, Choctaw Academy was voluntary, and Native peoples had their own reasons for attending. As the United States had become increasingly aggressive in its territorial ambitions, Indians desperately wanted new solutions for peaceful cohabitation, including more effective mediators. Some students believed that one day they would hold dual citizenship in the United States and their own Indian nation.
Great Crossings was chosen as the school site because it was home to Richard Mentor Johnson, a famous politician who eventually became vice president. Johnson’s plantation was also home to dozens of enslaved African-Americans including Julia Chinn, who was Johnson’s lover and the mother of his two children. Johnson upheld a unified vision of humanity, claiming that only social inventions—namely, slavery and prejudice—divided people. Meanwhile, Chinn embraced American middle-class values as a path to inclusion. In preparation for emancipation, the couple’s daughters and several other Chinn family members were covertly educated at Choctaw Academy. “Amalgamation,” as it was then called, was considered the most radical path to integration, but other progressive movements were popular: Kentucky was home to the South’s largest emancipation crusade, and most northern states had completely abolished slavery.
The election of 1828 signaled a change. By the 1820s, most states had dropped property requirements for voters, a move that empowered common white men. In the election of 1828, these men overwhelmingly supported Andrew Jackson, an anti-establishment figure. Jackson was a zealous warrior, leading a series of bloody campaigns against Indian and imperial rivals who challenged US domination of the continent. Jackson’s military victories allowed the United States to expand into the deep South, opening up hundreds of millions of acres to land-hungry whites. While many Americans lauded Jackson as a success story, others have questioned his methods and temperament.
During the Red Stick War of 1813–1814, Jackson led US troops against a faction of the Muscogee Creek Nation. Jackson gave little quarter to Creek non-combatants, a move reminiscent of Trump’s pledge to “take out” the families of terrorists. During the 1813 Battle of Tallushatchee, US troops burned the village, killing 186, many of them women and children. When some attempted to flee, Jackson’s troops “shot them like dogs,” as one solider recalled. Jackson’s behavior alarmed many, including Thomas Jefferson, who explained, “He is one of the most unfit men I know of for such a place. He has very little respect for laws and constitutions.”
Jefferson hoped that Jackson’s “passions” might cool if he ascended to the presidency. On the contrary, Jackson made good on his campaign promises. Chief among these promises was Indian removal. Jackson, like Trump, targeted minorities, depicting them as internal enemies who threatened national security and economic prosperity. US treaties with Indian nations, many of which Jackson had personally negotiated decades earlier, guaranteed them perpetual rights to land and self-government. Yet Jackson called such treaties “an absurdity,” a relic of an earlier era during which the United States had been too weak to dominate Indians. In defiance of an 1832 Supreme Court decision that upheld Native treaty rights, Jackson used executive power and his party’s Congressional majorities to force Indian removal. Although the Trail of Tears is typically associated with the Cherokees, whose nation captured the media’s attention, Indian removal was actually a blanket policy aimed at forcing all Indians west of the Mississippi River.
Ultimately, 100,000 Native Americans marched the Trail of Tears; 20% died because of violence, disease, or starvation. Indian removal paved the way for slavery’s expansion. Nearly one million African-Americans were forced south and west to the notoriously harsh slavery of the expanding cotton frontier. Contrary to the expectations of many, slavery grew in both scope and scale in the decades before the Civil War. Meanwhile, in both the North and South, new restrictions on free people of color reversed the gains of the Revolutionary generation. Jackson could not even deliver on his promises to non-elite white men: the best Indian land was seized by land speculators and wealthy planters. Amid these pressures, the progressive experiment at Great Crossings fell apart, and its people fractured, trying to survive in an increasingly racist society.
Today, we confront our own great crossing: How should we treat marginalized people who are intimately connected to the United States but lack citizenship? Whose rights should be sacrificed in the name of national security? Will the United States fulfill treaty obligations with Native nations? Can the United States persist in a project, pursued by fits and starts since the Revolution, to fully extend the rights of citizenship to people of color, women, and persecuted minority groups? Americans like to believe that time inevitably brings progress. But history reminds us that progress is hard-won and must be actively cultivated to survive.
Featured image credit: “President Donald J. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Jan. 27, 2017” by James Mattis. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.