Op/Ed

Victor Nuovo: The Trail of Tears

Editor’s note: This is the 39th in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
The term “Trail of Tears” translates an expression used by the Cherokees to describe their forced exodus from their homeland in northern Georgia and their doleful journey to a place west of the Mississippi River, in what is now the state of Oklahoma. Although there were other native peoples besides the Cherokees who were made to suffer the same ordeal, among them the Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks and Seminoles, and others still to come, I focus on their journey because it is well documented, and because the peculiar aspects of this story make it a fitting example of the shameful program of Indian removal pursued by the government of the United States during the 1830s.
Before their removal, the Cherokees were settled in numerous villages in the southern Appalachians, where they had dwelt from time immemorial. It was their homeland.
The English colony of Georgia was more recent, founded in 1730 by royal charter during the reign of George II, from whom it took its name. It sent delegates to the Continental Congress who were among the signatories of the Declaration of Independence. Although slavery was prohibited by its founders, this policy was soon reversed, and the Georgia economy prospered by growing cotton. Its wealth lay in the land, which gave them motive for Indian removal.
A policy of Indian removal was initiated by the government of the state of Georgia in 1829. Its purpose was to provide more living space for the descendants of the American settlers. At the time, the Cherokees who dwelt among them had reorganized themselves into an autonomous nation, which they achieved in a most sophisticated way. I will explain.
During his presidency, George Washington initiated a policy of “civilizing” the native inhabitants of the land. He worried that the spread of American settlers would severely restrict their nomadic mode of life; their very survival required that they become farmers and take up the practice of animal husbandry rather than hunting, which is more land consuming. He hoped that they would abandon their ancient tribal beliefs and customs and convert to Christianity, become acculturated, attuned to divine providence, and therefore better able to accept their fate as a subject people. He hoped that they might come to regard him as their great father and protector, for surely his attitude towards them was paternalistic and, so far, affectionate.
In fact, the Cherokees adapted themselves very successfully to the policy of civilization. But its effect was contrary to what Washington had expected. Rather than lessen, it increased their sense of national identity and provided them with the methods to promote and defend their cause. Most important, they formed themselves into a civil society, adding a page to John Locke. In 1827 they convened a constitutional convention, drafted and ratified a constitution, thereby declaring themselves a sovereign nation. It was a brilliant act of one-upmanship!
Section One, Article One, of the Cherokee constitution is a description of their territory. Section Two declares the sovereignty of the people over the land. Unlike American practice, the territory described belonged to the nation at large. No individual among them could buy and sell land, they owned only what they built upon it or produced from it. Whatever improvements they added were theirs. Some of them grew rich and possessed great estates, and like their White neighbors, they owned slaves.
This sophisticated act of self creation was anxiously observed by politicians and White landholders in Georgia, and it became a cause for alarm, for the land the Cherokees claimed was within the domain of the state of Georgia.
Responding to these events, in 1829–30 the government of the Georgia enacted a pair of laws nullifying the Cherokee constitution and all the laws, rules or customs of the Cherokee nation. The state also asserted its right to the disputed territory and its dominion over every person residing in it. The upshot of the Georgia laws was to make outlaws of anyone belonging to the Cherokee nation and dwelling within the state. The government of Georgia based its actions on Article IV, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, which states that “no new states shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State.” The Cherokees, they contended, were in violation of the supreme law of the land.
Congress responded by enacting The Indian Removal Act (1830). Andrew Jackson signed it into law, with congratulations to the Congress. It authorized the President to negotiate with “Indians residing in any of the states or territories, and for their removal west of the river Mississippi.” On the face of it, it might appear that the Cherokees had a choice in the matter, but they did not. President Jackson presented them with an ultimatum: relocate or assimilate! Cherokee leaders finally agreed to negotiate and relocate, although the decision was not unanimous. A treaty was signed. And soon after, Cherokees were rounded up, corralled and prodded by a military escort, they were removed.
The Trail of Tears describes their exodus; it was not to a promised land. It resulted in the death of 4,000 Cherokees, a quarter of their population. To describe this as an instance of genocide may seem an exaggeration, for the purpose was not extermination but relocation. Nonetheless, it was a most shameful course of events in American history.
Alexis de Tocqueville, who was overall in support of American policy, attributed it to historical inevitability, and wrote a poignant epitaph with which I conclude this essay:
“The Spaniards were unable to exterminate the Indian race by those unparalleled atrocities which brand them with indelible shame, nor did they even succeed in wholly depriving it of its rights; But the Americans have accomplished this twofold purpose with singular felicity, tranquility, legally, philanthropically, without shedding blood, and without violating a single great principle of morality in the eyes of the world. It is impossible to destroy men with more respect for the laws of humanity.”
Tocqueville may not have intended any irony here, but in retrospect, his words evoke a sense of profound irony, what the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr called the irony of American history.
Postscript: Two books by the historian Theda Perdue provide much insight into the subject of this essay: “The Cherokee Removal, a Brief History with Documents,” and “The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears,” co-authored with Michael Green, both are available in paperback editions of modest cost. Consult your local bookstore.

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