Tag Archives: Trail of Tears

Reasons and Rationalizing

The Law of Nations by Vattel

The Law of Nations by Vattel

When the U.S. government first dealt with native peoples, its position for the most part was that they were sovereign nations with whom the U.S. needed to negotiate treaties. Once some time had passed and more Europeans crowded into the new land, that position became inconvenient. President Andrew Jackson turned to the reasoning of Emer (or Emmerich) de Vattel (1714 – 1767), who had published The Law of Nations in 1758.

Vattel held the opinion that land use made all the difference. He posed the question: “It is asked if a nation may lawfully take possession of a part of a vast country, in which there are found none but erratic nations, incapable by the smallness of their numbers, to people the whole?” Vattel’s position was that the earth belonged to the human race in general and that “these nations cannot exclusively appropriate for themselves more land than they have occasion for and which they are unable to settle and cultivate.”

President Andrew Jackson

President Andrew Jackson

This argument suited Jackson, who wanted to set aside land beyond the Mississippi River and force Indians to settle on it so that whites could have the bountiful land Indians currently occupied. This idea of removal was fiercely debated in the press and within Congress, who ordered much of the resulting material printed. More documents seem to have come down against removal, but Congress passed the removal agenda by a small majority in 1830. Supreme Court Chief Justice, John Marshall, disagreed with the action and upheld that Indian tribes possessed their land; he additionally pointed out that official acts of the U.S. involving trade and treaties had already recognized their rights.

Chief Justice John Marshall

Chief Justice John Marshall

Jackson refused to be bound by Marshall’s decision and proceeded with Indian removal through the Act which had been approved in 1830. Among other atrocities, the notorious Trail of Tears resulted.

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How to Make an Indian Vanish

Cherokee Chief John Ross Fought Against Migration

Cherokee Chief John Ross Fought Against Migration

In 1830, a year after he took office, President Andrew Jackson (see 7/8/10 post) pushed a piece of legislation called The Indian Removal Act through Congress. The Act authorized Jackson to grant unsettled land in the west to Indians living in the east.

In his message to Congress, Jackson said:  “It gives me pleasure to announce to Congress that the benevolent policy of the Government, steadily pursued for nearly thirty years, in relation to the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements is approaching to a happy consummation.”

Though a few tribes migrated peacefully, many did not want to leave their lands. Jackson’s “happy consummation” came to a head during the winter of 1838 – 1839 when 4,000  Cherokees died on a forced 1,000-mile march to Indian Territory called “The Trail of Tears.”

Cherokee Trail of Tears

Cherokee Trail of Tears

Map of Trail of Tears, courtesy National Park Service

Map of Trail of Tears, courtesy National Park Service

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