Short Takes

Unworthy Republic

Claudio Saunt’s Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory has hamstrung and harassed my ability to think clearly since I finished it a week ago.

The general sketch of the facts was known to me: following the election of Andrew Jackson, the removal of all Indians east of the Mississippi became government policy. Cherokee, Creek, Chicakasaw, and Choctaw (in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi) and the Seminole in Florida—some 80,000 people all told—were to be separated from their lands, by force if necessary (it was necessary). Indians had been attacked, betrayed, and pushed off land since the Europeans first arrived on the continent, but this was the first time anything of this scale emanating from the central government had been attempted. This “cleansing”—the term is modern, but the sentiment is not—became a model to study for how to move whole populations, in Russia, the Third Reich, elsewhere.

I have read a good bit about this appalling chapter of U.S. history before, and I imagine quite a number of Saunt’s readers will have, too. His task, then, is to say something new, or say it in a new way.

This long conflict which pitted the slaveholding south and its allies in the White House and Congress against Northern opposition (some—not the bankers, never the bankers) to the extension of slavery was, as Saunt at one point says flatly, the war “the South won.” Where Indians were removed, cotton and slaves were brought in.

These maps, showing how plantation slavery grew like a cloud of locusts over native lands, make it clear how central economic theft was to the entire endeavor. Like Edward Baptist and other contemporary historians, Saunt goes to considerable lengths to estimate just how much wealth, in land and in other ways, was expropriated. Of course, an overt white supremacist ideology was invoked to justify the acts. As the maps above indicate, neither Cherokee nor Seminole territory was all that valuable for purposes of plantation slavery—the first was hilly, the latter swampy. But Indians, like blacks, slave and free, were not white—and had no standing.

The string of petitions sent to Congress and the President—objecting to the policy, condemning it, pleading with the government—were often called “memorials.” We don’t use the word much that way today, if at all. The OED offers, as definition seven: “a statement of facts forming the basis of or expressed in the form of a petition or remonstrance to a person in authority, a government, etc.” Insofar as it is a petition, the “memorial” looks backward to look forward. It strives to bring basic historical facts to visibility so as to affect a future course of action. It thus aligns with a basic modern justification for the study of history itself, according to which knowledge of the past determines how we make choices about the future.

The strategy of the “memorial” reminds me of what Walter Benjamin had to say about the Social Democrats in his final reflections “on the concept of history.” Writing not long before his death in 1940, Benjamin anatomized how the Social Democrats—the liberals of the day—had failed in the face of fascism. A “stubborn faith in progress,” wrote Benjamin, combined with a confidence in “the masses,” and a “servile integration” into the technological and economic “apparatus” condemned the Social Democrats to irrelevance. So, too, with the liberals protesting Indian Removal in the 1830’s. So, too, with the US Democrats in the face of Trumpism.

The “memorial” trades in a progressive’s concept of hope, but congeals into a memorial to hopelessness. Saunt’s book makes me feel hopeless, and that is not a good thing, but perhaps also not entirely a bad thing, either. Benjamin says we cannot hope to “brush history against the grain” if we do not radically refigure what history means, or even what time is in the context of history. History is not a story of progress, it is not a matter of clock time (the famous “homogenous empty time”); rather, true historical understanding “appropriate[s] a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger.” That we are presently in a “moment of danger” seems pretty obvious. The halls of Congress were invaded yesterday by white supremacist insurrectionaries bearing flags for Trump and the Confederacy.

The “constellation” formed by Saunt’s story and our Trumpian agony overwhelms me. The “constellation” has these features: a profoundly morally repugnant idea is embraced—say, moving 80, 000 people off their land; or, building a wall on the southern border; or separating families who do cross the border—and it is then implemented, but in the most terrifyingly incompetent way. The Jackson government did not even have decent maps of the areas that were to become—in Isaac McCoy’s coinage—Aboriginia. The catastrophic incompetence of government policy in this evil episode would be funny if it didn’t make your stomach turn. So, too, the U.S. government under Trump cannot deliver what it dreams up: we end up with children in cages, deported parents no longer findable.

The paralysis I have felt after reading this book has to do not only with the sickening sense that history repeats itself and there is no progress, but also that the tools I have to process these reflections are themselves part of the problem. The idea that knowing more about the past is a way to inflect the future seems dubious, to put it generously. And the emotional tide-tug the story of Indian Removal exerts on me cannot help seeming a feeble empathy—if not exactly the crocodile tears shed by both opponents and perpetrators in the period of removal, then at least what Benjamin indicts as an “indolence of the heart.” In its stead, Benjamin suggests we try to tap into the “hatred and…spirit of sacrifice” of those oppressed by, and in, history. For both the “hatred” and the “spirit of sacrifice” are “nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than the ideal of liberated grandchildren.” Not an arc bending toward justice, then, but a paralysis foretelling apocalyptic judgment.