American Exceptionalism and the Myth of the Frontiers- 5 : (Phase I) Theorizing the Savage in Early Expansion

Author: Rajiv Malhotra.

In early America, Christianity played a key role in forming the identity of the settlers and in justifying the brutalities against Native Americans once they refused to convert. But upon Independence, the generation known as the Founding Fathers of America was very much influenced by the Enlightenment. 

The “Merciless Savage” The Protestant Ethic that became the American ethos included a strong streak of Puritan hatred of many aspects of Native life such as their religions, mysticism, dancing, singing, and reveling. While it is easy to point out differences between Christianity and the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment can be seen as a child and a product of Puritanism. Indeed according to Max Weber himself, “Both Puritanism and Enlightenment made contributions to ‘the specific and peculiar rationalism of Western culture’ . . . with Enlightenment being the surprising but true child, ‘the laughing heir’ of Puritanism” (Drinnon 1997, p. 102). The Enlightenment supposedly freed Europeans from the constraints imposed by Christianity and claimed to have achieved an innate sense of human equality and dignity. However, while removing explicit dependency on God, many biblical assumptions remained a core part of its framework.

There were important and nuanced differences. For the Puritans, the Native Americans who refused to become Christian were servants of the Devil. For the Founding Fathers, the native was the face of irrationality and unreason: “Like the Puritan, Jefferson regarded the Indian culture as a form of evil or folly.” If he chose not to become Christian and “civilized” then he was “a madman or a fool who refused to enter the encompassing world of reason and order” (Drinnon 1997, p. 102). This would justify removing him from the civilized space. From either point of view the conclusion was that the native was a savage whose culture and religion made him merciless, cruel, irrational and incorrigible. “. . . From the Indian point of view the end result was pretty much the same: death, flight, or cultural castration . . .” (Drinnon 1997, p. 102). 

Thus while Jefferson was no Puritan, and openly rejected Christian superstitions,8 his attempt to “rationalize” the world in an Enlightenment mode was just as fanatical. For the enlightened leaders of American independence as well as for the Puritans among them, the Native American was chiefly important “not for what he was in and of himself, but rather for what he showed civilized men they were not and must not become” (Drinnon 1997, p. 102). The Native American was “the other” against whom America’s selfhood was constructed. 

Similarly for Nathaniel Hawthorne in the 1800s, native rituals like the dance were associated with devilish ritual, and with dark thoughts of the mind. In this suspicion of native religion this great post-enlightenment American writer was in agreement with puritanical demonization of it (Slotkin 2000, p. 476). 

Enlightenment rhetoric was based on the “rights of man” and even this limited egalitarianism conflicted with the pragmatic demands of land grabbing. This was resolved in the minds of many American intellectuals including Jefferson by classifying White farmers as more evolved than the Native Americans who were mapped as “hunter gatherers.” Jefferson wrote in the 1780s that “proofs of genius given by the Indians of North America place them on a level with the Whites in the same uncultivated state” (Horsman 1981, p. 108). The prescription for “cultivating” the Native Americans to make them “civilized” included forcing them to adopt private property which men farmed (whereas Native American men traditionally hunted and women did the farming); teaching native women spinning and weaving; and adopting Christian education. This social engineering devastated Indian communities. 

The aspects of native achievements that met White norms—such as agricultural settlements, commercial activity and sophisticated social organizations—were conveniently ignored when passing judgment on whether they were civilized. This was to justify denying them the human rights enjoyed by Whites by showing that they still needed to become civilized. Indeed there is extensive but rarely aired evidence of manipulation and hypocritical “double-speak” by Jefferson and other enlightened thinkers—constantly urging the Indian tribes to “civilize” and “settle down” while maneuvering to usurp their lands through engineered debts and force (Horsman 1981, p. 106; see also Fairchild 1928). 

The “Noble Savage” The Enlightenment also included a romantic urge to look beyond Europe for utopian and “unspoiled” regions. In the debate about the nature of the Native American not all saw him as a merciless savage. There was even the idea of the native as a noble savage who could be used to contrast against the vices of a decadent Europe. This became a popular stereotype. When certain European writers portrayed life in America as degenerate and associated this with natives, Americans such as Jefferson vigorously defended the native character as a part of defending the country. Native Americans had become “our” Indians for many patriotic and patronizing Americans (see Gerbi 1973 and Horsman 1981, p. 106). 

Some Americans clearly realized that the prevailing genocide and destruction of native tribes would be judged harshly by history. George Washington’s secretary of war, Henry Knox, wrote in 1793 that, “if our modes of population and war destroy the tribes,” American conduct would be matched with the Spaniard atrocities in Mexico and Peru, and this would undermine the American claim to moral superiority over Spaniards (Knopf 1960, p. 165). 

The general White population who were rapidly expanding their lands by encountering the Native Americans on a day-to-day basis rejected such Enlightenment thought of civilizing them. Natives were regarded as heathen and violent savages. But East Coast intellectuals wrote idealistically and with detachment, because there were no Native Americans left for them to “deal with,” most eastern tribes having been displaced and disbanded by the 1800s. But Whites on the frontier were fighting Native Americans for their lands and this fueled hatred toward them (Horsman 1981, p. 111). Even though there were multiple voices, the Whites controlled the ultimate outcome of such debates and hence the fate of the natives, because the Native Americans were simply not self-represented. 

The phrase “merciless Indian Savages” is used to describe the Native Americans in the American Declaration of Independence in 1776. Drinnon notes that this was consistent with earlier Christian explicit condemnations of the Native Americans as heathen, animalistic and sub-human (Drinnon 1997, p. 99).

Even though every other phrase in this vital American document—literally the country’s birth certificate—was debated and repeatedly revised before signing, this one phrase was not debated or changed from the first draft to the final version. Everyone simply agreed with it!

To this day there is reluctance and ambiguity about admitting the role of top Enlightenment intellectuals as well as Christianity in denigrating native cultures and religions, and thus paving the pathway for their genocide. In studies of the Declaration of Independence the exclusion of Blacks from the process is often noted, because Black scholars have now become a strong and independent voice. But Drinnon points out that the demonization of Native Americans is even today rarely discussed in scholarly or popular studies of that famous document (Drinnon 1997, p. 102). 

To be continued …

Rajiv Malhotra is an Indian American researcher, author, speaker, thinker and public intellectual on contemporary issues as they relate to civilization, cross-cultural encounters, spirituality, and science.  He studied Physics at St. Stephens College in Delhi and did his post-graduate education in Physics, View More

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