American Exceptionalism and the Myth of the Frontiers 6: Phase II: Guilt Management while Committing Genocide

Author: Rajiv Malhotra.

The greatest episodes of ethnic cleansing and genocide of Native Americans occurred in the period following independence that was dominated by Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Before Andrew Jackson’s presidency (and the massive “removal,” i.e., ethnic cleansing, of Native Americans) there was some debate between the Enlightenment view of the native as an innately equal human being who could be improved (if only he wanted to be), and the opposing side which considered him inherently a savage beast. But by Jackson’s time the debate was faltering: Even those who considered Native Americans as equal human beings had completely internalized the portrayals of their culture and religions as debasing and cruel and in need of Christianizing and/or civilizing. 

This new consensus about Native American culture/character provided considerable leverage to those who considered the Native Americans an expendable obstruction in the path of America’s destined expansion. These arguments were reinforced by a variety of scientific and intellectual arguments, from phrenology to Hegel’s philosophy of History. This intellectual construction about Native Americans paved the way for their subsequent removal with President Andrew Jackson’s enthusiastic support. It culminated as a major victory for supremacist ideas which had long been part of America’s deep culture. 

There were several levels at which the “Indian Removal,” that is, ethnic cleansing and the resulting genocide, was justified and carried out: 

  1. Biblical and Enlightenment based intellectual justifications
  2. Anecdotal data of atrocities committed by the Natives
  3. Good Cops and Bad Cops 
  4. Institutional and legalistic manipulations
  5. Displacement for their own good 

In each of these levels, the Native Americans were outsiders, non-players in the intellectual-political-moral game that sealed their fate. They could fight tactical battles bravely, but they were not even participants in the discourse.

1. Biblical and Enlighenment-based intellectual justification.

Besides personal success and wealth, the Americans of the 1700s and 1800s also wanted a clean religious conscience. To resolve this dilemma, the Myth blamed the “savages” for the violence even when it was committed by White Americans (Horsman 1981, p. 210).

Slotkin and many others explain this charge :

“better understood as an act of psychological projection that made the Indians scapegoats for the morally troubling side of American expansion: the myth of ‘savage war’ became a basic ideological convention of a culture that was itself incredibly devoted to the extermination or expropriation of the Indians and the kidnapping and enslavement of black Africans” (Slotkin 2000, p. 12). 

Stephenson sees the influence of two important authorities that shaped the sustained genocidal attack on the Native Americans in a manner that absolved White Americans of their personal sense of guilt: one is biblical authority and the other is Common Law based on European and Enlightenment underpinnings (Stephanson 1995, p. 25). 

In Genesis, God promises Isaac that he will make his children multiply and give the countries of the earth to them, and in Psalms God offers his people

the heathen for the inheritance, and uttermost parts of the earth for their possession,” in order that the faithful biblical people should crush the heathen into “pieces like a potter’s vessel.

This message was understood by many deeply religious Americans to be a sanction “to possess, multiply and fructify at the expense of the heathens” (ibid.). Indeed, there is little doubt that Jackson and others often saw themselves in Old Testament terms as an instrument of an avenging God (Drinnon 1997, p. 108). According to earlier Christian missionaries, “Whites were God’s means for the salvation or destruction of the Indians” (Slotkin 2000, p. 99). 

This mindset persisted in the American deep culture two centuries after the Puritans arrived. The influential eastern newspaper editor Sullivan coined the phrase “Manifest Destiny” in 1845, and also wrote:

“History was a providential plan whose end was to be played out in the especially designed space of America. . . . The Cause of Humanity was identical with that of the United States, and that cause was destined to cease only when every man in the world should be finally and triumphantly redeemed” (Stephanson 1995, p. 40). 

Advocates of common law believed that there was an obligation to cultivate the earth because it is man’s nature to improve nature, where “improving” meant subduing the wilderness. And Native American culture clearly failed to do that, hence their possession of the land did not amount to proper use of it. Thus they could have no legal title to the land, at least not title that American law would have to respect and protect: “In vulgar form this argument boiled down to the dual proposition that Indians were hunters and gatherers and that the land was therefore empty, a ‘waste’ there for the taking.” Plentiful evidence that they were preexisting settlers was completely ignored (Stephanson 1995, p. 25). As the Governor of Georgia said blatantly in the 1830s, treaties with Native Americans “were expedients by which the ignorant, intractable, and savage people were induced to yielded up what civilized people had a right to possess” (p. 26). 

The land was far too precious to remain “undeveloped” with the Native Americans. A factor that worked against their chances of survival was the difficulty in Christianizing and assimilating Native tribes as appendages to the White settlements. Native ways of life were too closely linked with their ancestral lands, and with their religions and belief systems. Another factor was that various “scientific” theories circulating from the 1830s onward indicated that Native Americans were doomed because of innate inferiority, that they were succumbing to the superior White race, and that this was for the larger good of humanity. Indian removal and massacres were not seen as such but as the result of the Laws of God, destiny, and nature (Horsman 1981, pp. 189–206). 

2. Anecdotal Data of Atrocities Urging “Savage Wars”

There was an overabundant supply of popularly accepted stories and images on the savagery and brutality of the Native Americans that justified harsh treatment toward them (similar to many of today’s ethnographies and reports about India and Africa). These atrocity stories served as “anecdotal data” that reinforced the theories about Native American savagery. Their repetition by popular as well as scholarly writers was sufficient to block debate on substantive issues of the Indian’s own rights, as we shall see. It is crucial to note that both in the theoretical set up as well as in the anecdotal data-gathering, no effort was made to cross-examine the American point of view. The Enlightenment and biblical theories were never challenged nor declared problematic to the same extent as native culture and religion were questioned. (This bias survives in the form of today’s privileged position given to Western social theories in the academy.) Furthermore, the brutalities of settlers and missionaries were never highlighted on par with Indian actions. There were no reverse gazing native scholars looking at White culture to counterbalance the discourse. The earlier romantic image of the Native American as a “noble savage” lingered on in the 1800s. Even as their White brethren were eradicating the Native Americans, important American writers, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, and James Fennimore Cooper, continued to portray the native as a tragic and somewhat noble figure although with some rough and savage edges. These writings had a sense of tragedy based on a sense of inevitability— nature had predestined the Indian for destruction in the face of “progress” (Fussel 1965). This was a more humane portrayal than the beastly savage image, but it did not prevent their extermination, nor did it attempt to fix blame on Manifest Destiny or Enlightenment thought. 

Offsetting this high literary image of the native as a complex, tragic figure, there were a much larger number of cheaper books and pamphlets that were popular among White readers. This best-selling “Indian atrocity literature” chronicled the captivity of various Whites, especially women and children, at the hand of Native Americans on the frontier. Today, we would say that they portrayed the Native Americans as egregious human rights violators and stereotyped their religion and culture as being the culprits. Many of these sensationalized stories were one-sided exaggerations of actual incidents and many others were outright lies. Their main application was to provide an excuse for usurping Indian lands (Brands 2005, p. 170 and Slotkin 2000, p. 97). Popular stories and theater productions in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries commonly showed “pure” White maidens and peaceful White men being captured by fierce and atrocious Native American raiders, and heroic White men rescuing the beautiful women from the ugly men. Richard Slotkin explains that “The great and continued popularity of these narratives, the uses to which they were put, and the nature of the symbolism employed in them, are evidence that the captivity narratives constitute the first coherent myth-literature developed in America for American audiences” (Slotkin 2000, p. 95). 

The “captivity narrative” was among the most popular form of American adventure story in seventeenth and eighteenth-century America.

“The hero of the captivity narrative is typically a White woman or a Christian minister who is captured by Natives during a ‘savage war.’ The captive symbolizes the values of Christianity and civilization that are imperiled in the wilderness by the non-Christian savage. This is the ‘Myth of the Frontier in which the triumph of civilization over savagery is symbolized by the hunter/warrior’s rescue of the White woman held captives by savages’ ” (Slotkin 2000, p. 15). 

The native religions were regarded as witchcraft. Sometimes, women who were captured and rescued, if they showed any strange behavior, were tried as witches. The idea conveyed was that close association with the non-Christian and their evil, devilish religion had turned a good Christian into a witch, i.e.[,] a pagan. Such a person was given sympathy and de-programmed by a Pastor, unlike other witches who were tried and punished. (This is eerily similar to the de-programming of Christians who join eastern religions and cults today.) But more importantly, the reputation of the Native Americans and their “evil religion” was reinforced because of the narratives of these psychologically ill women who in a sense “converted” to native religion and then came back to Christianity to tell the tale. “Confessions” were often obtained to show that the woman in question had taken up a Native American god for worship. In the 1700s, this thinking about the corrupting nature of native religion and captivity became a great cause for brutality and savagery against the natives (Slotkin 2000, pp. 138–140, 142 and 144–145). 

3. Good Cops and Bad Cops

The landscape of the Frontier Myth is partitioned by a moral demarcation separating civilization from the wilderness, a civilizational euphemism derived in order to distinguish civilized Whites as distinct from uncivilized non-Whites.

The real issue of course was greed for land and the need to dominate others, but these had to be justified in order to quiet the grumblings of the conscience. 

Although the white Americans . . . wanted personal success and wealth, they also wanted a clear conscience. If the United States was to remain in the minds of its people a nation divinely ordained for great deeds, then the fault for the suffering inflicted in the rise to power and prosperity had to lie elsewhere. White Americans could rest easier and the sufferings of other races could be blamed on the racial weakness rather than on whites’ relentless search for wealth and power. (Horsman 1981, p. 210) 

Right from the beginning of an independent America, a paradox existed between the Enlightenment view of natives—as innately equal humans beings who, given proper training, could be civilized—and the opposing view, that considered them subhuman “beasts.” Thomas Jefferson lauded Indians as noble and unspoiled, yet was ambivalent about their position and fate. He saw their extinction as tragic, yet during both terms of his presidency tens of thousands of Indians were forcibly relocated from their native habitats to reservations west of the Mississippi River. This double- faced strategy played out consistently throughout the early era of America’s nationhood. 

The historian Richard Drinnon gives several graphic illustrations of how American literature of the period provided justifications for ignoring the natives’ rights.9 The literature often acknowledged that the other side had a case in its favor, but the debate never got serious and simply served to assuage the American conscience. 

In many of these tales, there was a sympathetic figure who tried to make the case for the Indians. This is a historical version of the urban, “liberal” White “good cop” who feels “pity” and objects to the unfair demonology and the killings of natives by an unsophisticated but courageous frontiersman, the “bad cop.” This fictional spokesman for the Enlightenment may express shock; he may suggest that humane values and fairness in battle should not be forgotten; he may also raise uncomfortable questions about the natives’ inherent right to control their own lands. Thus both meta-level issues and issues about the specific methods used by the frontiersman could potentially be raised in the storyline. 

The classic device in these stories to end the debate with a clear conscience now comes to the forefront. The frontiersman (often the hero of the tale) shows the liberal reader extensive evidence of the personal threats and danger he lives with every day. He may show the graves of family members and tell tales of natives’ atrocities against Whites, especially women and children, and also, if possible, against other natives. At this point the “good cop” in the Frontier Myth backs off and reluctantly concedes that he, like other educated White consumers of these stories, “should not be so quick to judge” the frontiersmen, who seem to have ample justification for their violent behavior. After all, these frontiersmen know the native culture best. Moreover they are clearly victims of the savages’ threats and actions.10 (We can see a modern parallel when this assumption of objectivity and “expertise” about native cultures is attributed to today’s Area Studies experts in the American academy.

Once the savagery of the native is proved in this manner, the discussion is closed. The substantive issues of White greed and aggression, and the natives’ inherent human rights to defend their sacred sites and families, and the huge imbalance between White and native atrocities, are never discussed. Drinnon writes,

“Yes, the reader was asked to reflect, is it not too easy to be virtuous at a distance?” The White liberal conscience was thus convinced not to “forgive merciless savages when we ourselves have not suffered . . . at their hands” (Drinnon 1997, p. 127). 

There was often a very interesting good cop/bad cop partnership between the government and frontiersmen (Drinnon 1997, 483n). Andrew Jackson’s excesses against the natives (as “bad cop”) were greeted with public criticism by other top officials (the “good cop”). John Quincy Adams was asked to investigate Jackson’s actions. He produced a white paper in which he avoided dealing with substantive issues, such as gathering data on White militias’ atrocities and the White communities’ thirst for land. The debate was easily shifted by simply raising the bogey of “civilization in danger” from savage attacks by natives. This approach eliminated any serious analysis and soul-searching. Adams was not acting in isolation but relying on the writing of important Enlightenment thinkers. This “switch the debate” approach has always had support from the American establishment, sometimes fairly explicitly. All former American presidents alive at the time endorsed Adams. Thomas Jefferson felt that by linking the usurpation and ethnic-cleansing of native lands by the United States to their inherent savagery, the white paper was a triumph of logic, and would help “maintain in Europe a correct opinion of our political morality” (Drinnon 1997, p. 111). The good cops conceded the debate and violence was justified and approbated by powerful government officials. 

Even those who did not indulge directly in this sort of atrocity literature were heavily influenced by the projected attitudes. Most Americans simply assumed that the “uncivilized” Native American was doomed for extinction, given the relentless march of civilization. This idea had permeated literature about the natives for over 200 years (Horsman 1981, p. 191). The framework created by Christian theology and Enlightenment notions of progress and history became the assumed truth about the natives’ inevitable fate. It is in the context of such high theory formulation by leading intellectuals of the day that the lower-level atrocity literature served as “field data” gathered by other Whites and had its real impact. The control of theory, institutions and publication mechanisms by Whites also defined what kind of data never got collected, documented, and highlighted. 

It is essential to note that both in the theoretical set up as well as in the anecdotal data-gathering, no effort was made to interrogate and problematize the White point of view. Enlightenment and biblical theories, in which non-White inferiority and native savagery were framed, were never challenged or seen as problematic, while native culture and religion were criticized and demonized. Further, the brutalities of settlers and missionaries were never highlighted as data points on par with Indians’ actions even in cases where the Indians’ actions were in direct retaliation against Whites’ brutalities. There was, historically, no reverse gazing, no Native scholars looking at White culture to counterbalance the discourse.11 

4. Institutional and Legalistic Manipulations

Dispossessing Native Americans of their land would not be easy because the U.S. government had written treaties with the tribes granting them rights to their own lands. The desired goal of taking over lands was accomplished in a systematic and legalistic way. Powerful institutions at the state and federal levels, in which the Native Americans themselves had little or no say, were involved. Over many decades several legal means were adopted: 

Doctrine of Discovery—the legal basis for capturing land:

The original legal justification for the occupation of the American continent was affirmed in the landmark court case of 1823, Johnson v. McIntosh (Kades 2001). Chief Justice John Marshall confirmed that Christian European nations had assumed “ultimate dominion” over the lands of America during the “Age of Discovery.” After having been “discovered,” the Indians had lost “their rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations,” and only retained a right of “occupancy” in their lands.” Steve Newcombe remarks, “In other words, Indian nations were subject to the ultimate authority of the first nation of Christendom to claim possession of a given region of Indian lands” (Newcombe n. d.). This has been called the Doctrine of Discovery. The origins of this doctrine go back to the Pope, who in the fifteenth century directed Portugal’s King to “to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue” all those who the King’s men saw as “pagans . . . and other enemies of Christ.” The Pope’s directive was to “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate . . . their possessions, and goods, and to convert them to . . . [Christian] use and profit . . . ” This Doctrine was later reinforced by a later Pope to legitimize Christopher Columbus’ conquests. European nations upheld and implemented this Doctrine as the legal and moral basis for colonialism (Brands 2005, p. 310). Marshall’s 1823 decision reestablished that principle in American law. 

Contesting “Who speaks for the Indians”:

When the land belonging to the various tribes was to be demarked, Whites raised disputes about the fitness of various Native American spokespersons. They claimed that those who were savvy about Western ways, who thought strategically and had leadership skills, who were literate, and who laid claim to territorial boundaries were not the “real” Indians. They were too “Westernized” and hence illegitimate. In other words, Whites wanted the benign or incompetent or unconfident Indian to represent the tribes. Thus Jackson claimed that issues of territorial boundaries were not “real” Indian issues because: “In this matter the Indians—I mean the real Indians, the natives of the forest— are little concerned. It is a stratagem only acted upon by the designing half-breeds and renegade white men who have taken refuge in their country” (Brands 2005, p. 310). These issues were especially raised in the context of potential disputes between tribes to further weaken the legitimacy of hard-bargaining spokespersons. Thus only the claims of the naïve and the pliable were considered legitimate. Quite often, since the tribes were devastated, uprooted and disoriented, their cohesiveness and leadership was under duress. In this vulnerability, one leader or splinter group could be induced to sign a treaty giving up an entire tribe’s land. Once signed, there was no appeal (e.g., the Treaty of New Echota made it possible to remove the entire Cherokee tribe—even though historians agree that it was signed by a splinter group within the tribe). 

Federal treaties with native tribes attacked by states:

This convenient flexibility of the law meant that treaties made when the Native Americans were strong and prepared to fight could later be abandoned when they were weakened. Those treaties signed by the U.S. Federal government that did not suit could be nullified using complex arguments about States rights and Federal rights. Even where the Native Americans had “civilized” themselves, the Whites started legal fights by arguing that states rights were being compromised by federal treaties with the tribes. Thus, this became a legal tussle about the rights of Whites argued between competing White institutions, while ignoring Native American rights. 

Tribal identity attacked by substituting individual property for tribal rights:

State governments sought to remove collective tribal rights by substituting individual rights for Native Americans. Besides voiding the effect of the federal treaties with tribes, this also had the effect of breaking up group cohesion among the natives, because tribal identities and social capital was the fabric of their societies.12 Moreover, before the Civil War these individual rights were framed as belonging to “free citizens of color,” a status better than Black slaves but below that of Whites. Enlightenment thinkers in President John Quincy Adams’ 1825 Cabinet hoped that the “civilized” natives (i.e., those who gave up their traditional ways and adopted Western ways) could be given individual lots of land and live along with Whites in the states where they already lived. But privately, even a Cabinet member who publicly attacked the ruthlessness involved in White Americans’ expansion expressed the view that “it was impossible to civilize Indians . . . it was not in their nature. He believed they would be destined to extinction . . . he did not think them as a race, worth preserving. He considered them as essentially inferior to the Anglo-Saxon race which were now taking their place on this continent . . . and their disappearance from the human family will be no great loss the world” (Horsman 1981, p. 198). 

Elimination of natives’ individual land ownership:

But after taking away their group rights and substituting some form of individual property, Whites squeezed further. Some states like Georgia successfully pressured Congress to help eliminate not only tribal land but also individual land ownership by Native Americans within their state (Horsman 1981, p. 196). 

Merging tribes into one big tribe under the Union:

Under pressure from rebellious states on this serious matter, the federal government’s Cabinet was divided and ended up promoting unrealistic options, such as that Native Americans should be “removed” but that they should be “brought into civilization and incorporated into the Union” by combining the various tribes into one big tribe and moved to a separate territory far away. 

Fair exchange of eastern land for western land:

The federal government endorsed the policy of taking native lands in the east in exchange for lands in the west, but insisted that this could be done only by voluntary consent of the tribes. These ideas about re-engineering and moving the tribes were proposed as a sop to the conscience of the Whites, with little regard to the trauma and human suffering of such a huge move. It also ignored the fact that the new lands were almost always of lesser value. Even the Native Americans lucky enough to be relocated to petroleum-rich land in Oklahoma would later have a hard time holding on to it when the value of the land under their feet became known. As Horsman notes, Indian Removal was not an effort to civilize them under more favorable circumstances even though that was how the Jacksonians justified the measure afterward. It was a blatant act to enable the Whites to occupy all the lands they wanted east of the Mississippi River (Horsman 1981, p. 199). 

Confusing debates to seem fair-minded:

All through this, White Americans debated with each other over what to do with the natives and what rationale to use to make sure the process was (or would at least appeared to be) righteous, fair-minded and based on the rule of law. Brands and other historians have noted that this was a characteristic approach: using a series of confusing and contradictory manipulations to impose conditions of despair and then using these adversities as excuses for further damage (Brands 2005). Even those voices in government who opposed the forcible removal of Native Americans tended to ultimately go along with political and legal choices that enabled Whites to have more rights. Pessimism about the natives’ ability to survive as a race and as cultures became self-fulfilling. 

5. Displacement for Their Own Good

Policies to grab Indian lands would often be couched in language that seemed to indicate humanitarian concern for the well-being of the Native Americans and a condescending spirit of compromise. For instance, the initial argument for Indian removal was positioned as a way for them to retain their “wild life” by moving further away from White settlements. The wide open spaces on the other side of the Mississippi were believed to be more “conducive to the Indian way of life” even though it meant forcibly uprooting entire tribes and communities from their ancestral lands and transplanting them to regions where their old farming technology didn’t always work. 

Upon Andrew Jackson’s election as president in 1828, the debates ended, and forced removal of the native tribes became a hard reality. Excerpts from several of Jackson’s annual speeches to Congress over the years tell a remarkable story of the dulling of the collective conscience through the use of the hypocritical claim that whatever was being done was in the best interests of the Native Americans. Here are some highlights: 

● In his first annual address in 1829, President Jackson laid out his policy for relocating Native Americans to territories hundreds of miles away from their lands, calling this an act of “sympathy” to save them from catastrophe.13 To avert “this calamity,” and to protect America’s sense of “national honor” and “humanity,” Jackson’s policy became the law known as the U.S. Indian Removal Act. 

● In his second annual message to Congress, President Jackson blatantly supported further actions in the name of civilization defeating the uncivilized.14 He used the inexorable march of destiny to provide philosophical consolation to those whose conscience was troubled.15 

● Yet another important argument he gave was that the Native Americans had themselves invaded America in the distant past and had exterminated (mythical) older civilizations that had once flourished there.16 

● In his fourth annual message to Congress, President Jackson described how native uprisings were put down by heroic White soldiers, but omitted mentioning that he had refused to implement the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of the Native Americans, thereby making a mockery of the U.S. law when it did not suit the interests of the deep White culture.17 

● In his fifth annual message to Congress, President Jackson rationalized the inevitability of the extermination of native tribes.18 

The prevailing hypocrisy in dealing with Native Americans was not lost on Alexis De Tocqueville, the famous European observer of nineteenth- century America. While De Tocqueville admired many things about America, he could not help saying sarcastically about the treatment of natives:

“It is impossible to destroy men with more respect to the laws of humanity” (de Tocqueville 1966, p. 30).

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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