hen he moved to Washington in December, 1823, newly elected Tennessee Senator Andrew Jackson was carefully scrutinized by other politicians and citizens from all walks of life. His reputation had preceded him, and he was prominently mentioned as a presidential candidate. His charismatic presence calm, dignified, tall, ramrod-straight stood in vivid contrast to what many had expected. He wrote to a friend, "I am told the opinion of those whose minds were prepared to see me with a Tomahawk in one hand, and a scalping knife in the other has greatly changed and I am getting on very smoothly."Jackson was indeed best known for his military exploits, especially as the hero of the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 when his ragtag forces impressively defeated the British in the War of 1812. But he also had a reputation as an Indian fighter. His most notable victory in that role had come against the Creek Nation in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814.
Jackson's personal and public lives were often controversial, particularly his complex dealings with Native Americans. In Andrew Jackson and His Indian Wars, noted Jackson scholar Robert V. Remini focuses exclusively on this subject, providing a well documented, thoughtful and sensitive exploration. Remini, who won the National Book Award for his definitive three-volume biography of Jackson, assures readers that "it is not my intention to excuse or exonerate Andrew Jackson for the role he played in the removal of Native Americans west of the Mississippi River. My purpose is simply to explain what happened and why."To begin to understand what happened, "modern Americans must first appreciate the fact that the mood and temper of Americans during Jackson's lifetime tolerated and actually condoned removal." The author traces the life of the boy who "learned to fear and hate Indians from an early age," sharing the attitude of most frontier settlers. Jackson never forgot his early life in South Carolina when the British allied with Native Americans to wage war against the Americans. "In his mind, and the minds of most frontiersman, the Indians were pawns to be used by any foreign power seeking to gain dominance in North America."Remini follows Jackson into Tennessee where he develops into "a bold and resourceful Indian fighter, thirsting for Ôencounters with savages.' " Jackson was an early convert to the idea, first proposed by Thomas Jefferson, that Indian removal be linked to an exchange of land. Through the years, for Jackson, the most compelling argument for this approach was national security. American settlers could better protect the country against foreign invaders than the Indians.
Remini details not only the numerous battles between Jackson's forces and Native Americans, but also the many negotiating sessions. "He always addressed Indians as though they were children, irrespective of their age, education, or intellectual maturity." When negotiating, Jackson never hesitated to use bribery or the threat of violence if his demands were rejected.
The author shows how Indian removal began in the early 1800s by presidential action and continued for 20 years; Congress became involved only when the Senate eventually ratified the treaties. Remini notes that "the Indian Removal Act did not remove the Indians at all. . . . What Jackson did was force the Congress to face up to the Indian issue and address it in the only way possible. And what it did at his direction was harsh, arrogant, racist and inevitable."Remini believes Jackson can be blamed in particular for his desire to speed things up. "He lacked patience, and by his pressure to move things along quickly he caused unspeakable cruelties to innocent people who deserved better from a nation that prided itself on its commitment to justice and equality." Remini is to be commended for his balanced study of a difficult period and the complex man at its core.
Roger Bishop is a regular contributor to BookPage.