They held back tears as they left, touching the autumn leaves one last time. The Choctaw had fought alongside Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812, and a U.S. official had ensured their territory in perpetuity. Now they were being forced west anyway, the first indigenous nation to be expelled from its ancestral homelands under President Jackson’s 1830 Indian Removal Act. Abandoning the schools, spinning wheels, and carpentry shops they had built throughout what is now Mississippi, the Choctaw embarked on an arduous journey to Oklahoma, their eviction “an experiment on human life,” as an outraged Massachusetts congressman warned. Survivors called their new home “the Land of Death.”
Expulsion was a windfall for the white Mississippians who raced into Choctaw houses, harvesting the crops and supping on the spoils. Over the next decade, the United States repeated the pattern from Ohio to Alabama, banishing some 80,000 women, men, and children beyond the Mississippi River, to the western fringe of an unabashed American empire. “They are on an outside of us,” a Senate committee exulted, “and in a place which will ever remain an outside.” More than 25,000 Native people died.
In Unworthy Republic, Claudio Saunt, a historian at the University of Georgia, offers a damning synthesis of the federal betrayals, mass deportations, and exterminatory violence that defined the 1830s. Two of his principal arguments—that mass expulsion wasn’t inevitable and that it was a “turning point for indigenous peoples and for the United States”—are largely accepted among scholars. His third, that it was administratively “unprecedented” in American history, invites debate about longer histories of dispossession. But Saunt’s greatest contribution is to weld the narrative of deportation to new histories of capitalism that emphasize slavery’s centrality to national economic development: He follows the money, exhaustively researching company correspondence and government records to show how bankers in Boston and London financed the dirty work of dispossession in collaboration with southern speculators. The result is a haunting story of racialized cruelty and greed, which came to define a pivotal period in U.S. and indigenous history alike.
It is also a story of how—despite all the money that white people stood to make—expulsion almost didn’t happen, thanks to a storm of protest from indigenous people and the white allies they activated. And after it unfolded, the consequences lingered. As Saunt persuasively observes, we have yet to reckon with them today.
The mass deportations of the 1830s superseded an earlier federal policy of cultural assimilation and piecemeal expansion. Beginning in the 1790s, U.S. officials spread throughout eastern North America and pressured the continent’s longtime residents to change their ways: to wear pantaloons, use plows, pray to Jesus. The policy was paternalistic and pernicious, a tool of empire. But Native people strategically played along, adopting the customs of “civilization”—such as missionary schools and writing—that could help them exert their authority. Sometimes Natives and newcomers, the white families lurching in by the wagonload as the century turned, coexisted. Choctaw were “pretty good neighbors,” recalled a federal official who was grateful to share their food and buy their farm labor for a “very reasonable wage.”
Through the mid-1820s, U.S. politicians hailed this “civilization policy” as a self-evident success. Indigenous people were adapting, while the United States won partial and patchy land cessions, a process accelerated by the War of 1812. From 1800 to 1820, the United States wrested 600,000 square miles from its indigenous neighbors.
But Native Americans still controlled millions of acres east of the Mississippi, particularly in the South. In the 1820s, Creek Indians owned a fifth of present-day Alabama; Choctaw and Chickasaw, half of Mississippi. They farmed some of the world’s blackest, most fertile soil, the kind that might convert men into millionaires—especially if cultivated intensively, by workers under the lash. In fact, wealthy indigenous southerners already owned several thousand enslaved black people.
White southerners grumbled, then growled. They looked at the cravat-wearing, Bible-quoting Native Americans who farmed that soil, and they felt “feverish,” one observer remarked. Newspapers spread the contagion. Worried that northern politicians would oppose further indigenous land cessions in the South—thereby threatening slaveholders’ power—a Georgia columnist reminded readers of the “inalienable rights you possess to your slaves and to your Indian territory!”
But how to justify the eviction of people who had so effectively adopted white Americans’ ways, and at the government’s own insistence? With falsities, for starters. Although the indigenous population in eastern North America was stable and probably even growing, advocates of expulsion argued the opposite: Unless white Americans moved them west, Native people were doomed to disappear. Some blamed Native Americans for their own supposed decline, insisting that they hunted too much and farmed too little—charges at odds with the reality of indigenous agricultural expertise. Leave or vanish: It was a self-serving and self-fulfilling fiction, one that enabled advocates of dispossession to abjure responsibility while simultaneously casting themselves as humanitarian heroes.
Creek leaders criticized such “statements calculated to mislead the minds of good men.” “We repeat again,” the Cherokee Phoenix editor Elias Boudinot wearily wrote, “that the Cherokees are not on the decline.” But it was easier for white Americans to believe what served their interests. Published in 1826, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans—which elevated the myth of the vanishing Indian to a romanticized cornerstone of white U.S. identity—sold like backcountry hotcakes.
Andrew Jackson had risen to fame during the War of 1812 as a frontier fighter, a killer of Creek. Within months of assuming the presidency in 1829, he proposed his hallmark legislation: a bill that effectively empowered him to push all Native people west of the Mississippi by instituting “an exchange” of their eastern homelands for ill-defined western parcels. The measure, he said, would save them from extinction.
Deviating as it did from the assimilationist gradualism of the “civilization policy,” this “state-sponsored mass expulsion of indigenous people,” in Saunt’s words, ignited scorching opposition. Native people sent diplomats to Washington, published pamphlets, and petitioned Congress by the thousands. Motivated by their arguments, northern white evangelicals—whose missionaries had lived in indigenous communities for decades—swung into action. Missionary leaders wrote incensed editorials; Pennsylvanians acknowledged themselves “invaders”; white women went door-to-door with petitions of their own, weathering public ridicule for their unladylike political meddling. Congressman Edward Everett of Massachusetts even disputed the bill’s name. “Removal,” he bellowed, is “a soft word … and words are delusive.” The vote was so close: 102 yeas in the House, 97 angry nays, who would have triumphed if the Constitution’s notorious three-fifths clause hadn’t inflated slaveholders’ power.
Jackson’s deportation act didn’t operate alone. It worked in tandem with calls for outright and sometimes even “exterminatory” warfare, including the U.S.-Sauk War (fought in the Midwest in 1832) and the Second U.S.-Seminole War (waged in Florida from 1835 to 1842). It also worked alongside state laws in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi that asserted sovereignty over indigenous nations in the late 1820s and the 1830s, subjecting them to the South’s racial hierarchy and denying them legal protection. The states’ goal: to terrorize Native people until they fled. (Consider Mrs. Oosunaley, a Cherokee woman who—along with her friend—fought off an armed Georgia sheriff attempting to rape her. She approached a magistrate “and exhibited to him her wounds,” the Cherokee Phoenix reported, only to be informed that “no Indian testimony could be received.”) These state laws defied earlier federal treaties that, indigenous people contended, should have prevailed. In 1832, the U.S. Supreme Court concurred, decisively asserting federal power. But Jackson famously declined to enforce the Court’s decision.
The result was conquest by law, and by lawlessness. “Hurrah boys! Let’s steal all we can,” laughed one Georgia speculator, his partners scrambling for the spoils like children rushing to a cracked piñata. Soldiers and squatters raped mothers and daughters, chased families from their homes with clubs and whips, “and then slept in their still-warm beds,” Saunt writes. Families bolted into woods and swamps, starving on diets of bark. Terrified of what would happen if white vigilantes heard them, fugitive mothers suffocated their crying babies, then choked back their own sobs.
Into this account of expulsion, Saunt injects new insights about the development of American capitalism. He shows how southern politicians—better known for vilifying federal power—worked with northern allies to mobilize legions of officers, agents, clerks, and soldiers in support of expulsion, and at mind-boggling expense: millions per deportee in today’s dollars, Saunt estimates, a figure that includes expenses from military operations like the Second U.S.-Seminole War. In addition to funding battles, that money bankrolled corrupt administrators, private contractors, and opportunistic provisioners who collectively moved people west on the cheap and then pocketed the profits. Little went directly to Native people, who traversed cholera-ridden routes without medical care, fighting hypothermia with rags and starvation with six-year-old pork discarded by the Army as too old to eat, then repurposed by a military official who knew desperation when he saw it. But if expulsion was expensive, Saunt argues, the land was worth more, especially when repopulated with enslaved black people. Lining up his own calculations alongside recent studies of slavery, Saunt casts indigenous expulsion and the domestic slave trade as twinned trails of tears, economic successes rooted in profound moral failures.
Even after indigenous families had been forced out, tens of millions of antebellum dollars were required to transform their farms into slave-labor camps (as more historians are calling them). Surveyors, charging by the mile, had to lattice the land with their measurement chains, so that faraway bankers could buy and sell it with ease. Gins and seeds and slaves had to be delivered, overseers hired and equipped with guns and whips. In forensic detail, Saunt exposes how investment bankers on Wall Street and beyond got rich not simply by financing slavery but also by financing deportation. They were conquerors armed with spreadsheets, and their support of expulsion did more than empower the South’s slave empire; their profits helped lay railroad tracks across the continent and subway tracks across New York City.
With such money to be made, how could opponents of deportation possibly have triumphed? At times, Saunt’s pessimistic narrative of unchecked and racialized avarice operates in tension with his more hopeful emphasis on anti-expulsion activism, and with his broader insistence that expulsion wasn’t inevitable. He might have strengthened his case by analyzing Jackson’s Whig Party adversaries, whose opposition to deportation defined their coalition more than any other issue of the 1830s. While Jacksonians championed the ever-expanding territorial and agricultural empire that Saunt so powerfully describes, Whigs embraced economic diversification and intensive commercial development. Their party was more likely to eschew deadly and costly violence in favor of grudging compromise and coexistence. In the 1830s and ’40s, for example, Whigs in New York successfully opposed Jacksonian efforts to expel the neighboring Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois). Pressured by indigenous resistance, Whigs argued instead for taxing the Haudenosaunee and confining them to smaller tracts of land. It is not a stretch to think that their alternative capitalist vision—hardly a generous deal—could have triumphed more widely.
In a probing afterword, Saunt tracks white Americans’ stolen wealth—and Native Americans’ resulting poverty—through the generations. The Civil War, he notes, forced otherwise reluctant white Americans to grapple with the nation’s origins in human bondage; the ongoing civil-rights movement has kept the conversation alive. But “there has been no comparable reckoning with the conquest of the continent,” he writes, “little serious reflection on its centrality to the rise of the United States, and minimal sustained engagement with the people who lost their homelands.”
Unworthy Republic welcomes readers to that reckoning. What would it mean for the United States to restore land and water rights, uphold treaties, and respect indigenous sovereignty now and ever after? Readers might also follow contemporary Native activists by reconsidering today’s other policy debates in light of continued dispossession. If we acknowledge the land to be stolen, for instance, on what grounds (literal and figurative) can we exclude present-day immigrants? Above all, Saunt’s uneasy toggling between commercial greed and anti-expulsion activism raises the question of whether American capitalism will always represent an amoral pursuit of profits, or whether it can ever factor justice into its bottom line.
Saunt doesn’t ask such questions, but he invites them. Our republic, one hopes, need not be unworthy forever.
This article appears in the May 2020 print edition with the headline “A Trail of Tears and Money.”