Read: Ta-Nehisi Coates on Andrew Jackson’s America
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.”
From April 1879: The Indian Territory
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.”