From the National Intelligencer
Present Crisis in the Condition of the American Indians. No. 1.
Gentlemen -- Every careful observer of public affairs must have seen, that a crisis has been rapidly approaching, for several years past, in reference to the condition, relations, and prospects of the Indian tribes, in the south-western parts of the United States. The attention of many of our most intelligent citizens has been fixed upon the subject with great interest. Many others are beginning to inquire. Several public documents which have recently appeared in the newspapers, serve to awaken curiosity and to provoke investigation.
Still, however, the mass of the community posses but very little information on the subject; and, even among the best informed, scarcely a man can be found, who is thoroughly acquainted with the questions at issue. Vague and inconsistent opinions are abroad; and however desirous the people may be of coming at the truth, the sources of knowledge are not generally accessible. Some persons think that the Indians have perfect right to the lands which they occupy, except so far as their original right has been modified by treaties fairly made, and fully understood at the time of signing. But how far such a modification may have taken place, or whether it has taken place at all, these persons admit themselves to be ignorant. Others pretend, that Indians have no other right to their lands, than that of a tenant at will; that is, the right of remaining where they are till the owners of the land shall require them to remove. It is needless to say, that, in the estimation of such persons, the owners of the lands are the white neighbors of the Indians. Some people are puzzled by what is supposed to be a collision between the powers of the general government and the claims of particular States. Others do not see that there is any hardship in bringing the Indians under the laws of the States, in the neighborhood of which they live; or, as the phrase is, within the limits of which they live. Some consider it the greatest kindness that can be done to the Indians to remove them, even without their consent and against their will, to a country where, as is supposed, they will be in a condition more favorable to their happiness. Others think, that if they are compelled to remove, their circumstances will be in all respects worse than at present, and that, suffering under a deep sense of injury, and considering themselves crushed by the strong arm of physical force, they will become utterly dispirited, and sink rapidly to the lowest degradation to final extinction. So great a diversity of opinion is principally owing to want of correct information. It is my intention, Messrs. Editors, to furnish, in a few numbers of moderate length, such materials, as will enable every dispassionate and disinterested man to determine where the right of the case is.
In the mean time, I would observe, that the people of the United States owe it to themselves, and to mankind, to form a correct judgment in this matter. The questions have forced themselves upon us, as a nation: What is to become of the Indians? Have they any rights? If they have, What are these rights? and how are they to be secured? These questions must receive a practical answer; and that very soon. What the answer shall be is a subject of the deepest concern to the country.
The number of individuals to be affected by the course now to be pursued is very great. It is computed, that there are within our national limits more than 300,000 Indians; some say 500,000; and, in the south-western States, the tribes whose immediate removal is in contemplation, have an aggregate population of more than 60,000. The interests of all these people are implicated, in any measure to be taken respecting them.
The character of our government, and of our country, may be deeply involved. Most certainly an indelible stigma will be fixed upon us if, in the plenitude of our power, and in the pride of our superiority, we shall be guilty of manifest injustice to our weak and defenseless neighbors. There are persons among us, not ignorant, nor prejudiced, nor under the bias of private interest, who seriously apprehend that there is danger of our national character being most unhappily affected, before the subject shall be fairly at rest. If these individuals are misled by an erroneous view of facts, or by the adoption of false principles, a free discussion will relieve their minds.
It should be remembered, by our rulers as well as others, that this controversy (for it has assumed the form of a regular controversy) will ultimately be well understood by the whole civilized world. No subject, not ever war, nor slavery, nor the nature of free institutions, will be more thoroughly canvassed. The voice of mankind will be pronounced upon it; a voice, which will no be drowned by the clamor of ephemeral parties, nor silenced by the paltry considerations of private interest. Such as the Baron Humboldt and the Duc de Broglie, on the continent of Europe, and a host of other statesmen, and orators, and powerful writers, there are in Great Britain, will not be greatly influenced, in deciding a grave question of public morality, by the excitements of an election, or the selfish views of some little portions of the American community. Any course of measures in regard to the Indians, which is clearly fair, and generous, and benevolent, will command the warm and decided approbation of intelligent men, not only in the present age, but in all succeeding times. And with equal confidence it may be said, if, in the language of Mr. Jefferson, the people of the United States should 'feel power, and forget right;' if they should resemble a powerful man, who, abounding to wealth of every kind, and assuming the office of law-giver and judge, first declares himself to the owner of this poor neighbor's little farm, and then ejects the same neighbor as a troublesome incumbrance; if, with land enough, and in the undisputed possession of the whites, to sustain ten times our present population, we should compel the remnants of tribes to leave the places which, received by inheritance from their fathers and never alienated, they have long regarded as their permanent homes; if, when asked to explain the treaties, which we first proposed, then solemnly executed, and have many times ratified, we stammer, and prevaricate, and finish by stultifying, not merely ourselves, but the ablest and wisest statesmen, whom our country has yet produced: and if, in pursuance of a narrow and selfish policy, we should at this day, in a time of profound peace and great national prosperity, amidst all our professions of magnanimity and benevolence, and in the blazing light of the nineteenth century, drive away these remnants of tribes, in such a manner, and under such auspices, as to ensure destruction; if all this should hereafter appear to be a fair statement of the case; then the sentence of an indignant world will be uttered in thunders, which will roll and reverberate for ages after the present actors in human affairs shall have passed away. If the people of the United States will imitate the ruler who coveted Naboth's vineyard, the world will assuredly place them by the side of Naboth's oppressor. Impartial history will not ask them whether they will feel gratified and honored by such an association. Their consent to the arrangement will not be necessary. The motions of the earth in its orbit are not more certain.
It has been truly said, that the character which a nation sustains, in its intercourse with a great community of nation, is of more value than any other of its public possession. Our diplomatic agents have uniformly declared, during the whole period of our national history, in their discussions with the agents of foreign powers, that we offer to others the same justice which we ask from them. And though, in times of national animosity, or when the interests of different communities clash with each other, there will be mutual reproachers and recriminations, and every nation will, in its turn, be charged with unfairness or injustice, still, among nations, as among individuals, there is a difference between the precious and the vile; and that nation will undoubtedly, in the long course of years, be most prosperous and most respected, which most sedulously cherishes a character for fair dealing, and even generosity, in all its transactions.
There is a higher consideration still. The great Arbiter of nations never fails to take cognizance of national delinquencies. No sophistry can elude his scrutiny; no array of plausible arguments, or of smooth, but hollow professions, can bias his judgment; and he has at his disposal most abundant means of executing his decisions. He has, in many forms, and with awful solemnity, declared his abhorrence of oppression in every shape; and especially of injustice perpetrated against the weak by the strong, when strength is in fact made the only rule of action. The people of the United States are not altogether guiltless, in regard to their treatment of the aborigines of this continent; but they cannot as yet be charged with any systematic legislation on this subject, inconsistent with the plainest principles of moral honesty. At least, I am not aware of any proof by which such a charge could be sustained. Nor do I, in these preliminary remarks, attempt to characterize measures now in contemplation. But it is very clear, that our government and our people should be extremely cautious, lest, in judging between ourselves and the Indians, and carrying our own judgment into effect with a strong hand, we incur the displeasure of the Most High. Some very judicious and considerate men in our country think that our public functionaries should stop where they are; that, in the first place, we should humble ourselves before God and the world, that we have done so much to destroy the Indians, and so little to save them; and that, before another step is taken, there should be the most thorough deliberation, on the part of all our constituted authorities, lest we act in such a manner as to expose ourselves to the judgment of Heaven.
I would have omitted this topic, if I could suppose that a majority of readers would regard its introduction as a matter of course, or as an affection of rhetorical embellishment.-In my deliberate opinion, it is more important, and should be more heeded, than all other considerations relating to the subject; and the people of the United States will find it so, if they should unhappily think themselves above the obligation to 'do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God.'
I close this introductory number, by stating what seems to be the present controversy between the whites and the Indian tribes of the south-western States: I say the whites, (that is our country generally) because certain positions are taken by the government of the United States, and certain claims are made by the State of Georgia and certain other claims by the States of Alabama and Mississippi. The Indians do not admit the validity of any of these positions or claims; and if they have a perfect original title to the lands they occupy, which title they have never forfeited nor alienated, their rights cannot be affect by the charters of Kings, nor by the acts of provincial Legislature, nor by the compacts of neighboring States, nor by the mandates of the Executive branch of our national government.
The simple question is: 'Have the Indians tribes, residing as separate communities in the neighborhood of the whites, a permeanent title to the territory, which they inherited from their fathers, which they have neither forfeited nor sold, and which they now occupy?'
For the examination of this question, let the case of a single tribe or nation be considered; for nearly the same principles are involved in the claims of all the Indian nations.
The Cherokees contend that their nation has been in possession of their present territory from time immmorial; that neither the King of Great Britain, nor the early settlers of Georgia, nor the State of Georgia, after the revolution, nor the United States since the adoption of their constitution, have acquired any title to the soil, or any sovereignty over the terroitory, and that the title to the soil and sovereignty over the territory have been repeatedly guaranteed to the Cherokees, as a nation, by the United States, in treaties which are not binding on both parties.
The government of the United States alleges, as appears by a letter from the Secretary of War, dated April 18, 1829, that Great Britain, previous to the revolution, 'claimed entire sovereignty with the limits of what constituted the thirteen United States; that all the rights of sovereignty which Great Britain had within said States became vested in said States respectively, as a consequence of the Declaration of Independence, and the Treaty of 1783;' that the Cherokees were merely 'permitted to reside on their lands by the United States; that this permission is not to be construed so as to deny to Georgia the exercise of sovereignty; and that the United States has no power to guarantee anything more than a right of possession, till the State of Georgia should see to legislate for the Cherokees, and dispose of them as she should judge expedient, without any control from the general government.'
This is a summary of the positions taken by the Secretary of War; and, though not all expressed in his own language, they are in stricted accordance with the tenor of his letter.
In my next number, I shall proceed to inquire, 'What right have the Cherokees to the lands which they occupy?'
In the mean time, permit me to use the signature of that upright legislator and distinguished philanthropist.