Cherokee Phoenix

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Published December, 26, 1830

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From the New York Observer.


The last number of this series brought down the history of the Indian bill, till it passed the Senate, on the 24th of April.

The inquiry has often been made, why Mr. Webster did not put forth his great powers, while this question was pending in the Senate. It is proper, therefore, that it should be stated, that he was confined by ill health to his chamber, during the earliest and most important part of the discussion; and that, after he had resumed his seat, his strength was not adequate to any effort, which he would have deemed worthy of the subject. His views were perfectly well known, and were as firmly and decidedly in favor of the claims of the Indians, as were the views of any member of the Senate. His name, among the yeas on Mr. Frelinghuysen's amendments, and among the nays on the passage of the bill, is a sufficient indication of what he thought on the merits of the question.[1]

When the bill came into the House of Representatives, the subject of the tariff was under discussion, and was not finally disposed of till more than a fortnight had elapsed.

At last, Thursday, May 18th, on motion of Mr. Bell, Chairman of the Committee on Indian Affairs, the bill was taken up. There was an effort to take up each of several other subjects; but this prevailed.

Mr. Bell proceeded to state the grounds of the bill, and to show that it was reasonable and proper. He first asserted, that the contemplated measure would be advantageous to the United States. To prove this, he went into some detail. The land to be obtained from the Indians would sell for more money than the removal, and all the subsequent charges, would demand. He declared that the whole Choctaw Nation is willing to remove, that the Creeks are willing to follow; and the he believed a majority of the Cherokees will also remove voluntarily. He added, that the only effect of exertions in behalf of the Indians in the House, and especially out of it, will be to make it necessary to pay a large sum for their lands. After reading a passage from Mr. M'Coy's pamphlet on the removal of the Indians, be pronounced a strong encomium on that gentleman's knowledge, piety, and success as a missionary.

Mr. Bell had spoken an hour and a half, when he declared himself unable to proceed for want of health and strength. He would not ask the committee to rise on his account; but would avail himself of some future opportunity to finish what he had to say.

Mr. Lumpkin, of Georgia, rose and was commencing a speech, when it appeared that many members wished the committee to rise, so that Mr. Bell might go through with his statements and reasonings. The cries of 'go on, go on,' seemed about equal to those of 'rise, rise,' and Mr. Lumpkin knew not whether to stop or to proceed. He was so much interrupted, however, that he soon gave way to a motion for rising, and the committee rose accordingly.

On Friday, May 14th, there was an effort to devote the day to private bills. The friends of the Indians were not united on the point, whether it was wisest and best to continue the discussion of the Indian question, or to occupy the time with other subjects. Had they been perfectly united in preferring other subjects of legislation, they probably would have defeated the bill. It was exceedingly difficult, however, to know what was the wisest course. The Indian bill was taken up, and Mr. Bell proceeded, and occupied the floor from a quarter before one to a quarter after five. During this period, he uttered many things which had no relation to the subject; stated many things as facts, of which he could have had no proofs, and some of which are notoriously false; and laid down various principles of national conduct, which are totally indefensible in a moral point of view.

Some of his pretended facts are the following: In all attempts to civilize the Indians, for 200 years, it has been found that the Indian will always relapse. All attempts to prevent the introduction of ardent spirits have proved ineffectual. With Cherokees, there has been a systematic arrangement for years, to deceive the public. The press was established for this purpose. It has been conducted with considerable ability, and the paper has been exchanged. It is not conducted by Cherokees, except in part, but 'by some of our own species.' [Mr. Bell doubtless meant by whites.] In 1817, the missionaries became settled among the Cherokees. The next year, the Indians decided, in council, that they were not under the government of the United States. The determination to remain, and to claim entire sovereignty originated with missionaries and their employers. He did not suppose that the religious public knew this. The motives of the mass of religious people might be good. It was the leaders, who urged forward the Indians to make these claims. The common Indian is in a state of degradation in the view of the chiefs. The common Indian was the prey, and claimed to be the lawful prey, of the chiefs. He had never heard the Cherokees complained of the laws of Georgia. Referring to the essays of William Penn, he said, 'There appeared during last summer, week by week, in a central paper widely circulated, a series of numbers, which have since been laid upon our tables in a pamphlet ingeniously written, (ex parte, to be sure,) plausibly written, (giving one view of the subject,) and written with great ability, (though all on one side;) and in all the papers into which these number were copied, scarcely a single paragraph appeared by way of correction of explanation.' In this way, as Mr. Bell supposed, the question had been misrepresented, and the public mind perverted.

Now, as to these pretended facts, it is sufficient to say, that one of them, which has any material bearing on the question, has a particle of evidence to support it, nor any foundation in truth. It seems very cruel that a feeble, and dependent community should first be deprived of their character by the grossest slander, as a reason why they should next be deprived of their country by the grossest injustice.

Some of the principles, which were laid down by Mr. Bell, are the following. I will mark them as quotations, for they will be given in nearly the exact words of the speaker, and will represent his meaning fairly.

'As to the difference between a law and a treaty dictated, I leave it to the modern philanthropist to decide:' which, in plain English, is as follows: I assume it as a fact that we compelled the Indians, by our superior power and skill, to make such treaties as we pleased; and therefore we gave the law to the Indians, and as we gave the law we may repeal it: that is, we may abrogate treaties with Indians at pleasure. Or thus: We made just such a bargain with the Indians, as we pleased, and therefore we are not bound to fulfil the very which we proposed, and they accepted. If a general should overpower his enemy, and thus compel a capitulation, he is not bound by the terms which he himself proposed. As he obliged the adverse forces to surrender, he may now, since he has gotten the arms our of their hands, turn upon them and cut off their heads. For, as he had power to enforce what terms he pleased, who can deny that he may violate those terms as soon as he pleases. Whoever doubts the morality and fairness of this course, is, without question, 'a modern philanthropist.'

Again: 'The time for speculative reasoning has long since passed; we must be guided by experience:' that is; we are not to inquire what is right, what is fair, what is honorable; but what has been the practice hitherto. If we find, that it has been the custom to cheat Indians, it is very idle to talk of relinquishing so venerable a custom. To this doctrine of Mr. Bell, we may add, that if we cannot prove that our ancestors ever violated a solemn treaty with the Indians, we can assert that they would have done so, if it had been for their interest; and, in many cases, assertion against all evidence answers just as well, as if the proof were unquestionable. No maxim has been more frequently in the mouths of the anti-Indians, than this same declaration, that the time for inquiry into abstract right is past. This is said with as much gravity, as if nobody could doubt it; whereas, it is totally without support from reason, or even from expediency itself.

Again: 'The right of discovery, as claimed by Europeans, is sensible, it is rational -- whether it is right or wrong, is another question.' These are the exact words of the orator; by which we are to understand, that the claim of a European king to grant to his subjects a belt of land across the continent of North America, and to dispossess the original inhabitants because one of his shipmasters discovered a certain shore from the deck of his ship, (for this is the claim of discovery defended by Georgia) is sensible and rational; but whether it is right or wrong thus to dispossess the original inhabitants, we need not trouble ourselves to inquire.

Mr. Bell quoted from the opinion of the Supreme Court, as delivered by Judge Marshall, the following words: 'The original inhabitants of the continent were admitted to be the rightful occupants of the soil, with a legal as well as just claim to retain possession of it, and to use it according to their own discretion.' On this sentence Mr. Bell remarked, that, 'according to its broad meaning, the Indians had a perfect title, but,' said he, 'we must give the passage a common sense interpretation.' What that interpretation was in this case, he did not inform the committee. He merely intimated, that Judge Marshall and Chancellor Kent had entered into speculative reasoning, and that their arguments were dictu, not decisions. It happens, however, that the American people know very well how to estimate the deliberate opinion of these eminent jurists, and of the Supreme Court as a whole.

Once more: Mr. Bell said 'he was not required to go into the divine right' -- by which he is supposed to have meant, that if God had given the Indians a perfect right to their country, it would not change our desire to obtain more Indian lands; and therefore it was not worth while to ascertain, whether God had given the Indians any rights, or not. 'We sit here,' he added, 'by a commission from the white societies around us, that is, the states: we can go no further.' In other words, we are sent hither to take care of the interest of the whites. If the Indians have any rights, or interests, it is not our business to take care of them; even though our nation has engaged to do so a thousand times over.

These are the principal points of Mr. Bell's speech. I do not know, whether it was published, in any form. The words marked as quotations are his own words; and the comment upon them is fair and natural, assigning them the true meaning, which the speaker intended they should convey.

The voice and manner of Mr. Bell, and the expression of his countenance, are agreeable. It would not be fair to judge of his powers of reasoning by this experiment. He was most evidently conscious that he had a bad cause, and that all attempts to support it by argument must be hopeless. Indeed, there was no speech made in favor of the bill, in either house, which was not utterly contemptible as an argument.

At the close of this opening speech, Mr. Storrs obtained the floor, and the committee rose. A high expectation was excited in regard to the morrow.


[1]Mr. W. has recently delivered his sentiments on this subject to thousands of his fellow citizens assembled in Boston. He asserted the claims of the Indians in the most decided manner, and closed by declaring that he had read Mr. Wirt's opinion lately published, and approved of it entirely, and without exception.