The Indian Removal Act was the culmination of political debate during the first two and a half decades of the19th century, a divisive debate that pitted the nation's moral obligations to the Indian tribes against nationalism, greed, and racism. An agreement that the Georgians called the Georgia Compact of 1802 was the first major step toward removal, made during the administration of Thomas Jefferson. In the agreement, the United States promised to extinguish Indian land titles within the state. In exchange, Georgia sold its claims to lands that became the states of Alabama and Mississippi. Asserting its right to control affairs within its boundaries, Georgia began to push for fulfillment of the government's promise. Jefferson proposed in 1803 that Indians be encouraged to move voluntarily to the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase west of the Mississippi River. During the next two decades, some Indians did so, but the majority of tribes remained east of the river.
By the mid-1820s, Indian removal had become a hotly debated issue. Americans generally thought of Indians as “cumberers” of the earth, and the American population and economy needed room to expand in the early 19th century. Alabama and Mississippi had been admitted to the Union, and their legislatures began to exert their claim to states' rights over Indian affairs and to make stronger calls for removal of the tribes from their states. President James Monroe asked Congress for legislation to carry out Jefferson's plan, believing, like Jefferson, that the Indians faced extinction if they remained in the East and could survive only if they removed to the West. There they could have time to become “civilized” enough to live alongside Americans. Monroe's plan of voluntary removal was followed by John Quincy Adams. Forced removal policy would be left to Andrew Jackson.
The election of Andrew Jackson in the fall of 1828 gave the pro-removal adherents encouragement. A southerner, Jackson focused on removal of the southern tribes. The southern states gave him the support he needed to formulate a national plan. Between his election and inauguration, the legislatures of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi took action to extend their states' criminal and civil laws over the Indians within their borders. Jackson refused to respond to the appeals of the tribes to have the states desist. Instead, unwilling to confront the states and create a constitutional conflict concerning jurisdiction in Indian affairs, Jackson used the states' actions to push his national removal agenda forward.
The declaration by the Georgia legislature in December 1828, extending Georgia civil and criminal law over the Indians within Georgia's borders, prompted newly elected President Andrew Jackson to urge the leaders of the Cherokees and Creeks, the two largest tribes, to move their people west of the Mississippi. In a letter to them, he warned that there could be no appeal of Georgia's decision to the federal government because “the arms of this country can never be employed, to stay any state of this Union, from the exercise of [its] legitimate powers.”
Rising to the aid of the southern tribes were numerous northern humanitarian groups, foremost among them the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, perhaps not coincidently the primary recipient of federal funds allocated for “civilizing” the Indians. Having been supported in his election by a large number of church groups, Jackson feared the defection of those groups and moved quickly to shore up his coalition by developing public support for Indian removal.
With the convening of the Twenty-first Congress in early December 1829, Jackson was ready to push for the enactment of legislation enabling Indian removal. In his State of the Union message of December 8, 1829, Jackson reiterated his position that the federal government could not bar the states from applying their laws to all residents within their borders, including Indians; it was a matter of sovereignty. Further, he said that it would be in the interests of the Indians to remove themselves: “Surrounded by the whites with their arts of civilization, which by destroying the resources of the savage doom him to weakness and decay, the fate of the Mohegan, the Narragansett, and the Delaware is fast overtaking the Choctaw, the Cherokee, and the Creek. That this fate surely awaits them if they remain within the limits of the States does not admit of a doubt.” Jackson asked Congress for unorganized territory west of the Mississippi that would “be guaranteed to the Indian tribes as long as they shall occupy it,” with each tribe having its own district to govern as it saw fit.
Each congressional chamber referred the president's requests to its committee on Indian affairs. Both of those committees were chaired by Jackson supporters from his home state of Tennessee, Senator Hugh L. White and Representative John Bell. The Senate bill was reported out on February 22, 1830, with an appropriation of $500,000, and debate was taken up on April 6. Senator Theodore Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, past president of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, led the opposition to the bill. He began a speech on April 7 that he presented, in parts, over three days, taking six hours to deliver it. With eloquence, Frelinghuysen approached the proposed bill on several fronts, initially taking exception to Jacksonian Indian policy in general, branding it as corrupt in its use of bribery and intimidation against people who, through treaty obligation, were, in effect, wards of the United States. He decried the desire of the Jackson administration to “rescind, modify, or explain away, our public treaties,” outlining several treaty obligations of the United States that contradicted the spirit of the proposed bill. He countered Jackson's statement that the United States could not support the Cherokees against Georgia by pointing out that President Washington had established the precedent of federal intervention under the Treaty of Hopewell in 1791. Frelinghuysen urged his fellow senators to uphold the ideals of common decency and fairness and to reject the removal of the Indians. Anti-Jackson senators Peleg Sprague of Maine and Ascher Robbins of Rhode Island both attacked the bill, pointing out that no provisions were being made for creating a hospitable home for the Indians in the West.
Senator John Forsyth, a former governor of Georgia, defended the actions of the Georgia legislature and declared the divisions over the matter of Indian removal to derive from sectionalism and the long-standing northern disregard for the individual sovereignty of the southern states. Robert Adams of Mississippi rejected the idea that the removal bill was aimed at forcibly removing the Indians, stressing that the removal was to be purely voluntary.
The Senate vote on April 24 was 28 to 19 in favor of the removal bill, with both the Jackson supporters and the anti-Jacksonians holding fast to their party lines. The Senate bill was sent to the House of Representatives on April 26, and Representative Bell withdrew his bill in favor of the Senate version. House debate began on May 14. Bell was assisted in his argument for the bill by Dixon Lewis of Alabama and Georgia congressmen Wilson Lumpkin, Richard H. Wilde, and James M. Wayne. The proponents of the bill argued that it would merely enshrine in law the accepted policy of the United States toward the Indians; they charged that the opponents of the bill were merely engaging in anti-Jackson politics. They reiterated Jackson's proposition that to let the Indians remain east of the Mississippi would result in their extinction and that removal was, in that sense, the most humane policy that could be described. The Georgia congressmen took the position that the sovereignty of Georgia could not be denied and that, regardless of the outcome of the removal bill vote, Georgia would extend its laws to cover the Cherokees and their lands. It was pointed out that the New England states had long ago dealt with their Indian “problems” and the southern and western states could not be denied the same right.
The opponents of the bill were led by William Storrs of Connecticut, Samuel F. Vinton of Ohio, and Massachusetts congressmen Edward Everett and Isaac Bates. The critics of the bill repeated the arguments made in the Senate: treaties entered into with the various Indian tribes must be upheld as the supreme law of the land and the obligations of those treaties contravened the idea of removing the Indians to the West. Bates questioned the habitability of the “Great American Desert” in the West and accused the Jackson administration of “nefarious” designs. And, although the opponents of the bill denied they were engaged in partisan grandstanding, the fact remained that Henry Clay had designs on the White House in 1832 and hoped that a prolonged and fierce debate would weaken Jackson's support in the mid-Atlantic states, where public opinion was divided.
A late amendment by Joseph Hemphill of Pennsylvania, a Jackson supporter placed in a difficult position by his anti-removal Quaker constituents, proposed that the matter of implementation of removal be delayed by a year to allow a commission time to clarify the manner of removal and the disposition of the tribes in the West. The vote on the amendment ended in a 98-98 tie with Speaker of the House Andrew Stevenson, a Jackson man, breaking the tie in opposition to the amendment.
The vote was called on May 26 with a result of 102 to 97 in favor of the bill, and it was returned to the Senate for reconciliation. Certain of victory, the Senate supporters of Jackson refused to yield to late assaults on the bill, including an amendment to restrict its application to Georgia, and the bill was sent to President Jackson for his signature on May 28, 1830.
Georgia's aggressive assault on Cherokee sovereignty had resulted in legislation that was potentially destructive to all tribes east of the Mississippi. Titled “An Act to provide for an exchange of lands with the Indians residing in any of the states or territories, and for their removal west of the river Mississippi,” the Indian Removal Act, as it came to be called, gave the president authority to assign districts west of the Mississippi, not included in any state or territory, to tribes who chose to exchange their present lands and move there. The United States was obligated to extinguish any claims of western tribes to the established districts. The act guaranteed any removed tribe the right to its new lands; the government would issue a patent to any tribe that preferred one, provided that the land revert to the United States if the tribe became extinct or left it. The Indians were to be reimbursed for the improvements they lost in moving, and the government would provide aid during removal and subsistence during the year following removal. The act guaranteed the tribes protection from other tribes or individuals who might intrude upon them, and it continued the superintendence of Indian affairs as practiced in the East. Finally, the act appropriated $500,000 to carry out the provisions of the law.
Although the Indian Removal Act called for voluntary removal, Jackson used it as a device to coerce tribes into negotiating removal agreements and as a justification of the forced removal of tribes who resisted, such as the Sauks and Foxes, the Creeks, the Seminoles, and the Cherokees. A brief, simple piece of legislation, the Indian Removal Act ranks with the General Allotment Act of 1887 and Public Law 280 of 1953 as one of the three most devastating legislative assaults on Indian society passed by Congress.
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