Title Reviewed:
Andrew Jackson and His Indian Wars

Author Reviewed:
Robert V. Remini

Andrew Denson


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 98, Issue 3, pp 246-248

Article Type:
Book Review

Download Source:

Andrew Jackson and His Indian Wars. By Robert V. Remini. (New York Viking, 2001. Pp. xvi, 317. Maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $26.95.)

Andrew Jackson, as we know him, could not have existed without Native Americans. Virtually every element of his life and career bore some Indian connection. He fought them and fought alongside them. He negotiated the purchase of their lands and advised others how best to conduct such negotiations. His enemies compared him to them. And of course he participated in the campaign to remove a great many of them from the eastern United States. Indians made Jackson, a point struck forcefully (if perhaps unintentionally) by Robert V. Remini in his latest examination of the Old Hero.

Remini, the dean of Jackson biographers, intends this new book to set the record straight on Jackson's relations with Native Ameri- cans, in particular his advocacy of removal. Yes, Remini affirms, Old Hickory was a racist. Like most white Americans, Jackson believed that Indians belonged to a lower order of humanity and that the federal government had the right to deal with them as it saw fit. Remini worries, however, that Americans today remember Jackson as a kind of anti-Indian bogeyman, Robert Montgomery Bird's Nick of the Woods elevated to the presidency. That memory distorts Jackson's record and motivations, Remini maintains, especially when it comes to the removal policy. Jackson saw removal as the only realistic way to avoid perpetual frontier warfare. As long as Indians remained in close proximity to white settlements, whites would abuse them, encouraging the kind of violence that weakened the economy, complicated politics, killed American citizens, and might lead ultimately to the annihilation of the eastern tribes. His support for removal, Remini contends, came less from his own Indian-hating than from an awareness, born of long western experience, that white Americans' racism and land hunger permitted no other reasonable course.

Very little here is new. Remini mines his own earlier works for Jackson's biography. The Indian relations material comes from military scholars and occasionally the work of Native American historians. The analysis of removal rests largely on Francis Paul Prucha, the great student of American Indian policy. It is still interesting, however, to have an Indian relations biography of Jackson. For one thing, the book offers a detailed look at the creation of an Indian hater. Jackson learned to fear Native Americans as a boy in the Southeast, and as a Tennessee pioneer, lawyer, and land-grabber he learned to fight them. By the time he began his military and political careers, the ideas about Indians that Jackson would carry with him for the rest of his life were firmly established. Native Americans were extremely dangerous children, unruly and treacherous people who required firm management for the protection of western whites and for their own good, as well. Adhering to that definition, Jackson and other antebellum Americans could explain virtually any force or violence employed against Indians as self-defense or even philanthropy toward the Indians themselves.

That of course brings us to removal. Remini's book makes especially clear just how unlikely it would have been for Jackson to question the logic of the removal policy. He was not the first American to advocate removal, but he supported the idea from a very early point in his career and apparently never wavered. His military experience continually reinforced his belief that white Americans and Indian people could never live alongside one another without the strongest possible regulation. It was so much more rational, from an American point of view at least, to place eastern Indians beyond the convenient natural barrier of the Mississippi River.

Unfortunately, Remini leaps from this quite sound explanation to the rather silly conclusion that Jackson saved the eastern Indi- ans from "probable extinction" (p. 281). To agree with that point, one must forget that large numbers of Native Americans remained in the East and are still there today, quite unextinct. One must also forget that removal did not fix America's "Indian Problem" but merely transferred it to new territories. The Mississippi proved a rather permeable barrier, whites crossing the river and recreating in sections of the West the situation that removal had supposedly resolved. (Quite a few Native Americans, incidentally, told removal advocates that this would happen.) If Indian-white interaction pointed toward "probable extinction" in the Southeast, then why not in the West? Jackson was not a liar; he no doubt believed that he had saved the eastern Indians. But to concur with the Old Hero in this matter is to erase a great deal of Indian and American history.

This raises a more general problem, which is that Remini makes insufficient use of the literature on nineteenth-century Native Americans. In a study that relies so heavily on previous research and secondary sources, one expects Remini to integrate into his narrative some of the ethnohistorical scholarship on the peoples with whom Jackson fought and negotiated. This work appears occasionally in the footnotes and bibliography, but very few of its insights find their way into the main text. For example, Remini cites Joel Martin's excellent study of the 1813-1814 Creek war (Sacred Revolt: The Muskogees' Struggle for a New World, 1991) but seems not to have considered using the book to provide the perspective of Jackson's enemies in that war. This is unfortunate, because Remini is a fine enough scholar and writer to have woven together both Jackson's story and the stories of the native people who made him.

ANDREW DENSON teaches history at Butler University, Indianapolis

Published by theĀ Indiana University Department of History.