Essay written for American Monsters
BY STEVE EARLE
OKAY, WORK WITH me here:
You're a Jew, living in Germany and you want to take your family to a movie. But, you're low on cash and der kinder, kids being kids, have visions of Gummi bears dancing in their heads, so on your way to the kino you stop off at a conveniently located ATM to top off your wallet. You whip out your trusty cash card, pop it into the slot, key in your access code, and the machine whirs and clicks and promptly spits out a neat stack of twenty Euro notes emblazoned with the likeness of Adolf Hitler.
Far-fetched? Maybe in Germany, but not in America. Not if you're a descendent of one of the once proud Native American nations of what is now the southeastern United States: the Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole, and Cherokee. And not when you consider that the face on the United States twenty dollar bill is that of none other than Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, the seventh president of the United States.
Like most Americans of his time, Jackson considered the various Native nations that lived in what is now the eastern United States to be, at best, an impediment to expansion and progress, and at worst, a threat to the security of the young nation's constantly expanding borders. Many great men (among them, Thomas Jefferson) had hinted at removal of the eastern tribes to the "vacant lands" west of the Mississippi River. What set Jackson apart was his unflinching willingness to walk his talk. He was the messiah that two generations of removal advocates had been waiting for-a true believer in the concept of the manifest destiny of the white race in America and a man of action, a genuinely bad motherfucker, possessed of the gumption to prosecute that vision at any cost to life, limb, and his personal and political fortune.
Andrew Jackson arrived in Nashville in 1788 to assume the office of public prosecutor for what was then the western district of North Carolina and, through a very public string of very public altercations with the local gentry, quickly established a reputation for being quick to anger, slow to forgive, and loath to forget. In his youth he fought no less than four duels, killing one man and, on the same occasion, sustaining grave injury to his own person but never to his honor. Petulant and ambitious he made many enemies but his friends proved to be, perhaps not coincidentally, more influential. Within a few years he rose to attorney general for his district and after Tennessee was admitted to the Union in 1796 he served unremarkable terms in both houses of Congress. He resigned his Senate seat in 1798 without explanation (he was probably simply bored and homesick) and returned home where he was elected judge of the Tennessee Superior Court and, in 1802, major general of the Tennessee State Militia. It was in that capacity that he finally distinguished himself.
Jackson proved himself to be a born Indian fighter and a shrewd negotiator, wresting large tracts of land from the various nations by treaty and forming alliances that pitted one tribe against the other whenever it suited his purpose.
In retaliation for a deadly attack on settlers at Fort Mims by the Red Stick faction of Chief William Weatherford, Jackson led a successful punitive expedition into Creek Territory culminating in the nearly complete annihilation of the hostiles at the battle of Horseshoe Bend. In the aftermath the conquering hero punished the entire Creek nation (including the "friendlies" who had fought at his side) for the transgressions of a few. The ensuing treaty opened Creek lands comprising over half of what is now Alabama and a third of Georgia to white settlement and effectively ensured the demise of the Creek Nation.
Just as Jackson's victory at Horseshoe Bend resonated with his fellow frontiersmen, his stunning defeat of a British invasion force at the battle of New Orleans elevated him to a level of national fame and reverence previously reserved for the founding fathers themselves. Ironically, one of the provisions of the Treaty of Ghent, which officially ended the War of 1812, called for the return of all Native territories ceded to the United States after 1811. This included the nearly twenty-three million acres seized at the conclusion of the Creek war. Upon returning to Tennessee and assuming the mantle of Hero of the Battle of New Orleans and Ail-Around Six-Hundred-Pound Gorilla, Jackson simply ignored the treaty and continued his policy of removal of all Natives from all captured lands. When the Cherokee protested that the part of the Creek secession that lay in Georgia was in fact Cherokee Territory, Secretary of War William Crawford promptly returned the land to its rightful owners. The Gorilla of New Orleans howled in protest and the secretary quickly backed down, appointing a new commission to treat with the Cherokee and naming Jackson as its chairman. The results were predictable; Jackson threatened, cajoled, and in some instances bribed the chiefs, and the Cherokee surrendered an additional two million acres in return for an equal amount in what is now Oklahoma.
Jackson's newfound infallibility came to the test in 1818 when he was ordered by the administration of President James Monroe to pursue Seminole war parties into Spanish Florida. Jackson went one better. In fact he didn't stop until he had created an international incident, executing two British subjects for arming the Seminoles and capturing the Spanish capital in Pensacola. Meanwhile, back in Washington, his enemies (the list grew exponentially with his fame and his prospects for the presidency) demanded that Jackson be censured and Florida returned to Spain. In the end it was his own fearsome reputation that saved him. Other more canny politicians, Monroe and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams among them, feared the wrath of voters who would not stand for the public pilloring of their hero. The Spanish, having witnessed Jackson's humiliation of the British in New Orleans, were terrified of a similar bitch-slapping at the hands of "the Napoleon of the Woods" so they cut their losses and sold Florida to the United States for five million dollars in claims against Spain.
Back home in Tennessee, Jackson returned to the business of Indian removal, successfully negotiating the acquisition of all remaining Chickasaw lands in Tennessee and Kentucky. The Choctaw in the Mississippi Delta were next, holding out for a while, but ultimately acquiescing to Jackson's assurances that resistance would only result in a fate similar to that of their neighbors the Creeks: complete and utter annihilation.
Jackson was elected to the presidency in 1855 running on a reform platform, but his first official act was to propose Indian Removal as national policy. There was some resistance in Congress but there was no public outcry and the Indian Removal Act became law in 1828. By the time Jackson left office six years later over forty-five thousand Native Americans had been removed, some by treaty. Several thousand more followed in the early years of the VanBuren administration. In Georgia seventeen thousand die-hard Cherokee under Chief John Ross were rounded up and interred in concentration camps and subsequently shipped west by river-boat and boxcar. Somewhere between four thousand and eight thousand of them died in transit along the infamous Trail of Tears. The last holdouts were a small band of Semi-nole under Osceola in Florida but in the end, they were subdued and transported, and Jackson's legacy was secure. He had opened over 100 million acres of land to speculation and settlement and there was no longer any autonomous Native American Nation east of the Mississippi river. No Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, Sac, Fox, Kick-apoo, Wea, Peoria, Piankashaw, Iowa, Kakaskia, Delaware, Shawnee, Osage, Ottawa, Chippewa, Powatami, Win-nebago, Saginaw, Menomini, Wyandot, Miami, Caddo, Pawnee, Seneca, Quapaw, Apalachicola, Oto, Missouri. . . . These are the names of nations, of entire distinct peoples ripped from their native soil, transported, and stranded in a strange land far from their home. Some are forgotten. Some we have appropriated in our own names for the places they once hunted and fished and raised their families; our rivers and lakes, our forests, our cities and towns. By all rights they should haunt us whenever we speak their names, but they don't, and we have Andrew Jackson to thank for that.
You see, Andrew Jackson was the template for a peculiarly American brand of national hero. He was the badass, the cowboy, the enforcer, and the lightning rod, willing and able to take the heat and go to hell for-all of our sins. To break the strike, drop the bomb, and pull the switch so that we don't have to.
So the next time you go to the ATM, take a good look at that long, white face on the twenty dollar bill and then check it against your own reflection in the glass. Any resemblance? Look again. Sure, it was Andrew Jackson who burned the villages, imprisoned and executed the chiefs, made and broke the treaties-but we're still living on the land.