Friend or Foe?


By Robert V. Remini

Viking -- 317pp -- $26.95

Andrew Jackson is an enigma. For generations, our seventh president was portrayed in history books as a military hero and a champion of the common man. More recently, Jackson has been vilified as a cruel oppressor of Native Americans, a man whose bloody campaigns against the Cherokees, Seminoles, and other Southeastern tribes culminated in the monstrous 1830 Indian Removal Act. As Robert V. Remini shows in his tightly crafted Andrew Jackson and His Indian Wars, both characterizations are on the mark.

Remini, professor emeritus of history and the humanities at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has devoted much of his career to the study of Jackson and his era, authoring a heralded three-volume Jackson biography. Remini probably knows better than anyone else just how complex and conflicted Jackson really was. Orphaned as a teenager, Old Hickory grew up in the shadow of Indian massacres of settlers on the South Carolina frontier. Later, he made his mark in the Tennessee militia, hunting Indians in the cycle of violence and revenge that raged across the early 19th century frontier. Jackson's zeal won him huge popularity among whites and the nickname "Sharp Knife" among Indians.

As he rose to prominence, an obsession seized Jackson: The Indians must go West--all of them, even those who fought alongside him in the complex alliances that pitted Americans and certain Indian tribes against the British and other tribes. Yet, after one bloody battle, he saved a 10-month-old Indian boy to adopt and raise as his own son. And even as his position against them hardened, Jackson continued decades-long friendships with many Indian chiefs.

Why, then, did Jackson sell out the Indians in such spectacular fashion? Jackson, Remini argues, thought he had no choice. At the outset, he feared Indians along the frontier might join ranks with European powers intent on winning territory. Later, as the threat of European meddling subsided, Jackson grew to believe removal was the only way to appease white settlers and save Indians. Had the latter remained where they were, they would have been engulfed by the influx of whites, whose laws and culture were anathema to Indians. Of even greater concern, Jackson, a racist in an era when racism was the norm, feared their presence among whites would result in intermarriage.

After decades of duplicitous treaty-making, Jackson finally triumphed with the 800-mile forced march westward of some 18,000 Cherokees. This was the infamous "Trail of Tears," in which anywhere from 4,000 to 8,000 tribe members perished. The rushed, bungled, and corrupt operation "constitutes one of the great tragedies in the history of the United States," Remini writes.

Even so, Remini argues that Jackson, whatever his faults, "rescued these people from inevitable annihilation"--although "no one in the modern world wishes to accept or believe that." Writes Remini: "Cherokees today have their tribal identity [and] a living language," something that cannot be said for the many now-extinct Eastern tribes. Still, what a price to pay.

By Eric Schine

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