Imperialism and the Indian Removal Act

Written October 18, 2015

In a message to the Congress of the United States dated 8 December 1829 [President Andrew] Jackson declared of [Indian] removal: ‘This emigration should be voluntary, for it would be as cruel as unjust to compel the aborigines to abandon the graves of their father, and seek a home in a distant land.’ The president added that ‘our conduct toward these people’ would reflect on ‘our national character.’[1]

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 is associated with the height of the Native American genocide; it was American imperialism, and it was encouraged by our national character. There has never been a time in American history when America wasn’t an imperialist endeavor. Manifest destiny did not begin with its naming by John O’Sullivan in 1845[2]. The governance of this country, beginning with the British Empire and continuing with the United States, has consistently valued growth above human rights. The American Revolution did little but shift the title of ‘imperialist’ from the British monarchy to the American heads of state, and the acquisition of new territory continued. Throughout, growth via imperialistic means was pursued above all else. Of particular historical significance is why the influence of sincerely held moral disagreement with our policies never ultimately held sway over the implementation of our policy. Our government has behaved amorally, even while led by individuals of good moral character. It was unmitigated by the sincere ethical considerations of the influential men who raised their fears of what this Act would mean for American democracy.

The American population was divided about the genocide which was predicted would accompany the Indian Removal Act[3], yet Americans could not – or did not – resist genocide. This says something about the nature of imperialism that we as historians should talk about: imperialism is ultimately amoral when examined in aggregate. Imperialism is a process that, by definition, supports growth absent any other considerations, specifically in such a way that the growth of one civilization subjugates another. Growth is fed by the resources of the vanquished, leaving them bereft in almost every case. This precludes any role for moral values in actions taken. The weaker participants are always preyed upon, and despite moral ambiguity, depredations continue and contribute to the process. Growth is the centralizing purpose for all imperial action, moral or not.

The ideals expressed by our founding documents were apparently egalitarian but inherently elitist. This inconsistency is actually consistent with the culture of the founding fathers. The Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, often considered pinnacles of democratic canon, were written by men who were the first orchestrators of the Native American genocide. The First Continental Congress’ government “for the people, by the people,” even if understood as referring only to white males, still required that a man have enough wealth to own property in order to participate in that government[4].  In their conception and application, the liberties assured by our Constitution were accorded to landed white males only. In spite of our contemporary egalitarian interpretations of our founding documents, their nature stood as the structural foundation of our country’s institutional racism. The conspicuous moral incongruities regarding Native Americans between the documented policies and the real enactment of those policies give credit to the understanding that the authors of our founding documents were not primarily concerned with morality. Although their arguments against British rule called on ethical considerations, their arguments were less ideological and more expedient as justifications for the colonies’ rebellion.

From the earliest days of the American West, paternalism and presumptive ownership have shaped the underpinnings of ethical justifications for the cultural and racial domination of any residents of the West who were not of European descent. Simultaneously, political marketing strategies have been used to persuade the population to accept the least moral of our behaviors. Many white Americans of Jackson’s sociopolitical strata already viewed Native Americans as children, and had done so since at least the early 1800s when President Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark on their expedition. In a speech to Native Americans he encountered, Meriwether Lewis called the Native Americans “children,” admonishing them to look to their “Great Father” – the President of the United States – for the dispersal of goods and of punishments.[5] This infantilization of Native Americans wasn’t just a handy metaphor, it clarified the nature of the Jeffersonians’ appraisal of the Native Americans. In Less than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others, John Livingstone Smith asserts that metaphors are linked to thoughts and judgements. Metaphors such as this one are tools of dehumanization. “It’s intended as a description rather than as an attack.”[6] It reflects their perception of Native Americans relative to the values of an imperial culture. Native American technological and infrastructure development were perceived as uniformly inferior, but potentially capable of acculturation – like children.

The “children” label for Native Americans was prevalent in the communications during the Indian Removal but the use of the label illuminated a new way of thinking in the populations involved. Jackson’s administration discarded the idea that Native Americans could be assimilated and was far more accepting of violence than Jefferson’s had been. In the year following the signing of the Indian Removal Act, one chief wrote a letter to President Jackson, whom he addressed as “Great Father.” The chief hoped that the President would enforce the law and protect the Native Americans from the abuses they were suffering. Cave notes that Jackson had no intention of doing so, and Jackson’s language has clearly departed from acknowledging any paternal responsibilities. His response to the Native Americans’ appeals to the paternal relationship Jefferson had worked to foster was to tell them it was not in their nature to be civilized, and thus they could not live within the bounds of any civilization.[7] For Jackson, the paternalism of his predecessors had ceased to be useful.[8] Factions of the population, including the Whigs, recoiled from even the potential for crimes against the Native Americans’ humanity.  Jeremiah Evarts’ 1829 prediction that the Indian Removal Act would be executed inhumanely and would cause extreme hardships for the Native Americans voiced the fears of those “moved by humane considerations.”[9]

With the electorate divided, compromises had to be made. Or, more accurately, the appearance of compromise had to be published. They say the first modern presidential campaign was a product of the Gilded Age, when J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller bought William McKinley’s 1896 election[10]. If that’s true, then the mechanisms of imperialism in the Antebellum West are the foundation of modern politics being laid. Jackson and his advisors knew that to get the Act passed, they would have to allow the verbiage to reflect a more paternalistic approach, which meant including some consideration for the human rights of the Native Americans by requiring voluntary treaties to precede removal, and allowing for the potential assimilation, should individual Native Americans choose to stay as American citizens. Jackson had no intention of enforcing or even tolerating either of those concessions. As Cave notes, “[t]he Jacksonians’ insistence on the voluntary nature of their removal program was a political ploy aimed at winning badly needed votes in the House of Representatives.”[11] The ploy worked, although public uproar over the Indian Removal Act and the atrocities of its execution continued to build throughout this era, especially as the execution ignored the restrictions of the Act. Ultimately, the public outcry was ineffective: Jackson successfully removed the Native Americans from his America.

The Jacksonian Democrats and the Whigs may have disagreed on the means of imperialistic acquisition, but they did not disagree on the fundamental moral authority that allowed for the process. When it came time to vote, the concessions Jackson had made to the method of removal made the Indian Removal Act palatable enough for Congress to pass the law. According to historian Patricia Limerick, “White Americans saw the acquisition of property as a cultural imperative, manifestly the right way to go about things. There was one appropriate way to treat land – divide it, distribute it, register it.”[12] Property wasn’t just land[13], but the audacious land-grab of Indian Removal Act won agricultural and mineral wealth[14] for the United States while displacing Native Americans and robbing them of life, liberty, and dignity.

The political divide in Congress and the longevity of the public uproar demonstrates that the nation was philosophically divided on this issue. Likewise, the execution of the removal demonstrates that ultimately imperialism was more powerful than the cause of human dignity and life. In this episode of American history, growth was pursued as both justification and means, and ethical consideration did not change the end result. The imperialist impulse, whether benign or nefarious. In the end morality did not sway events. Imperialism ultimately drove decisions of policy, and the aggregate effect was amoral.




Ambrose, Stephen. Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. New York: Touchstone, 1996.

Cave, Alfred A. “Abuse of Power: Andrew Jackson and the Indian Removal Act of 1830.” The Historian 65, no. 6 (December 2003): 1330-1353.

Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.

Limerick, Patricia Nelson. The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987.

O’Sullivan, John. “Annexation.” The United States Magazine and Democratic Review 17 (July 1845). (accessed October 10, 2015).

Smith, David Livingstone. Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011.

The Men Who Built America, “When One Ends, Another Begins,” episode 4, November 11, 2012.

Zinn, Howard, and Rebecca Stefoff. A Young People’s History of the United States. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2009.



[1] Alfred A. Cave, “Abuse Of Power: Andrew Jackson And The Indian Removal Act Of 1830,” The Historian 65, no. 6 (December 2003): 1330-53.

[2] John O’Sullivan, “Annexation,” The United States Magazine and Democratic Review 17 (July 1845): 5–10, (accessed October 10, 2015).

[3] Cave, Abuse of Power, 1347; though truly, this was only a continuation of an ongoing genocide.

[4] Howard Zinn and Rebecca Stefoff, A Young People’s History of the United States (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2009), 57-88.

[5] Stephen Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 156.

[6] David Livingstone Smith, Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011), 25.

[7] Cave, Abuse of Power, 1340.

[8] His shift from paternalistic racism to a more violently oppressive racism partially explains the concurrent split of Jefferson’s Republican-Democratic party into Democrats and Republicans, the latter of which was absorbed by the Whig party. Cave, Abuse of Power, 1336, describes inconsistencies in partisanship concerning this bill. Cave, Abuse of Power, 1349, differentiates racism styles of the two parties.

[9] Cave, Abuse of Power, 1347.

[10] The Men Who Built America, “When One Ends, Another Begins,” episode 4, November 11, 2012.

[11] Cave, Abuse of Power, 1335.

[12] Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987), 55.

[13] The varying definitions of ‘property’ would cause great conflict and is one of the themes of westward expansion.  Limerick, Legacy of Conquest, 71-73; see also William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991), 27.

[14] Limerick, Legacy of Conquest, 67-68; The benefit of mineral and agricultural wealth, along with the profits to be made by land speculators, might help explain why politicians were split so nearly, even when the public outcry became formidable.


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