Denmark Vesey

Denmark Vesey

The third-best-known slave revolt in American history (after Nat Turner’s and John Brown’s, if Brown’s can be counted as a slave revolt) didn’t actually happen. It was planned and widely organized, but it was disclosed to authorities before it could be set into motion. Its author, and many another with him, was executed, and none of the prospective victims were harmed. Nonetheless, it was exactly what the white population had been fearing, chronically and acutely, in the twenty years or so since the French had lost Haiti to a slave rebellion. The consequences of Denmark Vesey’s conspiracy were widespread, and unfortunate.

The facts in a nutshell:

Denmark Vesey was born, possibly in Africa, possibly on the island of St. Thomas, in about 1767, and was sold in 1781 to a Bermuda sea captain named Joseph Vesey, who sold him to a planter in Saint-Domingue. But Denmark was subject to epileptic fits, and the planter required Vesey to cancel the sale. So Vesey reclaimed the slave and kept him as his personal servant.

First stroke of fate: Denmark Vesey became acquainted with Saint-Domingue more than 20 years before it became Haiti, and then epilepsy rescued him from life there.

Young Denmark assumed his master’s surname and traveled with him until 1783, when Joseph Vesey retired and settled in Charleston, South Carolina.

Second stroke of fate: On November 9, 1799, in his early thirties, Denmark Vesey won $1,500 in a city lottery, and purchased his freedom.

He lived in the city as a freedman for nearly another quarter of a century, working as a carpenter, and was one of the co-founders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. We don’t know anything much about his life in these long years. What we do know is that at some point he began planning and organizing an uprising, to begin on Bastille Day (July 14), 1822.

Like everyone else, he was familiar with the story of the Haitian slave revolt. His plan apparently envisioned blacks from Charleston and from nearby plantation attacking guardhouses and arsenals in order to seize arms, then to kill the whites, burn the city, and sail to Haiti.

Of course, any such plot requires involving large numbers of people. As many as 9,000 blacks, in Charleston and along the Carolina coast, are said to have been involved, though who knows. The point is that any secret shared among so many people becomes its own undoing. That’s what happened here. On the eve of the scheduled insurrection, one of those in the plot betrayed it, and it never came off.

During the ensuing two months, some 130 blacks were arrested, 67 being convicted of attempted insurrection. Vesey and 34 others were hanged, and 32 more were exiled, which presumably means sold into overseas slavery.

But that wasn’t the end of it. The fact that a plot actually existed, and was foiled only at the last minute, verified long-held fears, and of course led to massive over-reaction which in the highly charged emotional climate of the time undoubtedly seemed justified. The state restricted owners’ right to free their slaves, restricted the movement of free blacks in and out of the state, and required free blacks to find a white guardian to vouch for their character. In order to provide more effective control of the black population, the South Carolina Association was formed. And, not least, the legislature mandated that black sailors visiting Charleston be imprisoned until their ship left, an act that was later ruled unconstitutional.

Fear is rarely overcome by logic. It has a logic of its own. Denmark Vesey’s plot, although it didn’t get off the ground, seemed to show North and South alike that the South was sitting on a powder keg. Much later, Abraham Lincoln would argue that the history of slave revolts showed that although the powder was everywhere, the powder trains necessary for a simultaneous explosion were everywhere lacking and could not be provided. But white southerners found this cold comfort, nor could they quite believe it. After all, Haiti showed that a successful slave revolt could happen. Denmark Vesey showed that it could happen here. Nat Turner showed that it was a real, and not merely a theoretical, danger. And, finally, John Brown seemed to show that substantial forces in the North were determined to bring servile war to the South.

It all added to the mix. Fear of slave rebellion was a continual, and continually growing, background presence in the South for 250 years. “We have the wolf by the ears,” Thomas Jefferson said, “and dare not let him go.”

The last New Englander

The last New Englander

Now, what do I mean by calling John Quincy Adams the last New Englander in the White House? It isn’t strictly true geographically, for among his successors are Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire  and Calvin Coolidge and John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts. But the New England values he embodied were being overwhelmed by others. His entire presidential term was a conflict between a man loyal to his upbringing and a country changing into something unrecognizable.

What historians call the First Party System (Federalists, following Alexander Hamilton versus Democratic Republicans, following Thomas Jefferson) had broken down by 1824, as the Federalists all but disappeared. That didn’t mean that all was love and light, any more than usual. It meant merely that the partners in the new square dance hadn’t yet quite found each other. So the nominating process in 1824 was a bit confused.

Back in 1824, presidents were still nominated by caucus, with multi-party races decided among the top three vote getters. Adams’ public record commended him to New England. The West was divided between the supporters of the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, Andrew Jackson, and ex-War Hawk and long-time Congressional leader Henry Clay of Kentucky. The fourth candidate (not counting John Calhoun of South Carolina, who entered the race, then dropped out) was William Crawford of Georgia, Secretary of the Treasury. Crawford was popular and had support from Madison and Jefferson, but in 1823 he suffered a paralytic stroke, and was still in recovery at the time of the election.

The electoral vote was Jackson 99, Adams 84, William Crawford 41, Henry Clay 37. Nobody had the 131 votes needed to win, so the Twelfth Amendment threw the election to the House of Representatives, where each state had one vote. Clay, having come in fourth, was excluded. Crawford was too ill to be seriously considered. So it was between Jackson and Adams, and when Speaker of the House Clay endorsed Adams, Adams was elected by 13 states to seven for Jackson (and four for Crawford).. There was nothing wrong with Clay endorsing Adams. He disliked Jackson, and his and Adams’ views on tariffs and internal improvements were similar. But when Adams then appointed Clay his Secretary of State, he was accused of having made a corrupt bargain for Clay’s support. (In those days, to be Secretary of State was tantamount to being next in line for a presidential nomination.)

An Adams, in a corrupt bargain? Conscience-ridden John Quincy Adams? The idea is ridiculous on the face of it. Yet Jackson believed it, and his supporters believed it, and never tired of repeating the accusation, and the charge overshadowed Adams’ entire term and probably led to his loss to Jackson in 1828.

Adams was a thoroughly modern man, with activist views that would appeal to later generations, but which were too much too soon for his own time. On the one hand he reduced the national debt by more than two thirds, finding it at $16 million and leaving it at just $5 million. On the other hand, in an era of rapid technological change, he wanted to help the country modernize, and he saw a proactive role for the federal government. He proposed a national university, and federal support for the arts and sciences, and an extensive program of “internal improvements” to build roads and canals, and improve harbors, all behind a wall of tariffs designed to protect nascent American industry from foreign competition. This was Henry Clay’s American System, and within a few years would become Whig orthodoxy.

But other than internal improvements, his policies might as well have been designed to alienate the west. Neither the national bank, nor the high tariff, nor restrictions on the sale of public land appealed to the country beyond the Appalachians. And he got no political credit for such policies of his that were popular in the West, such as the extension of the National Road into Ohio, and various canal projects in the west and south. Jackson’s supporters saw to that.

The long and the short of it is, it didn’t matter what his vision was. Jacksonians regarded him as having attained office illegitimately, and opposed anything he proposed to do. Jackson, of course, had no doubts, and fought with no quarter, as always. Adams, as always, refused to play politics according to the rules, allowing his conscience to hobble him in seeking political support. The result was predictable. Jackson defeated Adams in 1828, in the process creating the modern Democratic Party (which led, in short order, to creation of the countervailing Whig Party opposing “King Andrew.”)

Jackson, armored as always in his invincible certainties, refused to pay the traditional courtesy call on the outgoing president whom he still regarded as having served illegitimately. Adams, in turn, did not attend Jackson’s inauguration, and it is hard to blame him.

Stubborn, intelligent, upright John Quincy Adams. Like his father, his own man, driven by his conscience, isolated by the malice, suspicion and slander of his enemies, and his own inability to generate warm emotional support among his supporters or keep them in line by using the party apparatus. Like his father, a one-term president, repudiated by his contemporaries and vindicated by historians. But when old John Adams left the White House in 1801, he was finished with politics and statecraft, and glad of it. His son, leaving office in 1829, probably thought that he too had come to the end of his distinguished public career, not suspecting that he was less than two years away from the opening of a very satisfying third act.

The Election of 1828

The Election of 1828

In viewing political movement, we tend to mistake cause for effect. Thermometers don’t cause fevers, they reflect them. Elections usually don’t determine political realignments; they reflect realignments that have already taken place. The 1828 fever-chart showed a nation in the midst of several profound transitions.

Before 1828, politics was still more or less in the hands of the class that had shaped the revolution and had guided the republic through its first half century. For all the bitter differences between New England federalists and the Virginia dynasty, they were all statesmen shaped by the confrontation with England; they were all classically educated; they were all aristocrats or their lawyers.

Before 1828, presidential nominations came by way of congressional caucus. The assumption was that elected officials were the best judges of which candidates were best qualified to become chief magistrate. Various geographical regions had their own candidates, and political insiders judged among them. The people in general acquiesced, leaving politics to their betters.

Jackson’s election shook up the whole system. Partly it was his doing; partly it was Jackson being elevated by the rising tide.

As soon as Adams was inaugurated as president in 1825, Jackson resigned from his senate seat and set out with characteristic single-mindedness to replace him. Working with brilliant New York politician Martin Van Buren, he assembled a coalition that reshaped American politics. His charismatic personality and controversial policies energized a large part of the American electorate that until then had been content to leave the decision to the professionals and to the upper and middle classes who had heretofore dominated political life. Now, the common people were emotionally engaged to an unprecedented degree.

With this new engagement came partisan press attacks even more bitter than those that had harassed Washington and his successors to date. With it came a new degree of personal party loyalty. Politics assumed an importance in voters’ lives that it never had before. Within a few years, selection of presidential candidates by Congressional caucus had to be replaced by selection by political conventions.

Jackson’s single-minded campaign to replace Adams succeeded. He swept every region of the country except New England, New Jersey and Delaware, winning 178 electoral votes to Adams’ 83. The full results of Jackson and Van Buren’s alliance took a while to become obvious, but in retrospect it could be seen that it had carried the republic’s politics from its 1824 state of flux into what historians call the Second Party System of Democrats and Whigs.

The Democracy held to low tariffs (for revenue purposes only, rather than protection), to silver and gold, and to the older pattern of small family farms, and expansion to provide more land to continue the old pattern. As might be imagined, the Democracy’s strength centered on the frontier and in more isolated areas.

But Jackson’s and Van Buren’s party brought forth an opposition party, which called itself the Whig Party (in opposition to “King Andrew”) led by Henry Clay. The Whigs had a program for modernizing the economy – Clay’s American System – and their numbers included bankers, businessmen, and commercial farmers. Whigs flourished in the cities and, outside the cities, in market towns and commercial areas. They argued for high tariffs to foster the growth of American industry, for banks and paper money to facilitate commerce, and for public works programs to build roads, canals and railroads, to provide the infrastructure needed for rapid economic development.

(Minor parties sprang up and went away – the Anti-Masonic Party, the Liberty Party, later the Free Soil Party – but the pattern was fixed as Democrats versus Whigs until the Whigs split up and the Republican Party was born in the 1850s.)

This Second Party System endured for a quarter century, until the mounting uproar over the expansion of slavery destroyed the Whigs and brought forth the Republicans. Most Whig policies became Republican policies, just as many prominent Republicans, such as William Seward and Abraham Lincoln, were former Whigs. The changing times favored their vision of the nation’s future.

The Democracy had a brief period of dominance, peaking in the presidency of James Polk, but in retrospect it can be seen that they were trying to hold back the tide. We were not going to be a nation of small towns and small farms. The Democracy went into a decline that lasted, with brief and almost accidental interruptions (the presidencies of Cleveland and Wilson) until the Great Depression reshaped politics once again. The Democrats had hitched their wagon to the wrong star.

Nat Turner’s long shadow

Nat Turner’s long shadow

As we shall see, between the years 1791 and 1804, a slave revolt in the French island of Saint-Domingue ended in the massacre or expulsion not only of the French planters and the army the French sent to recapture its possession, but of all the white people on the island. Saint-Domingue, which we know as Haiti, is across a narrow channel from Cuba, and uncomfortably close to the slave plantations of the South. From that time on, slave owners in the South lived in the shadow of a successful slave revolt.

In fact, it was an easy association of ideas. If you expressed criticism of slavery, you must be an abolitionist, and, if an abolitionist, you must advocate a slave rebellion (or, as they called it, “servile warfare”. Advocating servile warfare, you were a traitor to your own race, a criminal, deliberately putting into danger the life and fortunes of millions of white men, women and children.

These leaps of illogic were irrational, but, in an age that did not yet understand the power of the unconscious mind, they were all the stronger for being unconscious. Because of that, when events seemed to validate the logic of their fears, the fears became unquestionable, became dogma, and undercut any grounds for compromise that might have remained. We saw the results of John Brown’s capture of Harper’s Ferry. But nearly 30 years before that was Nat Turner’s rebellion.

Turner’s wasn’t the first slave uprising in the United States. Between the entry of the first slaves in the early 1600s and emancipation in 1865, by some counts there were more than 250 attempted uprisings involving 10 slaves or more, or an average of one a year. But Nat Turner’s was among the most traumatic, and started the most lasting consequences. His revolt took place in August, 1831, without encouragement from, or connection with, any white outsider.. But William Lloyd Garrison’s intemperate newspaper The Liberator had begun issuing fiery condemnations the previous January, and many Southerners jumped to the conclusion that Turner’s revolt was a direct result of encouragement by Northern Abolitionists. If the argument was factually incorrect, it nonetheless followed the emotional logic of the Southern state of siege, which henceforth got ever worse.

Net Turner’s story is simple but strange. He was a slave who lived in Southampton County, Virginia, (near present-day Suffolk) Highly intelligent, able to read and write from a young age, he grew deeply religious, frequently fasting, praying or reading the Bible. He had visions, which he took to be messages from God. In February, 1831, he took a solar eclipse to be the sign he was waiting for, and started preparing for a rebellion against the slave-masters. On August 13, 1831, an atmospheric disturbance made the Sun appear bluish-green, and he took this as the final sign from God that he was to begin to kill his enemies. A week later, on August 21, he and several other slaves and free blacks (ultimately numbering more than 70) began traveling from house to house, freeing the slaves they met and killing all the whites. First to last, they killed about sixty white men, women and children. On the morning of the 23rd, a white militia defeated the band of slaves, and the formal rebellion was over.

But the killing wasn’t. Now it was the turn of white society. Virginia executed 56 blacks, banished many more, and acquitted a few. Nearly 200 more were killed by white militias and mobs in the hysteria that followed. Rumors said that the slave revolt extended as far as Alabama, which was ridiculous except as an illustration of fear fueled by uncertainty. In neighboring North Carolina, rumor had it that armies of slaves had massacred the inhabitants of the city of Wilmington and were marching on the state capital. All across the South, for more than two weeks, whites attacked blacks for little or no cause. One company of militia reportedly killed 40 in one day.

Turner was not captured until October 30, 1831. On November 5, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death, and was hanged six days later. His corpse was flayed, beheaded, and quartered.

What followed was a further triumph of fear. The Virginia General Assembly made it unlawful to teach slaves, free blacks, or mulattoes to read or write, and prohibited blacks from holding religious meetings without the presence of a licensed white minister. New legislation in southern states prohibited the movement, assembly, and education of slaves, and reduced the rights of free blacks.

Some good almost came of it. In the spring of 1832, the Virginia General Assembly debated the future of slavery in the state, with some urging gradual emancipation. However, when it came to a vote, slavery won. Virginia was the mother of presidents, the state with prestige unequalled throughout the South. Had slavery been abolished there, no matter how long the timetable, the good results that could have come are incalculable. Didn’t happen. Instead, emancipation would come abruptly, without preparation, without compensation, as a war measure in the middle of the devastation and bitterness attendant to civil war. In other words, it came in about the worst way possible.

Turnpikes, canals, and steam

Turnpikes, canals, and steam

In 1800, the states of Kentucky and Tennessee, and the soon-to-be state of Ohio, were connected to the Eastern seaboard states only by trails across the mountains and, in some places, on water via canoe or flatboat. Clearly, the country needed better means of communication between the two regions. The first federally supported project to provide that improvement was written into an 1806 law that set aside two percent of the net proceeds of the sales of public lands in Ohio for the construction of a National Road over the Appalachian Mountains.

Between 1815 and 1818, the first section of the National Road was constructed, connecting Cumberland, Maryland, and Wheeling, Virginia. It immediately became the most frequented East-West route. (This was a good quarter of a century before the railroads, remember.) Nobody disputed that it was needed (the difficulties experienced in moving men and material during the War of 1812 made the need clear), but how to provide it was not clear.

The problem lay in people’s view of what the constitution did or did not allow the federal government to do. President John Adams had advocated the construction of roads and canals in his first message to Congress, and to us of a much later generation this seems an obviously appropriate use of federal funds. But former president Thomas Jefferson and others thought that allowing the federal government to fund such “internal improvements” (or protect manufacturing) would require a constitutional amendment.

In 1808, Jefferson’s remarkable secretary of the treasury, Albert Gallatin, had recommended that the federal government finance a system of turnpikes and canals to facilitate movement of goods and people between one part of the country and another. In 1816, President Madison had suggested that Congress consider establishing such a system — but then, when Congress passed such a bill — he vetoed it! (He thought its method of appropriation unconstitutional.)

Then, in 1824, in Gibbons v. Ogden, the US Supreme Court ruled that the constitution conferred to the federal government the power to regulate all aspects of interstate commerce, thus removing the question of constitutionality. In April, Congress passed The General Survey Act, sometimes called the first “Roads and Canals” Act, authorizing the president to survey whatever road and canal routes he might think necessary for commerce and military defense, much as President Dwight Eisenhower would do, more than 130 years later, in instituting the Interstate Highway system.

A second act appropriating $75,000 to remove sandbars, snags, and other obstacles from the Ohio and Mississippi rivers passed in May, and the Corps of Engineers was given responsibility for performing the work. In 1826 new legislation authorized river surveys, to clean out and deepen selected waterways, and make various other river and harbor improvements.

Westerners, particularly Henry Clay of Kentucky, strongly supported the idea of federal support for internal improvements, pointing out that federal appropriations for coast surveys and lighthouses benefited the Atlantic seaboard states specifically, as well as the country at large generally. Clay, Senator Andrew Jackson, and Secretary of State Adams — three out of the four candidates for president that year – were on the record as supporting federal involvement in internal improvements. But there was no consensus for federal support for further roads. In its absence, privately financed turnpikes were constructed to connect Cumberland with other population centers in the East.

As to canals, the canal that transformed the face of the country was a state project, not a federal one. New York Governor DeWitt Clinton’s audacious project, the Erie canal, financed by New York public bonds, was begun in 1817 and took eight years to complete. But when completed, the canal stretched from the Hudson River 363 miles to Lake Erie, thus in one jump making New York City the logical, economical, convenient port for transshipment deep into the interior. (Other cities and states would follow New York’s lead. By 1840, more than 3,300 miles of artificial waterways carried the country’s commerce.)

Which brings us to steamboats and steamships. (In nautical parlance the difference between a ship and a boat is primarily size. A ship can carry a boat, but not vice versa.) Invented and improved in the years around the turn of the century. By 1820, all the tidal rivers on the Atlantic (and Chesapeake Bay) enjoyed steamboat service, as did the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. Steamboats decreased travel times between coastal ports and cities upstream by weeks, and reduced transit costs by up to 90 percent.

Steamboats were an example of a new technology profoundly altering relationships between federal and state governments. It was a dispute over a steamboat monopoly granted by the state of New York that led to Gibbons v. Ogden, the Supreme Court case that said that no one state could obstruct or even regulate commerce that extended beyond its own boundaries. In making that decision, the Court cleared the way for congressional oversight of commerce and transportation. It also cleared the way for the future. Railroads were undreamed of in 1824, but they were on their way. So were airplanes and interstate highways. If the Court had decided Gibbons v. Ogden any other way, it would have had to reverse the decision at some time. The logic of the technology was too compelling.

America’s Long Journey: Democracy in America

The book was written in French, and its title is actually On Democracy in America, although we commonly leave off the initial preposition.

That author was Alexis de Tocqueville, born in 1805 into a family of Norman aristocrats who had survived the French Revolution, had lived in exile in England, and had returned to Napoleonic France. In 1831, at age 26 already a deputy in parliament, he had persuaded the French government to send him to examine prisons and penitentiaries in America. He produced a report on his findings, then published, in two volumes in 1835 and 1840, Democracy in America, which centered on the question of why republican representative democracy was succeeding in the United States while failing in so many other places, including his native France.

Writing as a detached social scientist, he wrote of an America still raw and new, already half a century after independence, but in the midst of transformation by Jacksonian democracy, and by the industrial and financial revolution, and by the continuing influence of the moving frontier. He discusses the “habits of mind” of the American people, including: township democracy; laws; the tyranny of the majority; religion; the family; individualism; associations; self-interest, and materialism.

There is no room here to summarize this book. Suffice it to mention a few of Tocqueville’s most trenchant insights:

  • Tocqueville saw democracy as a balance between liberty and equality, between concern for the individual and concern for the community. He believed that individuals need to be able to act freely while respecting others’ rights, and needed to work together if they were to defend their independence against the aggressions of power.
  • Tocqueville saw that Americans were able to function independently of the state both by forming associations for a common purpose, and by withdrawing into their chosen circle of family and friends. He saw individualism as a way of thinking that sometimes led to a willingness to work together, and sometimes led to the alienation and isolation that many have come to experience in modern life.
  • When individualism prompted people to work together for common purposes, it helped to counterbalance the danger of the tyranny of the majority, a tyranny to which American society is particularly susceptible. He said he did not know of any country where there was “less independence of mind, and true freedom of discussion, than in America”. He lamented the state of the arts in America, not anticipating what one historian famously called The Flowering of New England that was about to burst upon the American literary scene in the 1840s, including Poe, Emerson, Hawthorne, Whitman, Melville, Thoreau, etc. (But then, how could he, or anyone, have anticipated it?)
  • Equitable property holdings did not ensure the rule of the best men. In fact, it did quite the opposite. Americans refused to defer to those possessing superior talent and intelligence, and so these natural elites could not enjoy political power. Ordinary Americans claimed too great a voice to defer to intellectual superiors. Those with the most education and intelligence could only join limited intellectual circles or they could use their talents to amass vast fortunes in the private sector. They could not, by and large, attain political power. Thus the same mores and opinions that promoted equality thereby promoted mediocrity.
  • “The majority has enclosed thought within a formidable fence. A writer is free inside that area, but woe to the man who goes beyond it, not that he stands in fear of an inquisition, but he must face all kinds of unpleasantness in every day persecution. A career in politics is closed to him for he has offended the only power that holds the keys.”
  • A serious problem in political life was not that people were too strong, but that people were “too weak” and felt powerless; the danger is that people felt “swept up in something that they could not control.”
  • Tocqueville saw (what many white Americans could not bear to realize) that the racial problem in America could not be solved by deporting free blacks to Africa. Since the government “could not remove as many men in a year as are born upon its territory within that time, it could not prevent the growth of the evil which is daily increasing in the states. The Negro race will never leave those shores of the American continent to which it was brought by the passions and the vices of Europeans; and it will not disappear from the New World as long as it continues to exist.”
  • In one of his more startling predictions, he foresaw developments then more than a century in the future: “There are now two great nations in the world, which starting from different points, seem to be advancing toward the same goal: the Russians and the Anglo-Americans… Each seems called by some secret design of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world.”

Written by a French aristocrat in his twenties, on the basis of nine months’ travel that commenced in May, 1831, Democracy in America remains, after more than 16 decades, one of the most readable and often startling studies of democracy, and of America, ever written. The author’s insights continue to illuminate causes and effects that continue today, often unrecognized.

America’s Long Journey: Jackson and the Cherokee Removal


The story of the Five Civilized Tribes, as they were called, demonstrates at least two things. First, the Indians were able to adopt white man’s ways when they chose to, including literacy, fixed residence, even slave-holding and Christianity. Second, doing so didn’t spare them from their white neighbors’ racism or their greed for gold and land.

The five tribes were the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole. By the 1830s, under constant pressure from settlers, each tribe had ceded most of its lands, but sizable self-governing groups lived in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida. All of these (except the Seminoles) had had adopted many of the colonists’ customs and had generally good relations with their neighbors. They didn’t want to move.

Unfortunately for the Cherokees, their land, as defined in an 1819 treaty, contained gold. The first gold rush in American history was sparked by the discovery of gold in 1828 in Dahlonega, Georgia, north and a little east of present-day Atlanta.

What phenomenon exemplifies greed and gambling-lust more than a gold rush? It is the perfect embodiment of get-rich-quick. Once the gold was discovered, first came trespass, then came politics, and then came exile. All quite illegal, but the white men had the money, the troops, the interested parties, and thus, soon enough, the legal decisions. In 1831, in “Cherokee Nation v. Georgia,” the Supreme Court said that the Cherokees were not a sovereign and independent nation, and therefore had no right to sue.

The story of the forced relocation of the Cherokee Nation from their lands east of the Mississippi to what is now eastern Oklahoma is a major blot on Jackson’s presidency. Most of the actual relocation took place in the presidency of his successor, Martin Van Buren, but the treaty mandating it was signed and ratified in 1836, when Jackson was in the White House. Cherokee relocation was opposed, and not merely by tender-hearted (and geographically distant) New Englanders like Emerson, but by frontier stalwarts like Davy Crockett and Sam Houston, both Jackson allies who on this issue saw the injustice of what was happening. So why did Jackson let it happen?

Partly, perhaps, from principle. To understand his position, we must see it with his eyes, not the eyes of posterity. In his first annual message to Congress as president, in December, 1829, he had called for Indian tribes either to relocate beyond the white man’s civilization, or conform to its uses. “This emigration should be voluntary, for it would be as cruel as unjust to compel the aborigines to abandon the graves of their fathers and seek a home in a distant land. But they should be distinctly informed that if they remain within the limits of the States they must be subject to their laws.”

(Fair enough, from the viewpoint of his society in his day, and perhaps two different kinds of society – one settled, one nomadic — could not live intermingled. But the Cherokees were living settled lives.)

Partly perhaps from practical politics. He was authorized by the Indian Removal Act of 1830 to negotiate to buy tribal lands in the east in exchange for lands west of existing state borders. With the nullification crisis brewing, he didn’t need to provoke another conflict over states’ rights by interposing the federal government between the Cherokees and the state of Georgia.

So, there came the Treaty of New Echota, exchanging Cherokee land for lands in the Indian Territory (eastern Oklahoma), signed in December, 1835, by small group of Cherokees who argued that it would be better to make a deal sooner (with the federal government), rather than later (with state officials and who knew what others). The following February, some 13,000 tribal members (of a total of 16,000 counted by the U.S. War Department itself ) signed protests saying that this treaty was not the will of the majority. Naturally, this being inconvenient, it was ignored. The treaty was ratified by the Senate (by a single vote) in May, 1836, and the tribe was given a two-year grace period to move “voluntarily” to the Indian Territory.

A few hundred did, accepting government funds for subsistence and transportation. Most did not. As the deadline neared, President Van Buren sent U.S. General Winfield Scott to enforce the treaty. Scott arrived at the Cherokee capital of New Echota in May, 1838, in command of about 7,000 soldiers and state militia. They removed men, women, and children from their homes at gunpoint and gathered them in camps, then marched them overland to departure points at present-day Chattanooga, and put them onto flatboats and steamers.

When low water stymied this effort, Gen. Scott suspended it, and the Cherokees who had not yet been transported were put into eleven internment camps. There they remained through the summer of 1838, suffering about 350 deaths through illness. Scott granted a petition for delay until cooler weather, and Cherokee Principal Chief John Ross, accepting defeat, arranged for the remainder of the removal to be supervised by the Cherokee Council. The remaining 11,000 Cherokees were removed under the supervision of Chief Ross in 12 wagon trains, each with about 1,000 persons, with expenses paid by the Army.

How many died along the “trail of tears”? The short answer is, nobody knows. The highest estimate is 6,000; the lowest, 2,000. The intermediate figure of 4,000 is the most often cited, as being the difference between the 16,000 Cherokees enumerated in the 1835 census (omitting 2,000 slaves), and 12,000 counted in the emigration. But Cherokees who lived on private, individually owned lands (rather than communally owned tribal land) were not subject to removal. Some 1,500 Cherokees remained in North Carolina, and many more in South Carolina and Georgia. And it is guessed that perhaps another thousand evaded the soldiers.

As so often in the history of white-Indian relations, it came down to might makes right. As usual, a fig-leaf of legality was employed to cover naked theft. As usual, a relative few enriched themselves by using the government for their own purposes. And, as usual, the events really happened, but not quite in the way they are remembered.