Congressman Condemns ‘Cruelty and Perfidy’ of Indian Removal Act
On May 26, 1830, Congress passed one of the most infamous pieces of legislation in American history: the Indian Removal Act, designed to kick the “Five Civilized Tribes” out of their ancestral lands in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. President Andrew Jackson, who had urged Congress to pass a removal act in an 1829 speech, signed the act into law two days after Congress passed it, on May 28. With the stroke of his pen, he set into motion a series of events that would lead tens of thousands of Native Americans onto the “Trail of Tears” as they were forcibly removed to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma).
The Five Civilized Tribes were the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole. They were given that name because of the rapid way they adopted white ways, the Cherokee in particular. A member of their tribe, Sequoyah, developed an alphabet for the Cherokee language, and in 1827 the Cherokee Nation adopted a constitution which set up a government modeled on the U.S., with an executive, judicial and legislative branch. They printed their own bilingual newspaper, translated the Bible into Cherokee, built churches in their villages, and embraced farming utilizing white methods and tools. They were a thriving, prosperous community that posed no threat to their white neighbors.
None of that mattered. Even an 1832 Supreme Court decision that ruled in their favor (Worcester v. Georgia) failed to protect their rights or stop their removal; President Jackson simply ignored the Supreme Court ruling. The Indians were rounded up at bayonet point and marched westward. It is estimated that of the 16,000 Cherokees who were removed, more than 4,000—over a quarter of their population—died on the Trail of Tears. The other tribes suffered similarly, although some Seminoles fled deeper into the swamps of Florida and fought protracted wars with the U.S. rather than submit to removal.
While most of white America heartily embraced the concept of Indian removal, there were some strong voices of opposition, including Congressman Davey Crockett of Tennessee. Congressman William Ellsworth of Connecticut was another opponent. He gave an impassioned speech condemning the Indian Removal Act when it was being debated in the House of Representatives.
Ellsworth’s speech was extracted in the following newspaper article, printed by the Middlesex Gazette (Middletown, Connecticut) on May 26, 1830, the very day Congress passed the Indian Removal Act:
Extract from the Speech of Mr. Ellsworth on the Bill to Provide for the Removal of the Indians
“If, sir, our treaties or laws are of any force, how can the acts of Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama stand? One or the other of these powers only can extend its jurisdiction over the Indians.
“It has been said that the Indians in the Southern States will soon become extinct—that humanity dictates their removal. Sir, why not leave the Indians to judge for themselves in this matter? They have the deepest interest in it, and they are sufficiently intelligent to discover what is best for themselves. Sir, I confess I do not like this parade of humanity. Nor, if there be a willingness on the part of the Indians, would Georgia need to pass her extraordinary laws. But, sir, who contributed as judges over them? We may as well set ourselves up as judges for any other people—for Spain, or France, for instance, and force upon them a Republican Government, if we thought it would be better for them. How comes it to pass that some of the tribes, the Cherokees especially, are increasing in population and wealth? Does this look like their extinction? When did Georgia, permit me to ask, first feel this impulse of humanity for the Cherokees? Not until they began to be a growing tribe. If she wishes to save the Indian, why does she deny him the benefit and protection of her laws? Why does she leave him to the merciless rapacity of his white neighbors?
“But it is said the Cherokees and other tribes are willing to remove? What, then, mean these memorials of touching entreaty on our tables, signed by some thousands of them, begging that they may not be forced to leave their country? Why has Government sent in among them secret agents to advise them to go? Why have these States passed their unequal and unprotecting laws? Does this look like a wish on the part of the Cherokees to remove? And why, let me ask, have they so long refused the offers made them by the Government? But it is said, the chiefs! the chiefs! they are the mischief makers—they advise the Indians to stay. And has it come to this, that we are to find fault with the poor Indian, because he regards the advice of his chief and guardian? Do not we and other nations the same? Shall we take the ground that the Indians are willing to remove because we, in our humanity, think they ought to be? They have and still do, as a nation and as individuals, declare they are not willing to remove; and among other things they give, as a reason for their unwillingness, that they have examined and do not like the country beyond the Mississippi—that they cannot be happy and secure there. And may they not judge for themselves?
“Sir, there are many considerations pertaining to this great subject which I will leave to other and abler hands. I will close my remarks with noticing one objection to the Indians remaining and establishing a government where they are. It is said, and it is so declared in the President’s message, that it is against the theory and constitution of our government that the Indians should have a distinct existence in the bosom of a state. My answer is that these Southern tribes have always had a government—they are exercising no new power—it is not a new nation, an “imperium in imperio” springing up. They have, it is true, within a few years newly modeled their Government, in imitation of ours, and infused into it something of its spirit and principles; but they assume no new authority. The whites have established themselves around the Indians, and it is not a new power springing up and planting itself in a sovereign State. The objection takes for granted the whole matter in dispute. If my views are right, the Indians can urge this objection with more force than we can. In most of the States the Indians have melted away, and thereby lost the power of self-government and distinct existence; but this is not true of the Cherokees and other Southern tribes, who have claimed and exercised the power of self-government and for ought I see, may do it with as much propriety as ourselves.
“Sir, I will close with saying that this emigration of 60,000 Indians of different tribes, to a new country, now occupied more or less with hostile tribes, is an experiment of such serious magnitude, that we ought not to force it upon them, but leave it really to their free choice.
“And who, sir, can tell us of the expense of this removal? We are first to purchase the country they leave; then to remove them; to conquer or purchase the country to be assigned them; and after this, to sustain and defend them for all future time. How many millions will this cost?
“Mr. Chairman, we must be just and faithful to our treaties. There is no occasion for collision. We shall not stand justified before the world in taking any step which shall lead to oppression. The eyes of the world, as well as this nation, are upon us. I conjure this House not to stain the page of our history with national shame, cruelty, and perfidy.”
Editor’s note: Ellsworth’s use of the word “conjure” in the last sentence is in the (now archaic) sense of “solemnly entreat.”
To get a better sense of the hypocrisy Ellsworth was lambasting, read the speech President Jackson delivered to Congress after the Indian Removal Act became law. These remarks were part of his Second Annual Message to Congress, delivered on Dec. 6, 1830:
“It gives me pleasure to announce to Congress that the benevolent policy of the Government, steadily pursued for nearly thirty years, in relation to the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements is approaching to a happy consummation. Two important tribes have accepted the provision made for their removal at the last session of Congress, and it is believed that their example will induce the remaining tribes also to seek the same obvious advantages.
“The consequences of a speedy removal will be important to the United States, to individual States, and to the Indians themselves…It will place a dense and civilized population in large tracts of country now occupied by a few savage hunters…It will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; free them from the power of the States; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way, and under their own rude institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers; and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government, and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits, and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.
“…Humanity has often wept over the fate of the aborigines of this country; and philanthropy has been long busily employed in devising means to avert it. But its progress has never for a moment been arrested; and one by one have many powerful tribes disappeared from the earth. To follow to the tomb the last of his race, and to tread on the graves of extinct nations, excites melancholy reflections. But true philanthropy reconciles the mind to these vicissitudes, as it does to the extinction of one generation to make room for another.
“…Rightly considered, the policy of the General Government towards the red man is not only liberal but generous. He is unwilling to submit to the laws of the States, and mingle with their population. To save him from this alternative, or perhaps utter annihilation, the General Government kindly offers him a new home, and proposes to pay the whole expense of his removal and settlement.
“…May we not hope, therefore, that all good citizens, and none more zealously than those who think the Indians oppressed by subjection to the laws of the States, will unite in attempting to open the eyes of those children of the forest to their true condition, and, by a speedy removal, to relieve them from the evils, real or imaginary, present or prospective, with which they may be supposed to be threatened.”