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American Indian?

By: Bruno S. Cortes
September 24, 2018

olin G. Calloway’s The Indian World of George Washington is a biography, but students of American political history will find in it even more to appreciate. It does a conventional biography’s work well, skillfully conveying Washington’s personal and public life “from cradle to grave.” But Calloway’s single-volume, carefully detailed account also conveys the conditions surrounding America’s westward expansion, its first unsuccessful attempt at regime change, and the “hard lessons in war and diplomacy” learned by the early American republic during its westward march. 

As the title suggests, The Indian World focuses on the relations between the early republic and the American Indian tribes that occupied western lands during Washington’s lifetime. Washington is singled out for having “devoted more time, thought, and ink to the problem than did most of his contemporaries, and most other presidents.” The book first describes young Washington’s early–and inept–management of conflicting interests among Indian tribes and European empires in North America. Like other Europeans who attempted to govern the Indian nations that lived on or within their colonial borders, even the unusually astute Washington was “out of his depth in a complex world of rumors, wampum belts and tribal agendas.” He repeatedly mishandled and misread allies who, as it turns out, had little affection for the European empires they played against one another. Washington’s failures might caution advocates of regime change to “go not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” But that injunction may have been inapplicable in his case: the Indians were already there and had no intention of leaving.

 Calloway shows how the post-Revolutionary government’s Indian policies, which largely rested on securing either Indian apathy or friendship, more often secured neither because of nervous and often violent passions. Tribes like the Shawnee and Iroquois, who viewed American settlers with unease, were contemptuous of Americans interested in “grasping for Indian land” and fought almost continuously against the United States. Washington, for his part, viewed settlers with an equally uneasy eye. To avoid the enmity of the various tribes living along the frontier, Washington spent much of the Revolution restraining settlers from moving westward. Compounding the difficulty, Indian relations were interwoven with immigration questions. The young republic needed settlers to occupy its newly acquired western lands, but those settlers had interests and prejudices of their own. According to Washington, Scotch-Irish Presbyterian immigrants were “a hardy industrious people, well calculated to form new settlements.” They also had a tradition of vengeance killing not unlike the Indians along the frontier.

But westward expansion was necessary, and the Washington administration tried to meet that necessity as best it could. “History seemed to show that an expansive territory was lethal to republics,” Calloway writes, but “Washington believed that an expansive, indeed expanding, territory, properly managed…was the salvation and future hope of his republic.” To that end, he sought “to maintain the friendship of the tribes and preserve peace on the frontiers, protecting settlements from unruly individuals who could not be restrained by their tribes, on the one hand, and [to protect] the Indians’ treaty rights, on the other.” He also advanced a policy of “benevolent amalgamation” which sought peaceful acquisition of Indian territory through purchase while drawing Indians “nearer to the civilized state” by encouraging their adoption of private property and agriculture. 

Calloway emphasizes this policy’s economic necessity: it would “provide homes for citizens, fill the empty treasury, and ensure the nation’s survival and growth.” But one wonders if Washington and his fellow founders would have emphasized something else—the need to maintain a position in North America favorable to the survival of free government and a republican way of life, or what later became known as the Monroe Doctrine. As Washington says in his 1796 Farewell Address, “if we remain one people under an efficient government, the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance.” Calloway himself provides many examples of such “external annoyance” including Indian raids across the Ohio, Indian armies that could outmatch any European or American army on the continent, designs by the British and Spanish for control of the Creek Country, lingering British influence in Ohio and Florida, the possibility of war between Indian nations along the American frontier, etc. Calloway therefore misses the point of his own evidence: national defense considerations were never absent from discussions of territorial expansion.

Defense considerations notwithstanding, Calloway concludes that, in regard to Indian policy, Washington and the founders implicated themselves in violating the very principles they fought to protect. He portrays them as the chief architects of “a new, racially defined empire and a nation of free white citizens that excluded Native Americans as it also excluded African Americans.” Only white men would enjoy the rights listed in the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence. In fact, Calloway argues, “[t]he expanding republic that Washington helped launch depended on Indians giving up their land and Africans giving up their labor.” Although Washington is singled out for his optimistic attempts to reconcile westward expansion with justice, Calloway concludes that the rhetoric of “justice” and “natural rights” was “less an aspiration to high ideals than a justification of the violence inherent in US Indian policy.”

Calloway’s conclusion is partly correct. To be sure, greed and even a desire for the expansion of slavery motivated westward expansion. Avarice and racism surely did motivate some. But Calloway seems to equate deviation from Founding principles with a complete rejection of those principles. But, as Calloway suggests, Washington and subsequent administrations, despite many unpleasant experiences, did their best to “preserve the rest of mankind,” in accordance with natural law doctrine. They did so while attempting to  reconcile expansion with a republican way of life, thereby creating a “republican empire” based on the principle of natural equality. But as James Madison writes in Federalist 55, “Republican government presupposes the existence of [certain] qualities [i.e., virtues] in a higher degree than any other form [of government].” The Founders thought it within their rights to insist on preserving their republican way of life, to defend their territory from European meddling, and to restrict citizenship to those most likely to do the same.

Race was not the exclusive consideration of American citizenship. As Calloway himself indicates, Indians were given the opportunity to “remake themselves as American citizens.” According to the political theory of the founders, the law of self-preservation entitled the Indians to refuse: they were entitled to refuse American citizenship, and to preserve themselves and their way of life. But can we reasonably extend to the Indian tribes the privilege of defending their way of life, yet reproach others who presume to exercise the same privilege? Calloway’s book, despite its occasional misses, is a well-researched and fruitful place to begin thinking about such questions.