Controversies surrounding the 1830 Indian Removal Act reflected the Early Republic’s problem of church and state.
“I most sincerely desire that the historian, who shall write a hundred years hence, may be enabled to say… Georgia has not repeatedly, within a few years past, threatened to take the lands of Indians by force,” wrote Jeremiah Evarts, an early nineteenth-century activist for Native American rights. He addressed future historians because the issue in question was key to the country’s ideological and moral direction. Evarts was a Vermont native, a trained lawyer, and an evangelical missionary. His “William Penn Essays” aimed to prevent the Indian Removal Act of 1830, through a blend of legal, logical, and moral arguments. They were the most widely read in America since Thomas Paine’s 1776 “Common Sense.” In late 1829 and early 1830, Evarts’s work occupied the desk of each U.S. Senator.
Controversies surrounding the 1830 Indian Removal Act reflected the Early Republic’s problem of church and state, in particular the challenge of structuring moral authority in a secular democratic polity. It is time to revisit controversies surrounding Indian Removal in the context of competing ideological and moral frameworks during a formative moment. The early American republic struggled with the problem of church and state, and never really resolved it.
In 1810, the federal government began contributing funds to the evangelical missions of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). ABCFM missionaries mostly from New England established labor centers and schools in Native American territory to “civilize” Native Americans. The American idea of “civilization” fused Christianity, democracy, language, and capitalism, in order to ensure that Native Americans would blend their culture and identity into the Anglo-American settlers. From the church’s perspective, the state endorsed and funded their missions to convert the world. From the state’s perspective, missionary work helped exert control over a nearby, foreign, threatening people, which benefitted national and state governments.
Throughout the 1810s and 1820s, many factors contributed to the increasing likelihood of an Indian Removal Act. Emerging tribal nationalism threatened American government officials’ sense of control. Meanwhile, state governments, protective of their rights, grew increasingly impatient with the partnership that the federal government had formed with missionaries. Communities in the southwest and their local officials and congressional representatives strived to send Native Americans away from their lands.Perhaps most importantly, the American government would disenfranchise even “civilized” Native Americans on account of their race, dooming “civilization” efforts. Even the Cherokees who assimilated most fully into western culture did not qualify as “white.”
In 1830, Congress passed, and President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act into law. President Jackson shared most congressmen’s view that the allocation of federal resources for relocating Native Americans was a generous, humanitarian gift to these people. Jackson did not care that reports indicated that missions had been going according to plan – many Native Americans had converted to Christianity, adopted democratic practices, learned how to write English, and embraced capitalism. The Indian Removal Act signified an affront to the missionaries’ ideology and morals by quashing their longtime objective of integrating Native Americans into American society.
From 1829 through 1830, Congress engaged in a debate that attracted national attention. While a few representatives from the north cited Evarts, most Congressmen advocated for removal because they represented their constituents who hoped to gain more land for expansion and settlements, farming, and use of natural resources. However, they disguised their motives with paternalistic, moral rhetoric that they needed to protect Native Americans from encroaching white settlers. For instance, Senator Wilson Lumpkin (D-GA) addressed the Senate in May 1830:
The subject before you is of vital importance. It is a measure of life and death. Pass the bill on your table, and you save them. Reject it, and you leave them to perish. Reject this bill, and you thereby encourage delusory hopes in the Indians, which their professed friends and allies well know will never be realized. The rejection of this bill will encourage and invite the Indians to act of indiscretion and assumptions which will necessarily bring uponthem chastisement and injury, which will be deplored by every friend of virtue and humanity. I therefore call upon you to avoid these evil consequences while you may. Delay is pregnant with great danger to the Indians; what you do, do quickly before the evil day approaches.
This moral rhetoric framed the debate as a matter of life and death. Senator Lumpkin sought the high ground by suggesting that Native Americans would become extinct if Congress decided not to relocate them west of the Mississippi River. He invoked the Christian idea of Judgment Day to strengthen his case for the moral necessity of removal.
Conversely, Evart’s essays focused on law and logic, disguising their roots in evangelical faith. According to Evarts:
Nor would it alter the case, if A. and B., at the time for making the contract, expected that C. would sell his farm, at the first reasonable offer. There might be strong indications that C. would become an intemperate man, a spendthrift, a sot, a vagrant, and that his farm would speedily pass into other hands: and yet these indications might prove fallacious. C. might become a thrifty husbandman, keep his farm clear of debt, and leave it unencumbered to his heirs. And is he to be blamed, because he turned out to be an industrious man, and thus disappointed the unfavorable prognostications of B., who stood looking upon the farm with covetous eyes?
In this analogy, “A” represents the American government, “B” represents the state of Georgia, and “C” represents the Native Americans. Georgia (B) accepted the treaties that the American government (A) negotiated with the Cherokees (C) because Georgia expected the Cherokees, who Georgians viewed as barbarous, to break and ultimately discard the treaties anyway, also known as becoming an intemperate spendthrift in Evarts’s analogy. When the Cherokees (C) honored the treaties and flourished in civilization programs, Georgia (B) attempted to proceed as if the Cherokees were indeed barbarous. Georgia (B) “looking upon the farm with covetous eyes” describes the Georgians hoping to identify opportunities to encroach upon Cherokee land and justify this encroachment to themselves. Evarts’s analogy is logically coherent, concluding that Georgia should not seize Cherokee lands. Essentially, Evarts’s “William Penn Essays” and Congressional debates over the Indian Removal Act were talking past each other.
Although the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and the Department of War forged an alliance to support civilization programs, ultimately, they each prioritized incompatible ideologies and objectives. The same means for different ends could only work in unison for a limited time. Missionaries were unable to prevent the Indian Removal Act, but their attempts – including Evarts’s essays, petition campaigns, and an early rendition of lobbying – marked a key moment in American church-state relations.
2. Mary Hershberger, “Mobilizing Women, Anticipating Abolition: The Struggle Against Indian Removal in the 1830s,” The Journal of American History(1999) 25.
3. Theda Perdue and Michael D. Green, ed., The Cherokee Removal and the Trail of Tears (New York: Penguin Books, 2007) 62.
4. Conroy-Krutz, Christian Imperialism: Converting the World in the Early American Republic (Cornell University Press, 2015)14.
5. Perdue and Green, 53.
6. Sylvester Johnson, “Religion and American Empire in Mississippi, 1790-1833,” Gods of the Mississippi (Indiana University Press, 2007) 41.
7. Andrew Jackson, “State of the Union Address,” 6 December 1830, The Cherokee Removal: A Brief History with Documents (St. Martin’s Press, 1995) 120; Congressional Debates on the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Library of Congress Digital Collections, https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/Indian.html.
8. Wilson Lumpkin, Speech to the United States Senate, 17 May 1830, https://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llrd&fileName=009/llrd009.db&recNum=355.
9. Evarts, “William Penn Essays,” Number XX, 156.
Originally published by S-USIH (Society for U.S. Intellectual History), 06.26.2018, under the terms of a Creative Commons NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.