Over and over again

I finished reading David McCullough’s John Adams, and despite the fact that he omits early colonial dealings with Native peoples, I enjoyed it immensely. It was good to see and hear how narrow the passages to the government we got were—how, as McCullough says in other places, things could have turned out differently.

And although I had heard and probably mouthed myself the centrality of slavery to the American story, I liked how McCullough—through Adams—brings the issue forward with the compromises in the composition of the Declaration of Independence, Washington and Jefferson’s holding of slaves, and Adams’ disgust with it all. According to McCullough, Adams was willing to compromise with the southern colonies in order to form and hold the new union, but it always troubled him. He had dreams of blacks and whites slaughtering each other, and feared that “a struggle between the states over slavery ‘might rend this mighty fabric in twain.’”

In later years, when old differences with Jefferson were repaired in their famous correspondence, he suggested to Jefferson that he free his slaves. But Jefferson, who believed slavery a “moral and political depravity,” feared the results of sudden emancipation, and looked for it to happen gradually under the watch of younger men. At his death, he freed but few of his own slaves, and the rest were sold at auction.

It seems odd that slavery could occupy the moral deliberations of two of the founding fathers to such an extent, while the situation with Native inhabitants is in many ways hidden, or neglected, or not thought about. In Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, he gives examples of significant, and often friendly, interactions of Indians and Europeans on first contact—think of the early New Englanders getting farming help and new crops from the Indians, of trappers working with Indians as they moved West, etc.—which are then followed by conflict and removal.

Josephy said that from the get-go there were three attitudes towards Indians: One, romanticize them as true children of nature; two, kill or remove them to make room for a new, superior civilization; or three, assimilate them, make them white. He spent his working life exploring how these three ways played out in history—while simultaneously marveling at the miracle of tribal survival and promoting their full participation, as Indians, in the American experiment.

On finishing Adams, I picked up a copy of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Benjamin Franklin, and here I find Indians. I find meetings with Indians, and the Albany Plan for Union, put forward by Franklin and inspired in part by the Iroquois Federation. Was Franklin one of the romanticizers? Did Franklin and Adams never discuss this? And, most importantly, how was the Indian situation different than the situation with slavery?

I think what Alvin was telling us, over and over again, is that Indians were here, and despite all attempts to eradicate them and make them white, are still here. And that it is important for us, as a nation, to put them back into our past as we listen to them in our present. So I am compelled to find out what Franklin thought.

And I think too about Indians always being here, and our country as a nation of immigrants—white, black, brown, yellow; European, Asian, African, Islander—who have come to live among them. That is a different narrative than McCullough’s. Will there be some of it in Franklin?

Invisible Indians

I had been reading David McCullough’s book, John Adams, with great pleasure. My knowledge of colonial times and the birth of the nation is old and limited, so the exploration of the lives and careers of Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Jay, Madison, Hamilton, and all of the lesser names and big ideas that led to a Declaration of Independence, the War for Independence, the Constitution and formation of a new nation was carrying me along like a good novel. The man can write!.

And then, on page 396, the first mention of Indians. Their absence in the first 395 pages had barely occurred to me.

Assessing the state of things on Adam’s return from Europe in 1789, McCullough tells us that the nation’s population has grown to four million, that the biggest city is Philadelphia, with 40,000, New York is growing quickly with 18,000, and Pittsburgh, the last western outpost, has but 500. (There are 700,000 slaves!)

As a result of the Paris Peace Treaty, the boundaries of the new nation ran to the Mississippi River, and now we come to Indians. According to McCullough, “Approximately half the territory of the United States in 1789 was still occupied by American Indians, most of whom lived west of the Appalachians, and though no one knew how many there were, they probably numbered 100,000.”

Where did he get the number? His old colleague, Alvin Josephy, had estimated 6-8 million Indians in North America back in 1968, 33 years before McCullough’s book was published. Maybe that stretch of “unknown” (by whites) land from Pittsburgh to the Mississippi held just a sliver of the millions; maybe more. But how did he know?

More importantly, how could he write a book about the foundation of the country with no attention to its original inhabitants? The index lists two references to “Indian wars,” but when you turn to the pages, you find him naming the French and Indian War, with no
discussion of its Indian participants.

And, although there are pages on the relationship between Franklin and Adams, including the Committee of Five charged with drafting the Declaration of Independence, there is nothing of Franklin’s time spent among the Iroquois. It is from another book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James Loewen, that I learn that Franklin had proposed an “Albany Plan of Union” based on ideas from the Iroquois League, in 1754! “It would be a strange thing if six nations of ignorant savages” says Franklin, “should be capable of forming a scheme for such a union and be able to execute it in such a manner as that it has subsisted ages and appears insoluble; and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies.”

Franklin’s plan was rejected, but, according to Loewen, it was a “forerunner of the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. Both the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention referred openly to Iroquois ideas and imagery.” We don’t know what—or whether—Adams thought about these things.

McCullough is not alone. In his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Age of Jackson, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. failed to mention the removal of Indians from the American Southeast, the horrible and illegal—Jackson defied the Supreme Court—series of events we now know as “The Trail of Tears.” Historian Michael Phillips says that Schlesinger “couldn’t reconcile the mass murder represented by the Trail of Tears with his big story, the triumph of liberalism, so he pretended it didn’t happen.”

That was in 1945; McCullough’s book was published in 2001. In between, Alvin Josephy worked hard to tell us what did happen, to make Indians visible again. There is still work to be done.

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