Stains on America

I greatly enjoyed reading Joseph Ellis’ American Creation, which chronicles the key achievements in the roughly 25 years from the Declaration of Independence to the Louisiana Purchase—the period that set the DNA of the republic. Most of these developments are amazingly, almost miraculously positive. However, Ellis notes two stains that marred the creation of America. One was slavery, which the founders recognized was incompatible with their ideals but could not see how to remove. The second was the “Indian problem”—how to reconcile America’s expansive character with the welfare of people and nations living just inland.

Reading in abolitionist literature from a generation later, I had never come across a sign that serious governmental powers ever recognized the rights of Native Americans. By the 1820s and 30s concern for Indians seemed to be the province of private idealists and cranks. But Ellis tells how President George Washington, along with his Secretary of War Henry Knox, gave a high priority to finding a just and practical solution. They initiated a treaty with the Creeks that was meant to be a model for the future. It was signed in a gala New York ceremony and ratified overwhelmingly by the Senate.

The treaty proved unenforceable. American settlers simply ignored it, pouring into the west to settle Indian lands without concern for the law. The US Army was too small to stop them, and Washington’s honorable idealism went for nothing. Two hundred heartbreaking years of trouble and turmoil resulted.

Despite the sad result, I took some encouragement from knowing that a serious attempt was made at a settlement. I admire Washington more for knowing that he cared about it deeply.

While statecraft can sometimes achieve near-miracles—and did, in the founding of America—it has its limits. The forces of nature—greed, fecklessness, blindness—are sometimes too strong for even the best leadership to control.

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