Joe Anoatubby: Cycles of violence in the United States

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I’ve always made argument with my colleagues and students that there are indeed cyclical patterns in US History.  I also believe that part of that phenomenon is related to the reality that younger generations lose touch with the implications of violence and political upheaval as witnessed by those generations that did experience them and who subsequently sought to turn down the intensity of political and violent disagreement in the intervening years.  For myself, helping students establish linkages with those past generations is a vital way of making a difference in the classroom.

In regard your contention that there was little political instability during the ‘Era of Good Feelings,’ I feel I must say, as a Native American history scholar, that only looking at political warfare and other markers of intra-American conflict does not encompass all of the violence being perpetrated within the claimed boundaries of the United States during the 1820s.  There was significant political conflict, and Anglo-American violence perpetrated on American Indian communities intended to clear the Indians out of the way for American expansion.  Andrew Jackson specifically exploited anti-Indian sentiment in his quest for the presidency, and the result of his election and the election of Democrats to Congress was the Indian Removal policy, a policy Jackson cynically claimed was more humane that the violence then taking place in the frontier regions particularly.  This policy threw open the bulk of land in the southeast for American expansion and economic development.  The period between the ‘Era of Good Feelings’ and the Civil War witnessed efforts by the Jacksonian Democrats to prevent divisive tensions from undermining the emergent Southern slavery economy. Their efforts resulted in illegal occupation of Indian lands, the ‘Gag Rule,’ the pro-slavery argument, and culminated with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act as part of the Compromise of 1850.  Afterward, political tension and violence again began to emerge in the 1850s, with the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision and the horrors of ‘Bleeding Kansas.’  It was the successor of Jackson’s political opposition (the Whig Party), the Republicans, that carried forth a war that ultimately resulted in emancipation.

What I’m suggesting is that there was political instability beginning in the late 1820s between those who followed older Federalist notions about order (tempered by Jeffersonian Republicanism) and Jackson’s Democracy.  Since treaties are commensurate with the Constitution as the law of the land, I argue that Indians were inclusives within the American sphere despite having no political voice per se within that entity.  If you consider violence against Indians, you would see a much higher level of violence than your analysis indicates.  With the rise of Jacksonianism, eventually Whigs attempted to apply morality within their political programs—John Quincy Adams, Jackson’s great nemesis, argued that Constitutional guarantees to Indians had been created when treaties were established by the United States government.  But he and other Whigs were stymied by Democratic economic necessity arguments for years to come, eventually leading to a collapse of the Whig party but paving the way for the establishment of the Republican Party, an amalgam of former Whigs, Free-Soilers, and nativist Know Nothings (they claimed waves of Irish and Catholic immigration presented a threat to “American” –WASP values.  Whigs argued that Jackson’s treatment of the Indians was morally wrong and a violation of the Constitution, a position upheld by the John Marshall Supreme Court in the Worcester v. Georgia decision.  Though Republicans were not especially focused on justice for Indians, in the 1870s, I would point out that the Grant administration did put some effort into reforming blatant American exploitation with the establishment of his administration’s ‘peace’ policy.

Incorporating Indians into your analysis, it seems to me, would enable including data that includes the 1770s and 1820s:

1770s—The Founding generation exploited discontent with monarchical authority on the issue of taxation and social justice.  Poor people in western counties of the various colonies wanted land, but the British government never embraced full scale expansion.  Revolutionary violence was severe between Patriot and Loyalist factions—the Loyalists lost the bulk of their property after the end of the Revolution and despite British efforts to have Loyalist belongings repatriated, these things were never returned.  Stability was realized in 1789 with the establishment of Constitutional government, but the concentration of power in that government made it vulnerable to the arguments of the Jeffersonian Republicans that too much power threatened individual freedom.  When it became abundantly clear that economic elites had begun to dominate the Republican establishment (Election of 1824) as they had in the Federalist party, political vulnerability emerged.

                Revolution, Shay’s Rebellion, Constitution, Revolution of 1800

1820s—The Jacksonians exploited American ethnocentrism and the yearning of the majority of the WASP racial class for more economic opportunity; opportunity that was frustrated by extant US treaties guaranteeing Indian title to their tribal homelands.  The Indians, bolstered by emergent sophistication in frustrating the efforts of American land cession treaty commissioners, became a threat to the economic machinations of land hungry Americans who cared little for Indians and despised the notion that the government of the United States would offer any protections for this despised racial group.  Jackson’s own use of the expression ‘savages’ despite having had extensive interactions with ‘civilized’ Indian populations in the South and who figured prominently in his military successes in the 1810s reveals the hypocrisy of his position.  The Democracy’s power collapsed in late 1850s as Whig and Republican efforts to appeal to voters on moral, social justice, and even economic grounds gained more traction due to Democratic intransigence on the slavery issue, their reliance upon a proslavery-argument, and even extra legal means to extend slavery.

                Tecumseh’s Northwest Confederacy, War of 1812, the Creek War, Indian Removal Act, Anti-Catholicism

1870s—Republicans exploited the issue of slavery (a great moral evil) and the yearning of northerners to turn back a perceived ‘southern conspiracy’ to control American politics.  The Republicans successfully prosecuted the Civil War, but their power waned as Democratic racial argumentation (coded as Reform) swept the country in the aftermath of Republican overreach in establishing civil rights for black Americans and numerous political scandals implicating wealthy Americans and prominent Republicans as beneficiaries of special privilege.

                Bleeding Kansas, Civil War, Government Reform movement, post-war vigilantism, Jim Crow Laws, Populism

1920s—Ascendant political classes (calling themselves Progressives) scaled back efforts to seek civil rights for racial and ethnic minorities, even reinstituting a new form of debt peonage (sharecropping) in the South to control the black population.  These ‘reformers’ sought to unite the country on terms of economic prosperity and shared mission (progressive reform), but those efforts were undermined by glaring inequalities that were exacerbated by the collapse of the national economy which made possible the rise of the New Deal coalition.  Even then, FDR was prevented from offering more substantive reforms than he would have preferred because of the prominence of Southern Democrats in his coalition.

                Lynching, Labor unrest, Close of Frontier, Attacks on Socialists, Persistent and Rising Poverty levels

1970s—New Dealers successfully exploited economic prosperity and American technological supremacy after World War II to remain a potent force in politics into the 1960s.  Their visible efforts and success in promoting economic and racial justice made them vulnerable, and the struggle against Communism, highlighted by the Vietnam War, exacerbated generational tensions in society.  In the end, economic upheavals wrought by the collapse of the industrial economy emboldened a new class of politicians using coded racial language to seek to undermine confidence in the new paradigm of social justice established during the period of prosperity.

                Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam War, Political Corruption, Economic Downturn

2020s—The ascendant political class exploits economic insecurity among the majority white population who see the combined numbers of minorities approaching numerical/political parity with the majority.  As economic conditions worsen, ethnocentric thinking encouraged by often over the top political rhetoric by politicians of a class not touched by conflict plunge the nation into another period of violent upheaval.  A new political class would need to find a means to reconcile people of different ethnicities and races together on economic and security concerns.  This analysis would indicate that people would have to be touched by violence or economic upheaval in a more profound and widespread way than has emerged thus far.

                Domestic and Foreign Terrorism, Immigration worries, Gun Violence, Majority Losing Privileged Status

Joe Anoatubby is Professor of History and Coordinator, Academic Educational Services at Rose State College

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Peter Turchin

One thing I’d like to add is that Andrew Jackson, despite being portrayed in history books as the one introducing the “age of the common man,” or the Jacksonian democracy, was a really unsavory character, as you note in your post. You talk about the key role that he played in the Indian removal. But in addition he was a major slaveholder, he introduced the corrupt ‘spoils system’, and according to an article by Richard Morris he has the dubious distinction of being the first US president to use troops to suppress a labor strike.

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