ABUSE OF POWER: ANDREW
JACKSON AND THE INDIAN
REMOVAL ACT OF 1830
ALFRED A. CAVE
WHILE VIRTUALLY ALL historical accounts of the Jackson era, both scholarly and
popular, devote some space to the relocation of Indian inhabitants of the eastern
United States to an Indian territory west of the Mississippi, very few acknowl-
edge that the process as it was carried out by the Jackson administration violated
guarantees contained in the congressional legislation which authorized removal.
Indeed, historians frequently misunderstand and often misrepresent the provi-
sions of this law. One recent writer, for example, claims erroneously “in 1830
the United States Congress passed . . . a statute authorizing use of military force
to compel the relocation of all indigenous peoples east of the Mississippi River
to points west.”1A widely read survey of American history maintains
that the law empowered “the President to send any eastern tribe beyond the
Mississippi if he wished, using force if needed.” Other textbooks contain the
same claim.2While specialists familiar with the primary sources are certainly
aware of the limits of the legislation passed in 1830, they have generally focused
on the removal process itself and, for the most part, have devoted little if any
attention to the discrepancy between the law’s provisions and the administration’s
Alfred A. Cave is a professor of history at the University of Toledo.
1. Ward Churchill, A Little Matter of Genocide (San Francisco, 1997), 144.
2. Quotation from Irvin Unger, The United States: The Questions of Our Past (Upper
Saddle River, N.J., 1999), 235. For other examples of textbook accounts that imply, or state
explicitly, that the act authorized forced removal, see George Brown Tindall and David E.
Shi, America: A Narrative History (New York, 1992), 1: 411; Joseph R. Conlin, The
American Past (Fort Worth, 1993), 242–43; John Mack Farragher, Mari Jo Buhle, Daniel
Czitrom, and Susan H. Armitage, Out of Many: A History of the American People (Upper
Saddle River, N.J., 1999), 178; Gary B. Nash, et al., The American People: Creating a Nation
and a Society (New York, 2000), 310; Carol Berkin, Christopher L. Miller, Robert W. Cherny,
and James L. Gormly, Making America: A History of the United States (Boston, Mass., 1995),
ABUSE OF POWER
actions.3Neither of the two major studies of Jacksonian Indian removal devote
any space to that issue.4Others note in passing that the law did not authorize
the measures Jackson used, but provide few details.5As a result, the impression
that Jackson had received congressional authorization to remove Indians from
their homelands at the point of a bayonet remains widespread.
The Indian Removal Act passed by Congress in 1830 neither authorized the
unilateral abrogation of treaties guaranteeing Native American land rights within
the states, nor the forced relocation of the eastern Indians. Yet both occurred, on
a massive scale, during Andrew Jackson’s administration and were the result, not
3. Jackson’s misuse of the Indian Removal Act is recognized in Anthony F. C. Wallace, The Long
Bitter Trail: Andrew Jackson and the Indians (New York, 1993). Wallace’s very perceptive
book, a popular supplemental text, is brief and lacks footnotes. But other accounts of the
Indian Removal Act in the specialized literature are less satisfactory. Quite often, Jacksonian
scholars have simply ignored the connection between legislation and removal. To cite two
recent examples, Charles Sellers in The Market Revolution (New York, 1991) condemns Jack-
sonian Indian policy (308–12), but does not discuss the Indian Removal Act. Andrew
Burstein, in The Passions of Andrew Jackson (New York, 2003), writes of the “devastating
effect that Andrew Jackson’s Indian policy had on his country” (236), but makes no mention
of the law.
4. Michael Paul Rogin, Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the
American Indian (New York, 1975), offers a detailed, highly critical account of Jackson’s
tactics in dealing with Indians, but ignores the opposition to Indian removal and does not
deal specifically with the Indian Removal Act. Rogin consequently fails to place the removal
program within its political context. Ronald N. Satz, American Indian Policy in the Jack-
sonian Era (Lincoln, Neb., 1975), provides a fairly good account of the coercive measures
employed by the Jackson administration in carrying out its removal policy (97–115), but fails
to note the discrepancy between those measures, Jackson’s earlier promises, and the terms of
the law. Satz states simply that “the Removal Act of 1983 provided the Jackson administra-
tion with congressional sanction and the necessary funds to begin relocating eastern tribes in
the trans-Mississippi west” (64).
5. Francis Paul Prucha, in Indian Policy in the Formative Years: The Indian Trade and Inter-
course Acts, 1780–1834 (Cambridge, 1962), declared that the while law “made no mention
of coercion to remove the Indians, and on the surface it seemed harmless and humane enough
. . . those who knew the policy and practice of Jackson and the Georgians understood that
force would be inevitable” (238–39). In a similar vein, Robert Remini in Andrew Jackson
and His Indian Wars (New York, 2001) observes that under the Removal Act, “Indians had
to sign treaties by which they formally gave their consent to migrate. And that could prove
exceedingly difficult” (233). However, neither writer fully explored the conflict between the
law and the actions of the administration. Prucha and Remini are both apologists for Jackson,
stressing not only the political constraints he faced, but his presumed benevolent desire to
protect and preserve Indians through removal. Both, in this writer’s estimation, downplay
and in some instances ignore the illegality of much of Jackson’s Indian policy. There is also
a tendency among some writers to interpret the law in the light of the outcome of the removal
controversy. Thus Jill Norgren, in The Cherokee Cases: The Confrontation of Law and
Politics (1996), recognizes that the law ostensibly continued the voluntary, treaty-based
removal program in place prior to Jackson’s election. Norgren claims, however, that “the
tenor of the pro-removal debate and the very nature of the bill questioned tribal sovereignty
and aboriginal land titles” (85–86). The result is a discounting of the very real opposition to
coerced removal and an oversimplification of this tragic episode in American history.
of an explicit congressional mandate, but of an abuse of presidential power. In
engineering removal, Jackson not only disregarded a key section of the Indian
Removal Act, but also misused the powers granted to him under the Trade and
Intercourse Act of 1802. Furthermore, he failed to honor promises made in his
name in order to win congressional support of the removal, and he broke a
number of federal treaty commitments to Indians, including some that he had
personally negotiated. While Jackson was not the only president who abused
powers granted to him by the legislative branch, disregard of the extralegal char-
acter of much of his Indian policy has contributed to the over-simplistic view of
Indian removal found in much of the historical literature.
In a message to the Congress of the United States dated 8 December 1829
Jackson declared of removal: “This emigration should be voluntary, for it would
be as cruel as unjust to compel the aborigines to abandon the graves of their
fathers, and seek a home in a distant land.” The president added that “our
conduct toward these people” would reflect on “our national character.”6This
perspective on Indian affairs is particularly interesting in light of Jackson’s treat-
ment of Indians during his first year of office, which reflected his long-standing
belief that Indian treaties were not really binding on the nation. The Jackson
administration had refused to intervene to protect the Cherokee from the state
of Georgia, which by legislative act had denied the Cherokees’ right to tribal self-
government and challenged their ultimate ownership of their land. Repudiating
all past constitutional precedents, Andrew Jackson had declared that the federal
government could not interfere with the states’ management of Indian affairs
within their own borders. In his 1829 message to Congress, Jackson noted that
“years ago I stated to them my belief that if the states chose to extend their laws
over them it would not be in the power of the federal government to prevent it.”7
Secretary of War Eaton, speaking for the President, several months earlier had
informed Cherokee leaders that the guarantees in treaties with the United States
that they claimed protected their rights against encroachment by Georgia in fact
were nothing more than temporary grants of privilege awarded by a conquering
power—the United States—to a vanquished people, the Cherokee. There were,
Eaton declared, no guarantees in any treaty that could be considered permanent,
6. James D. Richardson, A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 10 vols.
(Washington, D.C., 1896–99), 2: 457–59.
7. First Annual Message, 18 December 1829, in Richardson, Messages and Papers of the
Presidents, 2: 458.
ABUSE OF POWER
nor could any clause be construed as “adverse to the sovereignty of Georgia.”8
Indeed, in the early stages of Congress’s deliberations on Indian removal, the
report of the House Committee on Indian Affairs, written by close associates of
the president, dismissed Indian treaty-making as nothing more than an “empty
gesture” to placate Indian “vanity.” Such treaties were not really treaties, the
committee declared, but were only a “stately form of intercourse” useful in
gaining Indian acquiescence in peacemaking and land cession. Although that view
was rejected in the bill finally presented to Congress, it was reflected still in the
words of some pro-removal congressmen and thereby served to arouse suspicion
of the administration’s real intent with regard to Indian removal.9
Although privately in favor of coerced removal (and as a former treaty com-
missioner, skilled and experienced in the coercing of Indians), President Jackson
recognized that he could not obtain from Congress the aggressive removal law
that many writers imagine was actually passed. Hence, Jackson did not ask that
Congress authorize forced deportation, but instead sought authorization and
funding to continue his predecessors’ policy of granting land west of the Missis-
sippi to tribes willing to relinquish their eastern holdings. The Indian Removal
Act of 1830 made provision for the president to negotiate for land exchanges
and make payments for “improvements” (i.e., houses, barns, orchards, etc.) that
Indians had made on their lands. The president was also authorized to pay trans-
portation costs to the West. An appropriation of $500,000 was provided for those
purposes.10Significantly, there was no provision in the bill authorizing the seizure
of land that Indians declined to cede by treaty.
Members of Jackson’s administration underscored the presumed voluntary
nature of the president’s removal program. Secretary of War John Henry Eaton
assured skeptical congressmen that “nothing of a compulsory nature to effect
the removal of this unfortunate race of people has ever been thought of by the
President, despite assertions to the contrary.”11Worried by the extensive anti-
removal campaign recently mounted by the Boston-based American Board of
Commissioners of Foreign Missions and by some of Jackson’s political opponents,
Eaton in confidential correspondence twice warned the Governor of Georgia
8. John Eaton to the Cherokee Delegation, 18 April 1829, OAILS.
9. House Committee on Indian Affairs, H.R. 227(1830), 11.
10. The text of the Indian Removal Act is reprinted in many places, including Wallace, Long
Bitter Trail, 125–26.
11. Quoted in Rogin, Fathers and Children, 241.
that the state must be careful to avoid “the appearance of harshness towards the
Indians.” Should Georgia be suspected of “injustice,” it might well prove impos-
sible to secure broad based support for Jackson’s removal program.12To reassure
the general public, Michigan Governor and Jackson loyalist Lewis Cass, in an
unsigned article in the influential North American Review in January 1830,
declared that the administration not only understood that “no force should be
used,” but was determined that Indians “shall be liberally remunerated for all
they may cede.”13
Jackson’s supporters in Congress also assured doubters that the administration
did not intend to force a single Indian to move against his or her will. To cite three
typical examples, Senator Robert Adams of Mississippi denied that the legislation
Jackson requested would give the president any power “to drive those unfortunate
people from their present abode.” Indian relocation, the senator insisted, would
remain “free and voluntary.”14Congressman James Buchanan of Pennsylvania
assured the House that there was no cause for concern, as Jackson had never con-
sidered “using the power of the government to drive that unfortunate race of men
across the Mississippi.”15Congressman Wilson Lumpkin of Georgia assured his
colleagues that “no man entertains kinder feelings towards Indians than Andrew
Jackson.”16Jackson’s supporters in Congress reminded skeptics of the president’s
assurances that Indians belonging to tribes that had signed removal treaties, but
who did not themselves wish to accompany their kinsmen on the trek westward,
would receive individual land grants after tribal claims had been extinguished and
would then be welcome to remain behind as citizens of the states, where they
would, in Jackson’s words, be “protected in their persons and property.”17
12. Eaton to John Forsyth, 15 September, 14 October 1829, Office of Indian Affairs, Letters
Sent, Microfilm, National Archives, Washington, D.C. Hereafter cited as OIALS. Writing
under the assumed name “William Penn,” the Society’s secretary, Jeremiah Evarts, published
a series of essays in the National Intelligencer between 5 August and 19 December 1829
that mobilized evangelicals and others in opposition to Jackson’s proposed Indian removal
legislation. Widely circulated in a pamphlet edition during the 1830’s, the Penn essays have
been more recently reprinted in Francis Paul Prucha, ed., Cherokee Removal: The William
Penn Essays and Other Writings (Knoxville, Tenn., 1981). On Evarts’s career, see John A.
Andrews, III, From Revivals to Removal: Jeremiah Evarts. The Cherokee Nation, and the
Search for the Soul of America (Athens, Ga., 1992).
13. Lewis Cass, “Removal of the Indians,” North American Review 30 (January 1830): 62–121.
14. Register of Debates, 21 Cong., I Sess., 20 April 1830, 357–69.
15. Quoted in Rogin, Fathers and Children, 214.
16. Register of Debates, 21 Cong., I Sess., 17 May 1830, 1021–24.
17. Richardson, Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 2: 457–59.