Home > Uncategorized > Erasing history or what Rick Santorum got wrong – posted 5/5/2021

Erasing history or what Rick Santorum got wrong – posted 5/5/2021

At a recent conference of right-wingers from the Young Americas Foundation, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum created a stir. He stated:

“We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here. I mean, yes, we have Native Americans, but candidly there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.”

Candidly, it is hard to know where to begin with a statement of such profound ignorance. If there was nobody on the land, what happened to the Native Americans?

Santorum appears to know nothing of early American history which should not be surprising because, after the revolution, early American history is not generally well known. I think history between the Revolution and up until the Civil War is generally overlooked.

Saying there was nothing in America when the settlers arrived hides the history of the campaign to expel and exterminate Native peoples from the area east of the Mississippi River. It is impossible to understand early American history without seeing the centrality of that expulsion and extermination.

For the southeastern states, deportation of the Indians was necessary to clear the land for the growth of cotton plantations and the full emergence of the slave economy. The white planter class profited hugely from the dispossession.

From even before the Revolution, back country settlers burned Indian villages and waged a war of aggression. Settlers saw the Indians as savages and acted with genocidal intent.

For example, in April 1779, New York militia attacked Onandaga, the center of the Iroquois League, and they burned the town. Shortly after, the American army invaded the Seneca and Cayuga homelands, burning 40 towns. From 1810-1814, brutal military campaigns were conducted against the followers of the Shawnee leader Tecumseh in the Ohio River Valley and against the Creek Confederacy farther south.

The Native people called the settlers “long knives”. Scalp hunting by the settlers developed into a lucrative commercial practice. The settlers practiced extreme violence against Native civilians, prompting indigenous resistance.

The history of the early 19th century was euphemized into what was called “Indian removal”. Readers can take their pick about what decade in American history has been most hidden and obscured. I would pick the 1830’s as a culmination of years of struggle between American settlers and Native tribes.

The 1830’s saw the passage of the Indian Removal Act promoted by President Andrew Jackson. The law proved pivotal in forcing 80,000 Indians westward. The story of this epic struggle is told in Claudio Saunt’s revelatory book, Unworthy Republic.

The sustained brutality of the removals, the failure of government accountability, and the sheer racism of the entire enterprise are mind-boggling. The Choctaw, the Creek, the Chickasaw, the Cherokee and the Seminoles all faced massive dispossession.

Still, it was not a given that Native Americans would be expelled from the eastern U.S. There was a ferocious political battle between the forces favoring Indian removal and those who opposed it.

Part of what is insidious about Santorum’s comment is the way it erases the real struggle that did take place. If America was a blank slate, then it was only about the settlers’ actions to conquer a wilderness. While many settlers saw no value in Indian culture, that view was not universally shared. When the Indian Removal Act passed Congress in 1831, it barely squeaked through the House by a vote of 102-97.

The Indians had supporters. When debating removal in the Senate, New Jersey Senator Theodore Frelinghuysen argued:

“We have crowded the tribes upon a few miserable acres on our southern frontier; it is all that is left to them of their once boundless forest; and still like the horse-leech, our unsatiated cupidity cries, give! give!…Sir…Do the obligations of justice change with the color of the skin?”

Many Native Americans did not want to be forced West. An impressive Native American resistance to Jackson emerged. The Cherokee Phoenix, a newspaper published in English and Cherokee, forcefully advocated for Indian concerns. Cherokee Chief John Ross tried to stop the removal effort. He had negotiated with the U.S. government and effectively defended Cherokee interests.

When Ross was unsuccessful in protecting Cherokee land through his efforts in Congress and with the Executive Branch, he creatively pursued a judicial strategy at the U.S. Supreme Court. That also ultimately proved unsuccessful.

The challenges presented the Native Americans were overwhelming. Federal treaties and federal laws gave Congress authority over the tribes. The Indian Trade and Intercourse Act passed by Congress in 1802 had previously said that there could be no land cessions except by treaty with a tribe.

President Jackson ignored treaties and laws. He also disregarded a Supreme Court mandate barring Georgia from intruding on Cherokee lands. Southern states passed state laws to exert control over Indians in their territory. As Howard Zinn wrote:

“These laws did away with the tribe as a legal unit, outlawed tribal meetings, took away the chief’s powers, made the Indians subject to militia duty and state taxes, but denied them the right to vote, to bring suits or to testify in court. Indian territory was divided up, to be distributed by state lottery. Whites were encouraged to settle on Indian land.”

It proved hard to maintain a unified opposition among the tribes. Pressures on the tribes led to some agreeing to removal in exchange for financial help in leaving, some compensation and a guarantee they would never again be required to move.

Land speculators and voracious capitalists descended on Indian lands like a plague. Fraud and deceit were epidemic. In Florida, a white invasion of Indian lands led to a guerrilla war between the Seminoles and government troops. That war went on for years.

The multiple horrors of the removal make it hard to tell this story in a manner commensurate with the degree of tragedy inflicted on the Indian tribes. The removal killed Indians through exposure to freezing temperatures, cholera outbreaks and starvation. Thousands died before reaching their destinations.

In October 1838, President Martin Van Buren ordered Major General Winfield Scott into Cherokee country with the mission of forcibly relocating the tribe westward. The U.S. military rounded up 17,000 Cherokees and forced them into stockades. That led to the Trail of Tears. Over a four month period in wintry conditions, nearly 4,000 Cherokees died while trying to walk the 1,000 miles to where they had been ordered to live.

The government, in a paternalistic way, sold the Removal Act on the basis that Native Americans who made the journey west of the Mississippi would never have to move from their new homelands. That later turned out to be a lie. The passage of the Dawes Act in 1887 again drove out indigenous people.

If you are going to say the country was birthed from nothing, which is ridiculous, you should at least explain. Like other conservatives who do not want the true story told, Santorum is another phony who cannot stand the truth.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Pat Dawson
    May 7, 2021 at 1:03 am

    Watch John Leguizamo’s History of the Latin People for Morons on Netflix. He talks about this
    .. I thinl you will enjoy it.

    • May 7, 2021 at 1:04 am

      Thanks Pat. I will check it out.

  2. Paul Nichols
    May 24, 2021 at 6:36 pm

    Jonathan, this is such a powerful essay reflecting on a tragic period of US history that’s too often hidden from books and classroom discussions. I harken back to an invaluable course I took at UNH in the mid-1990’s titled “Native Peoples of the Americas” which extensively covered the important points you’ve made. So often it’s impossible to be proud of events in our past. Even today, indigenous people are treated unfairly and with disrespect.

    • May 25, 2021 at 1:17 am

      Thanks Paul. I suppose I have a pretty dark view of that history and of American history generally. We seem like we have this wish to create a fantasy that never happened. I was a history major in college and read pretty widely about countries outside the US. Learning more about the US, I feel like there is so much to discuss. Americans seem pretty uninterested in history to me. All the legislative efforts to stop critical race theory and the 1619 project seem so misplaced to me. It sounds like the course you took at UNH would be great for a far wider audience.

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