New book explores Jackson’s dark choices for American expansion

Steve Inskeep, co-host of NPR's Morning Edition, explores a chapter of American history that isn't well known: how the United States expanded into the Deep South after the Revolutionary War. Inskeep joins Judy Woodruff to discuss his new book, "Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross and a Great American Land Grab."

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    Now we go another addition to the "NewsHour" Bookshelf.

    It's a story somewhat lost to history, how the United States expanded after the Revolutionary War into the Deep South.

    Steve Inskeep, co-host of NPR's "Morning Edition," has the details in "Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab."

    Judy Woodruff talked to him last week at Busboys and Poets, a bookstore and restaurant in the D.C. area.


    Steve Inskeep, welcome.

    STEVE INSKEEP, Author, "Jacksonland": It's a delight to be here.


    So, you report from all over the world. You have told stories from so many parts of this — of the globe, and yet you also really love American history. That comes through in this book.


    Well, thank you.

    I wanted to go back to the beginning, in a sense. And I ended up doing this story, which is set in the 1820s and '30s, a period when democracy as we know it, the democratic institutions we know began to take shape. And so it's a really exciting period of American history, even though I found a really dark story there.


    And it's a particular part of that period that obviously had to do with a moment when the leaders of our country realized they had to make a decision about what to do about the Indians. Why was that important?


    Well, it was an epic moment, really, because the United States was expanding.

    The U.S. had won its independence. The revolutionary generation that had won that independence was aging and dying off. A second generation was coming to the stage. And settlers were pushing West into what was legally Indian territory. They were Indian nations. They were not really legally under the control of the United States.

    And so there was a basic conflict there. Was white settlement going to win or were Indian rights going to be upheld? That was the question that people were wrestling with. And, fundamentally, people who were running the United States in that generation were trying to find a way to displace the Indians, humanely, they hoped, but they really, really wanted the real estate.


    Well, the two — there are two central figures in the story, of course. One is Andrew Jackson. We think we know so much about this man, seventh president of the United States. He was a great general during the War of 1812, father of the Democratic Party.

    But you paint a portrait of him that's not — not so attractive.


    A much darker side of Andrew Jackson involves the fact that he was a slave owner, that he ran multiple plantations, that he displaced Indians, not just once in the Trail of Tears in 1838, which is what everybody learns about in elementary school, but throughout his career through a period of more than 20 years, as a general defeating them in battle, again as a general outnegotiating them in treaties, or bullying them in treaties, really, and then finally as president signing something called the Indian Removal Act, which set up the conditions to force the movement of further Indian nations to the West, to what is now Oklahoma.

    And that dark side is completely connected to Andrew Jackson's bright side. He was about the expansion of the United States, the security of the United States, the growth of the United States, but he saw that as connected with pushing Indians, Native Americans out of the way.

    There were Native Americans who wanted to be part of the United States, not all of them by any means, but John Ross, this other main character, is one who certainly did.


    He's really the central other figure here, not nearly as well-known as Jackson, and yet he was a huge player in what happened in that period.


    I would like him to be better known, Judy. He is someone that you see his name in history books. A couple of biographies have been written, but more should be written about him, because he is parted of the development of American democracy, too.

    He's part of a great democratic story. You have Andrew Jackson, this man who was of very modest beginnings. No one so — no one so poor at the beginning of his life had ever become president before. John Ross, at the same time, was being opposed by this man and used democratic tools to fight back.

    Unlike other Native American leaders, he didn't fight in a rebellion that would have been hopeless because the Indians were outnumbered. He used propaganda. The Cherokees started a newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix. The articles were spread across the United States. Supporters of Cherokee rights figured out ways to make their articles go viral in the 19th century media.

    They fought and lobbied in Congress. They got petitions going. They even sued in the U.S. Supreme Court.


    Did Andrew Jackson have a choice? Did he have to do what he did?


    It would have been hard to find another choice, if you were going to continue the expansion of the United States.

    There were other alternatives. One was seriously considered and pressed upon Andrew Jackson at the time, which was simply, stop this. Stop doing this. Recognize that Native American nations have rights and leave them alone, until such time that they feel that they're willing to incorporate with the U.S. or sell their land without being coerced.

    That was an option. It would have been a very difficult option, though, because white settlers, many of them with slaves who wanted to start plantations, were pushing on that land at the same time, particularly settlers from the state of Georgia, which was the absolute heartland of the Cherokee Nation.


    So, Steve, what is it that you want Americans to know, to learn from this period?


    A couple of vital things.

    One is simply that we have been at democracy for a long time, and when you go back to the 1820s and 1830s, you notice people speaking in the same way, speaking in recognizable ways and acting in recognizable ways. And you realize there's something we can learn from this as we study our politics today.

    Another thing that's really specific that I would like people to know that I think hasn't been realized is the role of Native Americans, and of Cherokees specifically, in helping to develop American democracy at this vital point. Even people who are sympathetic to the Native American point of view, I think, have tended to see them mainly as victims.

    And they were, but they also fought back, fought within the democratic process, and added to our democratic tradition. There's much to be proud of here.


    That's a side of the Native American story that so many of us don't recognize.

    Steve Inskeep, the book is "Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab." It's just a terrific book.

    Thank you very much.


    It's an honor to be here. Thanks.

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