Chapter V liberal Society and J

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Liberal Society and


the Indian Question

Our conduct toward these people is deeply interesting to our
national character.
Andrew Jackson, First Annual
Message to Congress, 1829

Underneath the "ambitious expansionism" of modern western societies, writes Henri Baudet in Paradise on Earth, "with their economic savoir faire, their social ideology, and their organizational talents,"lies "a psy- chological disposition out of all political reality. It exists independently of objective facts, which seem to have become irrelevant. It is a dispo- sition that leads [its adherent] 'to die' rather than 'to do,' and forces him to repent of his wickedness, covetousness, pride, and complacency."' The worldly orientation, Baudet argues, points to history and practical consequences, the inner disposition to a primitiveness beyond history. The first is expansive, the second regressive. This regressive, inner dis- position, Baudet believes, has fastened on images of the noble savage, the garden of Eden, and paradise on earth.

In America, however, "ambitious expansionism" encountered the "regressive impulse" as a "political reality." This conflict between ex- pansion and regression, I will suggest, is the precise cultural meaning

I am grateful to Paul Roazen for directing my early reading in psychoanalytic sources, to Leslie and Margaret Fiedler, and to the political theorists oncetogether in Berkeley-Norman Jacobson, Hanna Pitkin, John H. Schaar, and Sheldon Wolin-for providing, with our students, the intellectual setting in which this essay was written.

Portions of a draft of this paper were presented at the University of North Carolina Symposium "Laws, Rights, and Authority," Chapel Hill, 20-22 February 1970, and at the Annual Meeting of the Western Political Science Association, Sacramento, 3 April 1970.

Liberal Society and the Indian Question

Americans gave to their destruction of the Indians. Their language teaches us some intolerable truths about regression, maturity, and death in liberal America.

In calling America a liberal society, I mean to evoke the unchallenged primacy of propertied individualism across the political spectrum. At the outset the contrast between expansionist, liberal America's self-conception and its image of the Indians seems clear enough. Liberalism insisted on the independence of men, each from the other and from cul- tural, traditional, and communal attachments. Indians were perceived as connected to their past, their superstitions, and their land. Liberalism insisted upon work, instinctual repression, and acquisitive behavior; men had to conquer and separate themselves from nature. Indians were seen as playful, violent, improvident, wild, and in harmony with nature. Private property underlay liberal society; Indians held land in common. Liberal relations were based contractually on keeping promises and on personal responsibility. Indians, in the liberal view, were anarchic and irresponsible. Americans believed that peaceful competitiveness kept them in touch with one another and provided social cement. They thought that Indians, lacking social order, were devoted to war.

Disastrously for the liberal self-conception, however, its distance from primitive man was not secure. At the heart of ambitious expan- sionism lay the regressive impulse itself. Indians were in harmony with nature; lonely, independent, liberal men were separated from it, and their culture lacked the richness, diversity, and traditional attachments to sustain their independence. The consequence was forbidden nostal- gia, for the nurturing, blissful, and primitively violent connection to na- ture that white Americans had had to leave behind. At the core of lib- eralism lay the belief that such human connections to each other and to the land were dreams only, subjects of nostalgia or sentimentalization but impossible in the existing adult world. By suggesting the reality of the dream, Indian societies posed a severe threat to liberal identity. The only safe Indians were dead, sanitized, or totally dependent upon white benevolence. Liberal action enforced the only world possible in liberal theory.

The intimate historical encounter with the Indians still further un- dermined liberal identity. "In the beginning," John Locke had written, "all the world was Ameri~a.''~ Then men relinquished the state of na- ture, freely contracted together, and entered civil society. But that was not the way it happened-in America. True, settlers had come to escape the corruption and traditional restraints of Europe, to begin again, to

return to the state of nature and contract together. They aimed, as Ham-

ilton put it in the Federalist Papers, to build a state based on "reflection

and choice" rather than on "accident and force.'" But while the origins

of European countries were shrouded in the mists of obscure history,

America had clearly begun not with primal innocence and consent but

with acts of force and fraud. Stripping away history did not permit be-

ginning without sin; it simply exposed the sin at the beginning of it all.

In the popular culture of films, Westerns, and children's games, seiz- ing America fromthe Indians is the central, mythical, formative expe- rience. Its dynamic figures prominently in the Vietnam War, providing symbols for soldiers, names for combat missions, and the framework for Pentagon strategic plans.' But historians have ignored the elimina- tion of the Indians and minimized its significance for American devel- opment. This was the one outcome American statesmen in the two cen- turies before the Civil War could not imagine. For the dispossession of the Indians did not simply happen once and for all in the beginning. America was continually beginning again, and as it expanded across the continent, it killed, removed, and drove into extinction one tribe after another. I will focus here on the first half of the nineteenth century and particularly on the "Indian removal" program of Jacksonian democ- racy.'

Expansion across the continent was the central fact of American pol- itics from Jefferson's presidency through the Mexican War. Indians in- habited almost all the territory west of the Appalachians in 1800; they had to be removed. The story is bloody and corrupt beyond imagining, and few American political figures escape from it without dishonor. From 1820 to 1844 one hundred thousand Indians were removed from their homes and transported west of the Mississippi. One-quarter to one-third of these died or were killed in the process.' Indian removal was Andrew Jackson's major concrete political aim in the years before he became president; Van Buren later listed it as one of the four major achievements of Jackson's administration, along with the bank war, the internal improvements veto, and the nullification fight.7 Six of the eleven major candidates for president in the years from 1820 to 1852 had either won reputations as generals in Indian wars or served as secretaries of war, whose major responsibility in this period was relations with the Indians.'

How to reconcile the elimination of the Indians with the liberal self- image? This problem preoccupied the statesmen of the period. "The great moral debt we owe to this unhappy race is universally felt and Liberal Society and the Indian Question

acknowledged," Secretary of War Lewis Cass reported in 1831.' In our relations to the Indians, wrote Van Buren, "we are as a nation respon- sible in foro conscientiae, to the opinions of the great family of nations, as it involves the course we have pursued and shall pursue towards a people comparatively weak, upon whom we were perhaps in the be- ginning unjustifiable aggressors, but of whom, in the progress of time and events, we have become the guardians, and, as we hope, the


Van Buren and the others felt the eyes of the world upon America. They needed a policy and rhetoric permitting them to believe that our encounter with the Indians, "the most difficult of all our relations, for- eign and domestic, has at last been justified to the world in its near approach to a happy and certain consummation."" They needed to jus- tify-the Puritan word means save for God-a society built upon In- dian graves.

The theory and language American statesmen employed cemented the historical white-Indian tie with intimate symbolic meaning. Ameri- ca's expansion across the continent, everyone agreed, reproduced the historical evolution of mankind. "The first proprietors of this happy country"" were sometimes said to be the first people on earth. Early in time, they were also primitive in development. Human societies existed along a unilinear scale from savagery to civilization. The early, savage peoples could not coexist with advanced societies; civilization would inevitably displace savagery.I3

So stated, the theory remained abstract; politicians and social com- mentators filled it with personal meaning. The evolution of societies was identical to the evolution of individual men. "Barbarism is to civiliza- tion what childhood is to mat~rity.'"~ Indians were at the infant stage of social evolution. They were "part of the human family'"' as children; their replacement by whites symbolized America's growing up from childhood to maturity. Winthrop Jordan writes, "The Indian became for Americans a symbol of their American experience; it was no mere luck of the toss that placed the profile of an American Indian rather than an American Negro on the famous old five-cent piece. Confronting the Indian in America was a testing experience, common to all the colonies. Conquering the Indian symbolized and personified the conquest of the American difficulties, the surmounting of the wilderness. To push back the Indian was to prove the worth of one's own mission, to make straight in the desert a highway for civilization.""

Not the Indians alive, then, but their destruction, symbolized the American experience. The conquest of the Indians made the country

uniquely American. Yet Jordan is right; America identified at once with

the conquered and the conquering. The Indians-that "much-injured

race," once "the uncontrolled possessors of these vast regions""-he-

came a symbol of something lost, lost inevitably in the process of grow-

ing up."

If the Indians were children, whites thought of themselves as parents.

These parents did not simply replace Indians; they took upon them-

selves, to use Van Buren's words again, the obligations of "benefactors"

and "guardians." What meaning can be given to a policy of death and

dispossession, centrally important to the development of America, over

which considerable guilt is felt and which is justified by the paternal

benevolence of a father for his children?

The myth of Indian disappearance, I will suggest, belongs to the pa-

thology of family relations. The symbols of Indian policy expressed re-

pressed anxiety at the premature separation from warm, maternal pro-

tection. In the white fantasy, Indians remain in the oral stage, sustained

by and unseparated from mother nature. They are at once symbols of a

lost childhood bliss and, as bad children, repositories of murderous neg-

ative projections. Adult independence wreaks vengeance upon its own

nostalgia for infant dependence. The Indian's tie with nature must be

broken, literally by uprooting him, figuratively by civilizing him, finally

by killing him.

Men in the new American world had left behind the authority pro- vided by history, tradition, family connection, and the other ties of old European existence. Political authority, as Locke demonstrated against Sir Robert Filmer, must derive not from paternal relations hut from interactions among free men. In a world where inherited and ascribed qualities were meant to count for so little, political and paternal au- thority would be fragile and insecure. But Indians were not liberal men. The paternal authority repressed out of liberal politics found its arena in paternalism toward Indians.

For whites to indulge their paternal wishes, Indians had to remain helpless children. Liberal paternal authority required its objects to have no independence or life of their own; it envisioned no other alternative to manly independence. As Andrew Jackson advised his nephew, "In- dependence of mind and action is the noblest attribute of man. He that possesses it, and practices upon it, may be said to possess the real image of his creator. Without it, man becomes the real tool in the hands of others, and is wielded, like a mere automaton, sometimes, without Liberal Society and the Indian Question 139

knowing it, to the worst of purposes."" In their paternalism toward the Indians, men like Jackson indulged their secret longing to wield total power. Explicitly the father was to break the child's tie to nature, so the. child could grow up. The actual language and practice substituted for the tie to nature a total, infantilized dependence upon the white father, and the fragmented workings of a liberal marketplace and a liberal. . . . bureaucracy. .....



Liberalism broke the Indian's tie to nature in the name of indepen- . .'; dence; but the destruction of actual Indian autonomy suggested a dy-:Ai, namic to American expansion that contradicted professed liberal

The separation anxiety underlying liberal society expressed itself in a:/? ..,, longing to regain lost attachment to the earth by expanding, swallow- ,.



ing, and incorporating its contents. Liberalism sought to regain the* "dual-unity" of the primal infant-mother connection from a position of;?.;% strength instead of infant helplessness, by devouring and incorporatine&$ identities culturally out of its control. In relation to Indians, whites re-@ gressed to the most primitive form of object relation, namely the anni-" ' hilation of the object through oral introjection. America was by defenders of Manifest Destiny as a "young and growing country," which expanded through "swallowing" territory, "just as an animal needs to eat to grow." Savagery would inevitably "be swallowed by" civilization. The "insatiable" "land hunger" of the whites struck alike critics of and apologists for Indian policy, and observers fell back upon oral metaphors to describe the traders and backwoodsmen "preying, like so many vultures, upon the vitals of those ill-fated tribes."20 Indians were emancipated from the land only to be devoured by a white expan- sionism that could not tolerate their independent existence.

Child destruction was accomplished by a white father, whose matu-
rity enabled him to accept Indian extinction with neither regret nor re-
sponsibility. Benevolence and greed, power and helplessness, were irre-
vocably split in this Jekyll-Hyde figure. The failure to achieve an
integrated paternal figure who could accept responsibility for his actions
recalls the failure to integrate childhood experience into the adult world.
Just as these splits in the ego characterize schizoid personalities, so the
inability to tolerate separation from the other, the longing to return to
an egoless "dual-unity" stage, is a source of adult schizophrenia. But
liberal society (and the men who carried out its Indian policy) neither
disintegrated nor underwent a genuine maturing; liberalism had the
power to remove the Indian menace instead."

At the outset this interpretation of Indian destruction must seem bi- zarre. The myth about Indians was not the work of paranoids and social

madmen but a consensus of almost all leading American political and

intellectual figures. The sources of white expansion onto Indian land,

moreover, seem straightforward. Surely land hunger and the building of

a national empire provided the thrust; at most the cultural myth sought

to come to terms with the experience after the fact.

But the centrality of Indian dispossession in pre-Civil War America

raises disturbing questions about the American political core that are

hardly met by viewing Indian removal as pragmatic and inevitable. Pre-

cisely such basic encounters, inevitable as their outcome may be once

they reach a certain point, form the history and the culture of a country.

Hannah Arendt, for example, has suggested that the prolonged meeting

of "advanced" and primitive peoples forms an important factor in the

origins of t~talitarianism.~~

Consider the following as central to the

American-Indian experience: the collapse of conceptions of human

rights in the face of culturally distant peoples, with resulting civilized

atrocities defended as responses to savage atrocities; easy talk about,

and occasional practice of, tribal extermination; the perceived impos-

sibility of cultural coexistence, and a growing acceptance of "inevitable"

racial extinction; total war, with all-or-nothing conflicts over living

space and minimal combatant-noncombatant distinctions; and the in-

ability of the savage people to retire behind a stable frontier, provoking

whites' confidence in their ability to conquer, subdue, and advance over

obstacles in their environment. Noam Chomsky asks, "Is it an exagger-

ation to suggest that our history of extermination and racism is reaching

its climax in Vietnam today? It is not a question that Americans can

easily put aside.""

Admit that white symbolization of lndians had to cover a proto- totalitarian situation; does that make the symbols themselves significant causes of Indian policy rather than mere rationalizations for it? The issue of causality is complex, and I plan no extended defense of the importance of cultural myths to the ongoing cultural and political life of a nation. At the very least, attention to myth will tell us what whites made of their encounter with the Indians, what meaning it had for them. This meaning developed out of, and was enriched by, innumerable spe- cific interactions and policy decisions before, during, and after the ma- jor events of Indian removal. Only a peculiarly split view of human existence holds that symbolizations of meaning operate in a closed uni- verse of their own, divorced from the "real" facts of historical causa- tion. Men make history; they develop complex inner worlds because

Liberal Society and the Indian Question

(from infant frustrations through their experience as historical actors) they do not make it in circumstances of their own choosing. These inner worlds, projected outside, become part of the continuing history men do make.

The search for historical causes, moreover, may well be misleading. In the present case historical explanation ought to aim at the fullest significant description of the matrix of white-Indian relations. Any de- scription that, in the name of pragmatism, behaviorism, or vulgar ma- terialism, omitted the symbolic meaning actors gave to their actions would be radically incomplete.

Surely, however, if our concern is with actors' perceptions, Freudian categories and loose talk of madness are gratuitous intrusions upon the language actually employed. The problem is this: Americans uniformly employed familial language in speaking of the Indians; most historians and political scientists have been systematically deaf to it. Lacking a theory that sensitized them to such a vocabulary and helped them in- terpret it, perhaps they could not hear what was being said. Let us begin to take seriously the words of those who made our Indian policy.




I1 ..^;,.

.. .,.

In the antebellum white imagination the American family began with : the mother and child. Indians were the "sons of the forest," "the children.'? of nat~re."~' Savages were children because of their unrestrained im- '; pulse life and because they remained unseparated from nature. The met- aphors resemble, to their details, psychoanalytic descriptions of fanta- sies of the oral stage of infant bliss.

T.L. McKenney, chief administrator of Indian affairs from 1816 to 1830 offered the typical picture of the aboriginal tribes in pre-Columbian times. "Onward, and yet onward, moved the bands, clothed in winter in the skins of beasts, and in the summer free from all such encumbrances. The earth was their mother, and upon its lap they re- posed. Rude wigwams sheltered them. Hunger and thirst satisfied, sleep followed-and within this circle was contained the happiness of the ab- original man."''

Indians were at home in nature. They had a primitive, pre- conscious, precivilized innocence. They had not yet become separated from the earth but enjoyed "almost without restriction or control the blessings which flowed spontaneously from the bounty of nature.""

142 . Ronald Reagan, the Movie

Savages lived in a world of plenty, protected and nurtured by mother nature. Their world was Eden, or paradise."

The Indians' connectedness to nature in no way restricted their free- dom, in the white view. Aborigines were free to wander from place to place without losing the tie to nature. Manly and independent, they "never submitted themselves to any laws, any coercive power, any shadow of g~vernment."~' Although Indians spoke often to whites about the land and the bones of their father, the savages' connection to nature and freedom from paternal, governmental authority seemed most to excite white imaginations.

Francis Parkman reduced the metaphor to its psychological essence:

The Indian is hewn out of rock. You can rarely change the form without destruction of the substance. Races of inferior energy have possessed a power of expansion and assimilation to which he is a stranger; and it is this fixed and rigid quality which has proved his ruin. He will not learn the arts of civilization, and he and forest must perish together. The stern, unchanging features of his mind excite our admiration from their very immutability; and we look with deep interest on the fate of this irreclaimable son of the wil- derness, the child who will not be weaned from the breast of his rugged m0ther.2~

Why the sense of doom in Parkman's passage? Why cannot the bliss of the infant at the mother's breast be sustained? Why must the Indian relinquish Eden or die, and why can he not give it up? The whites gave two related answers. First, the Indians would not work; they were im- provident and lacked the "principles of re~traint'"~ necessary to preserve themselves against adversity. Overlooking, for their own political and myth-making purposes, extensive Indian agriculture (which had kept the first white settlers from starving), they perceived the Indians simply as wandering hunters." They could not be made to turn to agriculture; they would not "subdue and replenish" the earth, as the incessantly quoted biblical injunction ordered. They would not forsake the primi- tive, oral, accepting relationwith nature and try to control and subdue her. They would not accumulate property, build lasting edifices, make contracts, and organize their lives around rules and restraints. They

would not, so to speak, move from the oral to the anal stage.

The typical description of this unwillingness revealed the writer's own sense of loss, his own envy of the presumed Indian condition. Lewis Cass, the politician with the most dealings with northern Indians in the decades following the War of 1812, sympathized:

It is easy, in contemplating the situation of such a people, to perceive the difficulties to be encountered in any effort to produce a radical change in Liberal Society and the Indian Question

their condition. The

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