Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Ross’s arguments

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Trail of Tears

Sydney Doxey

July 21, 2014

American Civilization / History 1700

Part A

“Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Ross’s arguments”

I chose to analyze the letter Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote to President Van Buren and compare it to the writings of John Ross. Both men felt passionately against the Indian Removal Act and used their writings to express their distaste in hopes to prevent our country from writing one of its darkest chapters.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Letter written to President Martin Van Buren, 1836

Ralph Waldo Emerson was a well known American Transcendentalist poet, lecturer and essayist during the 19th century; his talents in writing make him a very credible source. Emerson rarely spoke out on political issues, yet used a convincing rhetoric when speaking to President Van Buren about the nation’s legal and moral arguments about the Indian Removal Act.

In 1836 Ralph Waldo Emerson compiled a heartfelt, persuasive letter that was intended to be read by Martin Van Buren, the President of the United States at the time. There is no documented data indicating that Martin Van Buren received or actually read his compelling plea. Despite that, his passionate words live on today, nearly 180 years later, retelling today’s world about one of the bleakest, darkest, most horrific acts that happened on American soil, and how this act of cruelty was carried out with little to no support from its nation. Emerson stood on the same side of the argument as majority of American citizens, being passionately against the idea of Indian Removal.

Ralph Waldo Emerson begins his letter to President Van Buren by instantly making it known that he holds him in the highest regard and has the utmost respect for him and his role as President of the United States. Immediately, using a pathos approach, Emerson brings it to Martin Van Buren’s attention that with his great power also comes great responsibility. His actions and decisions not only affect himself, but an entire nation of people. A poor judgment call, or bad decision, may cause his nation to repel their affections and turn against him. The poor judgment call being implied had to do with the possible act of Indian Removal that is currently being considered in the United States, and Van Buren playing a heavy role in deciding whether or not this horrific act will be carried out. By using a polite introduction, even a praising one, Emerson projects that he is knowledgeable and respectable which would entice Van Buren to continue reading. Had Emerson started off guns blazing and ill tempered, he would have appeared to be angry, ignorant and ill-educated, which would not entice Van Buren to continue reading, or to take his side. However, I do feel that Emerson nearly counteracts his well done introduction, by stating that he is aware that his name will be unknown to Van Buren and that he knows his voice and opinion fair little chance at being heard. It is almost as if Emerson used the opposite of an ethos approach, one that presents the author with credibility and authority on the subject being presented. He fails to leave an impression to Van Buren that he is someone worth listening to, which leaves me to wonder if Van Buren continued reading or completely disregarded this well intended letter after only reading the first paragraph.

What is intended to be a supportive opinion of the Cherokee tribes comes across as somewhat ambiguous. Whenever Emerson praises the Cherokee people, a subtle put down, whether intentional or not, quickly follows. For example, he states that there is rumor about their worth and civility. Rumor? When fighting for a cause that one strongly believes in, as Emerson claims to do, I feel that referring to a positive attribute should be based on something stronger than a mere rumor. Perhaps it was the proper wording used at the time, or perhaps Emerson isn’t fully confident in his stance, which would also deter a reader from moving forward into the letter. Using descriptions such as “eternal inferiority” and “dealing with them”, hints towards Emerson having negative or uncertain feelings about these people whom he is trying to defend. His comments, whether or not written with good intentions, do come off somewhat questionable and somewhat weaken his argument. Giving Emerson the benefit of the doubt, one might assume his words and descriptions were very fitting back in 1836 and produced a different, more favorable meaning during that time.

Transitioning to a logos approach, Emerson turns to the “facts”. He credits the newspaper of informing him about a treaty that was compiled in December of 1835, in which the will of the Cherokees nor the American did not receive legitimate representation. The newspaper stated that 15, 688 of 18,000 members of the nation protested against the relocating of the Cherokee tribes. To say the majority of the American and Cherokee population disagreed is a radical understatement! Emerson gets passionate and refers to said treaty as a sham. By giving Van Buren facts and statistics from a reliable source, he is speaking to his logistic side which would make this letter difficult to disregard, that is if he ever read it this far. Emerson gives another detail, stating that the removal is scheduled to begin exactly a month from the day his letter was written.

“In the name of God, sir, we ask you if this rumor be so. Do the newspapers rightly inform us?” begins his next argument, now turning to a pathos based approach by bringing God and religion into his side of the argument, hoping to speak to and persuade the emotional and moral traits of Martin Van Buren. Emerson also insists that the words the nation is reading with “perplexity and pale faces” simply cannot be true. As Emerson continues, the calm, polite approach he began with gracefully transitions into a straight forward, candid, no nonsense approach. Emerson goes on describing the treaty as a dereliction of faith and virtue, denying justice and asking straight forwardly if the government believes the people of the United States have become savage and mad. Emerson admits his speaking on the behalf of his neighbors may be overstepping the lines of proper etiquette, yet strongly believes he would be committing a worse offense to not speak up against a matter such as this. Replacing the word “treaty” for the word crime, he states that if followed through, it would be just as much a disservice to the American people as it would be to the Cherokee nation. Emerson profoundly asks the question, how we can call the conspiracy wanting to crush the Indians “our government” and the cursed land we would conquer by their removal “our country”? Even as I read his words today, it generates a pathos effect! Imagine the magnitude of his appeal to Van Buren back in 1836. Emerson continues telling Martin Van Buren that his possible acts of deceit and treachery will cause the name of the American nation to stink unto the rest of the world, and the seat which he fills as leader of the United States will be remembered by bitter disgrace and regret.

Emerson continues by saying, “It is in our hearts the simplest commandment of brotherly love”, creating an ethos appeal by bringing God and religion into his argument. Emerson acknowledges that they are living in hard economic times and the strain has been felt throughout every home, from the farmer to the poor man. He comments that such strain is comparable to crickets chirping when held in comparison to the magnitude of this immoral question of removing an entire nation of people from their homeland. “Will the American government steal? Will it lie? Will it kill?” Emerson asks triumphantly. He claims that ten years ago statesmen would have staked their own lives on the guarantee that this proposed Indian Removal would not take place. As Emerson concludes his letter to Van Buren he once again makes him know of the uneasy feelings the idea of Indian Removal has stirred up not only in him, but also in the rest of the American people. Once again using a pathos approach in hopes to persuade Van Buren, asks him to us his delegated power and the voice he holds over millions of men to avert the massive destruction that is potentially headed towards the Cherokee tribe.

John Ross’s papers, 1839

Chief John Ross, a man with a Scottish and one-eighth Cherokee descent led the Ross Party in opposition against the New Echota Treaty. The Ross Party and majority of the Cherokee Nation fought against the Removal until they were overthrown and the United States government prevailed. Using the treaty as justification, close to seventeen thousand Cherokees were physically and violently eliminated from their home land.

In his writings John Ross leaves no questions regarding the fact that he believes the “treaty” put into place on December 29, 1835 was fraudulent and deceptive. He states the treaty was agreed upon without receiving legitimate approval from the Cherokee nation. “Certain Cherokee individuals” and Rev. John F. Schermerhorn created a bogus treaty using fraudulent representations in favor of the Government. Similar to Emerson, Ross’s writings appeal to a pathos audience, stirring up emotions involving the mistreatment and cruel treatment of the Cherokee people. Ross cries that he is living in a nation that has been denationalized; there is no one to receive its member’s complaints and concerns; he feels robbed of a membership in the human family! “We have neither land nor home, nor resting place that can be called our own”. An overwhelming feeling takes over Ross and his people, their hearts are sickened and they feel paralyzed when forced to think about the position they have been forced into. Ross begs one last time to consider the parties that will be affected by the result of the Indian removal, and compels the reader to compassionately consider the negative results of following through with such a violent act.

Although Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Ross share the same viewpoint of being passionately against the Indian Removal and they both speak proficiently in their stance of opposition, I feel that John Ross makes a better point when fighting for his side of the argument. Ross never sways from his beliefs, only speaking positively of the Cherokee people. Emerson’s letter to President Van Buren doesn’t stand up as strongly due to his unfortunate choice of words and descriptions that lead one to believe he feels the Cherokee race to be a inferior one. Worth saving, absolutely! Yet not quite up to par when compared to his kin of people. Both make compelling arguments and use all three types of rhetoric to appeal to multiple audiences, especially pathos, making their readers feel compassion and disgust about the events they are desperately trying to cease. Ross’s writings leave the reader feeling sorrow and remorse for the Cherokee nation, and the details of how criminal the proposed treaty is leave the reader feeling gutted. There is no gray area in Ross’s letter; he is very straight forward never veering, which I believe serves as a more powerful source of reasoning.

Part B

“The Trail of Tears”

The Treaty of New Echota was controversially put into place in 1835. At the time the United States government used this treaty as their justification to act upon what is remembered today as the darkest, most dreary chapter in American history, The Indian Removal Act. The Treaty of New Echota claims to have been signed by one hundred Cherokees, known today as the Treaty Party. By signing the treaty, they gave up their rights to their territories located east of the Mississippi River. They relinquished their land in trade for new grounds in Indian Territory as well as the promise of livestock, tools, money and other compensations. The Treaty Party consisted of pro-removal Cherokee leaders who when signed away the land and rights of their nation, also signed away their own lives. The Cherokee Nation Council had previously put a law into place stating that any member agreeing to give up sacred tribal land would be subject to their own death. The signing of the treaty by the Cherokee leaders created a spiteful contention amongst the rest of the Indian nation and ultimately, those who signed were killed for their treacherous betrayal.

Despite great endeavors from the Cherokee Nation and the Ross Party, under the orders of President Jackson in 1838 the United States Army began to put the Indian Removal Act into place. Nearly seventeen thousand Cherokee Indians were achingly ejected from their homeland. The Cherokee Indians were unwillingly placed onto boats and then sailed throughout the Ohio, Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee Rivers into the assigned Indian Territory. Many were begrudgingly put into camps where they waited and anticipated their horrendous destiny. Just during the transition over four thousand passed away due to disease, over exposure, and starvation. This journey that claimed so many lives is referred to today by the Cherokees and other removed tribes as “the trail where they cried”; today the general public knows it by the name, “Trail of Tears”.

John Burnett’s Story of the Trail of Tears

John Burnett tells his story about his experience firsthand witnessing the “Trail of Tears”. His tale was told on his eightieth birthday and many question the authenticity due to his elderly age and possible memory loss. Accurate or not, it gives us a detailed, chilling description of what the Indian Removal Act might have been like firsthand.

John Burnett grew up in Tennessee and spent his youth and young adulthood roughing it in the wilderness, fishing, hunting, and roaming through the forest. He says he often spent large amount of time isolated with just nature, his hatchet, and his wilderness wanderings. During his lengthy trips he encountered many Cherokee Indians, and became well acquainted with many. He spent his days hunting side by side with the Cherokees, and slept in their security when night fell. After spending a substantial amount of time with tribes, he became accustomed to their culture and became knowledgeable in their native language. In many ways Burnett regarded the Cherokee people as family.

Years later John Burnett became a private in the American Army, using his familiarity with the Cherokee culture and language to his advantage working as an interpreter. Burnett was sent into the Smoky Mountain Country in May 1838 where he witnessed the dreadful and barbaric events of the Indian Removal Act. John Burnett saw the faultless Cherokee people being ripped from their homes, and forced out into the dreary cold rain when they were herded like livestock into wagons and began their involuntary journey west. He refers to the sorrow and grief he witnessed firsthand as “unforgettable”; many of the Cherokees forced out of their homes barefoot with little to no provisions. He recounts seeing tiny children waving goodbye to their homes as they were taken away, even at such a young age knowing it would be the last time they would see their native land. Men, women, and children became ill and many died from exposure to the freezing temperatures and harsh conditions; the sufferings of the Cherokee people were absolutely dreadful. Burnett did his best to alleviate the sufferings of the Cherokee people, such as giving the coat off of his back to help keep children warm.

On March 26th, 1839 the extensive, grueling journey came to an end. In its path leaving behind 4000 silent graves scattered from the foothills of the Smoky Mountains to the Indian Territory out west. Greed, envy, and disregard of the Cherokee people by the American government helped create what is one of the darkest, most shameful events to date on American soil.

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