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An Independence Day Alternative

How the "enlightened" leaders of the early US disregarded an Independence Day oration and set in motion indigenous peoples' brutalization.

Cherokee arrive in Oklahoma following the Trail of Tears. Dorothy Sullivan

Two hundred and twenty-two years ago today, in a field near what’s now Greenville, Ohio, a preacher named John Rhys delivered an Independence Day address to the United States Army.

The troops in his audience had recently won a decisive victory over the Western Confederacy, an alliance of Native peoples who’d been battling white encroachment in the Midwest for a decade. That victory had brought to an end the first Indian war of the federal era. More than a thousand white Americans had been killed, and perhaps twice that number of Native Americans.

Native leaders expected that defeat would mean a permanent expulsion from their lands. But Reverend Rhys took a different line. “The love of conquest and enlargement of territory should be sacrificed,” he told the troops. Whites and Indians should move to each other’s towns, get to know each other better, perhaps even fall in love. When they recognized their mutual humanity, he insisted, they would become “one people, and have but one interest at heart.”

It’s easy to see the relationship between white people and Native Americans in early US history as a zero-sum game: the United States gave national form to a practice of settler colonialism that had marginalized Native people for centuries; the interests of white settlers who pushed forward into Indian country after 1776 were fundamentally opposed to those of Native Americans.

And in their broad outline, these assumptions are correct. From George Washington to Andrew Jackson (and beyond), America’s presidents had little regard for the wellbeing of Native people. But Rhys’s Independence Day oration points to a very different outcome, free of mass murder and terror.

John Morgan Rhys wasn’t the lone voice calling for integration. In fact, the idea that Native Americans and white people should live together in a single nation was the formal policy of the US government from the 1790s through the 1820s. The dispossession and removal of Native Americans in the first fifty or sixty years of the United States wasn’t driven solely by racism. It happened despite the insistence of many powerful voices — from presidents to bureaucrats to authors to clergymen — that coexistence and perhaps even integration were possible.

What happened, then, to this parallel vision? Why weren’t the principles of Rhys’s oration put into practice?


It was the United States’ very first secretary of war, Henry Knox, who realized that simply wiping out Native people might present a problem to the young nation.

Knox, who’d been a bookseller in Boston before he became a general in the American Revolution, fancied himself a man of the Enlightenment. His reading of natural history, especially the work of the French scientist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, had assured him that “race” had no basis in science: the bewildering diversity of human appearance and behavior was entirely due to social and physical climate. Humanity was plastic, and individuals could be “improved” if subjected to the right environment and influences.

This perspective was anathema to white settlers on the frontier, who insisted that Native people would block the course of progress unless they were killed or removed. But Knox told Washington in 1789 that the settlers’ view was “more convenient than just.” If placed in the correct circumstances, Knox assured the president, Native Americans could be just as “civilized” as white people.

Knox’s embrace of a “liberal” Indian policy was also influenced by his reading of history. Every educated American knew about the ravages the Spanish had visited on the peoples of the Caribbean and Latin America after 1492. It was a “melancholy reflection,” Knox wrote in 1794, “that our modes of population have been more destructive to the Indian natives than the conduct of the conquerors of Mexico and Peru.”

Knox was talking here about the effective extirpation of Native people from the Eastern Seaboard during the century and a half before the American Revolution.

He reassured himself that “the present government of the United States cannot with propriety be involved in the opprobrium,” but he knew that a wave of Indian wars could quickly bring the new United States into disrepute. European nations would lose faith in America’s lofty boasts about liberty and equality if it destroyed its indigenous population, and the “future historian” would write about the founding years of the United States “in sable colors.”

To save its honor in the present and its reputation in the future, Knox suggested a simple prescription: the United States had to “tranquilize the frontiers.”

In the decades following the federal republic’s founding in 1789, numerous politicians and federal officials offered variations on the same theme. But the frontiers were anything but tranquilized: major Indian wars erupted in a broad arc from what’s now the Midwest to central Georgia.

Three major obstacles prevented Knox and his colleagues from realizing their “enlightened” visions for Native Americans. The first was very basic: federal officials, intellectuals, and reformers were clustered in the towns and cities of the East, hundreds of miles from the conflict zone between white settlers and Indians. Settlers were numerous, tenacious, and not minded to accept the “liberal” pieties of the coastal elite.

Settlers, as Knox accurately reported to George Washington, had “imbibed the strongest prejudices against the Indians.” Federal officials told each other that the white population at the frontiers needed “civilizing” in much the same way as the Native one, especially on the issue of coexistence between the races.

The problem of controlling a distant battle between settlers and Indians was compounded by the federal government’s limited reach. During the first decades of the republic, the US army — like the entire federal government — was a small operation. To wage war with anyone, especially the Indians, required the careful coopting of local people to fight in a popular cause. It was easy to recruit militia members in western Pennsylvania or Kentucky or Georgia to fight Native Americans; it was harder to persuade them to fight their fellow settlers.

Since white settlers were also powerfully represented in state governments, the early federal bureaucracy faced an additional layer of opposition as it attempted to impose its “civilizing” policy on the states.

In what’s now the Midwest, federal officials ruled directly via the territorial governments that Thomas Jefferson’s Northwest Ordinance had created in 1787. In the Southeast, on the other hand, federal officials found themselves quarreling with state officials from Georgia or South Carolina who were openly contemptuous of the nostrums of Knox and Washington.

While it’s hard to imagine now, Washington and his successors fretted that angry settlers or state officials might throw in their lot with the Spanish and British empires that adjoined the nascent United States. And yet settler intransigence towards Native territory made a nonsense of federal rhetoric about Native rights.

By 1796, Washington had become so exasperated at his inability to restrain settlers that he reached for an extreme solution: couldn’t the federal government build a wall on the border to keep white people and Indians from fighting each other? Clearly those were more liberal times, because he didn’t suggest making Native peoples pay for it. But the idea was no more practical in the 1790s than in our current political moment. Turning ideology into political reality was harder than Washington had first imagined.

The second obstacle to integrating the Native and white population was harder for Henry Knox and his colleagues to see. Although Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Knox, and others offered lavish paeans to Native potential, their view of human “improvement” was entirely one-directional: whites had nothing to learn from Indians, while Native people had everything to learn from whites.

That Native nations might have found independent routes to “civilized” precepts, or might have preferred their own values to “civilized” ones, was anathema to the central premise of Native uplift.

Hence the confusion that faced American military commanders when they marched to Native villages in the Ohio country and discovered that, in fact, Indian nations had settled houses and substantial agriculture; or the bafflement of US government agents toward the Cherokees and the Creeks, who struggled to understand the matrilineal (and often matriarchal) dynamics of Native society.

In 1793, when dozens of Indian leaders met a group of US negotiators on the southern shores of Lake Erie, the Native emissaries professed their sympathy for white settlers: “We know that these settlers are poor, or they would have never ventured to live in a country which has been in continual trouble ever since they crossed the Ohio.” Offering their own version of benevolence, the Indians suggested that the federal government spend its money on resettling these poorer whites in the towns of the East, rather than “raising and paying armies with a view to force us to yield to you our country.”

But the “enlightened” men who developed early US Indian policy weren’t only limited by what they couldn’t understand. In the final analysis, they were unwilling to pay the price that their high-minded visions required.

In the case of territorial expansion, the United States government used acquisitions of western land both to pay off the revolutionary war debt and to enrich individuals with close ties to the government. (Many of the Founders were land speculators.) Henry Knox and Thomas Jefferson convinced themselves that accelerating land transfers from Native people to whites would speed up the “civilizing” process — with less territory in which to hunt game, they argued, Native Americans would rush to embrace the hoe and the Bible.

Against mounting evidence that this convenient calculus was false, they pushed ahead regardless. Jefferson was especially culpable in this, instructing officials to extend credit at government-controlled trading posts in the hope of using Native debt to force yet more land sales. When another huge Indian uprising erupted in the Midwest during James Madison’s first administration, it owed a great deal to the inconsistencies and outright hypocrisies of Jefferson, Madison’s predecessor.

Jefferson, like many national politicians between 1790 and 1820, insisted that the tensions on the frontier would ultimately be resolved through intermarriage between whites and Indians. “You will mix with us by marriage,” Jefferson told a visiting delegation of Delawares and Mohicans in 1808. “Your blood will run in our veins, and will spread with us over this great island.”

Setting aside for a moment that Jefferson was never able to use his personal experience of racial amalgamation to achieve progressive political ends, it’s hard to see how he expected to deliver on these lavish promises of a mixed-race future.

Between 1789 and 1830, federal officials did nothing to create the conditions in which white settlers and Native Americans might see each other as having shared interests. Worse, Eastern elites were inclined to imagine that the work of amalgamating the populations might be easily delegated to western settlers who were, in their view, a good deal more like the Indians than they were.

When William Crawford, secretary of war, reminded white Americans in 1816 that intermarriage was the endgame of US Indian policy, a Virginia newspaper offered this reassurance to its readers: “Mr Crawford does not propose to unite our city beaux with the unpolished, untutored rough Indian squaws. There is a hardy, laborious race of woodsmen, forming the intermediate link.”

Beneath their commitment to “enlightened” values, the political and moral visionaries of the early United States found it depressingly easy to conclude that the work of integration was somebody else’s responsibility.

Today, the history of US Indian policy in the country’s early years rarely enters the news cycle. The one recent exception is President Trump’s repeated embrace of Andrew Jackson, whose portrait the president installed in the Oval Office and whom Trump adviser Steve Bannon has favorably compared to his boss.

Critics have rightly reminded us that America’s seventh president crafted a lethal policy toward Native Americans. It was Jackson, after all, who pushed for the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, triggering a wave of ethnic cleansing that largely extinguished the Native presence east of the Mississippi River.

But the first six men in the White House, all of whom saw themselves as “enlightened” in ways that Jackson most surely was not, created the landscape of racial injustice that Jackson ruthlessly reordered.

On the Fourth of July 1795, John Rhys told the US army at Greenville that the truly benevolent American should be “every person’s neighbor: the white, the black, and the red, are alike to him.” The Founders heard Rhys’ call, but proved unwilling or unable to pay the price of coexistence.