Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Other American Tragedy

I just finished reading Joseph Ellis's American Creation and enjoyed it, as I have most of the works in American History that have been marketed to wide (i.e., not exclusively scholarly) audiences over the past few years. Much of the terrain that Ellis travels will be familiar to those who have read such works: Ellis's own American Sphinx and Founding Brothers; David McCullough's John Adams and 1776; Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton; Gordon Wood's Revolutionary Characters. But the way Ellis strings together the narratives and focuses on the question of how 13 British colonies came to be a nation-state on the world stage--the United States of America--is fresh and compelling. (To be fair, though, it probably wouldn't matter if it weren't fresh and compelling. Reading this stuff is as good as reading a novel for me. I kind of eat it up.)

That said, one chapter did bring to light an incident of which I was previously unaware: the attempt by George Washington's administration to strike a treaty with the Creek nation, an attempt that culminated in an elaborate visit of Creek leaders to the American capital in New York City. As Ellis relates the incident, it was a good faith effort by both parties--the Creek and the American government--to negotiate an agreement that might allow for peaceful coexistence between white America and the Native Americans.

Unfortunately, these good faith efforts were undermined by unruly settlers on the Georgian border and the inability of the nascent federal government to enforce the provisions of the treaty. The result was that the Creek allied with Spain and the march toward the de facto annihilation of the Native Americans was firmly underway (a march that, Ellis argues, was only hastened with the purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803).

If slavery is the unquestionable tragedy of America's founding, the treatment of the Native Americans is nevertheless an oft-forgotten story that deserves contemplation in its own right. Lest we forget that our country was built at considerable cost--of both the noble and ignoble variety--Ellis gives us an important reminder.


NonVoxPop said...

We actually watched videos of "Founding Brothers" in Constitutional Law class. They play some of the other guys stuff on NPR around here, too. I agree, good stuff.

abby said...

That stuff is good, I agree. And I've come to the conclusion that the treatment of Native Americans and slavery are equally ugly aspects to this nation's founding. It's a shame that they are not equally discussed and taught.

AJK said...

A further thought.

In general, I'm averse to the very idea of ranking tragedies. If something is a tragedy, isn't that enough? Why does it matter if it's "worse" than some other tragedy?

But there does seem to be a morally relevant difference between slavery and the early Americans' relation to the Americans who were already here, namely, that slaves were viewed as property while the Native Americans were not. That seems to me to be a different kind of evil and one that makes me tempted to say that slavery is the American tragedy par excellence. Many of the founders may have viewed Native Americans as nuisances or inferior or a problem to be solved. But they never viewed them as beings that it was permissible to own and I think that's a difference that shouldn't be passed over.