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Old July 22nd, 2012, 05:42 AM   #1

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Martin van Buren and the Trail of Tears

In doing some research this morning on Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears, it struck me that there is a major misconception involved in this tragic chapter of American history. The misconception is that the forcible removal of the Cherokees was entirely Jackson's doing. Jackson certainly was an enthusiastic proponent of Indian removal and used his influence to push it through Congress, but it was actually Jackson's successor, Martin van Buren who finished the job with the forcible removal that would come to be known as "the Trail of Tears". Yet this seems to be entirely forgotten by history, as in this White House biographical sketch of van Buren:

Only about 5 feet, 6 inches tall, but trim and erect, Martin Van Buren dressed fastidiously. His impeccable appearance belied his amiability--and his humble background. Of Dutch descent, he was born in 1782, the son of a tavernkeeper and farmer, in Kinderhook, New York.

As a young lawyer he became involved in New York politics. As leader of the "Albany Regency," an effective New York political organization, he shrewdly dispensed public offices and bounty in a fashion calculated to bring votes. Yet he faithfully fulfilled official duties, and in 1821 was elected to the United States Senate.

By 1827 he had emerged as the principal northern leader for Andrew Jackson. President Jackson rewarded Van Buren by appointing him Secretary of State. As the Cabinet Members appointed at John C. Calhoun's recommendation began to demonstrate only secondary loyalty to Jackson, Van Buren emerged as the President's most trusted adviser. Jackson referred to him as, "a true man with no guile."

The rift in the Cabinet became serious because of Jackson's differences with Calhoun, a Presidential aspirant. Van Buren suggested a way out of an eventual impasse: he and Secretary of War Eaton resigned, so that Calhoun men would also resign. Jackson appointed a new Cabinet, and sought again to reward Van Buren by appointing him Minister to Great Britain. Vice President Calhoun, as President of the Senate, cast the deciding vote against the appointment--and made a martyr of Van Buren.

The "Little Magician" was elected Vice President on the Jacksonian ticket in 1832, and won the Presidency in 1836.

Van Buren devoted his Inaugural Address to a discourse upon the American experiment as an example to the rest of the world. The country was prosperous, but less than three months later the panic of 1837 punctured the prosperity.

Basically the trouble was the 19th-century cyclical economy of "boom and bust," which was following its regular pattern, but Jackson's financial measures contributed to the crash. His destruction of the Second Bank of the United States had removed restrictions upon the inflationary practices of some state banks; wild speculation in lands, based on easy bank credit, had swept the West. To end this speculation, Jackson in 1836 had issued a Specie Circular requiring that lands be purchased with hard money--gold or silver.

In 1837 the panic began. Hundreds of banks and businesses failed. Thousands lost their lands. For about five years the United States was wracked by the worst depression thus far in its history.

Programs applied decades later to alleviate economic crisis eluded both Van Buren and his opponents. Van Buren's remedy--continuing Jackson's deflationary policies--only deepened and prolonged the depression.

Declaring that the panic was due to recklessness in business and overexpansion of credit, Van Buren devoted himself to maintaining the solvency of the national Government. He opposed not only the creation of a new Bank of the United States but also the placing of Government funds in state banks. He fought for the establishment of an independent treasury system to handle Government transactions. As for Federal aid to internal improvements, he cut off expenditures so completely that the Government even sold the tools it had used on public works.

Inclined more and more to oppose the expansion of slavery, Van Buren blocked the annexation of Texas because it assuredly would add to slave territory--and it might bring war with Mexico.

Defeated by the Whigs in 1840 for reelection, he was an unsuccessful candidate for President on the Free Soil ticket in 1848. He died in 1862.

Source: Martin Van Buren | The White House
Not one mention of the Indian removal or the Trail of Tears. And although van Buren was clearly following Jackson's policy, which Jackson would almost certainly have finished himself if he had still been in office, it was indeed van Buren who ordered the forcible removal of the Cherokees, more than a year after Jackson left office. During van Buren's tenure, General John Wool, who had been commissioned by Jackson to remove the Cherokees and who was himself sympathetic to them, was replaced by General Winfield Scott, who issued the following edict:

Cherokees! The President of the United States has sent me with a powerful army, to cause you, in obedience to the treaty of 1835, to join that part of your people who have already established in prosperity on the other side of the Mississippi. Unhappily, the two years which were allowed for the purpose, you have suffered to pass away without following, and without making any preparation to follow; and now, or by the time that this solemn address shall reach your distant settlements, the emigration must be commenced in haste, but I hope without disorder. I have no power, by granting a farther delay, to correct the error that you have committed. The full moon of May is already on the wane; and before another shall have passed away, every Cherokee man, woman and child in those states must be in motion to join their brethren in the far West.

My friends! This is no sudden determination on the part of the President, whom you and I must now obey. By the treaty, the emigration was to have been completed on or before the 23rd of this month; and the President has constantly kept you warned, during the two years allowed, through all his officers and agents in this country, that the treaty would be enforced.

I am come to carry out that determination..."
- General Winfield Scott, proclamation to Cherokees, May 10, 1838

Source: About the Nation:Major General Scott's Ultimatum
It is clear from the above words that the forcible removal would go forward in all haste and at all costs. Over the course of the following months, 4,000 Cherokees would die on what has come to be known worldwide as "the Trail of Tears". Not exactly a great legacy for a President who "devoted his Inaugural Address to a discourse upon the American experiment as an example to the rest of the world."
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Old July 22nd, 2012, 06:16 AM   #2
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very good points, all. In his Oxford History of the US. synthesis on the antebellum period, Daniel Walker Howe entitled the chapter on Van Buren's presidency "Jackson's Third Term."

Another factor of Indian Removal that gets much neglected by even professional historians is the Second Seminole War, another questionable (to say the least) incident (8 years long) that crossed the Jackson/van Buren presidencies. Over $30 million dollars (the most costly "Indian war" in U.S. history) was spent to move maybe 1,200 Indian warriors, their families and several hundred black allies to Oklahoma. several thousand U.S. soldiers lost their lives (mostly to disease) in the event.

one revealing incident of Jackson's hubris is, that when told early in the war that the Seminoles were winning, Jackson replied (paraphrased) "I could go down their with 600 women and lick them." (gender historians, an analysis, please ).

The neglect of the Seminole Wars (especially the 2nd) compared to the Cherokees & Creeks, etc is just one sign that Florida as a "frontier" is much neglected compared to "going west."
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Old July 22nd, 2012, 06:51 AM   #3

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True sharp points that Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act on 28 May 1830 and
the full removal began about 1838 under Van Buren; Jackson lived long enough
to see it in full force. I see these two in a slight comparison to JFK-Johson and Vietnam,
other presidents envolvment in Vietnam is jumped over and all of it is clipped onto
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Old August 17th, 2012, 10:08 AM   #4
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Interesting. I didn't know this about MVB before.
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Old August 17th, 2012, 10:32 AM   #5

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I wonder if Van Buren did it because he wanted too, or because he wanted to follow Jackson's plans
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