More on the SHEAR 2020 Plenary

The controversial Society for Historians of the Early American Republic plenary session continues to have an impact among historians.

Professor John Fea of Messiah University interviewed Professor Daniel Feller on his controversial address on his podcast, “The Way of Improvement Leads Home. You can listen to it here. I thought Professor Fea’s interview was pretty well done, eliciting Professor Feller’s side of the story and getting clarification from Professor Feller.

Others disagreed with me. For example, Professor Nicholas Guyatt of Cambridge University was not happy with it, as we can see in this Twitter thread. He writes, “John Fea’s interview with Daniel Feller repeats many of the dynamics of the #SHEAR2020 panel that started this whole mess: softball questions from Prof Fea, very little remorse from Prof Feller. Fea’s willingness to let Feller style himself as a brave opponent of ‘bad work’ is 🤮. Interview mostly encourages Feller to double down on everything he said and did at the original panel, including renew his attacks on scholars who’ve actually published on Lyncoya (the Creek boy Jackson ‘adopted’ in 1813) and who are trained in Indigenous history. The interview caricatures the criticism directed at Feller, depicting DF’s detractors as insisting that ‘Jackson killed all the Indians’ or that Indian removal began with Jackson. DF also repeats the odd claim that historians critical of AJ are warped by their loathing of Trump. In fact historians were trying to understand the hollowness of ‘Jacksonian democracy’ and the interlocking projects of Native dispossession & slavery expansion long before Obama mocked Trump at that White House dinner. Trump is a distraction in all this. Feller offers the old triad of Indian removal, nullification & the Bank war as the crucial lenses for understanding Jackson; not surprising that Feller’s critics chafe at the absence of slavery given AJ’s slaveholding & Indian removal’s crucial role in creating the cotton belt. In Feller’s original paper, what’s striking is how few historians he cites to stand up his claim that ‘much of what is being said…about Jackson today is boldly untethered from reality.’ It’s a thin critique & a scattergun polemic mostly divorced from the profession. Worse, because Feller explicitly accuses historians of allowing ‘anti-Trump’ sentiments to contaminate their work, he impugns the professional ethics of all of us – while falsely confirming the right-wing view that academic historians sacrifice facts to their liberal dogma. In the interview, meanwhile, there’s no reflection on the unbalanced and unrepresentative nature of the SHEAR panel; instead Prof Fea signs off with ‘I just wanted to give you a voice,’ as if Feller wasn’t a senior scholar who had been invited to give the only paper of SHEAR 2020. Prof Fea then dumps on the ‘Twitter mob’ oblivious to the fact that the SHEAR panel was all white, nearly all male, & had no junior scholars. When everyone under 55 is excluded from your car-crash plenary, you can’t really complain when non-Boomers talk about it on Twitter. I would advise younger scholars (and by younger I mean anyone under 55) to hold your course on this: it was heartening to see SHEAR members & officials come together to lament the panel’s problems of representation, tone & focus, and promise to do better in the future. As an institution, I think SHEAR learned a great deal from the fallout from the panel – and that this knowledge can make the institution more inclusive, representative and therefore stronger in years to come. Better to focus on this than to throw more time at Prof Feller et al.”

I personally don’t think Professor Guyatt’s critique of the podcast is fair at all. The “Twitter mob” reference was to the mob mentality that was piling on Professor Feller, and now Professor Fea, without trying to understand his point of view. Professor Fea gave Professor Feller an opportunity to explain his point of view, which to me is a fair thing to do. Professor Guyatt doesn’t take that into account, and in my opinion doesn’t appear to understand Professor Fea’s purpose in interviewing Professor Feller.

In this essay, Professor Jeffrey Ostler of the University of Oregon considers whether Indian Removal was genocide. He writes, “In his paper, ‘Andrew Jackson in the Age of Trump,’ the centerpiece of the much-discussed SHEAR2020 plenary session, Daniel Feller dismissed the perspective that Andrew Jackson’s ‘Indian removal policy was deliberately vicious and inhuman, if not overtly genocidal.’ Several historians, commenting on Twitter, pushed back against Feller’s contention, claiming that Indian removal was indeed a genocidal policy. Interestingly, however, most recent scholarship on Indian removal, while supporting the view that the policy was vicious and inhuman, has not addressed the question of genocide. Historians have indicted the policy as ‘ethnic cleansing,’ a serious allegation since ethnic cleansing is a crime against humanity under current international law. They have also called for replacing ‘removal’ with terms like ‘expulsion’ and ‘deportation’ on the theory that these terms more accurately convey the coerciveness of the policy. But specialists have not argued that the policy was genocidal. Was it?”

To begin answering that question, he writes, “Addressing this question requires considering the intent of Indian removal and its consequences. The stated intention of the policy was the opposite of genocide—to save Native people from an otherwise inevitable extinction. Speaking before Congress, President Jackson asserted that instead of ‘utter annihilation’ should Indians remain in the East, removal ‘kindly offers . . . a new home.’ To the extent that U.S. presidents are capable of inflicting catastrophic destruction while claiming to be benevolent, however, we should be cautious about accepting Jackson’s claims at face value. A more realistic assessment of the policy’s intentions requires an evaluation of its consequences and Jackson’s response to these consequences. From the signing of the Indian Removal Act in May 1830 through the end of Jackson’s presidency in March 1837, the United States forcibly removed portions of at least nine Native nations (Choctaws; Creeks; Seminoles; Ohio Senecas, Sauks and Mesquakies; Shawnees; Ottawas; Ho-Chunks; Kickapoos; and Potawatomis). These removals resulted in substantial loss of life and unfathomable suffering. While at Memphis in December 1830, Alexis de Tocqueville provided a glimpse into the horrors of removal when he witnessed a party of Choctaws crossing the Mississippi and described an old woman ‘naked save for a covering which left visible . . . the most emaciated figure imaginable.’ Year after year as the death toll mounted, Jackson had a choice. He could have acknowledged the destructiveness of Indian removal and ended it. Instead, he continued the policy, focusing with particular intensity on uprooting the Cherokees from their already reduced homelands. Jackson’s response to an unfolding catastrophe casts serious doubt on his initial claim to benevolence. It also opens him to a charge, in the language of the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, of an ‘intent to destroy.’ Although continuing to pursue a policy with genocidal consequences is not exactly the same as formulating a policy for the explicit purpose of genocide, using this distinction to acquit Jackson gets him off on a technicality. In the end, the burden of proof is on Andrew Jackson. He could have avoided an allegation of genocide by reversing his policy, but he did not.”

He continues, “It is also crucial to recognize that implementing the policy of Indian removal required the threat of genocidal violence and that this threat was sometimes actualized. If they refused to sign a removal treaty, Jackson’s Secretary of War John Eaton told the Choctaws, ‘the President . . . would march an army into their country.’ Should Choctaws resist, it would ‘be the ruin of the tribe.’ Choctaws complied, but Creeks, Seminoles, and Sauks and Mesquakies did not, and when they resisted, they faced the prospect that Jackson’s armies would annihilate them. In the Bad Axe massacre of August 1832 U.S. troops slaughtered 250 Sauks and Mesquakies, part of Black Hawk’s band who had resisted removal and were trying to cross the Mississippi River. Three years later the United States launched a seven years’ war to try to pry the Seminoles out of Florida into Oklahoma. Although troops did not annihilate Seminoles, this was not because they had no intention of doing so. Instead, Seminoles skillfully avoided being slaughtered, though starvation and the gnawing fear of catastrophic violence eventually led most Seminoles to yield to removal (at great cost of life). Resisting Creeks were unable to avoid massacre. In 1837, a federally authorized Alabama militia surprised an encampment of Creeks on the Pea River, cutting down men, women, and children alike, fifty in all.”

Professor Ostler then looks at Professor Feller’s defense of Jackson. “Part of Feller’s defense of Jackson is that he did not invent the idea of Indian removal and cannot be considered solely responsible for it. This much is correct. In fact, a singular focus on Jackson as a uniquely pernicious figure can have the effect of absolving other presidents of responsibility. Thomas Jefferson, for example, gave substantial weight to removal as a policy option by arguing that the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase would be a place to relocate eastern Native nations. Jackson’s successors are also culpable for continuing a massively destructive policy. It was Martin Van Buren who oversaw the catastrophic Cherokee Trail of Tears in 1838‒39 as well as the lesser-known but equally disastrous Potawatomi Trail of Death in 1838. James K. Polk was president in 1846 when close to 40 percent of a group of two hundred Haudenosaunees perished as they were forced from New York and then returned home because of abysmal conditions in Kansas. A singular focus on Jackson, a Tennessee enslaver, can also reinforce the all-too common error of thinking that the policy of Indian removal applied only to the South. Although many northerners (especially Whigs) opposed the Indian Removal Act, this was not because they opposed removal as that they objected to Jackson’s method of leveraging removal by allowing states (especially Georgia) to undermine treaties. Northerners eagerly sought the removal of Native nations from New York, Ohio, Indiana, southern Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin.”

In concluding his essay, Professor Ostler tells us, “In the end, although Andrew Jackson deserves condemnation as the primary architect of Indian removal, the problem is not so much the Seventh President as it America as a whole. Founded on the principle of the liberty to convert Native lands into private property for white men, the United States—its citizenry and its leaders—bears responsibility for this and other genocidal policies.” I’m not sure he’s actually supported the claim that Indian Removal was genocide. What he’s shown is that there wasn’t an intention for it to be genocide. I also think he’s gone beyond the evidence when he asserts the United States was “founded on the principle of the liberty to convert Native lands into private property for white men.” Let’s see the documentary evidence for that founding principle.

As this blog post from Professor Fea tells us, Professor Feller retired and his replacement at the University of Tennessee is Professor Michael E. Woods. Professor Fea gives us a couple of links to consider on this.

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