The title of worst US president is hotly debated and is most often awarded to Andrew Johnson or Warren Harding. Many polls and studies rank Andrew Jackson in or near the top 10 best presidents. However, to many Cherokees Andrew Jackson is without a doubt the worst US president. Some Cherokees would rather carry two ten-dollar bills or twenty one-dollar bills than carry a single twenty-dollar bill. Why? Because the US has chosen to commemorate Jackson’s presidency by putting his face on the twenty dollar bill.
So why is Jackson so disliked by the Cherokee? Oddly enough, at one point the Cherokee were allies with Andrew Jackson. It was at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend where Andrew Jackson’s famous story really began. He was considered a hero after his victory in this battle against a faction of the Creek Indians, a victory he would not have attained had it not been for his Cherokee allies who fought alongside him.
Several years later in 1828 Andrew Jackson was elected president. His popularity and subsequent election are largely attributed to his pro-Indian removal platform. Once in power he began to allow whites to move onto Cherokee land. He also allowed Georgia to extend state law to include the Cherokee Nation. This called into question Cherokee sovereignty and declared their government and laws void.
In 1830 Congress passed the Indian Removal Act. Gold had been discovered on what was Cherokee land in western Georgia and the white settlers wanted to get the Cherokee out of the way. In Jackson’s own words, “[The Indian Removal Act] will place a dense and civilized population in large tracts of country now occupied by a few savage hunters.” Jackson painted a picture of the Cherokee as illiterate, uncivilized “savage hunters” even though 90% of the Cherokee Nation could read and write in Cherokee (many could also read and write in English) and were farmers.
The Indian Removal Act was very popular among voters. However, not everyone supported Indian removal. The Act’s strongest opponent was Congressman Davy Crockett, but the Act passed regardless. Once passed by Congress, President Andrew Jackson quickly signed the bill into law. And so it began.
Andrew Jackson was pleased with the passage of the law because in addition to enabling the States to “advance rapidly in population, wealth, and power” he believed the law would also help the Cherokee and other Indian tribes. In his address to Congress in 1830 Andrew Jackson stated:
“It will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; free them from the power of the States; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers, and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.”
The Cherokee did not consider the Indian Removal Act to be the humanitarian act Jackson claimed it to be. They fought the law by challenging it in the Supreme Court. In Cherokee Nation vs. Georgia (1831), the Supreme Court refused to hear the case on the basis that the Cherokee Nation did not represent a sovereign nation. However, in the case of Worcester vs. Georgia (1832) the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Cherokee. The Supreme Court this time ruled that the Cherokee Nation was sovereign thus making the removal laws invalid. The decision, rendered by Justice John Marshall, declared the forced removal of the Cherokee Nation to be illegal, unconstitutional and against treaties made. President Andrew Jackson, who had the executive responsibility of enforcement of the laws, stated, “John Marshall has made his decision; let him enforce it now if he can.”
Andrew Jackson was clearly unhappy with the Supreme Court ruling. In order for Jackson to remove the Cherokee he would need for the Cherokee to agree to removal in a treaty. In 1835 Jackson got what he wanted. The Treaty Party, a small faction of the Cherokee Nation led by Major Ridge, his son John, and Elias Boudinot, signed the Treaty of New Echota. The Treaty violated Cherokee law. Chief John Ross gathered 16,000 signatures of Cherokees who opposed removal. However, once the treaty was ratified by the US Senate it was official: the Cherokee could now be removed.
In 1838 the removal of the Cherokee began when General Winfield Scott, along with several thousand men, forcibly removed thousands of Cherokees from their homes and their land. The trip was brutal and about 4000 Cherokees died along the way on what became known as the “Trail Where They Cried” or the “Trail of Tears.” John Ross, then Chief of the Cherokee, led the later parties from Georgia to Oklahoma and helped many to survive the harrowing journey.
The Cherokee settled in Indian Territory. The Cherokee land covered the Northeastern corner of present day Oklahoma. For their act of betrayal against the Cherokee Nation the leaders of the Treaty Party faced a punishment of death, according to Cherokee law. In 1839 Major Ridge, John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot were all killed. The factionalism created by the Treaty and removal did not go away and divided the Cherokee people for many years. Many are still divided over the issue of blame between the Ridge Party and the Ross Party.
It is important, when looking at these events in history, to remember that Andrew Jackson did not work alone. While there was some resistance to his Indian Removal actions, there was a lot of support. The United States voters who voted for Jackson because of his pro-Removal stance are also responsible. The majority of Congress which voted in favor of the Indian Removal Act was also to blame. Andrew Jackson was just one man, but as President he epitomized all that was wrong with the US government’s approach toward tribal rights and sovereignty.
Sadly, these problems did not go away when his successor came into office. These same issues still plague the Cherokee, and all Indian tribes, today. As they say, “If we don’t learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.” So the next time you pull a twenty dollar bill out of your wallet, think long and hard about the true legacy of the man being honored on the currency.