In this history of the four decades preceding the Civil War, Langguth (Union 1812: The Americans Who Fought the Second War of Independence, 2006, etc.) argues that Andrew Jackson’s handling of the Cherokees sowed the seeds of secession.
The author organizes the narrative around a series of individual portraits, one per chapter. Some are well-known, including presidents, generals or senators such as Clay and Calhoun. Others, including Cherokee leaders Major Ridge and John Ross, will be new names to most readers. The author focuses mostly on the Cherokees, whose expulsion from Georgia has gone down in infamy as the Trail of Tears, one of the greatest blots on American history. The Cherokees were one of the “Five Civilized Tribes,” many of whom had adopted an agricultural, settled lifestyle in many ways identical to their white neighbors, right down to the use of slaves to work their fields. It was their misfortune to occupy territory coveted by white plantation owners, the prime cotton-growing lands of the Deep South. They believed Jackson, whose allies they had been during his campaigns against the British, to be their protector. But Jackson was playing a more complex game, in which sectional disputes and party politics threatened to tear apart the young nation while the likes of Clay and Adams tried to hold it together. Southerners, suspicious of any limitation on slavery, opposed Jackson’s policies with threats to secede and with the doctrine of nullification, giving states the right to void federal laws they disliked. Supporting the Georgians in their desire to expel the Cherokees, Jackson allowed the South to expand and strengthen its main asset, agricultural wealth. Langguth puts the backroom deals, Washington gossip and tribal politics into the larger context of the expulsion of the Cherokees from their homeland. By giving in to the Georgians, writes the author, Jackson made the Civil War inevitable. The final chapters, leading up to the eve of the war, are somewhat rushed compared to the full treatment of the events of the 1830s and ’40s.
A disturbing reconsideration of a key period of history and a powerful indictment of its main actors.