JEFFERSON AND THE INDIANS by Anthony F.C. Wallace

JEFFERSON AND THE INDIANS

The Tragic Fate of the First Americans
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KIRKUS REVIEW

Returning to his interest in the native tribes (The Long Bitter Trail: Andrew Jackson and the Indians, 1993, etc.), Bancroft Prize—winning historian Wallace gives us a book that immediately becomes the best among very few other studies of its subject. The author, an anthropologist deeply knowledgeable about American native cultures, reveals his colors early on: Jefferson’s acts concerning the Indians were “hypocritical, arbitrary, duplicitous, even harsh,” the Squire of Monticello himself a liar and self-serving. While he studied the natives, knew some, and thought carefully about their lives and cultures, he could not rid himself of the conviction that these American tribal peoples must either become “civilized”—give up hunting and gathering, become farmers, and adopt Euro-American ways—or disappear. But Jefferson didn’t stop there: throughout his life, he effectually harried the Indians into war, land cessions, or flight and thus, in Wallace’s view, must be held responsible both for inaugurating the failed 19th-century policy of removing the Indians to the far west and then onto reservations and for their drastic decline in numbers. This is a harsh indictment, made harsher still by Wallace’s inappropriate likening of Jefferson’s policies to genocide, a holocaust, and ethnic cleansing. After all, neither Jefferson nor most of his contemporaries sought the Indians’ extermination. Yet, fortunately, these overwrought anachronistic charges do not affect much of the book, which otherwise makes clear the complexities of native-European interaction in the post-Revolutionary era. One result is that a reader comes away from the book’s pages less critical of Jefferson than Wallace probably wishes, more accepting of the limits upon Jefferson’s misguided views, and deflated by a sense of the near inevitability of the Indians’ fate. One wishes that Wallace had occasionally lifted his eyes from the details of his subject—to compare, for example, the contributions of Indian removal and slavery to white man’s democracy. A searching scholarly study of one of the great American dilemmas. (60 photos, 3 maps)

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-674-00066-8
Page count: 416pp
Publisher: Belknap/Harvard Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 1999




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