NPR's Morning Edition co-host Inskeep (Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi, 2011) returns with a review of the forces and events leading to the expulsion of the Cherokees from their ancestral homelands.
In this lively narrative aimed at general readers, the author carefully avoids demonizing or patronizing his main characters. He presents Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), the man who, "more than any other single person, was responsible for creating the region we call the Deep South," as ruthless and prejudiced but sincerely convinced that removal was in the Indians' best interests. His Cherokees were no backcountry innocents but rather "skilled political operators who played a bad hand long and well," directed by their principal chief John Ross, who had fought under Jackson in the Red Stick War. Pursuing neither rebellion nor submission, Ross counseled "civil obedience, following the law while highlighting the rights he believed Indians already had" in the vain hope that the white man's government would honor its legal and moral commitments, and holding out as long as possible for the best deal he could get for his people. However, the author ably shows how greed for land, sectional politics, heavy-handed action by the state of Georgia, and sincere moral concerns combined to bring about the forced mass migration that many Cherokees had found unthinkable. As Inskeep tells it, the story is a gradually cresting tragedy, helped along by an intransigent president but ultimately inevitable. The author knows how to hold an audience; his confident, lucid prose occasionally frolics with descriptions like that of Jackson's army in 1814, "as undisciplined as a bear rug with the bear still in it." His insights into the mechanics of land speculation on the frontier and on the effect of the Indian removal controversy on the nascent abolitionist movement are particularly noteworthy.
Well-researched, -organized, and -presented, this is a sober, balanced examination of the origins of one of the more regrettable chapters in American history.