Thursday, March 22, 2012

Over and over again

I finished reading David McCullough’s John Adams, and despite the fact that he omits early colonial dealings with Native peoples, I enjoyed it immensely. It was good to see and hear how narrow the passages to the government we got were—how, as McCullough says in other places, things could have turned out differently.

And although I had heard and probably mouthed myself the centrality of slavery to the American story, I liked how McCullough—through Adams—brings the issue forward with the compromises in the composition of the Declaration of Independence, Washington and Jefferson’s holding of slaves, and Adams’ disgust with it all. According to McCullough, Adams was willing to compromise with the southern colonies in order to form and hold the new union, but it always troubled him. He had dreams of blacks and whites slaughtering each other, and feared that “a struggle between the states over slavery ‘might rend this mighty fabric in twain.’”

In later years, when old differences with Jefferson were repaired in their famous correspondence, he suggested to Jefferson that he free his slaves. But Jefferson, who believed slavery a “moral and political depravity,” feared the results of sudden emancipation, and looked for it to happen gradually under the watch of younger men. At his death, he freed but few of his own slaves, and the rest were sold at auction.

It seems odd that slavery could occupy the moral deliberations of two of the founding fathers to such an extent, while the situation with Native inhabitants is in many ways hidden, or neglected, or not thought about. In Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, he gives examples of significant, and often friendly, interactions of Indians and Europeans on first contact—think of the early New Englanders getting farming help and new crops from the Indians, of trappers working with Indians as they moved West, etc.—which are then followed by conflict and removal.

Josephy said that from the get-go there were three attitudes towards Indians: One, romanticize them as true children of nature; two, kill or remove them to make room for a new, superior civilization; or three, assimilate them, make them white. He spent his working life exploring how these three ways played out in history—while simultaneously marveling at the miracle of tribal survival and promoting their full participation, as Indians, in the American experiment.

On finishing Adams, I picked up a copy of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Benjamin Franklin, and here I find Indians. I find meetings with Indians, and the Albany Plan for Union, put forward by Franklin and inspired in part by the Iroquois Federation. Was Franklin one of the romanticizers? Did Franklin and Adams never discuss this? And, most importantly, how was the Indian situation different than the situation with slavery?

I think what Alvin was telling us, over and over again, is that Indians were here, and despite all attempts to eradicate them and make them white, are still here. And that it is important for us, as a nation, to put them back into our past as we listen to them in our present. So I am compelled to find out what Franklin thought.

And I think too about Indians always being here, and our country as a nation of immigrants—white, black, brown, yellow; European, Asian, African, Islander—who have come to live among them. That is a different narrative than McCullough’s. Will there be some of it in Franklin?

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