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Steve Inskeep's new book Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross and a Great American Land Grab tells the story of the intersecting lives of Andrew Jackson and John Ross, and how the historically shameful Indian Removal Act came about. In a book of Goldilocks proportion (not too long, not too short, just right) Inskeep follows the lives of Jackson, of whom we know much about, and Ross, a little known but equally fascinating historic figure. There is much more to the story of the forced removal of Native American who lived in the American southeast than we are told about in history texts. Inskeep gives an interesting account of the nations who lived in this region in the first part of the 19th century prior to their forced removal, most of which one is never told about in standard history fare. The Cherokee Nation, led by John Ross, took steps on their own to assimilate into American culture, lived peaceably among their neighbors, had a comparable system of government and even had a constitution that sounded very similar to the one Andrew Jackson was supposed to follow. In a very engaging style, Inskeep explains how southerners' coveting of Cherokee land (and land belonging to other First Nations) evolved, how greedy land speculators and politicians (Andrew Jackson falling in both categories) sacrificed principle in their unscrupulous land grab, and how John Ross bravely struggled in vain for a peaceful resolution to the problem.

The story is full of fascinating historical figures, many of whom are virtually unknown even to modern history geeks. There are good guys and bad. Besides Ross, Inskeep tells us about many others who sided with the Native Americans in the interests of fairness and justice, even though it was unpopular for them to do so, including clergymen Jeremiah Evarts and Samuel Worcester, closet feminist Catherine Beecher, editor Elias Boudinot, Chief Justice John Marshall and General John Wool. We also see the worst examples of unethical politicians in Jackson, his successor Martin Van Buren and in Georgia Congressman (and later Governor) George Troup as well as unethical land speculators like John Coffee and James Jackson (no relation). There are other interesting and complex contemporaries in this story such as the Cherokee leader Major Ridge and his son John, and the Marquis de Lafayette even makes an interesting appearance in the midst of the story.

Inskeep ably makes the case for how Jackson disregarded his constitutional obligations and how he abandoned his commitment to democracy when it came to Native Americans, as he engaged in a number of despicable practices to ensure that the voices and votes of the Cherokee people were never allowed to be heard or counted. His description of the "Trail of Tears" journey of the displaced Native Americans is not as detailed as told by some other authors, but it nevertheless provides the reader with a strong impression of the hardship they faced and the terrible conditions they were forced to endure.

While Inskeep is obviously passionate about his subject (as is apparent when, in the book's epilogue he describes his visit to the locations where many of the book's events took place), his criticisms of Jackson are not bald opinions, but are supported by contemporary documents that demonstrate Jackson's duplicity and dishonesty. Conversely, the author also fairly acknowledges that Ross and others on the side of the Cherokee had their own imperfections. If the story appears skewed on the side of the Cherokee, Inskeep ably makes the case that this is because history supports this vantage, not because it is the product of the author's bias.

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While 2015 is only half over, thus far this is the best work of American history that I have read. The author uncovers much that is previously hidden in histories of the Age of Jackson and does so in a manner that makes for a real page turner. I highly recommend this book for anyone with an interest in US history, in US antebellum history or in the history of America's First Nations.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 2nd, 2015 02:14 pm (UTC)
I'm going to have to find this.

I discuss this and the Trail of Tears in my class, but I have to admit that I don;t know that much about it, other than the basics. (I teach Voice and Diction, and one week, my students have to recite a famous speech by a Native American, and Osceola is a choice.)

Jul. 2nd, 2015 02:33 pm (UTC)
For me much of this was new. I've written other journal entries in this community about the Indian Removal Act, but I never really knew who John Ross was or how he preached peaceful resolution, almost like an MLK of his day. I also never realized how much pressure the Jackson government put on the Cherokee to vote for relocation and how they resisted. I learned much from this book.
Jul. 2nd, 2015 03:40 pm (UTC)
I heard Inskeep interviewed on NPR (no surprise) concurrent with the book's release. Like the best authors, he seemed very engaged with the subject and was able to get the listener engaged as well. That usually translates into a great book.

The Trail of Tears (much like Japanese internment during WWII) usually gets lumped into the 'Why-don't-they-teach-that-in-history-class' category. Those events are usually glossed over with barely a mention. Then - if anyone (i.e., the College Board) tries to make them a prominent part of history education they are denounced as unpatriotic.

Jul. 2nd, 2015 07:18 pm (UTC)
What you say about history censorship makes sense, but you'd think that after almost two centuries the powers that be would get over it.
Jul. 3rd, 2015 12:10 am (UTC)
You would think so, but facts and truth are inconvenient to certain people. From Orwell's 1984 "Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past." Unfortunately, this phrase has been hijacked by certain groups to distort ugly truths from our past. On both sides.

I like Inskeep's quote about bias. If the facts are on your side, then the story leads you in one direction.
Jul. 15th, 2015 05:55 pm (UTC)
I finished Jacksonland yesterday and concur with your review. Schlesinger infamously ignored Indian Policy so this is a nice filler.
Jul. 15th, 2015 06:44 pm (UTC)
Thanks. It's nice to know that my review wasn't off the mark. Despite your warnings, I went ahead and began reading the Wiener book about Nixon. I wish I had taken your advice (and that of WSJ) and read the Evan Thomas book instead, but I plan to see it through. I'm about halfway through now. Wiener has no objectivity at all, he has nothing good to say about Nixon, nor any sympathy for him.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )


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