Not all of Jackson's energy was diverted by political rivalry and intrigue. Even as he was preoccupied with Eaton and Calhoun, he began to move forward with his program. Among the first issues to be addressed was the situation of the Indian tribes.
When Jackson took office, relations between the southern tribes, the state governments, and the United States had reached a critical juncture. Georgia had clashed with the federal government when President John Quincy Adams refused to implement a controversial treaty removing the Creek Indians. Although Adams backed down and negotiated another treaty ceding the disputed land to the state, the incident highlighted the plight of the remaining southern tribes, particularly the Cherokee. Perhaps no issue more clearly distinguished the two presidential candidates in 1828, for Jackson's imposing record of conquest over the Indians, both by arms and treaty, contrasted dramatically with Adams' protective posture.
In his first annual message of December 1829, Jackson proposed that an area west of the Mississippi River be set apart and guaranteed to the Indian tribes. There they could be taught "the arts of civilization" and perpetuate their race. Emigration to this new territory would be "voluntary," but those who remained in the East would be subject to the laws of the states in which they lived and would "ere long become merged in the mass of our population."
The idea of removing Indians westward had a long history and the federal government had made numerous treaties for the removal of Indians. But Jackson's statement represented a shift in emphasis of sufficient magnitude to mark a new era in Indian-white relations. He proposed that efforts at civilizing the tribes now take place only in Indian territory, where the tribes would be free from corrupting contact with the advancing tide of frontiersmen. Determined to pursue removal with unprecedented vigor and directness, Jackson threatened that those Indians who remained behind would lose their tribal status and be considered individuals subject to state authority.
The administration's Indian removal bill encountered stiff resistance in Congress, where humanitarian and political objections nearly defeated it. Only by skillfully mobilizing their forces did Jackson's followers narrowly succeed in passing the measure on 26 May 1830. The final vote showed a considerable degree of party loyalty, making it the first important measure of Jackson's presidency that distinguished the emerging Democratic party from the opposition.
Despite the public outcry against removal, the program had many defenders, among them Jackson himself. Disputing the idea that the Indian tribes could establish separate nations within the borders of existing states, he promised liberal and equitable exchanges for their present lands. He contended that only in the West could Indians avoid demoralization and even complete annihilation at the hands of an expanding "mercenary" white population. With the Indians secure in their new territory, the federal government could exercise "parental control" over their interests and make them "civilized."
However sincerely intended, Jackson's humanitarian concerns were laced with an ethnocentrism and paternalism that devalued Indian culture and advances. No matter that some Indians had adopted many of the trappings of white society, Jackson considered the tribes as obstacles to the progressive spread of a superior civilization over the continent. "What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms . . . and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion?" he asked. When Indians also protested against leaving their traditional and sacred lands, Jackson facilely compared their fate to the experience of the highly mobile white society. "Doubtless it will be painful to leave the graves of their fathers," he acknowledged, "but what do they more than our ancestors did or than our children are now doing." Thus, if Indians assumed white ways, as had many Cherokee, Jackson disregarded it; if Indians desired to retain their traditional values, Jackson treated them as potential men on the make. Jackson was no Indian-hater, but his proposed philanthropy was virtually as damaging as outright hostility.
Efforts to make removal treaties with the Indians began as soon as Jackson took office and continued throughout his presidency. Jackson himself occasionally participated in the negotiations. The administration focused on the southern tribes, beginning in September 1830 with the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek with the Choctaw, and proceeding with the Creek, Chickasaw, and, in 1835, the Cherokee. Less well known are the treaties made with the generally weaker tribes of the Old Northwest, such as the Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi. Over the period of Jackson's presidency, the United States ratified some seventy treaties, affecting approximately forty-six thousand Indians.
Jackson hoped removal would be humane, but the process was often harsh and violent. Treaties were concluded with leaders who represented only a portion of the tribe and who often benefited personally from the agreement; food and transportation for the westward journey were contracted with the lowest bidder; and those staying behind generally found themselves deprived of their landholdings and treated as second-class citizens. When Indians refused to remove or when, disappointed in their new lands, they tried to return, violence broke out. The Black Hawk War of 1832 and the Creek War and the beginning of the long and bloody Seminole War in 1835 are examples of the coercion inherent in removal. Finally, Jackson's promise of Indian self-government in the West never materialized, and federal authority remained intrusive in Indian affairs. Under pressure of a rapidly expanding agricultural and commercial frontier, Jackson's respect for states' rights and reduced federal expenditures produced an arrangement that was neither just nor humane.