Steve Inskeep, one of NPR's Morning Edition hosts, isn’t a historian: His job is to report on what’s happening now. So it may come as some surprise that his latest book, Jacksonland, focuses on what President Andrew Jackson did roughly 200 years ago to force Native Americans out of the Southeast. But in a recent conversation with WPLN, Inskeep explained that the thinking behind the Trail of Tears continues to echo.
Historical Supreme Court Cases
Inskeep says understanding Jackson's response to a Supreme Court ruling helps put a key Civil Rights court victory in context.
"There were two different Supreme Court cases relating to the Cherokee Nation and its effort to remain on its land in North Georgia and surrounding states, including parts of Tennessee. The second time, Marshall ruled in their favor — John Marshall, possibly the greatest Supreme Court Chief Justice. He said in a very clear ruling that there was no doubt whatsoever that Cherokees had been on that land for centuries, long before white settlers had arrived, that they had legal rights to the land, and that they owned it and had the right to govern it.
"While Jackson did not simply ignore the ruling, his administration found political ways effectively to have the case withdrawn rather than ever have the big implications of that case be enforced.
"Now, imagine if President Dwight Eisenhower had done that in response to Brown vs. Board of Education, the 1954 ruling that said it was necessary to desegregate public schools. History would have been radically different."
Cherokee Land And Iraq
Jackson argued that it was bad both for the United States and for the Cherokee people to stay on their land. His contention was that native culture was at risk from white "civilization" — a claim that even some tribal leaders made at times. The Cherokee chief, John Ross, envisioned a different future in which the Cherokee became full citizens. He wanted their territory to become something like a state.
As Jackson sent in men to deal directly with the Cherokee people, Inskeep says they made assumptions similar to those American officials made more recently in Iraq.
"This was a moment in which President Jackson’s administration was trying to persuade the Cherokees to leave. I do think there is a parallel to be drawn with the way the United States behaved after the invasion of Iraq: American officials, who, with the best of intentions, went to this other country and tried to impose what seemed to them to be obviously good, American-style reforms, and they discovered that many of the people in the country they thought were trying to help didn’t want that help.
"And in the same way I go back in history, and we discover officials of an American administration going into the Cherokee Nation, and telling the Cherokees it was obviously good for them to give up their land and move west of the Mississippi, and they were utterly baffled that the Cherokee leaders didn’t go along with this, and they were convinced that the Cherokee people themselves were being deluded.
"So they arranged on several different occasions something like an election. They’d have mass meetings and thousands of Cherokee would show up and they’d have a vote, and it was astonishing to US government officials that 95 percent or more would vote with their leadership to stay where they were."
Still One Incredibly Diverse Country
Inskeep points out that every story he covers today has a backstory — the more he understands about history, the better he can understand what is truly new and what has happened before. So what does he understand better after researching the conflict between Jackson and the Cherokee Nation?
"It was really educational for me to just be reminded far more forcefully than I had realized before that this has always been an incredibly diverse country. There has always been this question: How do we make sure that everybody’s rights are respected and we still fit together as one country?
"That’s what they were struggling with in the 1820s and '30s. It’s widely accepted now they didn’t come up with a very good answer. We can hope to come up with better answers over time and in any case it’s our responsibility to come up with better answers over time as the country continues changing and as this democratic process goes on."