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Why U.S. apologized to the Cherokees

By A.J. Langguth, Special to CNN
The Cherokee tribe was driven out of its ancestral lands in Georgia in the 1830s.
The Cherokee tribe was driven out of its ancestral lands in Georgia in the 1830s.
  • A.J. Langguth says U.S. had promised protection to the Cherokees
  • President Andrew Jackson depicted them as savages and ordered their ouster, he says
  • Cherokees suffered greatly as they were forced to leave their ancestral lands in Georgia
  • Last year, Congress passed bill, signed by Obama, apologizing for treatment of Cherokees

Editor's note: A.J. Langguth is the author of "Driven West: Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears to the Civil War."

(CNN) -- With the midterm elections over, it's time for Americans to leave behind the recent attempts to demonize an entire people. We needn't look to Nazi Germany or apartheid South Africa for examples of the labeling and abusing of others. The suspicions promoted about Hispanics as criminals and Muslims as terrorists were only the latest reminders of discrimination throughout our own history.

We may be ashamed later, but our apologies usually come too late.

The targets keep changing. Abigail Adams, admirable in many ways, was violently hostile to the French, "Was there ever," she demanded, "a more basely designing and insidious people?" Had it been up to her, the United States might have gone to war with France in 1798, barely 15 years after French support had made America's independence possible.

In 1850, voters in New Hampshire refused to delete the provision in their state constitution that barred Roman Catholics from holding public office. By World War I, Henry Ford was publishing, "The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem."

But it was in the 1830s that a particularly malignant offense was committed, and it was against the original owners of this continent.

In the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson had vanquished those Creek Indians who sided with the British. Jackson was not generous in victory. Not only did he strip the tribe of much of its territory, he didn't spare those Creeks who had fought at his side for the United States.

Elected president in 1828, Jackson decreed that the Creeks' neighbors, the Cherokees, must also surrender their ancestral lands in Georgia and move west across the Mississippi River.

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From George Washington's time, the United States had signed treaties promising the Cherokees friendship and federal protection. To violate those agreements required painting the Cherokees as savages unfit to live near civilized men. Jackson was not swayed by evidence that the Cherokees were something quite different. They had developed a written language, published their own newspaper and adopted a constitution based on that of the United States.

In fact, Europeans often found them more impressive than their white neighbors, and religious leaders, especially Quakers, and Northern abolitionists, rose to the Cherokees' defense. Even those allies, however, tended to patronize the Indians as simple children. From Concord, Massachusetts, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote an angry open letter denouncing the forced removal, but he, too, described the Cherokees as "savage."

Georgia's politicians, coveting the rich Cherokee cotton land, were more brutal: They claimed that the tribe consisted of "barbarians," and if the government in Washington did not force the Indians out of Georgia, they would take up arms and do the job themselves.

Appealing for help to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Cherokees won a significant legal victory, but Jackson's adamant response was summed up in a few words: Chief Justice John Marshall has made his decision. Let him enforce it now if he can.

Long before Henry Thoreau advocated passive resistance, the Cherokees had pledged that they would never go to war against the United States for their land. They would trust to the fairness of the American people. If they were disappointed, they believed that one day the country would come to understand the wrong that was being done to them.

In 1838, Gen. Winfield Scott arrived in Georgia and began rounding up those Cherokees who would not leave willingly. Some 16,000 members of the tribe were herded into makeshift prisons. Scott's men seized women and children first to guarantee that the men would come out of hiding to protect them.

The Cherokees were then forced into wagons, often at bayonet point. As they left their ancestral land, some saw Georgians digging up family graves, looking for silver jewelry. For five months, they were jolted along the route from Georgia to Oklahoma that became known as the Trail of Tears.

Northern missionaries who shared the ordeal testified to families wrested from their homes so suddenly that they had nothing to protect them against the freezing winter rains. Pneumonia and exhaustion carried off the old and the very young. Although estimates vary about how many did not survive, wagon trains stopped every day for rough burials along the roadside.

The years passed, and America's attention turned elsewhere. Then in 2004, Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas introduced a resolution calling for a formal apology to the Cherokees and to all of the continent's Indian tribes for past wrongs by the United States. Sixteen years earlier, the Congress had apologized for imprisoning Japanese-Americans during World War II, but Brownback's resolution languished until last year when it was added as an amendment to the 2010 defense appropriations bill. President Obama signed it on December 19, 2009.

The apology, however belated, would have pleased Davy Crockett. He had once fought together with Jackson against the British and their Creeks allies. But for opposing the Cherokee removal, Crockett had lost his seat in Congress. Although he regretted his defeat, he said that at least his vote would "not make me ashamed on the last day of judgment."

I find his example worth remembering, along with a hope that no future generation need apologize for what we are saying or doing today.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of A.J. Langguth.