Jeremiah Evarts did not have a good seat at one of history’s most famous presidential inaugurations. He was so far away that when white-haired Andrew Jackson spoke from the Capitol steps in 1829, Evarts could only make out the occasional word.
Evarts was determined that the new president heard him. He was not a Jackson supporter — not among the throngs who followed the new president to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and famously trashed it. Evarts was a writer, editor, and activist. And he had his sights set on defeating the new commander-in-chief’s first big policy proposal: a plan to shove American Indians off their land in the Eastern United States. Evarts, with other New Englanders, may have lost the fight, but along the way they wrote a new chapter in the annals of American dissent.
It’s worth learning this story now because Andrew Jackson is in the news. A much-publicized campaign this spring called for removing his face from the $20 bill in favor of an image of a historic woman. Organizers targeted Jackson because of his treatment of Indians.
The president’s defenders, for their part, point out that he was a war hero, a chief executive who saved the Union from fracturing, the founder of the Democratic Party, and an author of the vibrant society we have inherited. Indeed, democracy thrived in Jackson’s time.
But Evarts and his band of fellow New Englanders deserve credit for authorship, too. Scholar Mary Hershberger, a critic of Jackson, once observed that the president inadvertently made a more democratic society because he provoked such passionate democratic opposition. Much of that opposition started with Jeremiah Evarts. His story helps to explain why the early 19th century still matters, how it shaped better-known periods like the Civil War, and how it still influences who we are.
Evarts was a Vermont farmer’s son, hollow-cheeked and sickly but burning with passion for the right as he saw it. In the 1790s, a wave of religiosity swept across the young nation. Called the Second Great Awakening, it saw an explosion in the membership of Protestant congregations as well as the formation of numerous reform movements. Evarts, a student at Yale at the time, became deeply religious. He was a strict Calvinist who publicly scolded the college president for tolerating dancing and even denounced himself in his journal for his own perceived sins, such as idle talking. In Boston he became editor of a religious magazine.
In the Panoplist, Evarts mixed his views of Christian parenting (“Children should be educated in a course of self-denial”) with his political views of slavery (some slave owners might be kind and benevolent, but would anyone willingly be slaves to them?). Then there was war. His magazine denounced US participation in the War of 1812 by calculating the costs of wartime destruction.
Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, the warrior president with a plan to relocate Indians, was just the man to bring out Evarts’s fullest talents. By the time of Jackson’s inauguration, Evarts was working for a Massachusetts-based organization that sent missionaries overseas, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. It also sent missionaries to Indian nations, such as the Cherokee of the southern Appalachians.
Evarts had visited the Cherokee Nation, which spread across north Georgia and surrounding states. He understood that many Cherokee embraced white civilization — adopting forms of religion, agriculture, clothing, education, and government to match their white neighbors. He also believed that they had the right to remain on land they had controlled for centuries. Jackson’s planned relocation, which was to be voluntary in name but not in practice, moved him to fury.
The Cherokee Nation had placed itself under federal protection but preserved sovereignty in its heartland. The federal government legally acknowledged Cherokee ownership of that real estate, even while offering to buy it. States clamored to control the land for white settlement and also objected to Indians maintaining sovereignty separate from state governments. A conflict between the Cherokee and the state of Georgia approached a crisis just after Jackson was elected.
When Evarts traveled to Washington before the 1829 inauguration, he wanted to assess the new president’s plans. He checked into the same hotel as the president-elect and managed to meet him privately. Evarts was not reassured. Though Jackson’s inaugural speech promised a “just and liberal policy” toward Indians, Evarts was convinced that Jackson would do nothing to protect them.
“No relief can be hoped,” Evarts concluded, “except through the influence of the press.” So he began to craft a novel strategy to use the power of the press to influence members of Congress, who might block Jackson’s plans.
John Ross, the newly elected chief of the Cherokee Nation, assured Evarts that the tribe would neither give in nor resort to violence. They would, instead, prepare “passively” to “meet the worse of the consequences” rather than surrender. They would, in short, be worthy of defending.
Evarts then sent a letter to the National Intelligencer, a daily newspaper that was the era’s nearest equivalent of The Washington Post. Under a pseudonym, he proposed to write a series of essays attacking Jackson’s Indian policy. The newspaper agreed. In his articles, Evarts riffed on the Declaration of Independence. He wrote that Indians were “endowed by their Creator with the same natural rights as other men.” Readers could not miss the reference. Evarts predicted that if Indians were forced to move, “the sentence of an indignant world will be uttered in thunders . . . for ages after the present actors in human affairs shall have passed away.”
He wrote two dozen articles, and the Intelligencer printed them all. They were timed to be published twice a week so that smaller, biweekly papers could reprint them. Dozens of papers did; the Intelligencer reported that Evarts’s letters were more widely circulated “than any other series of Letters that have ever been published during our time.”
Evarts did more than speak out. He also inspired. In 1829 he met a woman who took the campaign to another level. Catharine Beecher of Hartford was a 29-year-old preacher’s daughter who ran a school for girls. She took up Evarts’s suggestion that women might join the cause, gathering Hartford friends to draft a “Ladies’ Circular” defending Indians. They had it published in newspapers and spread by mail across much of the United States. Although women could not vote, Beecher wrote that they could “sway the empire of affection,” persuading men to defend Indians in need. Women organized meetings and even signed petitions to Congress — a landmark in women’s activism, decades before the women’s rights movement.
The reformist New Englanders were also fueling an early conflict between the North and South. Southern politicians were intensely — and often personally — interested in Indian real estate. Northern politicians could more easily support Indians, since their constituents’ economic calculus was different. Their local Indian populations had been shorn off nearly all their land long before.
The groundswell of publicity backing Indian rights ensured that Northern lawmakers were primed to oppose Jackson’s first major legislative proposal, which offered money to relocate Native Americans and came to be known as the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Its critics included Edward Everett of Massachusetts. Decades later, he would be famous as the man who spoke before Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, but in 1830 he was a young congressman, who accused Jackson of grossly understating the financial cost of his policy.
Jackson’s side narrowly won the House vote. His fragile political coalition, which was becoming the Democratic Party, held together. The Indian Removal Act set the stage for the eventual relocation of many tribes to present-day Oklahoma; the Cherokee removal would be called the Trail of Tears. Even a Supreme Court ruling in favor of the Cherokee (Chief Justice John Marshall read Evarts’s essays, and agreed with them) had no practical effect.
The unsuccessful campaign against the removal act was all-consuming for Evarts. He died of tuberculosis in 1831, after a lifetime of ill health and overwork. But he leaves an important legacy, particularly in his invocation of the Declaration of Independence on behalf of a minority.
Minority rights were as old as the country, of course. The Founding Fathers had built protections of minorities into the Constitution. But they were often thinking of powerful minorities — such as rival political factions or states. At the same time that politicians like John C. Calhoun were inventing elaborate legal rationales to protect the minority of Americans who owned slaves, it was Evarts who brought the rights argument to bear on behalf of a powerless racial minority.
Though they were defeated, some of the opponents of Indian removal turned their reformist zeal to another racial minority — black slaves. Years later, in 1852, a novel called “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” became a phenomenal bestseller, highlighting the horrors of slavery and helping set the stage for the Civil War. The author was the little sister of Indian rights activist Catharine Beecher — Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Steve Inskeep is host of NPR’s “Morning Edition” and author of “Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab.”