Bryan Caplan  

Jefferson on the Indians

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I was curious to read more about Jefferson's position on the Indians. Here's a nice set of quotations. It's full of high-minded rhetoric, like:

Our system is to live in perpetual peace with the Indians, to cultivate an affectionate attachment from them by everything just and liberal which we can do for them within the bounds of reason, and by giving them effectual protection against wrongs from our own people.

But when push comes to shove, however, he regretfully embraces genocide:

No nation rejecting our friendship, and commencing wanton and unprovoked war against us, shall ever after remain within our reach; it shall never be in their power to strike us a second time.

Thus, Jefferson's position on the Indians is very much like his position on blacks: It's a shame things had to be this way, but that's not going to stop us from holding you as slaves/killing you down to the last woman and child.

P.S. Here's Jefferson on slavery. What a hypocrite.


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COMMENTS (13 to date)
eh writes:
...and commencing wanton and unprovoked war against us,...

You must've missed this part.

Fritz writes:

Bigotry, not hypocrisy. Lincoln was a bigot as well.

Alex writes:

We have to take an appropriate time into consideration, both indians and blacks were considered savages at the time, thus their plight was not as important as those few settlers who were tortured by Godless savages.
In some way Indians were on the way on the American progress, and they were technologically backward, all Jefferson did he cooked up half-decent pretext(excuse).

Mike Lutz writes:
No nation rejecting our friendship, and commencing wanton and unprovoked war against us, shall ever after remain within our reach; it shall never be in their power to strike us a second time.

This could have been drawn from Roosevelt's "Day of Infamy" speech.

I don't see the racism (which is much more evident in Jefferson's writings about slaves) or a call to genocide here. It's a general warning: Attack us and you'll live (if lucky) to regret it. Let's keep separate the truly despicable actions perpetrated against Indians from general principles as to what might provoke war and how the government would respond.

It's pretty easy (and also shallow) for us to sit here in comfort at the start of the 21st century and say "I don't feel threatened by Iroquois (or Hurons, Delawares, Cherokee, etc.)." Things were quite a bit different on the frontier at the start of the 19th century.

And we should be careful how stridently we condemn those of the past (though criticism is always appropriate). What conventional wisdom of today will be considered hypocritical years from now? If NAMBLA succeeds in changing views on pederasty (which I, for one, hope never happens), will we be excoriated in 200 years for persecuting and imprisoning sexual predators?

Judge not, lest ye be judged.

tom writes:

"No nation rejecting our friendship, and commencing wanton and unprovoked war against us, shall ever after remain within our reach; it shall never be in their power to strike us a second time."

I suppose Bryan thinks that the United States position towards Al Queda is a position of genocide. What do you suppose Bryan thinks the United States' response should have been after Al Queda's attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon? Should we have sent Al Queda a love letter?

Omer K writes:

It is well understood that white men of that time considered the Negroid race inferior and childlike compared to whites. Today, IQ and other differences somewhat confirm that, best book being imo "Why Race Matters" by Michael Levin, (who is a Jew no less O_o).

However I do not see the hypocrisy of OWNING slaves at that time. Lincoln and others were born into a time when slavery ALREADY EXISTED (aka you got to think about it on the margins as an economist would say). It makes no sense to hold it against them as it was closer to the norm then. Add to that that the slaves were illiterate and unused to the modern world nor the modern economy - freeing them simply did not make sense. In addition there was a real fear of a race war if they were emancipated.

If you wanted to call them hypocrites you would have to show that they bought and sold slaves, not simply owned them. Also did they try to free slaves or look after their welfare in their will for after their own death would be a fruitful line of questioning, especially as slavery was in its waning age?

And then of course, as mentioned, the racist feelings that the races could not get along besides the above objective realities.

Don writes:

Bryan,

Surely you know enough game theory to recognize cheap talk when you see it.

TGGP writes:

Has anyone here read Thomas Sowell's "The Real History of Slavery"? There were legal obstacles that prevented a lot of anti-slavery slaveowners from freeing their slaves (though laws against manumission varied), and others like Washington and Jefferson had mortgaged estates with slaves that in a sense were not theirs to give away (though Jefferson did free nine of them).

As a legislator Jefferson attempted to ban the importation of slaves to Virginia, gradually emancipate the slaves of that state and make the western territories of the country slave-free. The last bill was defeated by one vote, as a legislator was too sick to come in.

I second/third/whatever the emphasis on the "unprovoked attack" portion of his statement. I suppose that anybody this side of Robert LeFevre would be unnaceptable to Caplan.

I like a lot of Caplan's writings but I think he'd make for a lousy historian.

Monte writes:

Bryan, if nothing else, is certainly a good economist. He understands that blogging and controversy are perfect complements, and so has generated a good amount of business by castigating one of our most admired founding fathers by suggesting he's a hypocrite.

The "bottom line" (ie. number of comments) generated for each topic could be improved even further if he were to suggest, for instance, that:

- There's no such thing as immaculate conception (seasonal observation).
- Washington was a habitual liar.
- Lincoln was an evil despot.
- Hitler was a paragon of virtue.
- John Wayne was a closet homosexual.

Nothing desecrated, nothing gained is a perfect business model for blogging.

Jake Shannon writes:

While it is all well and good to chide hypocrisy and bigotry I think it would be interesting to know what implicit hypocritical and bigoted biases future generations point out about us (with the benefit of hindsight, of course).

dearieme writes:

Jefferson was a preposterous fellow, though an effective spin doctor. If you insist in worshipping one of the Founding Fathers, surely Washington was the pick?

pjgoober writes:

The second paragraph of Jefferson is what Victor Davis Hanson describes as a key element of the way the west wages war (though of course that's far less true now). In Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power, He notes that when Hernan Cortez barely escaped the Aztec capital with half his men alive (half out of about 400, though they still had indian allies) after being besieged by the whole city of hundreds of thousands for days, the first thing the Aztecs did was celebrate. No doubt the Aztecs figured the Spaniards were running back to whatever forsaken place they may have come from, and that when they met again, the Spaniards would have had a decided attitude adjustment. That is how wars had gone on in mexico before the spanish came. Most wars ended with an army being allowed to run off the field when they had been beaten enough, and the partially defeated tribe would make concessions of women, slaves, sacrificees, goods, etc. Kind of what Japan thought when they hit Pearl Harbor.

K writes:

Jefferson thought too much. And too long. But his real problem was being involved in the world.

Had he magically known our principles he could have been the local eccentric yeoman. Owned a few acres and never spoken to or tolerated the slave owners and brutes around him.

He did what he could. Abetting some of the evils of his day, fooled by others, seeing through some but too weak to end them, and fixing a few.

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