Tuesday, October 12, 2010
The Indian Removal Act, Evangelicals and Rebecca Gratz
My discussion of 19th-century evangelicalism began, oddly enough, with the post entitled "Rebecca Gratz and Baseball," in which I asserted that there were issues on which Rebecca and the Evangelicals, not natural allies, did see eye to eye. One such issue was the removal of Native Americans from their homes.
The Indian Removal Act of 1830 called for the exile of all Native Americans living east of the Mississippi to Oklahoma, opening up their ancestral lands to settlement by whites. Although it was passed (greed usually wins), it faced strong opposition in Congress and in the country. The leaders of this movement were Jeremiah Evarts, a missionary, and Theodore Frelinghuysen, a Senator from New Jersey. Both men were Evangelicals and their powerful speeches and writings brought many into agreement with their position. And although Evarts and Frelinghuysen would cite the plan as bad political policy, their most forceful argument was that this betrayal reached the level of a national sin.
The first dire consequences of the Act were seen when Native Americans refused to leave and troops moved in to forcibly resettle them. The Seminoles in Florida were, because of their land's defensibility, able to resist more effectively than other tribes. In 1835, the government was still trying to move them out, setting off the Second Seminole War. In February 1836, shortly after Seminoles ambushed and massacred United States troops, Rebecca wrote of the conflict:
"This is a hateful war. The poor wretches who have done such mischief as to have sealed their own doom, may rise in judgment at the Great Day against this Nation for the wrongs and outrages committed upon them in their own wilderness and wigwams, the home in which God placed them. What plea can we make to Infinite Justice for invading them in their peaceful possession. That they were savage and we civilized; that they had lands which we wanted and could cultivate, and build cities? And because they would not give all, we hunt them like beasts of prey; and they are a fearful enemy to encounter, savage demons in their revenge."
Rebecca is being ironic when she states that the Native Americans "were savage and we civilized." Like the Evangelicals Rebecca saw the removal as a national sin and the government's savage actions as the root cause of all that followed. Notice that she is not condemning "them" for this disaster; she wonders what plea we can make to God, bearing her part in the national guilt.
Also note that Rebecca has made these statements in a PRIVATE LETTER, not in a public speech or in a publication. She had a horror of being in the public eye, which was reinforced by society's dictum that women's domain was private life.
Although Rebecca was central to the nineteenth-century innovations of women's charities and Jewish religious education, she pushed the envelope where it was most yielding. Women had traditionally given aid to the poor on an individual basis and acted as their children's first teachers in academics and religion -- her work was an extension of women's traditional roles beyond the home. Rebecca did not take on roles -- as public speaker for a political cause or a social reform, for instance -- which were new to women.
The opposition to the Indian Act marked the first time women took organized action to participate in a political debate. This was possible because the Evangelicals had given women greater roles in church endeavors than had been traditional in Christianity. For the first time women were forming benevolent and missionary societies within their congregations and developing networks around the country. Catharine Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe's sister, grasped the potential here for political action and anonymously started a petition campaign in support of Native Americans. About 1500 women signed petitions opposing the Indian Act and sent them to Congress. Beecher's methods would be used repeatedly as women became more fully involved in the anti-slavery movement and the many other reforms (including women's rights) which would spring up. Rebecca Gratz would privately support some of these causes in her letters, but did not publicly endorse any of these movements.
(A transcript of Rebecca's letter is in the Gratz Collection at the Rosenbach Museum & Library, Philadelphia.)