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Book Review: Jacksonland by Steve Inskeep

Steve Inskeep's new book Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross and a Great American Land Grab tells the story of the intersecting lives of Andrew Jackson and John Ross, and how the historically shameful Indian Removal Act came about. In a book of Goldilocks proportion (not too long, not too short, just right) Inskeep follows the lives of Jackson, of whom we know much about, and Ross, a little known but equally fascinating historic figure. There is much more to the story of the forced removal of Native American who lived in the American southeast than we are told about in history texts. Inskeep gives an interesting account of the nations who lived in this region in the first part of the 19th century prior to their forced removal, most of which one is never told about in standard history fare. The Cherokee Nation, led by John Ross, took steps on their own to assimilate into American culture, lived peaceably among their neighbors, had a comparable system of government and even had a constitution that sounded very similar to the one Andrew Jackson was supposed to follow. In a very engaging style, Inskeep explains how southerners' coveting of Cherokee land (and land belonging to other First Nations) evolved, how greedy land speculators and politicians (Andrew Jackson falling in both categories) sacrificed principle in their unscrupulous land grab, and how John Ross bravely struggled in vain for a peaceful resolution to the problem.

The story is full of fascinating historical figures, many of whom are virtually unknown even to modern history geeks. There are good guys and bad. Besides Ross, Inskeep tells us about many others who sided with the Native Americans in the interests of fairness and justice, even though it was unpopular for them to do so, including clergymen Jeremiah Evarts and Samuel Worcester, closet feminist Catherine Beecher, editor Elias Boudinot, Chief Justice John Marshall and General John Wool. We also see the worst examples of unethical politicians in Jackson, his successor Martin Van Buren and in Georgia Congressman (and later Governor) George Troup as well as unethical land speculators like John Coffee and James Jackson (no relation). There are other interesting and complex contemporaries in this story such as the Cherokee leader Major Ridge and his son John, and the Marquis de Lafayette even makes an interesting appearance in the midst of the story.

Inskeep ably makes the case for how Jackson disregarded his constitutional obligations and how he abandoned his commitment to democracy when it came to Native Americans, as he engaged in a number of despicable practices to ensure that the voices and votes of the Cherokee people were never allowed to be heard or counted. His description of the "Trail of Tears" journey of the displaced Native Americans is not as detailed as told by some other authors, but it nevertheless provides the reader with a strong impression of the hardship they faced and the terrible conditions they were forced to endure.

While Inskeep is obviously passionate about his subject (as is apparent when, in the book's epilogue he describes his visit to the locations where many of the book's events took place), his criticisms of Jackson are not bald opinions, but are supported by contemporary documents that demonstrate Jackson's duplicity and dishonesty. Conversely, the author also fairly acknowledges that Ross and others on the side of the Cherokee had their own imperfections. If the story appears skewed on the side of the Cherokee, Inskeep ably makes the case that this is because history supports this vantage, not because it is the product of the author's bias.

While 2015 is only half over, thus far this is the best work of American history that I have read. The author uncovers much that is previously hidden in histories of the Age of Jackson and does so in a manner that makes for a real page turner. I highly recommend this book for anyone with an interest in US history, in US antebellum history or in the history of America's First Nations.
Tags: author: i, genre: non-fiction, review, subject: history

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