I suppose writing a history book is like making a sculpture: the art comes from choosing what to leave out. And critics will always quarrel with your choices.

I've mentioned recently how much I'm enjoying Isaac Asimov's four-part book series on American history. The fact that it was written in the early to mid-1970's I have not found to be a hindrance; indeed, I appreciate that he does not write with the stridency I'm accustomed to from modern commentators on our history. His language sometimes reveals that these are older books—using the term "Indian" rather than "Native American," for example—but he uses what was considered right at the time, and can't be held responsible for our subsequent preferences.

As I finished the section on Andrew Jackson, however, I realized with a shock that Asimov had omitted a term that could not be left out of a history of Jackson's administration today: the Trail of Tears.

In Jackson's administration, the long martyrdom of the Indians reached a new stage. By now, the Indians remaining in the various states of the Union were, for the most part, helpless before the organized power of the White Man. They could no longer fight wars; they could only appeal to the courts.

When gold was discovered in Georgia on land which had been assigned to the Cherokee tribe, the White Man moved in, and the treaties with the Indians were torn up as casually and as callously as were all such treaties both before and after. The Indians sued and the case went to the Supreme Court. Eventually, old John Marshall decided that it was the federal government that ruled over Indian territories, and that Georgia's laws against the Cherokees were unconstitutional.

Georgia defied the judgment and Jackson refused to do anything about it. That old Indian-fighter was not in office to uphold the Red Man against the White Man. He is reported to have said, "John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it!"

Indeed, what Jackson pushed for was the gradual and complete transfer of all Indians to lands west of the Mississippi. This was accomplished, gradually, but not entirely peacefully. [Emphasis mine.]

Asimov goes on to describe briefly the Black Hawk War, and the Seminole Wars, that came about as part of the process, but of the long, deadly march represented by the highlighted sentence, he says nothing. For what it's worth, according to Google Book Ngram Viewer, the use of the term "Trail of Tears" peaked in 1995.


Of all the things Asimov does not cover—in a history book one must always leave out most of what happened—this is the first that really caused me to sit up and take notice. (No, I take that back. In the first book of the series, I was surprised that he doesn't mention the Battle of Saratoga as the "Turning Point of the Revolution." He mentions the battle, and that it was a turning point, but growing up in Upstate New York, not far from Saratoga, its designation at the turning point was emphasized—it's one of the few things I remember from my history classes.)

This discovery does not sour me in any way against Asimov's books, but merely reinforces the idea that history must be approached from several angles and through many sources.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, June 5, 2018 at 8:17 am | Edit
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