People have been asking why I wanted to write about Andrew Jackson and the Cherokees.
To be more precise, they ask: Why did you want to write about that?
My day job is to write not history but "the first draft of history," which is what people sometimes call the news. I work for NPR, and sometimes other news organizations. I write a lot about politics, campaigns, foreign affairs, and America's place in the world.
It's not like there's a shortage of things to do. Early this year I visited Iran, then on the verge of a nuclear deal with the West. Weeks later I visited Israel, which was on the verge of a momentous election. This spring, within days of each other, I interviewed President Obama as well as Marco Rubio, one of the Republicans aiming to replace him. Between such occasions you might find me interviewing the drummer for the Grateful Dead or the novelist Attica Locke or anchoring live coverage of a disaster.
Why, then, turn my attention to a series of events that took place between 1814 and 1838?
It had a lot to do with my day job.
Around 2011 the United States went through an appalling period of politics. It's hard, in these somewhat better times, to recall how bad it was. Unemployment was high. The recovery from the Great Recession was slow. The federal deficit was soaring. Many lawmakers vowed that if they could not get their way in budget negotiations, they would leave the United States to default on its debts. The system was not working.
The experience of covering this news drove me back into history. I wanted to better understand our democracy, which seemed to be faltering.
My education came in several phases. First, I bought some rye whiskey.
This drink, which tastes like spiced lighter fluid, was one of the more common spirits in America from the time of its founding to the days of Prohibition. Something about rye takes you back; modern-day sellers often strike historic themes in their labels and marketing. When I discovered rye in 2011 it was beginning to take off again as a popular drink; today you'll find it in many a bar. Maybe the modern-day United States Congress has boosted overall rye consumption, as it did in my case.
But a shot of rye only takes you so far.
There was a book on my shelves at home called The Great Triumvirate by Merrill D. Peterson. It was the story of three great 19th-century senators, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John Calhoun. They dominated the first half of the 1800s, when American democracy began to assume its present form.
That era attracted me. I'd always loved that pre–Civil War time, when the map of the United States was so very different and constantly changing. So was our political system. In 1800, government was mostly a game for elites, and few people voted. But the right to vote rapidly expanded in the decades to follow, along with the media, campaigns, political party systems, and much else that we now recognize as American democracy.
When I went to the Library of Congress in search of 19th-century letters and newspapers, the era only grew more fascinating. It was a time of great ferment — like our own. It was a time of wrenching economic change — like our own. It was also a time when America was wrestling with its racial diversity — as we are wrestling, in different ways, today.
Of the dramatic events of the early 1800s, one of the most excruciating was the removal of American Indians from their historic homelands in the American interior, particularly the South.
My story came to focus on the long-running conflict between two astonishing American characters: Andrew Jackson and John Ross. Jackson, the war hero, president, and symbol of early American democracy, was so admired that one century after he was elected president, he was placed on the $20 bill — and nearly one century after that, he remains controversial enough that there is a campaign underway to remove him from it.
Part of the reason for the distaste for Jackson was his central role in "Indian removal" — forcing natives off their historic homelands.
John Ross, who resisted Indian removal, is less famous than he should be. Ross, the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, was the cleverest of Jackson's opponents. Rather than engage in a hopeless war, he fought for his people's rights through the democratic system. Cherokees used the media, worked with white allies, lobbied Congress, and sued in the Supreme Court. When all else failed, they engaged in acts that we might have called civil disobedience, simply remaining on their land when ordered off.
It's a half-hidden story. The saga of Indian removal is widely known today (elementary school students commonly spend a day, or a unit, on the eviction of Native Americans from their homelands), and yet the details have rarely, if ever, been fully told.
I especially don't think the Indian perspective is fully grasped, despite the efforts of many scholars whose work greatly educated me. Even sympathetic books have sometimes treated Indians as helpless victims of rapacious white men. The record shows that Cherokees were skilled political players who staved off the worst for years, and added to our democratic tradition.
Jacksonland, my effort to tell this story, is a case history of how our democracy works, or fails to work. It's also a journey to a land that seems at once foreign and familiar. The issues and the technology have changed, but Americans are so recognizable in their passions, in their ideals, and sometimes in their failings.
And it is a story for our time, when America — as in the 1830s — is seriously wrestling with the question of how people of different races and backgrounds should live together in one nation.
Martin Van Buren was right. Andrew Jackson's close adviser, and successor as president, predicted that while other controversies that "agitated the public mind in their day" would fade, the emotions aroused by Indian removal would probably "endure...as long as the government itself."
That's because it is a story of who we are — a story we're still living.