Washington as President

During the late 1760s and 1770s, George Washington had come to be one of the leading revolutionary voices speaking from Virginia, and in 1775 he accepted command of the Continental Army against the British. In leading the American forces to victory, Washington became the preminent hero of the new nation. However, the government under the Articles of Confederation was too weak to hold the fragile union together, and in 1787, the country wrote a new constitution which strengthened the powers of the central government. There was no doubt that Washington would serve as the first president.

Thirty years after he left the arena of the French and Indian war, the Indian situation followed Washington into the presidency.* As the first president, many difficult and unique questions faced him. Questions such as forming a new republican government, paying the revolutionary war debt, and maintaining the delicate balance between states rights and federal power, were of primary importance. The Indian question was also an important issue of the day. Washington still believed that the west was the basis for America's prosperity and power in the future, and this would inevitably lead to further contact with the Indians.165 The French and Indian War had given him ample material from which to draw conclusions about dealing with the Indians. His opinions remained remarkably consistent throughout his life. These opinions influenced the fate of the Indians in the early days of the nation.

Historian Charles Ambler asserted that while George Washington was president, "Indian relations became comparatively peaceful and satisfactory...."166 Fellow historian Jared Sparks commented "Washington's policy in regard to the Indians was always pacific and humane. He considered them as children, who should be treated with tenderness and forbearance. He aimed to conciliate them by good usage, to obtain their lands by fair purchase and punctual payments, to make treaties with them on terms of equity and reciprocal advantage, and strictly to redeem every pledge."167 Both of these quotes express the Indian policy of Washington's words more than his actions. Washington wrote often of the necessity of justice and humanity towards the natives, but at the same time his actions constantly undermined the interests and occasionally the very survival of the frontier Indians.

During his two terms as president, Washington continually proclaimed justice for the Indians. While the American frontiersmen held an attitude of hostility towards the Indians, the goal of United States officials was the orderly advance of white civilization.168 It appeared inevitable that the Indian lands would have be overrun by the Europeans and Americans sooner or later, but the new Washington administration was able "to cope with the Indians in an organized and authoritative way and give approval and direction to the frontier growth."169 The pattern of Indian treaties indicates that, despite the continual barrage of statements concerning fairness and humanity, the United States did not actually enter into treaties with the Indians in good faith. The pioneers surely would not have settled on Indian lands with such abandon had they expected the government to honor the terms of the treaties. Indeed, the settlers anticipated that the government would eventually force the Indians into another treaty.170

Washington wrote that in 1783 Great Britain had given the United States the rights to all Indian lands by right of conquest. However, he claimed that the United States wanted only part of the land, preferring to reserve parts of it for the Indians. That land speculating companies like the Yazoo Companies (described below) in Georgia not only existed but managed to operate fairly well is the best evidence that while the federal government complained loudly of the violation of Indian land rights, at the same time it looked the other way at land speculators and settlers taking the same lands.171

Washington declared that he wanted justice for the natives. In his instructions to his three commissioners to the Creek Indians in 1789, Washington directed his commissioners to adhere to the principles of "justice and humanity."172 In the next year, when the Treaty of Hopewell, which had been signed with the Chickasaws and Cherokees, was being violated, Washington assured them that it would be respected and declared, "The United States do not want any of your lands, if any bad people tell you otherwise they deceive you, and are your enemies and the enemies of the United States."173 In 1789, Washington told the Congress ".... While the measures of Government ought to be calculated to protect its Citizens from all injury and violence, a due regard should be extended to those Indians whose happiness in the course of events so materially depends on the national justice and humanity of the United States."174

The president felt that the Indians could be saved from extinction if they would adopt the ways of the white people. He approved of a plan to attempt to "civilize and Christianize the Savages of the Wilderness," by the so-called Society of United Brethren for propagating the Gospel among the Heathen.175 In a famous quote, Washington wrote to Lafayette in 1790 "the basis of our proceedings with the Indian Nations has been, and shall be justice, during the period in which I may have any thing to do in the administration of this government." What is not so often repeated is that, in the same letter, Washington told Lafayette that the 1790 New York Treaty (described below) would bring peace, except with small number of Cherokee and Shawnee "banditti. . . who can be easily chastised or even extirpated if it shall become necessary...."176 That he thought only small, splinter groups of Indians were fighting the white men shows that Washington did not completely grasp the Indian situation. While there was some truth in this belief, the young warriors who were attacking Americans were not simply bandits out for their own profit, but were rather fighting for their homelands. He again showed a certain ignorance of Indian problems during a tour of the South he took in 1791. In May he recorded that he "was met by some of the Chief's of the Cutawba Nation who seemed to be under the apprehension that some attempts were making or would be made to deprive them of part of the 40,000 Acres wch. secured to them by Treaty...."177 Such statements indicate either ignorance, naiveté, or, at least, an indifference towards the situation of the Indians.

While he may have looked the other way at settlers and speculators who were thwarting his attempts at peaceful Indian treaties, he surely did not have any love for them. In 1791 Washington expressed his disgust at Georgia land speculators who "Maugre every principle of Justice to the Indians...."178 He once commented to Jefferson that "It will be fortunate for the American public if private Speculators in the lands, still claimed by the Aborigines, do not aggravate those differences, which policy, humanity, and justice concur to deprecate."179 Unlike some, Washington did not blame the frontier problems solely on the Indians. While acknowledging that it was fair to acquire certain Indian lands, he never felt that the entire Indian race should be exterminated. He wrote "... I cannot see much prospect of living in tranquility with them [Indians] so long as a spirit of land jobbing prevails, and our frontier Settlers entertain the opinion that there is not the same crime (or indeed no crime at all) in killing an Indian as in killing a white man... In vain we may expect peace with the Indians on our frontiers, so long as a lawless set of unprincipled wretches can violate the rights of hospitality or infringe the most solemn treaties, without receiving the punishment they so justly merit."180

Washington's anti-frontiersmen rhetoric has to be taken very carefully, however. Most people of the time thought that it was simply wrong for the Indians to have so much land and not cultivate it. Therefore, they thought that they were justified in taking Indian territories. These people, mostly frontiersmen and settlers, saw no problem in taking the land.

Washington, Knox, and their cohorts justified the acquisition of Indian land with rationalizations, the main one being that, although the Indians possessed the "right of soil," if the United States entered into a "just war" with the Indians, the land could legally and morally be taken by right of conquest. Washington believed strongly in the advance of American civilization, and this could not be accomplished unless the western lands could be settled by American citizens. It was very easy for Washington and his contemporaries to blame the frontiersmen for thwarting the government's honorable dealings with the Indians; it relieved them of the moral responsibility of stealing the tribes' lands and going against the very principles in which the United States proclaimed to believe. While they disdained the activities of the frontiersmen, they never made any serious attempts to thwart their plans.181 It was with this set of complicated (and often self-contradictory) beliefs that Washington entered into the presidency and began to deal with the Indian questions facing the new nation.


* For the purposes of this work, Washington's relations with the Indians during the American Revolution were not examined.

165 Sturdevant, 306. To deal with this situation, Washington drew heavily upon the advice of Henry Knox, who was the Secretary of war and Washington's friend.

166 Ambler, 191.

167 John Frederick Schroeder, DD, collector and arranger, Maxims of Washington: Political, Social, Moral, and Religious (Mount Vernon: The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, 1942), 160.

168 Prucha, 3.

169 Harvey Lewis Carter, The Life and Times of Little Turtle, First Sagamore of the Wabash (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 61.

170 Henri, 137-141.

171 Ibid., 141-145.

172 Washington to the Commissioners for Negotiating a Treaty with the Southern Indians, Aug. 29, 1789, John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799 (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1939), XXX, 392.

173 Washington to the Chiefs and Warriors of the Chickasaw Nation, Dec. 30, 1790, Fitzpatrick, XXXI, 184.

174 Washington to the Congress, Aug. 7, 1789, Schroeder, 160. 175 Washington to the Society of United Brethren for propagating the Gospel among the Heathen, July 10, 1789, Ibid., 315-316.

176 Washington to Lafayette, Aug. 11, 1790, Fitzpatrick, XXXI, 86-87.

177 Entry for May 27, 1791, Jackson, VI, 149.

178 Entry for June 4, 1791, Ibid., 158.

179 Washington to Thomas Jefferson, April 1, 1791, Fitzpatrick, XXXI, 261.

180 George Washington to David Humphreys, July 20, 1791, Fitzpatrick, XXXI, 320; Freeman, VI, 381.

181 Henri, 85-87.

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