Intellectual History Newsletter


Book Review:

The Problem with “And”

Anthony F. C. Wallace, Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans
(Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999)


It is a foregone conclusion that anything Anthony F. C. Wallace produces will be interesting. A Bancroft Prize winner and professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, Wallace has spent a lifetime creating an opus of scholarship that has inevitably balanced careful attention to detail with a desire to tell big stories. In books including King of the Delawares: Teedyuscung, 1700-1763 (1949), The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca (1969), Rockdale: The Growth of an American Village in the Early Industrial Revolution (1978), and The Long, Bitter Trail: Andrew Jackson and the Indians (1993), Wallace has, often as not, focused on Indians and their complicated relationships with European and American governments. He pioneered a brand of historical anthropology — or anthropological history — that demonstrated to practitioners the very best ways to express multiple points of view and ways of knowing, and helped readers understand what was important to persons of other times and cultures, asking always how actors viewed their own lives.

In his most recent work, Wallace does and does not advance this mission. His conflicted purposes are evident in the book’s title. The first half (anteceding the colon) gives pride of place to Thomas Jefferson. Indeed, it is Jefferson, rather than unspecified Indians, with whom Wallace is concerned. Wallace describes Jefferson’s Indian policy and then tries to explain the myriad possible influences that came to bear upon the third president’s attitudes and actions. The second half of the book’s title (The Tragic Fate of the First Americans) seems to foreground Indians and their story. The book, however, is not about Indians and their perceptions of or roles in their “tragic fate.” Wallace does not apply his usual methodology to the Indians in his story, which may disappoint those who have come to rely on him to reveal non-Euro-American views and vantage points. By poring over records of Jefferson’s conversations, letters, formal writings, and library holdings, Wallace tries to reinvent the culture and politics that incubated Jefferson’s federal Indian policy. He engages in the sort of intellectual exercises he has performed so brilliantly before, but this time he recreates a largely elite Euro-American world, rather than an Indian one.

Wallace’s use of “and,” the conjunction joining “Jefferson” to “the Indians” only loosely links his two subjects. “And” implies no more than a tangential simultaneity. It takes for granted the absolute importance of a president and side-steps any significant engagement with disempowered Indians as actors or thinkers. The result is something of a puzzle – interesting, of course – but only concerned with Indians in their roles as objects of Jefferson’s attention. Not a work about what Indians thought of Thomas Jefferson, Wallace’s book might more aptly have been titled “What Jefferson Thought of Indians: The Enigmatic Stance of America’s Third President.”

Wallace follows on the heels of many others, most recently Joseph Ellis, more distantly, Annie Abele, who have located in Jefferson’s contradictory thoughts and deeds the origins of the destruction of Indian homelands in the East. In American Sphinx (1996), Ellis studied what he called Jefferson’s “enigmatic” character. As Ellis noted, Jefferson devoted one, entirely celebratory chapter of Notes on the State of Virginia to Indians, and he also paved the way for “the deportation of massive segments of the Indian population to land west of the Mississippi.” Ellis credited Jefferson for sowing “the seeds” of Indian “extinction.”1 Nearly a century before Ellis pointed the finger at Jefferson, Annie Abele focused on the reasons Americans created and implemented the removal policy (1906). Removal, she argued, “was apparently not only spontaneous, but absolutely original with Jefferson.” He created and then supported the concept of taking Indian lands and moving Indians to the West because, Abele asserted, he wanted to end expensive Indian warfare and give room to white settlers hungry to homestead.2 Echoing both Ellis and Abele, Wallace describes Jefferson “as the scholarly admirer of Indian character, archaeology, and language and as the planner of cultural genocide, the architect of the removal policy, the surveyor of the Trail of Tears” (vii).

Though others before Wallace pinned the genesis of removal on Jefferson, it is only with Jefferson and the Indians that we get an exhaustive exploration of the wide range of political and cultural influences that came to bear on Jefferson’s thought processes. Wallace sets up Jefferson’s paradoxical character in his introduction, which frames the entire study. Elegantly examining the famous speech of the “Great Mingo Logan,” the murder of whose family in Ohio led to Lord Dunmore’s War, Wallace demonstrates the way that Jefferson simultaneously rendered the speech to great effect in Notes on the State of Virginia, creating pathos and sympathy for Indians, and participated in the very sort of land speculation that effectively turned Logan into “the last of a dying race.” In Jefferson’s hands, Wallace asserts, Logan’s tale became a metaphor for the story of all Indian peoples. Whites would mourn Indians’ inevitable eclipse even as they systematically strove to further that passing (10-11).

Chapter by chapter, Wallace scrutinizes arenas in which Jefferson absorbed – or should have absorbed – ideas about Indians. In chapter one, Wallace analyzes Jefferson’s activities in land speculation companies, especially the Loyal Company and the Ohio Company. He concludes that there is no evidence that Jefferson actually profited from the sale of land to settlers, “but the fact that [Jefferson’s] interest was genuine gleams through the terse language of the notations” (40). Although Wallace says in chapter two, “The Indian Wars,” that he will deal with Jefferson as Indian fighter, he touches on Jefferson only incidentally. Wallace starts with the French and Indian War, which took place in the 1750s when Jefferson was a teenager, and systematically covers Lord Dunmore’s War, the War with the Cherokees, and post Revolutionary conflicts north of the Ohio River, whether or not Jefferson was present at events or actively participated in negotiations. Chapter three, “Notes on the Vanishing Aborigines,” reads like notes Wallace took when he, himself, was reading Jefferson’s writings. Teasing apart the Notes, Wallace analyzes all of Jefferson’s references and omissions of references to Indians. Wallace details Indian conflicts along the Virginia-South Carolina border (important, presumably, because Jefferson lived in Virginia), and then remarks that “[n]one of this information appears in the text of Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia” (89). The one bit of information Jefferson includes is “extraordinary,” Wallace finds, “both for the positive misinformation it contains and for the failure to mention facts with which Jefferson should have been familiar” (89). The chapter takes off when Wallace turns his attention to the Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark’s expedition. Here, at last, he is confidently able to place Jefferson intellectually and culturally (95-107).

The “Where’s Jefferson?” problem intensifies in subsequent chapters in the book. Chapter four similarly paints a broad picture, this time of “Native Americans through European Eyes,” but Wallace again has a hard time placing Jefferson at the scene. He does an exemplary job showing readers the many varieties of thought that may have come to bear on Jefferson as he formed his opinions – quoting from Jesuits, Constantin Volney, and early French ethnographers – but, as he readily admits, we don’t know who, if any, of these writers Jefferson actually read. Had Jefferson come across Father Joseph-François Lafitau’s work before he wrote the Notes? It “is not known,” Wallace writes, “[b]ut in any case, Jefferson’s own preoccupation with historical questions, and particularly with the origin of the Indians, seems to have interfered with appreciation of Lafitau’s writings” (111). Did Jefferson appreciate real, live Indians? Wallace concludes in this chapter that Jefferson had very few dealings with actual Indians and increasingly “focused on the search for the historical origins of the doomed Indian race” (129).

Laying out the myriad activities Americans in the early nation pursued as they tried to document Indians’ past, Wallace, in chapter five, “In Search of Ancient Americans,” repeatedly uses words such as “perhaps,” “probably,” “must have,” “was likely,” “may have known“ ”if indeed,” and “whether” to connect Jefferson to the prevailing world view in the early nineteenth century. Chapter six, “Civilizing the Uncivilized Frontier,” shows American leaders, including George Washington and John Adams, implementing policies intended to be sympathetic to Indians while obtaining Indian lands. Enlightening though the observations may be, they can’t mitigate against Wallace’s own admission that Jefferson “never saw with his own eyes any Indian community, civilized or not, except for the town on Long Island that he and Madison visited in June 1791 and (possibly) the tiny reservation at Brotherton…. ” (180). The speculations are interesting and help describe an exciting time in American ethnography, but they do not function convincingly as hard evidence. They suggest that the “and” in Wallace’s title refers to an intellectual, academic connection rather than a physical, tangible relationship.

In chapters six through ten, “Civilizing the Uncivilized Frontier,” “President Jefferson’s Indian Policy,“ “The Louisiana Territory,” “Confrontation with the Old Way,” and ”Return to Philosophical Hall,” respectively, Wallace tracks Jefferson as he rises in national prominence, assumes the presidency, sets in motion the precursors of federal removal policy, and returns to private life. Wallace draws on an impressively vast cast of characters, including Secretary of War Henry Knox, British ambassador George Hammond, Moravian missionaries David Zeisberger and John Heckewelder, citizen farmer J. Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur, white settler John Kirk, General Henry Dearborn, William Henry Harrison, Benjamin Hawkins, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, James Wilkinson, Lewis Cass, Jedidiah Morse, Peter Stephen DuPonceau, Albert Gallatin, and Constantine Samuel Rafinesque. Jefferson dealt extensively with these individuals as he ruminated on the appropriate way to treat Indians in the early nation. Some of these interactions were military, some academic. All worked to influence Jefferson’s attitudes, formulating what Wallace terms Jefferson’s “mature Indian policy”(221). Like Annie Abele, Wallace locates Jefferson’s first formal statements concerning Indian relations in his dealings to acquire the Louisiana Purchase in 1802. Jefferson proposed that the United States systematically obtain Indian land to make way for white expansion. Government agents were to restrict Indians’ movements and close off avenues for seasonal immigration. They were also to coerce Indians into accepting “civilization” and farming in favor of hunting for wild game (225). Though Congress did not formally adopt Jefferson’s plan at this early juncture, the Senate and House inched towards most of the elements so that, by 1830, when the Removal Act became law, Jefferson’s building blocks needed little mortar to be cemented into place. When he left office, Wallace notes, Jefferson returned, once again, to his academic pursuits, trying to compile grammars of soon-to-be-gone Indian languages, studying evidence of Indian archaeology, working steadily to document the demise of Indians, like the Great Mingo Logan, for whom he expressed nothing but respect. Contrasting Jefferson’s ongoing preoccupation with Indian origins and languages with the cold-bloodedness of his official, governmental policy, Wallace presents an altogether unflattering portrait of this founding father. Acknowledging his curiosity and intellectual acuity, Wallace does not shy away from Jefferson’s ruthless assessments and tactics.

Wallace concludes Jefferson and the Indians by evaluating “Jefferson’s Troubled Legacy.” His influence was as much practical as intellectual; with administrative successors (Cass, Hawkins, Clark, Andrew Jackson) accepting the “Jeffersonian premise of the doom of the red race,” accepting it, Wallace writes, as “inevitable – and morally justifiable” (336). Ultimately, Wallace argues, this American “culture hero,” this controlling, shape-shifting “philosopher-politician-official” must bear responsibility for the tragedy of American Indians. “Thomas Jefferson,” he warns us in his preface, “played a major role in one of the great tragedies of recent world history, a tragedy which he so elegantly mourned” (viii).

I think I knew this before I read Jefferson and the Indians, and now that I have read Wallace’s work, I think I understand with more subtlety why Jefferson assumed the positions he did. All the same, I am left wondering, despite the wealth of detail Wallace offers, how Indians contributed and reacted to Jefferson and his policies. Rather than learning of all the possible and suggestive links between Jefferson and his European peers, I want a New Indian History of these early years, one that is sufficiently “de-centered” that it foregrounds Shawnees and Cherokees and Ohios, not French philosophes. I am hungry, in the end, for Wallace to write not from Jefferson’s vantage point, but from Logan’s. I know it is a cardinal sin to admit in book reviewing, but I wanted Wallace to have written a different book. My task is to evaluate what is in front of me, to use my critical faculties to judge whether or not the project, as is, is solid. Wallace places our heroic antihero of a president in his cultural and intellectual environs, and sometimes he does this with more certainty than others. That said, instead of learning about Jefferson and the Indians, I wanted the “and” to be more flexible. I wanted, it turns out, to read a book called The Indians and Jefferson. Such a book calls for a different intellectual process, a different historical mode of inquiry. What frustrates me is that I know, without a doubt, that had he chosen to do so, Wallace could have written that book.




Joseph J. Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Vintage Books/Random House, 1996, 1998), 238-39. Ellis acknowledges that he borrows the phrase from Bernard W. Sheehan’s Seeds of Extinction: Jeffersonian Philanthropy and the American Indian (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1973).

Annie Heloise Abel, “The History of Events Resulting in Indian Consolidation West of the Mississippi,” Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1906, Vol. I. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1908), 248-49.