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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 31.3 (2001) 465-466

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Book Review

Jefferson and the Indians:
The Tragic Fate of the First Americans

Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans. By Anthony F. C. Wallace (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1999) 394 pp. $29.95

Wallace's Thomas Jefferson was involved in a mighty struggle to maintain mutually contradictory aspirations and policies. This struggle was of such significance to our national image, still delineating the "fault-lines in the national character," that Jefferson is "our version of the universal Trickster" (vii-viii).

Jefferson was deeply interested in America's indigenous peoples and in their past. He pursued studies in Indian linguistics throughout his life, especially in his role as president of the American Philosophical Society from 1797, and he supported archaeological research, especially after he began to learn about the great mounds. But in comparison to others--such as Michel-Guillaume-Jean de Crèvecoeur and Volney--Jefferson had little interest in ethnography. The Indians interested him, in part, because they were deemed to be vanishing; at their best, they embodied the nobility of a doomed race and his principal focus was their ancient past. There was no place in Jefferson's America for "Indians as Indians"; assimilation was the most benign outcome possible (11). Paradoxically, despite his expectation of assimilation, Jefferson, Wallace argues, was indifferent to natives living near European-American settlements who were deemed too corrupted to be interesting.

Westward expansion, and the concomitant establishment of America as a nation of yeoman farmers, was the keynote of Jefferson's presidency; the Louisiana Purchase made the dream possible. Although Jefferson accepted native rights in the land and argued for purchase as the appropriate way to acquire rights to settle, Wallace demonstrates that where the interests of European-Americans moving westward clashed with those of native Americans whose lands were overrun, Jefferson supported the former. He deplored frontier violence, but his policies actually ensured that it would occur, especially as he saw expansion as the best way to counter dangerous Federalist power. Ultimately, his goals served the American people, and Indians were part of the American people only after assimilation. Moreover, Wallace demonstrates that Jefferson, [End Page 465] notwithstanding his emphatic denials, was involved in ventures to gain financially from opening up western lands to settlement. Plans for removal of the great southeastern nations to lands beyond the Mississippi were drawn up in Jefferson's administration and carried out under Andrew Jackson largely by people first appointed by Jefferson. Jackson himself pointed to the inherent contradictions of his predecessor's stated policy (327).

Much of the value of this important book lies in its delineation of two key developments in thought and practice in revolutionary and early national America. The first is the study of American Indian cultures, a venture that Gallatin and others had taken far beyond Jefferson's interests by the early nineteenth century; Wallace offers an absorbing portrait of the early national roots of American scientific ethnography.1 The other development, presented in all its genuine complexity, is European-American westward movement, with its concomitant violence on the frontier and the government's various attempts to confront the problems that it generated.

Each analytic theme is presented via an examination of the careers of the people involved, a technique that allows Wallace to show how many different traditions came together through these endeavors. The book's lavish illustrations reinforce Wallace's points about how native leaders and American officials were characterized. The text is also studded with large block quotes from key documents set off by distinctive typeface and background to support the argument. The treatment, highly detailed and intricate, is tightly focused on the subject delineated in the title. No reader will come away from it without a changed perspective on the man and his legacy.

Karen Ordahl Kupperman
New York University


1. See, for example, Albert Gallatin, A Synopsis of the Indian Tribes within the United States East of the Rocky Mountains, and in the British...