“A Savage Feast They Made of It”: John Adams and the Paradoxical Origins of Federal Indian Policy
Abstract

Abstract:

When it comes to early U.S. leaders’ ideas and actions toward Indian nations, those of John Adams remain relatively unexplored. By closely examining Adams’s relationship with American Indians—more intermittent and marginal in his own thinking when compared with Washington and Jefferson—this essay identifies a set of paradoxes important for understanding the complicated origins of American Indian policy. The Massachusetts politician’s apprehension over warfare with Indian nations peaked during the Revolution, yet his face-to-face contact with Indian people during those years evoked a mix of curiosity, delight, and admiration. Adams wrote much less about Indians than did other early national leaders, but most of his printed references to them are found in nothing less than his major writing about government. As first vice-president of the United States, Adams rather silently witnessed the creation of Indian policy during the Washington Administration. His own presidential administration nevertheless benefited significantly from what had been accomplished during those formative years. Although Adams expressed relatively little interest in the origins and customs of American Indians, he did plenty to embed them deeply within the founding generation’s contrived rationale for American independence from Great Britain. This last paradox is crucial for understanding inconsistencies in U.S. Indian policy as well as shortcomings in historical writing about early U.S.-Indian relations.