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  • Practicing Sovereignty:Colonial Temporalities, Cherokee Justice, and the "Socrates" Writings of John Ridge
  • Kelly Wisecup (bio)

BETWEEN 1828 AND 1830, a Cherokee writer using the pseudonym Socrates penned four articles for the Cherokee Phoenix. Three pieces appeared in 1828, just after Elias Boudinot began editing and publishing the Cherokee- and English-language newspaper. In a two-part commentary on Georgia's claims to Cherokee land published in late February and early March 1828, Socrates debunked the state's arguments by inserting quotations from books by the Swiss legal theorist Emmerich de Vattel and the colonial historian and minister Alexander Hewatt. In these articles, the pseudonymous writer provides evidence that the Cherokees had long maintained the "right of sovereignty over [their] country" and critiques Georgia's arguments that the Cherokees were savages who could not possess land.1 Later in 1828, in a third article, titled "Intermarriage," Socrates proposes that the Cherokee Nation establish a central office to monitor marriages between white men and Cherokee women. Socrates's final article was published in July 1830, a few months after Congress passed the Indian Removal Act and soon after the state of Georgia passed laws extending state jurisdiction over Cherokee people, events that had one culmination in the Cherokee challenge to these policies in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia in 1831. In this final article, Socrates commented on letters from the War Department regarding the Indian Removal Act, noting that President Andrew Jackson's policies violated treaties and acts of Congress that defined the relationship between Native nations and the United States. Socrates ends this article by envisioning that the Cherokee Nation will outlast this latest attack on their lands, writing, "I believe the people will endure a seige [sic] of all this persecution, and continue to call on Congress for help."2

Scholars have speculated about Socrates's identity for many years but without conclusive results.3 However, archival evidence makes possible an identification of the writer behind the pseudonym. A manuscript version of Socrates's two-part 1828 article titled "Strictures on the 'Report of the Joint Committee on the State of the Republic' in the Legislature of Georgia, on the subject of the Cherokee Lands" is held in the John Howard Payne Papers, at the Newberry Library. It is in the handwriting of and is identified as being [End Page 30]

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Figure 1.

"Strictures on the 'Report of the Joint Committee on the State of the Republic' in the Legislature of Georgia, on the Subject of the Cherokee Lands." Photo Courtesy of the Newberry Library, Chicago. Call # Ayer MS 689.

[End Page 31] written by John Ridge, the son of Major Ridge, a wealthy Cherokee plantation owner who was also an influential Cherokee leader in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, both before and after the Cherokees adopted a constitution and tripartite system of government.4

Both Ridges joined a relatively small group of Cherokees who, in the late eighteenth century, adopted Western agricultural practices, religious beliefs, and, in some cases, language and education in response to pressures from the United States.5 John Ridge, for example, was educated at Brainerd Mission School, run by Moravian missionaries in the Cherokee Nation, and at Cornwall Mission School in Connecticut, where he met his wife, a white Connecticut woman named Sarah Northrup. In the 1820s and 1830s, he served as an amanuensis and spokesman for the Cherokees, giving lectures on Cherokee rights throughout the East Coast, often appearing with his cousin Elias Boudinot or other Cherokee young men.6 In 1830, Ridge was elected to the Cherokee National Committee. Shortly thereafter, President Jackson refused to require Georgia to defer to federal authority in its dealings with the Cherokee Nation and thus to uphold the Supreme Court's decision in Worcester v. Georgia (1832) that Indian policy was under federal jurisdiction. Following these events, the Ridges, Boudinot, and other Cherokees came to the decision that the Nation could best escape threats to its autonomy from states like Georgia by removing to Indian Territory. The Treaty Party, as they came to be called, negotiated with the United States for land in Indian Territory in an attempt...


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