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Unworthy Republic
Cover of Unworthy Republic
Unworthy Republic
The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory
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Longlisted for the 2020 National Book Award for Nonfiction and Shotlisted for the 2020 Cundill History Prize

A masterful and unsettling history of "Indian Removal," the forced migration of Native Americans across the Mississippi River in the 1830s and the state-sponsored theft of their lands.

In May 1830, the United States formally launched a policy to expel Native Americans from the East to territories west of the Mississippi River. Justified as a humanitarian enterprise, the undertaking was to be systematic and rational, overseen by Washington's small but growing bureaucracy. But as the policy unfolded over the next decade, thousands of Native Americans died under the federal government's auspices, and thousands of others lost their possessions and homelands in an orgy of fraud, intimidation, and violence. Unworthy Republic reveals how expulsion became national policy and describes the chaotic and deadly results of the operation to deport 80,000 men, women, and children.

Drawing on firsthand accounts and the voluminous records produced by the federal government, Saunt's deeply researched book argues that Indian Removal, as advocates of the policy called it, was not an inevitable chapter in U.S. expansion across the continent. Rather, it was a fiercely contested political act designed to secure new lands for the expansion of slavery and to consolidate the power of the southern states. Indigenous peoples fought relentlessly against the policy, while many U.S. citizens insisted that it was a betrayal of the nation's values. When Congress passed the act by a razor-thin margin, it authorized one of the first state-sponsored mass deportations in the modern era, marking a turning point for native peoples and for the United States.

In telling this gripping story, Saunt shows how the politics and economics of white supremacy lay at the heart of the expulsion of Native Americans; how corruption, greed, and administrative indifference and incompetence contributed to the debacle of its implementation; and how the consequences still resonate today.

Longlisted for the 2020 National Book Award for Nonfiction and Shotlisted for the 2020 Cundill History Prize

A masterful and unsettling history of "Indian Removal," the forced migration of Native Americans across the Mississippi River in the 1830s and the state-sponsored theft of their lands.

In May 1830, the United States formally launched a policy to expel Native Americans from the East to territories west of the Mississippi River. Justified as a humanitarian enterprise, the undertaking was to be systematic and rational, overseen by Washington's small but growing bureaucracy. But as the policy unfolded over the next decade, thousands of Native Americans died under the federal government's auspices, and thousands of others lost their possessions and homelands in an orgy of fraud, intimidation, and violence. Unworthy Republic reveals how expulsion became national policy and describes the chaotic and deadly results of the operation to deport 80,000 men, women, and children.

Drawing on firsthand accounts and the voluminous records produced by the federal government, Saunt's deeply researched book argues that Indian Removal, as advocates of the policy called it, was not an inevitable chapter in U.S. expansion across the continent. Rather, it was a fiercely contested political act designed to secure new lands for the expansion of slavery and to consolidate the power of the southern states. Indigenous peoples fought relentlessly against the policy, while many U.S. citizens insisted that it was a betrayal of the nation's values. When Congress passed the act by a razor-thin margin, it authorized one of the first state-sponsored mass deportations in the modern era, marking a turning point for native peoples and for the United States.

In telling this gripping story, Saunt shows how the politics and economics of white supremacy lay at the heart of the expulsion of Native Americans; how corruption, greed, and administrative indifference and incompetence contributed to the debacle of its implementation; and how the consequences still resonate today.

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Awards-
About the Author-
  • Claudio Saunt is the Richard B. Russell Professor in American History at the University of Georgia. He is the author of award-winning books, including A New Order of Things, Black, White, and Indian, and West of the Revolution. He lives in Athens, Georgia.
Reviews-
  • Kirkus

    January 15, 2020
    A powerful, moving argument that the state-sponsored expulsion of the 1830s was a horrendous turning point for the Indigenous peoples in the United States. The systematic expulsion of Native Americans--Saunt (American History/Univ. of Georgia; West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776, 2014, etc.) uses "deportation," "expulsion," and "extermination" as more accurate terms than "removal"--would not have happened without a law passed by Congress and approved by the executive branch, which occurred at the end of May 1830. The largely Southern-backed measure eagerly endorsed by President Andrew Jackson, who had made the "voluntary" movement of Native peoples west of the Mississippi a defining point of his candidacy, began implementation with money to remove the largely prosperous farming Choctaw of the South westward. These were the first peoples to be expelled under the 1830 law, which allowed their land to be appropriated by whites. It was an expensive and chaotic operation, not to mention horrendously inhumane, as those forced off their land endured miserable conditions, as observed and documented by Alexis de Tocqueville in late 1831. Other expelled peoples included the Senecas of Ohio and the Sauk and Meskwaki on the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers, and Saunt poignantly chronicles the movements of the dispossessed. When cholera broke out, it decimated these Indigenous communities on the move. The author incisively examines the various fictions propagated at the time to assuage the national conscience about the dispossession--e.g., that Native peoples were a desperate people dying out (many were quite prosperous) and that they were leaving their homes voluntarily. Moreover, the lands west of the Mississippi were not known or mapped, and the conditions were barren and uninhabitable. Saunt estimates the enormous wealth lost by the Indigenous families, the millions expended by the government, and the hideous wealth in land and resources gained by the speculators, colonizers, and cotton barons. The author also notes how these systematic mass deportations "became something of a model for colonial empires around the world." A significant, well-rendered study of a disturbing period in American history.

    COPYRIGHT(2020) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    February 1, 2020

    Saunt (American history, Univ. of Georgia) takes a hard, clear look at the ways Natives were dispossessed of their land in the decade after the passage of the 1830 Indian Removal Act. White administrators, legislators, and missionaries couched the deportation of 80,000 Indigenous peoples from Eastern states to territory west of the Mississippi as a so-called humanitarian effort, arguing that Natives would be better off separate from whites. In reality, to coerce them to leave, white Southerners, using laws and terrorism, deliberately dispossessed Natives of real and personal property--and their lives. Expulsion and extermination were prompted by Southerners' desires to expand cotton production and slavery into valuable Native farmland, but, Saunt contends, Southern white supremacist attitudes, secessionist threats, and northern investors' avaricious interests in land speculation were fundamental. Abysmally inadequate funding and planning, combined with Natives' refusal to leave, resulted in inexcusable loss of lives (and money) when Natives were forcefully moved west. For Saunt, this unprecedented and disgraceful state-sponsored mass deportation was not inevitable--a myth upheld by white Americans--and it resulted in a westward-moving militarized line and shameful legacy with enduring issues, yet unaddressed. VERDICT This valuable addition to the scholarship of Native American dispossession and extermination should be read by scholars and general readers alike.--Margaret Kappanadze, Elmira Coll. Lib., NY

    Copyright 2020 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from March 16, 2020
    University of Georgia history professor Saunt (West of the Revolution) investigates the origins and repercussions of the 1830 Indian Removal Act in this eye-opening and distressing chronicle. Contending that the “state-administered mass expulsion” of 80,000 Native Americans from their homelands was both “unprecedented” and avoidable, Saunt contrasts pro-deportation depictions of indigenous peoples as “impoverished drunks” facing “imminent extinction” with examples of diverse communities interwoven into regional economies in the Great Lakes and Southeast. He incisively recounts congressional debates over removal (Southern slave owners wanted to open up new territories for cotton production; Northern reformers argued that preexisting treaties should be honored) and notes that the legislation passed by a mere five votes in the House of Representatives. When Native Americans refused to emigrate, state officials turned “ordinary property and criminal law into instruments of oppression,” Saunt writes, and by the mid-1830s, federal troops were engaged in “exterminatory warfare” against indigenous families. He tallies deaths along the Trail of Tears, millions of dollars in real estate losses, and the spread of slavery into new regions across the South. Saunt presents a stark and well-documented case that Native American expulsion was a political choice rather than an inevitable tragedy. This searing account forces a new reckoning with American history.

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Claudio Saunt
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