Executive Hands Fettered: Governor Jackson and Secretary McHenry

September 27th, 2010

During the entire history of the United States there has been tension between the federal government and the governments of the states. The federal system created in the U.S. Constitution, in which power is shared by the states and the central government, made these tensions inevitable. The bloodiest and most costly manifestation of this strife was of course the Civil War. During the presidential administration of John Adams (1797–1801), however, this animosity was manifested by the struggle between officials of the State of Georgia and the General Government in Philadelphia. The source of much of the conflict was Georgia’s hostile relations with the southern tribes, particularly the Creek Nation, whose claims to land on the western frontier of Georgia were bitterly contested by Georgia and its citizens.

In the Papers of the War Department, there is a collection called “State of Georgia, Executive Minutes” that consists of seven letters from James Jackson, Governor of Georgia, to James McHenry, Secretary of War. Many of Jackson’s comments in these letters show the latent hostility that existed between  state and federal officials. In the first  letter, Jackson questions Adams’ judgement in calling the State Militia of Georgia into service outside the state because this would leave the state and its citizens defenseless against “invasion.” He also implies that Adams of Massachusetts has no appreciation of conditions in Georgia. To leave a State more exposed than any other in the Union at a time of impending war with its Executive hands fettered in case of invasion while the pleasure of the President who might be in Massachusetts would certainly be unpleasant to its inhabitants if not impolitic as it respects the Government. In another letter, the Governor complains that the current “force of the United States” in Georgia “is inadequate to the protection of twenty miles of frontier” and suggests that he should be furnished with discretionary powers to call up the Militia “at the Expense of the Union.” In other words, Jackson wanted to call up the Militia but also wanted the federal government to pay for it. A careful reading of these letters reveals the suspicion, if not outright hostility, that existed between state officials and their federal counterparts.

Indian Assimilation and the Plan for Civilization

September 24th, 2010

Some might be surprised to learn that  assimilation of the Indians by teaching them to farm was the official policy of the Washington Administration.  Since the War Department handled Indian affairs, we come across dozens of writings by Henry Knox and James McHenry  trying to implement policy into action (and keep the peace) through the Indian Agents.   As in most cases at the time, these  Federal appointees were card carrying Federalists, usually with strong Revolutionary War credentials. Agents  were usually assigned to a specific tribe or a group of Tribes.  One of the more accomplished of these frontier diplomats  was Creek Agent, Benjamin Hawkins.  Although the  Creeks (mostly the women) were already fairly accomplished farmers, Hawkins believed their methods to be substandard.  So to demonstrate the western world’s superior agricultural techniques, and perhaps win some hearts and minds along the way, he established the Creek Agency on the Flint River in  Georgia–a model  working farm which featured a blacksmith’s shop, cornfields, an orchard, a tannery, weaver’s shop, smokehouse, slave quarters, and a tavern.  In this letter,  Hawkins requests that “implements of husbandry” intended for the Creeks be forwarded.

–To learn more about Hawkins and the Creeks, see Robbie Ethridge’s Creek County: The Creek Indians and their World.

Piracy and Boundary Disputes

September 13th, 2010

William Augustus Bowles, an Englishman by birth a troublemaker by nature, repeated sabotaged Indian relations between tribes and between peace seeking tribes and the United States.  Known as a “freebooter,” Bowles  staged multiple attempts to overturn treaties and trade relations with the Creek, Coweta, and Cussetah tribes and instigated horse stealing, murder, and other aggressive acts as recounted by Governor William Blount of Georgia.  His malicious acts delayed several land treaties, including the Treaty of New York which granted land from the Creeks to the United States.
James Seagrove and Benjamin Hawkins were the Indian agents for the southwestern U.S. territory and dealt directly with Bowles on a regular basis.  Correspondence between Seagrove, Hawkins, McGillivray, and Knox yield insight into the effect Bowles has on frontier politics.  Bowles was eventually captured by the Spanish in 1792 and turned over to U.S. authorities.