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How the Supreme Court Failed to Stop the Brutal Relocation of Indigenous American Nations

LitHub: Excerpted from Indivisible: Daniel Webster and the Birth of American Nationalism by Joel Richard Paul. Copyright © 2022. Available from Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Joel Richard Paul on the Legal Challenges to Racist Presidential Policy That Led to The Trail of Tears “…Nothing preordained that whites would occupy an empire from coast to coast. The tribal nations “had always been considered distinct, independent political communities, retaining their natural rights, as the undisputed possessors of the soil, from time immemorial,” subject only to the exclusive right of the federal government to purchase their property. [Chief Justice John] Marshall concluded that Georgia had no right to assert its jurisdiction over tribal land, and the state’s law was “repugnant to the constitution, laws, and treaties of the United States.” Georgia was ordered to release the missionaries. Story exulted. “Thanks be to God the Court can wash its hands clean of the iniquity of oppressing the Indians.” Cherokee celebrated with feasts and dancing. But the governor of Georgia shrugged off the Supreme Court’s decision. For the first time in American history, a state stubbornly refused to recognize the Court’s authority. Worcester and Butler remained chained doing hard labor. Georgia began surveying the Indians’ land to be divided and distributed among whites by lottery. Cherokee legislators, fearing arrest, fled their capital at New Echota to Tennessee, where they conducted their nation’s business in secret. Freshman Supreme Court justice John McLean, the former postmaster general whom Jackson had appointed to the Court to prevent him from running for president, met privately with some of the Cherokee chiefs in Washington. McLean, who later challenged Lincoln for the Republican nomination in 1860, offered the Indians unsolicited advice: they should accept Jackson’s “liberal” terms for removal. McLean predicted that neither Georgia nor the president would carry out the Court’s judgment. How strange the white man’s law must have seemed to the Cherokee. What kind of justice let the losing party rob the winners of their prize? McLean’s prediction proved correct. President Jackson, whose career evinced a penchant for action, sat on his hands and did nothing. The New-York Tribune famously but falsely quoted Jackson saying, “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.” Though Jackson never said that, he surely thought it. “The decisions of the supreme court fell still born,” he reported. The Court had no means to compel Georgia’s compliance. No other president before or since has failed to enforce an order of the Supreme Court…”

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