The most amazing thing about Thomas Jefferson is that he embodies both the soaring aspirations of the American Dream and the incomprehensible paradoxes of our identity. Nobody ever pitched our national experiment so high—not Abraham Lincoln, not Theodore Roosevelt, not John F. Kennedy. Jefferson envisioned the freest, most virtuous, most peaceful, most self-actualized, most self-governing, and happiest people who ever walked the face of the earth. "We hold these truths to be self-evident," he said. "That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
Unless you are black. Unless you are a woman. Unless you are an American Indian. Then it’s not so self-evident after all.
Jefferson was fascinated by American Indians. They represented to him a time warp portrait of what we once were. Just as John Locke said in the beginning all the world was America, so too in the beginning all people were like Indians—dressed in the skins of animals, living lightly on the land, nomadic, so loosely governed as to appear to live in a kind of idealized anarchy. These republicans in buckskin lived in harmony with Nature and nature’s God, had mutually beneficial relationships with other creatures—badgers, buffalo, antelope, eagles—and practiced freedom in its radical sense. If they had social compacts, they were the lightest possible glue that could minimally hold those tribal societies together.
In Jefferson’s view, we had a great deal to learn from these dwellers of the woods, what the French called sauvages, and we darkened to savages. They were us before absolutist governments, state religions, church hierarchies, debtor’s prisons, and opera.
But here’s the paradox. When Jefferson looked west from his Palladian portico at Monticello toward the vast interior of America—all the way to the Mississippi River, all the way to the Rocky Mountains, all the way, perhaps, to the Pacific Ocean—he could not help but see an empty continent, a tabula rasa, a blank slate on which we had it in our power to inscribe the most interesting civilization that the world had ever seen. Sometimes in his exquisite letters he spoke of an American canvas that we, in our enlightened wisdom, would slowly fill up. In his First Inaugural Address Jefferson spoke of "a chosen country with room enough for our descendants to the hundredth and thousandth generation."
Jefferson knew better. He knew the continent was not empty, but full. He was fascinated by Native Americans. He engaged in some careful archaeological work on a mound along the Rivanna River. He collected dozens of Indian vocabularies, in part because he wanted to puzzle out whether Indians migrated from the Asian steppes or were, as many tribes insisted, always here. He also wanted to know which of the myriad tribes of North America were related linguistically to which, irrespective of their current geographic diffusion. He collected Indian artifacts and proudly displayed them in his lobby museum at Monticello. He loved to meet Indian delegations at the White House, where he gave carefully crafted speeches in basic English filled with what one critic has called "Indian baby talk." "We came from across the big stinking lake. We are as numerous as the stars in the heavens, and we are all gun men." That sort of thing.
So Jefferson knew the continent was full, but his dream of a highly-educated agrarian American republic was so compelling and beautiful that it caused him sometimes to forget that the Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole, Chickasaw, Osage, Oto, Iroquois and many others tribes literally stood in the way. When he did remember to think about the Indians who had been living on his tabula rasa for many centuries, even millennia, he let himself imagine that by some non-confrontational magic process they would glide out of our way. In some deep recess of his consciousness Jefferson nourished a streak of ruthlessness that was determined to take the continent for ourselves, no matter what that might require, a determination not to let a bunch of stone age nomads get in the way of humankind’s greatest moment. On the few occasions when Indians resisted his gauzy vision with shows of violence, when his patience and benevolence were pushed to the brink, Jefferson spoke of driving them beyond the Mississippi or even beyond the Rocky Mountains, and on more than one occasion the words "even to extermination" slipped past his Enlightenment.
He was no Andrew Jackson. But Andrew Jackson’s vicious and unapologetic Indian policies were not that different, in substance, from Jefferson’s more careful and subtle attempts to formulate a national response to what has forever since been called "the Indian Problem." What was that problem? From Roanoke Island to the Dakota Access Pipeline project, we regard the continent as our own playground, homeland, resource base, and home—and Indians keep getting in the way.
The essential paradox of American history is that the Europeans who bumped into the western hemisphere in the late 15th century immediately and ever since have regarded Native Americans as a nuisance rather than a legitimate sovereign.
The great Oglala leader Red Cloud said it best. "They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they kept only one; they promised to take our land, and they did."
Here we are, late in the second decade of the twenty-first century, and we still don’t quite know what to do about Indians. We call them Native Americans now, or First Americans, or—better—the Shoshone, Lakota, or Nimiipuu. Indian rights are better respected today than ever before in American history. The conquest phase of American history is over—at least at the musket and Gatling Gun phase of the conquest. But white people are not yet ready to treat Native American nations as true sovereigns. They are not ready to apologize. And when push comes to shove, they are not even yet ready to share.
Looking for the historic roots of all of this. It would make sense to start in the dome room at Monticello—gazing West.
The map of the United States c. 1846 is from the New York Public Library Digital Collections.