by Andy McKee
In a speech given on May 26, 1826, titled “An Address to the Whites” Elias Boudinot, a Cherokee by birth, addressed First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia to raise funds for missionary activities in the southern United States. In it, he raised questions of race and religion to the community “What is an Indian? Is he not formed of the same material with yourself? For “of one blood God created all the nations that dwell on the face of the earth. Though it be true that he is ignorant, that he is a heathen, that he is a savage; yet he is no more than all others have been under similar circumstances. Eighteen centuries ago what were the inhabitants of Great Britain?” Throughout the 1830s and 1840s, American empire was thought about, created, and enacted on one of the most contentious and often hostile frontiers: the Southeast. In this post, I want to briefly discuss what I find most interesting about the framework that Boudinot worked and evangelized, while not forgetting that at the same instance, just a bit further south, Osceola was waging a “costly little war.”
Elias Boudinot (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
Over the course of the summer, while not teaching, grading, holding office hours, or making off-hand tweets about the lack of hammocks in my office, the last several months have provided a great time for thinking about how religion and American empire interact and inform one another. In regard to the antebellum Cherokee religion that Boudinot worked to dismiss, American expansionism relied heavily on two court cases to answer the difficult question: “Do the Cherokees constitute a foreign State in the sense of the constitution?” On this question, Chief Justice Marshall famously declared that no; the Indians were “domestic, dependent nations,” subject to Federal control.
Yet, by the time the John Marshall’s Supreme Court heard Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, the collective imagery of the uncivilizable native was, for all intensive purposes, real. As Marshall wrote of the Cherokee in his opinion, “Their relations to the United States resemble that of a ward to his guardian. They look to our Government for protection, rely upon its kindness and its power, appeal to it for relief to their wants, and address the President as their Great Father.” Therefore, the legal cases surrounding the Indian nation – Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1830) and later Worchester v. Georgia (1832)– did the work of performing and offering particular details that intensified knowledges of race, religion, and American citizenship along the southeastern frontier region.
In casting the Cherokee as having no religion, the dominant position of Christian missionaries was established. In short order, laws, both local and federal, began to reflect the mentality of this powerful force and foreign policy issues regarding this most intimate of outsiders that were patterned by certain memories of violence and unrest. If antebellum America needed to manage and control rivalries between new states to survive, the Georgia cases suggest that expansion is and was not a series of simple, mechanically administered, organizational affairs, but instead yielded to the complicated nature of dealing Indian religions. From this framework of encountering empire, religious intolerance and violence became markers of how state interest in creating and protecting religious rights were not foregone conclusions.
The 1830s experiences of Boudinot and the relationship between America and various Native American nations within the expanding United States, I am suggesting, defines a scene in which the struggle for “proper citizenry” within American empire played out. Within the particularities of these specific events, a short speech given to a Northern Presbyterian audience, for example, operates “typical structures” of knowledge, exchange, and history that represent larger devices for thinking about interreligious interactions in America and the creation of broad categories such as “Christian” and, even more generally “religion.”
In the conclusion of his 1826 speech Boudinot remarked that the nation’s real “American” growth was constituted in the inhabitants who were an “industrious and intelligent people.” These potential great citizens, however, could not overcome the fact of not possessing a religion. Boudinot lamented: “The Cherokees have had no established religion of their own, and perhaps to this circumstance we may attribute, in part, the facilities with which missionaries have pursued their ends. They cannot be called idolaters; for they never worshipped Images. They believed in a Supreme Being, the Creator of all, the God of white, the red, and the black man. They also believed in the existence of an evil spirit who resided, as they thought, in the setting sun, the future place of all who in their life time had done iniquitously….The translation of the New Testament…has swept away that barrier which long existed, and opened a spacious channel for the instruction of adult Cherokees. Persons of all ages and classes may now read the precepts of the Almighty in their own language…” Boudinot’s approach to religion stresses how religious beliefs and attitudes were shaped in negative interactions between individuals and collective groups. The linkages between economics, Christianity, and civilization raises questions about how “religion” became one of many markers of difference used to solidify the once “open frontier” and put clear lines legally on the map.
Andy McKee is a doctoral student at Florida State University. He researches American religious history via labor movements, indigenous religions, and empire. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter.