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Living the Revolution: America, 1789-1820
Topic: Predicaments of Early Republican LifeTopic: ReligionTopic: PoliticsTopic: ExpansionTopic: Equality
Topic: Expansion
Overview of Living the Revolution
Resource Menu: Expansion
Text 1. The Northwest Ordinance
Text 2. Noble/Lincecum
Text 3. Thomas Jefferson
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Text 4. Hugh Henry Brackenridge
Text 5. Cornplanter/Washington
Text 6. Indians/U.S. Agents
Text 7. Elias Boudinot
Text 8. Lewis Cass
Text 9. Background


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Reading Guide
3.  Thomas Jefferson, selection from "Query VI" on Native Americans, in Notes on the State of Virginia, 1787
   Thomas Jefferson

The relationship between the new republic and its Native American inhabitants went through roughly three phases from 1789 to 1820. In the immediate aftermath of the Revolution, the national government asserted that, in conquering the British, it had also conquered the Indians, who in many cases had allied themselves with the British. As compensation for the War, the national government demanded land from the conquered tribes. Indian resistance frustrated this policy, and by 1790 the government had abandoned it in favor of a policy of civilizing the Indians and assimilating them into American society. The land grabs continued, however, and by 1815, as more land was needed for cotton in the South, the government reverted to something akin to its original position, asserting that the Indians were a doomed race who needed to be moved aside as civilization spread west.

This selection from Notes on the State of Virginia will give you a sense of the ambivalence many American felt toward the Indians during the "civilizing" period. Jefferson begins by defending Indians against a variety of criticisms raised against them by the French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon. Buffon asserts that, in general, nature short-changed her productions in the new world. Scrawniness abounds. Indians, in his view, suffer from a lack of "sexual power," and because of this "primary defect," they are passionless, anti-social, unloving, and harsh. Jefferson disagrees. Indians are, he contends, just as passionate, affectionate, loyal, brave, and, in their own way, clever as white folks. The men, he concedes, are a bit weaker than white men, but that is because they force women to do most of the work, a type of subjugation common among barbarians. This passage includes the lament of Chief Logan, which became a famous piece of Native American oratory. In the end Jefferson concludes that if you make allowances for their circumstances, you will find that Indians are "formed in mind as well as in body, on the same module with the 'Homo sapiens Europaeus.'" 6 pages.


Discussion questions
  ·  Why is it important for Jefferson to defend Indians from European criticism?
  ·  Jefferson refers to the "inhuman practice" of "making slaves of Indians." Why is it important, especially for Southerners, to distinguish between enslaving blacks and enslaving Indians?
  ·  What are the implications, for Indians and for Americans, of Jefferson's assertion that Indians are the same as Europeans?
  ·  Why is it important for Jefferson to blame culture rather than nature for what he takes to be the deficiencies of the Indians?
  ·  Why does Jefferson include the story of Chief Logan?
  ·  How would his readers respond to it?


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Topic Framing Questions
  •  What implications did westward migration hold for national unity?
  •  How did the citizens of the early republic think about Native Americans and their place in the developing nation?
  •  How did Native Americans respond to the westward press of the United States?
  •  How did the United States respond to the presence of Native Americans on the western frontier?




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