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Indians, Tariffs and Nullification

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President Jackson faced a number of difficult decisions as his first term progressed. His ambitious agenda began to come under increased scrutiny, and the answers that had seemed so obvious earlier met with the hard political realities of the Congress.

In May 1830, Jackson vetoed his opponent Henry Clay's legislation, the Maysville Road Bill, which would have allowed for the building of a highway in Clay's home state of Kentucky. The issue of "internal improvements" was still a dicey issue in the federal government, and Jackson swore he would not make an exception for one of his main enemies. In fact, while supporters of the Maysville Road decried an end to internal improvements, Jackson allowed some projects to proceed throughout his eight years as President.

On a larger scale, Jackson dealt with the controversial issue of Indian removal. The ever-expanding white population of the United States had pushed about 53,000 Cherokees, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek Indians into what was then the southwestern corner of the United States (modern-day Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi). While the tribes now considered themselves safe under federal treaties, the individual states had other ideas. Georgia, which declared the Cherokee tribe under its jurisdiction, caught an Indian accused of murdering a white settler, and tried, convicted, and sentenced him to hanging. The tribe appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, saying it was not under the jurisdiction of Georgia state law, and the Supreme Court upheld the appeal–Georgia, unfortunately, had already executed the man.

In a second case, involving missionaries who were charged with living with the Indians, the Court again ruled in favor of the tribes. However, when Jackson heard of the Court's ruling, he is said to have muttered, "Well, [Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it!" Largely because of cases such as these, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, stating that all lands east of the Mississippi would be given over to the government and exchanged for land west of the river given to the Indians in perpetuity.

The removals were a disaster. Over the course of his term in office, Jackson signed more than ninety treaties with Indian tribes, but the government rarely honored these treaties in reality. Tribes were given little time to gather their belongings and were forced to move westward before any planning could be accomplished. Thousands died. Two tribes, the Fox and Sac, were massacred for crossing back over to the eastern shore of the Mississippi to plant grain. The Blackhawk fought a losing war against federal and state troops. Perhaps most serious of all, though, was the battle for Florida–Jackson's old stomping grounds. The Seminoles refused to leave their land, and federal troops spent years fighting them throughout the dense Everglades in southern Florida. Altogether, the war cost the U.S. more than fifteen million dollars. Still later, tragedy recurred when thousands of Cherokees died on the trip west on the infamous "Trail of Tears" in 1838–1839.

While Jackson did believe in states' rights–as witnessed by his hesitation to interfere in Georgia's dispute with the Cherokees–he also firmly believed in asserting the power of the federal government. This assertion became clear in the dispute that arose South Carolina and the issue of nullification.

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