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Past & Present: The 1830 Removal Act

During President Andrew Jackson’s 1829 inaugural address, he proposed removal of the Native Americans living in the Southeast, mainly the Cherokee, Choctaw, Muskogee Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole nations. A year later, on May 30, 1830, he signed the Removal Act. 

While Georgians had been pressuring state and federal politicians for removal and access to the rich agricultural lands in the Southeast, previous presidential administrations had supported acculturation over removal.

What paved the way for Jackson’s call for removal was an 1823 U.S. Supreme Court case, Johnson v. M’Intosh. Chief Justice John Marshall argued the United States operated under the doctrine of discovery. This doctrine claimed that ownership of land came into existence when a European nation discovered it. Since the British had discovered the land in question, and the Americans had won ownership of it in the American Revolution, Marshall argued that, legally, the Americans and the U.S. government owned the land. Native Americans, not being citizens of the United States, but instead members of sovereign nations, were exempt from this ownership, and thus possible targets for removal. This case also spelled the beginning of the end for Native sovereignty.

For the next seven years, Southerners pressured the federal government to dissolve Native American sovereignty, and thereby any claims on the land. Jackson argued that Native American jurisdictions violated Article IV Section 3 of the Constitution that established state sovereignty. Either Native Americans were sovereign nations, which violated the Constitution, or they were subject to the laws of the individual states. Jackson further argued he could only accommodate Native sovereignty on unorganized lands west of the Mississippi.

In 1830, Jackson and Congress yielded to the pressure, ushering in years of removal, and paving the way for the expansion of enslavement needed to grow the crop that formed the foundation of American capitalism: cotton.

Dr. Robin C. Henry holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Indiana University and is an associate professor in the history department at Wichita State University. Her research examines the intersections among sexuality, law, and regional identity in the 19th- and early 20th-century United States.