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Washington and Jefferson: The Early Years of White Supremacy in the United States

Written by David Starr   
Tuesday, 01 June 2021 02:45

It's always been there. Since the establishment of the United States, white supremacy has been a part of its foundations, going from the founders all the way up to today.

Founders such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson saw people of color as being inferior; that it was the "natural" order of things. In the Declaration of Independence, there is the following:

"He [King George of Britain] has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions."

Washington commented that "Indians and wolves are both beasts of prey, tho' they differ in shape."

While his goal was to acquire Indian lands, Washington did want this to be done justly in dealings with Indians. He stated that the "Administration of Indian Affairs shall be directed entirely by the great principles of Justice and Humanity." But Indians wanted no part of the deals that would take away their land. Washington then proceeded to attack them. The word he used was "extirpate," meaning to completely wipe out. Washington backed this up by attacking the Iroquois. After that, they referred to him as "Town Destroyer."  In a warning to other tribes, Mohawk chief Joseph Brandt, after visiting Washington, said that "General Washington is very cunning, he will try to fool us if he can. He speaks very smooth, will tell you fair stories, and at the same time want to ruin us." Another Indian chief, Cherokee Bloody Fellow, after his visit with Washington, eventually stated "General Washington is a liar." (George Washington's 'Tortuous' Relationship With Native Americans by Colin Calloway, 8/02/2018.)

Washington had the goal of assimilating Indians into U.S. society. But that would produce a threat to Indian identity and culture. Fortunately, through struggle and resistance, these things remain alive today for various tribes.

In his early views of slaves, Washington referred to Africans/African-Americans as "a Species of Property." But in the 1780s, he discreetly commented that there should be a gradual emancipation of slaves. His slaves were freed after his death. Although this doesn't mean that Washington thought of Africans/African-Americans as equal to whites. The irony, however, of fighting a revolution to establish the United States for justice and equality is tainted by all those years he had slaves.

Thomas Jefferson definately had his views of people of color. For Indians, he once stated that "[i]f ever we are constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe, we will never lay it down till that tribe is exterminated, or driven beyond the a war they will kill some of us; we shall destroy them all." During Jefferson's time as president, Indian tribes were viewed as having sovereignty, but Jefferson wanted to expand westward.

Alysa Landry referred to Jefferson as the Architect of Indian Removal, the title of her article (9/13/2018) in Indian Country Today.  In her article, Landry wrote, "...Jefferson pushed relentlessly for westward expansion, believing "'Indian country belonged in white hands,'" quoting a passage from the book, Thomas Jefferson and the Changing West by James Rhonda. Landry goes on: "As president, Jefferson exhibited a 'passion for land.'" "That passion became the central feature of federal Indian policy–what Jefferson called 'our final consolidation' or the acquisition of lands east of the Mississippi River and removal of Indians from territories in the West."

In his youth, Jefferson admired Indians, making studies of them. But as a leader, he had to decide what to do involving conflicts between Indians and white settlers, the latter encroaching on Indian land. Jefferson decided on Indian removal. He wrote, "Nothing will reduce those wretches so soon as pushing the war into the heart of their country. But I would not stop there. I would never cease pursuing them while one of them remained on this side of the Mississippi." Jefferson offered an ultimatum: either assimilate or be wiped out.

Jefferson also had another way of taking Indian lands: set up trading posts for Indians and put them into debt. The only recourse for Indians was to cede land to pay their debts. Jefferson put it this way: "To promote this disposition to exchange lands, which they have to spare and we want... we shall push our trading uses and be glad to see the good and influential individuals among them run in debt. We observe that when these debts get beyond what the individuals can pay, they become willing to lop them off by a cession of lands."

Jefferson's views on slavery were blatantly contradictory. On the one hand, he wrote the following to Edward Rutledge in 1787: "I congratulate you, my dear friend, on the law of your state [South Carolina] for suspending the importation of slaves and for the glory you have justly acquired by endeavoring to prevent it forever. This abomination must have an end..." On the other hand, there was Notes on the State of Virginia in 1785 where he wrote, "I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind." And in a letter dated 1789 to Edward Bancroft, Jefferson wrote, " To give liberty, or rather, to abandon persons whose habits have been formed in slavery is like abandoning children."

Washington and Jefferson and their views on people of color were a sign of the times then. And white supremacy didn't end with them. your social media marketing partner
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