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Driven West: Andrew Jackson and the Trail of…

Driven West: Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears to the Civil War

by A. J. Langguth

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823224,882 (2.92)1
University of Southern California professor of journalism Langguth maintains America's first civil war occurred during the 1830s when Andrew Jackson expelled Indian tribes from the Deep South and created a bitter North-South conflict. Cherokees "were driven out of Georgia at bayonet point by U.S. Army forces led by General Winfield Scott. At the center of the story are the American statesmen of the day -- Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams, John C. Calhoun-- and those Cherokee leaders who tried to save their people -- Major Ridge, John Ridge, Elias Boudinot, and John Ross. Driven West presents wrenching firsthand accounts of the forced march across the Mississippi along a path of misery and death that the Cherokees called the Trail of Tears. Survivors reached the distant Oklahoma Territory that Jackson had marked out for them, only to find that the bloodiest days of their ordeal still awaited them." -- Dust jacket.… (more)



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“Driven West” is a fascinating piece of narrative history that attempts to add another layer of understanding to an appropriately thick description of the American Civil War. Though many attempts to argue for the importance of the cause of states’ rights as a root of that conflict are largely viewed as racially-charged attempts to “whitewash” (literally) the REAL roots of the conflict in a battle about slavery, an honest historian would be quick agree that both causal issues cannot be appropriately understood without each other. Langguth helpfully complicates this debated narrative by developing a narrative a THREE-sided conflict the resulted in the Civil War: states’ rights, Indian removal, and slavery.

In fact, at the very end of the book, Langguth even goes so far as to claim that the FIRST “civil war” was the Indian removal that resulted in the Trail of Tears. And, I must say, I feel that he provides compelling evidence to support that claim. The Trail of Tears, like slavery, is a black spot on American history, truly a national tragedy.

For me, the most tragic element of all was the way in which the conflict fractured the Cherokee Nation into factions respectively led by Major Ridge and John Ross, who presented two very different approaches to dealing with the overweening power of the burgeoning United States. In my estimation, perhaps showing his journalism background, Langguth presented wonderfully sympathetic portrayals of BOTH figures, avoiding the temptation to vilify one or the other. However, I came pretty close to choosing a side after reading Langguth’s account of the assassinations of Elias Boudinot and Major Ridge’s son, John. Langguth’s larger point, though, is to demonstrate that these factions were, in effect, created by white men and then used to their advantage, preventing the Cherokee from resisting in any systematic or effective way.

Obviously, as the book’s title indicates, Andrew Jackson stands as a kind of “arch-villain” in the story, not simply for the actions of his Presidency regarding the Indian removal but for establishing a “policy direction” that remained dominant even into Lincoln’s presidency. Though there was a decided shift on the slavery question, the needle barely moved on white Americans’ disregard for the Cherokee. Van Buren, Tyler, Polk, and Taylor particularly come across here as Jackson toadies.

The most confounding element of the entire story is the choice of the Cherokee nation to side with the Confederate States of America at the outbreak of the Civil War, based once more on false promises that were not kept. Though the book is at present a nice length, I could have wished it just a bit longer so that Langguth could develop this element. The last two chapters, unfortunately, end up feeling a bit rushed.

Langguth succeeds admirably in providing portraits of the key figures, using the various personalities to provide a focus for each chapter. This helps him avoid a “and then what happened” style that can be the bane of complicated narrative. His most sympathetic portrayals are reserved for the Cherokee leaders, though he does show that the attitudes of key American leaders toward the Indians are more nuanced than is widely understood. Including Andrew Jackson.

Perhaps more than anything, this book shows that one of the elements that makes a tragedy is its sense of “fatedness,” if you will. Standing in the moment, some of history’s worst decisions look to be unavoidable. However, with the perspective provided by (nearly) two intervening centuries, there are scores of moments where one solitary different decision could have rewritten some of the most painful history of our nation. I cannot read the story of the Trail of Tears and conclude, “Oh well, I guess it was bound to happen.” Rather, Langguth’s tragic reminds me that the greatest tragedy of all is humanity’s comfortable myopia that refuses to look beyond the obvious or the easy choice for the moral and the righteous path. When pragmatism wins out over principle, history always loses. ( )
  Jared_Runck | Jun 26, 2019 |
I found this book to be a difficult one to review. I feel like I learned a lot about the political history of America during the time of Jackson through Buhcanan, but felt that the book never truly had an identity. Much of it wanted to be a history of the Cherokee and the Trail of Tears. However, every time it started making progress with their history, it would switch over to presidential politics or something else. It seemed like the author would have been better served narrowing the book down to solely a history of the Cherokee.

Overall I am glad I read it because of the new knowledge I gained, but found the writing to jump around too much to make it a truly enjoyable read. ( )
  msaucier818 | Apr 9, 2018 |
I am reluctant to write an unfavorable review of this book because it was well researched, a fact proven, I believe, by the amount of information shared within; unfortunately, it was too rich in its scholarship. A better way to frame the problem would be to say A.J. Langguth covered too many topics and had too broad a scope in his subject.

To me the title Driven West implies the Trail of Tears and what happened during the ordeal. I was fully anticipating a history about the forced exodus of Cherokee Indians, its causes and implications. I hoped for stories of its participants and instigators. From the book's subtitle I expected more explanation of Andrew Jackson, both as a general and president, and his participation in the less-than-voluntary relocation of a whole people. Instead, Driven West was a history lesson of local, state, federal, tribal and personal politics.

Allow me to liken this book to a decadent dessert. You order an exquisite looking cheesecake crafted by a globe-trotting chef who acquired a number of spices during his travels. To showcase them all, he enthusiastically incorporates them into one dessert. Mr Langguth, a literary "chef", obviously spent countless hours researching and discovering untold treasures of 19th century politics as a world-class chef might span the globe for exotic flavors. Unfortunately, the author chose to include most (if not all of his research) in this book, it became a concoction much like how an over seasoned dessert may taste. While some spices compliment others and each enhances the meal they create, amalgamating them into one dish detracts from the whole plate. Simply put, spice Mr. Langguth uncovered on power players and their families combined into one book overpowered the actual story of the Trail of Tears.

Early on I decided this book was a historical tracing of six degrees of separation. Very quickly the story moseyed away from the Cherokee people and delved into anyone involved in Georgian or national politics. Even spouses of politicians were investigated in detail. Granted, some cabinet positions and those who filled them could be integral to the story of relocating the Five Civilized Tribes, but recounting the grievous treatment of spouses or political horse-trading to earn patronage positions went beyond the scope of this book, in my opinion.

It was confusing how chapters were labeled for important people in the relationship between state, federal, and tribal governments, complete with dates (i.e. chapter 8 is labeled 'John Marshall (1831-32)'), yet in the example chapter, he was a minor part of the story. The Chief Justice of United States Supreme Court lightly discussed in a 26-page chapter. There were so many names of primary players, their spouses and children and love interests transiently mentioned in the text, the references and importance of the story was lost in the confusion of characters.

A. J. Langguth did weave a compelling story of both bipartisan and internecine party fighting when discussing presidential and senatorial politics. However, almost a third of the focus of Driven West was given to presidential elections and he rarely tied the minute details he covered to the overall importance to the Cherokee's predicament.

Over all Driven West could be a series of digressions. I gained a sense that from all Mr Langguth's research, he was reluctant to not include it. He nearly wrote biographies of Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay and several others. Due to the countless mention of names, the tangents taken to write about someone's travails in politics, the Trail of Tears did not become a storyline until nearly 200-pages into the book. I was unimpressed and unsatisfied with the execution of his work, but was impressed with the shear amount of research and knowledge he amassed for the history of America. ( )
  HistReader | Feb 21, 2012 |
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