Editor’s note: Voters this year will elect the 45th president of the United States. This is the sixth in a series of 44 stories exploring past presidents’ attitudes toward Native Americans, challenges and triumphs regarding tribes, and the federal laws and Indian policies enacted during their terms in office.
A treaty was waiting on John Quincy Adams’ desk when he took the oath of office and became the sixth president of the United States.
The Indian Springs Treaty, which called for the Creek Nation of Georgia to cede to the state all its land and move west, passed through Congress in February 1825. In exchange for the land, the U.S. agreed to give the Creeks $400,000 and an equivalent parcel of land, “acre for acre, westward of the Mississippi.”
Adams took office March 4 and the treaty was waiting, said Sara Sikes, digital projects editor at The Adams Papers, an editorial project overseen by the Massachusetts Historical Society. It was one of his first official acts as president.
“Congress had already voted in favor, so he went ahead and signed it,” Sikes said.
The treaty was the second in four years that acquired land from the Creek. Under a treaty by the same name that passed in January 1821, the Creek ceded all their land east of the Flint River in Georgia. With the second treaty, Georgia sought to completely remove the Creek from inside state boundaries.
Shortly after Adams signed the document, however, he had a change of heart. Creek leaders met with him in his office and convinced him that the treaty had been unfairly negotiated.
“Almost immediately, the backlash began,” Sikes said. “Georgia was pushing the treaty, but it was totally unfair to the Creeks. A lot of the tribal members weren’t even aware of what was being negotiated.”
Adams became “acutely aware of his mistake,” Sikes said, and he tried to annul the treaty. While Congress blocked Adams’ attempts to restore the land to the Creek, Georgia began threatening military action.
The government and the Creek Nation resumed negotiations and two additional treaties followed. The Treaty of Washington in 1826 nullified the Treaty of Indian Creek, but still called for the Creek to cede two-thirds of their land in Georgia.
Continued outrage in Georgia prompted negotiation of a third treaty in 1827, in which the Creek Nation relinquished all remaining land “found to lie within the chartered limits of the state of Georgia.”
The conflict in Georgia defined Adams’ presidency, Sikes said. It also prompted him to scrutinize the way the federal government dealt with Indian nations—an undertaking that spanned his presidency and the rest of his life.
“It started on the day he was inaugurated, so it plagued him throughout his presidency, on both sides of the issue,” Sikes said. “But you also see how his thought process starts evolving while he’s in office, how he starts to process the issues more deeply.”
Born in Massachusetts in 1767, Adams was the son of John Adams, the second president of the United States. A Harvard-educated attorney, Adams served as a U.S. senator and the nation’s first ambassador to Russia. He also served as secretary of state under President James Monroe, during which he helped acquire Florida from Spain.
Adams’ election as president was decided by the House of Representatives when neither he nor his rival, Andrew Jackson, won a majority of popular votes. A member of the Federalist Party, he served one term as president, from 1825 to 1829.
After serving one term as president, John Quincy Adams served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1830 to 1848, but turned down the chairmanship of the House of Representatives in 1841, calling federal Indian policy fraudulent and brutal.
By most accounts, Adams’ presidency was not a success, Sikes said. Although he opened the Erie Canal and pushed for standardized weights and measures, Adams was an unpopular man with a prickly personality.
Early in his political career, Adams agreed with those who wanted to end Indian rights. When he helped negotiate the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812, he “resolutely denied Britain’s suggestion of creating a permanent Indian nation in the old Northwest,” Linda M. Clemmons wrote in the 2009 “Encyclopedia of United States Indian Policy and Law.” As secretary of state, Adams defended Jackson’s execution of Seminole prisoners without trial.
As president, however, Adams refused to support Georgia’s aggressive pressure for Indian removal, arguing that removal should be voluntary. Even so, during his four years as president, he oversaw 30 treaties with Indian nations, many of which called for the “extinguishing” of their titles to the land.
Throughout his presidency, Adams wrestled with the question of whether to give Indians land west of the Mississippi or incorporate them into the Union, he wrote in his personal diary in December 1825. Adding to the confusion was Secretary of State Henry Clay, who predicted that Indians would be gone within 50 years and “their disappearance from the human family (would) be no great loss to the world.” Although dismayed, Adams found “too much foundation” in Clay’s words, he wrote in his diary.
By the beginning of his third year in office, Adams’ personal writings began to reflect a deep disillusionment with Indian policy.
“We have talked of benevolence and humanity, and preached them into civilization,” he wrote in his diary in January 1828. “But none of this benevolence is felt where the right of the Indian comes in collision with the interest of the white man.”
Adams lost to Andrew Jackson in the election of 1829, but he went on to serve nine consecutive terms in the House of Representatives. In 1841, he was offered the chairmanship of the House Indian Affairs Committee but he turned the position down, calling federal Indian policy fraudulent and brutal.
“It is among the heinous sins of this nation,” Adams wrote in his diary in June 1841. “I turned my eyes away from this sickening mass of putrefaction, and asked to be excused from serving as chairman of the committee.”
Adams died in 1848 at age 80.