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John Adams: ‘White Father’ to Indian Nations

When John Adams took office in 1797, his concerns about Native Americans came from two fronts: overseas threats and tensions along the western border.

Editor’s note: Voters this year will elect the 45th president of the United States. This is the second 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.

When John Adams took office in March 1797, his concerns about Native Americans came from two fronts: threats from overseas and tensions along the western border.

Fourteen years after the Revolutionary War ended, Great Britain and France continued to occupy territory in North America, and Adams feared either force, allied with Native Americans, could wreak havoc on the young nation. The second president of the United States also inherited land-hungry settlers on the western frontier and growing tensions between fledgling state governments and tribes.

In his first annual message to Congress, delivered in November 1797, Adams referred to relationships with the Indians as “this unpleasant state of things on our western frontier.” Foreign agents, he said, were trying to “alienate the affections of the Indian nations and to excite them to actual hostilities against the United States.”

The same year, the newly formed Tennessee legislature informed Adams that the Cherokee Indians were occupying their territories as “tenants at will,” or at the forbearance of whites, Clifford Trafzer wrote in his 2009 book “American Indians American Presidents.” In response, Adams sent a letter to “his beloved chiefs, warriors and children of the Cherokee Nation,” explaining that squatters had gone beyond the boundary established in a 1791 treaty and had protested when the federal government tried to remove them.

In the letter, Adams asked the Cherokee to acknowledge the “sincere friendship of the United States,” but said his “stronger obligations” were to “hear the complaints, and relieve, as far as in my power, the distresses of my white children, citizens of the United States.” The result was the 1798 Treaty of Tellico, in which the Cherokee ceded more of their homelands in eastern Tennessee.

The treaty was the last of four enacted during Adams’ four years in office, from 1797 to 1801. He also oversaw treaties with the Mohawk, Seneca and Oneida, who relinquished all their lands in the state of New York.

Born in Massachusetts in 1735, Adams was an intellectual, political theorist, attorney, author and statesman. A sixth-generation American, Adams’ ancestors immigrated to the colonies in 1638. His first encounter with Native Americans occurred when he was a boy and leaders of the Punkapaug and Neponset tribes called on his father. The visit excited a “fascination” with the Indians, David McCullough wrote in his 2001 biography “John Adams.”

Yet as a leader and one of the founding fathers, Adams harbored a “dread fear of the British unleashing Indian war parties on the frontiers,” McCullough wrote. In a letter penned to a friend, Adams called Natives “blood hounds” who, let loose, could scalp men and butcher women and children.

Adams, a delegate to the first and second Continental Congresses, also served as commissioner to France and ambassador to Holland and Great Britain before running for president of the United States in 1789. He came in second to George Washington and served as the nation’s first vice president.

The election of 1796 was the first to distinguish between political parties. Adams, a member of the newly formed Federalist Party, won by a narrow margin. He served only one term.

It was a term marked by “paternalistic” attitudes toward Native Americans, said Sara Martin, editor in chief of The Adams Papers, an editorial project overseen by the Massachusetts Historical Society. Much like the other founding fathers, Adams held conflicted beliefs about Natives and their role in the nation’s future.

“If you look at it from today, you could call it paternalistic,” Martin said. “But back then, his views were similar to others of his race and class.”

In his inauguration speech, Adams pledged himself to a spirit of “equity and humanity” toward the Indians, McCullough wrote. He promised to “meliorate their condition by inclining them to be more friendly to us, and our citizens to be more friendly to them.” But Adams also ignored existing treaties and established the Indiana Territory in 1800, granting settlers nearly 260,000 acres of land in the Northwest Territory.

“In terms of his Indian policy, at least politically, he very much followed the same path as Washington,” Martin said of Adams. “Many of the policies in place during Washington’s administration were finalized or funded or enforced during the Adams administration, so it was really more of a continuation of ideology. As president, if Adams thought of Indians, it was in political terms. But if you take a step back and look at his personal writings, you can see the conflict in rhetoric and practice.”

Daniel Usner, a history professor at Vanderbilt University, calls Adams’ views paradoxical. Although Adams contributed little to the creation of federal Indian policy and, indeed, expressed very little interest in their customs, he “did plenty to embed them… deeply within the founding generation’s contrived rationale for American independence from Great Britain,” Usner wrote in a 2013 article. This “Age of Adams” established many of the “inconsistencies and shortcomings that have occurred in U.S. Indian policy ever since,” he wrote.

In short, Adams “alternated his sentiments between a derogatory apprehension of Indians’ means of warfare and a condescending admiration for their dignified style of peace-making,” Usner wrote. “This interweaving of dread with delight, righteousness with respect, would endure as a major pattern of ambivalence toward American Indians in popular thought and culture.”

Adams left office in 1801 and was succeeded by Thomas Jefferson. In his later years, he revived his intellectual study of Indians, spending his leisure time reading about their history, culture and religion. Adams died in 1826 at age 90.