Volume XV, Number 1, 2019

"Modernity, Generations, and the Assimilation of Thomas Jefferson’s Indians" by Zoltán Vajda

Zoltán Vajda is Associate Professor of American Studies at the Institute of English and American Studies, Faculty of Arts, University of Szeged, Hungary. His main areas of research and teaching are early American intellectual and cultural history, antebellum Southern history, Thomas Jefferson and his times, Cultural Studies and US popular culture. He serves on the editorial board of AMERICANA – E-Journal of American Studies in Hungary, and Aetas, a historical journal, both edited in Szeged. Email:

Abstract: This paper offers an analysis of Thomas Jefferson’s ideas about generations with regard to Native Americans within a broader intellectual context. Informed by the Enlightenment view of generations as discreet units of a given population Jefferson thought of them as isolated entities, each taking a possibly distinct place in the process of rational development and civilization. Their isolation implying difference from the “parental stock,” he also regarded them as being in an antagonistic relationship with one another, equalling the distinct status of a nation. I argue that understanding of the generational divide proved crucial in Jefferson’s assessment of Native American cultures and their capacity for change and assimilation into white American society. His plans to break generational ties within Native American cultures was an integral part of his project to bring them under the power of modern rational time as well as to achieve such a change gradually, thus leaving parents (i.e. older generations) behind. Aware of the Native Americans’ generational model being different from the modern European one, he took serious efforts to impose his own model of generations upon them by calling for an epistemological revolution among them, promoting their assimilation.

Keywords: Thomas Jefferson; Native Americans; generations; assimilation; epistemological revolution


Typically in his presidential years, Thomas Jefferson took pains to devise plans for the assimilation of Native Americans whom he found fundamentally different from Euro-Americans in their habits and lifestyle. One important aspect of related intellectual work was his understanding of the importance of intergenerational relations – a problem that has received barely any attention so far.

In this paper I will argue that the key to understanding Thomas Jefferson’s blueprint for the assimilation of Native Americans lies in an epistemological shift that he identified with the problem of intergenerational relations. Jefferson’s conception of Native Americans as pre-modern people was embedded in the more general mindset of the American Enlightenment and was largely built on the special relationship between generations having epistemological implications. More specifically, I claim that Jefferson demanded indigenous people living in US territory to change their attitude to intergenerational relations, abandoning the principle of generational interdependence. He thought that this change would be a means of preparing them for a cultural shift from a traditional to a modern way of social existence. Thus, Jefferson in fact called for the destruction of intergenerational ties among Native American communities along with an epistemological transformation. He advocated all this, however, in a way that the connection can only become obvious if one turns to texts different than ones directly addressed to his Native American “children.”

Before discussing Jefferson’s analysis of the intergenerational theme, I will briefly refer to its presence in the secondary literature, then giving an overview of his understanding of Native American cultures.

The most extensive discussion of the problem of generations in Jefferson’s thinking to date has been offered by Herbert Sloan (2001). Nonetheless, Sloan concentrated on Jefferson’s general position on the topic mainly in view of debt, leaving out Native Americans from his perspective. Peter Onuf has also addressed the issue more specifically, in relation to blacks (2000a) and in general, in connection with Jefferson’s conception of nationhood (2000b), but with no particular analysis of intergenerational relations among Native Americans as discussed by Jefferson. In his Thomas Jefferson and American Nationhood (2012) Brian Steele also refers to the problem briefly but mainly in relation to Jefferson’s emphasis on the continuity between the revolutionary generations and future ones (of white American males) (46-49). Such continuity is also emphasized by Harold Hellenbrand (1990) but with a strong element of disruption of parental ties as an important moment in the process to independence through education and the development of common sense (70-85). On the whole, these works do not address the problem of generations in relation to Native Americans, let alone the context of the broader theme of modernity.

In order to assess Jefferson’s conception of generations in relation to Native Americans, I now turn to his general ideas about the indigenous population of North America.

Jefferson developed a world view in which white men represented the standard by which the “natural order” was constructed, while Native Americans stood for deviation from it. Accordingly, for him, in historian Bernard Sheehan’s words, “The Indian’s way of life set him off from the exemplar of humanity – the white man – and consequently, from the accepted attributes of his type.” This is why Jefferson wanted to bring Native American life closer to the “natural order” (19). He regarded this “natural order” as one based on the principle of gradation, with different species occupying places of varying degree of development as discrete links in a “Chain of Being.” As far as humans were concerned, Jefferson also assigned different positions to them in this system, white people being the most developed group. For him, Native Americans lived in the state of “barbarism,” which he associated with the hunter-gatherer stage of social development as identified by cultural theorists of the age (Sheehan 24-26; Egerton 77, and Jordan 438; Meek 68-126 and McCoy 18-20).

Despite his unequivocal categorization of Native Americans as a group of humans falling behind white Europeans in social and cultural development, Jefferson had a rather positive view of his Indian neighbors. Unlike with regard to blacks, he was certain that Native Americans belonged to the species “Homo sapiens Europaeus,” sharing features of intrinsic identity with whites. He attributed the differences between them to the environment and their way of life ultimately derived from their nomadic culture. Thus, on a better diet, he claimed, for instance, Indian males would improve in physical conditions and stature. (Jefferson, Writings 187; Boulton 482; Jordan 478). He also regarded Indians as ideal republicans, having “natural virtues of the human race in its childhood,” in historian Peter Onuf’s words (Jefferson’s Empire 24; see also Boulton 483).

At the same time, Jefferson believed, the cultural difference from whites made Amerindians incapable of living together, and hence the alternatives available for them was either “assimilation” into white society or “extinction” as a race. Unable to resist the pressure of white migration driven by the land hunger and with their hunting grounds shrinking, they were compelled to move to the farming stage of development. Through their move to a sedentary form of life they would, in turn, catch up with their white neighbors and cultural assimilation could take place. In any other case, Jefferson argued, they were doomed to extinction. He was even ready to expel them beyond the Mississippi River should they refuse to make the expected cultural transformation (Onuf 2000b 16; Sheehan 25-26). Above all, he expected Native Americans to give the redundant portion of their lands over to whites after they reached the farming stage of social development. (Sheehan 169, 174, and 246-47 on removal. See also Grinde 193-208).

He showed an ambiguous attitude toward Native Americans before making policies as president with regard to their assimilation. In the first place, he took pains to record their culture on the brink of disappearance, and although holding them inferior to whites, he connected white American identity to them, thereby using them as a means of promoting the latter as explored in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1787) (Sayre 2009 67, 69, 70).

Jefferson’s practice of assimilating Native Americans was based on the idea of “civilizing” them on location, that is, he did not embrace the earlier model of separating the young generation of indigenous Americans from their homes and families, raising them in boarding schools. Employing agents to contact and guide tribes in the process of assimilation, he also believed in the responsibility of the state to supervise the process. Thus, through treaties made with the Indians he would arrange for supplying tribes under “civilization” with the necessities enabling them to shift to farming. Nonetheless, he also promoted their selling more of their land, thereby acquiring the necessary assets to buy more supplies and equipment (Wallace 278-85, 292, 298-300.) There were obvious differences between various tribes in terms of their readiness to adopt white culture. Southern tribes such as the Creeks and Cherokees had already shifted to agriculture, male members of their society having been engaged in cultivating their lands, yet they were reluctant to give up their hunting grounds because of the need for the income that they yielded (Wallace 300, 304).

Jefferson also allowed for the use of violence in promoting assimilation amongst Amerindians, as he revealed privately to William H. Harrison in 1803: “[W]e presume that our strength and their weakness is now so visible that they must see w have only to shut our hand to crush them, and that all our liberalities to them proceed from motives of pure humanity only” (Jefferson to Governor William H. Harrison, February 27, 1803, in Jefferson 1984 118).

He also encouraged the Native American population along the western borders of the United States to give up their lands in order to accommodate white settlers. It was part of his plan to strengthen national security in the Mississippi River Valley in the face of French threat. Nonetheless, several tribes of the Ohio Valley refused to cede land to the United States (Owens 417, 425). This was, in part, a consequence of William Henry Harrison, Jefferson’s agent for the Northwestern tribes, using tactics such as bribery and dividing resisting tribes in order to further successful land cessions (Owens 432, 435.). All these moves were strongly connected to Jefferson’s understanding of generational relations.

Jefferson’s conception of generations was based on the model positing them as isolated entities. He expressed such a view in connection with landed property rights and debt in a letter to James Madison, arguing that “by the law of nature, one generation is to another as one independant [sic] nation to another,” and “between society and society, or generation and generation, there is no municipal obligation, no umpire but the law of nature.” (September 6, 1789, in Jefferson 1984 962). By this, he meant that generations were not connected to each other in a fundamental sense. He was most interested in this in view of debts asserting that financial obligations incurred by one were not to be bequeathed by the other: “no man can, by natural right, oblige the lands he occupied, or the persons who succeed him in that occupation, to the paiment (sic) of debts contracted by him,” he asserted. (959-60).

Such features of Jefferson’s thesis about generations ultimately lay in his assumption about land use and related financial obligations. His tenet “that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living” (959) implied that land owned by a living person was not to be used to pay off the debts of the same person after his death. “For if he could [arrange for that]”, Jefferson claimed, “he might, during his own life, eat up the usufruct of the land for several generations to come, and then the lands would belong to the dead, and not to the living, which would be the reverse of our principle” (960).

This, at first sight, would be to suppose that Jefferson hoped to save one generation from the obligations of the previous one by disapproving of the latter “eating up the usufruct of the land for several generations to come.” He, however, went further than that, in fact, emphasizing the separation of later generations from the former by advocating their exemption from assuming obligations for the fathers’ debts. Furthermore, his principle put no limit on the spending of the fathers as well, who, to Jefferson’s mind, would have no scruples over contracting debts affecting later generations. Jefferson’s claim about the creation of the earth for all and its concomitant availability for anyone to labor it came from natural rights philosophers of the age (Sloan 1993 293). Such a right was, obviously given to those living having the need and power to live on the land.

Jefferson also imagined generations to be independent of each other in terms of “subsistence” – in the sense that, as he wrote to John Taylor in 1816, “every generation com[es] equally, by the laws of the Creator of the world, to the free possession of the earth he made for their subsistence, unencumbered by their predecessors, who, like them, were but tenants for life” (Jefferson to John Taylor, May 28, 1816, in Jefferson 1904-5, XI 529). Like tenants replacing each other on the same tract of land rather than using it simultaneously, generations are also separated by the iron law of subsistence by land allotted to them by God temporarily.

At the same time, Jefferson denied links between generations not only economically but also culturally and politically. “A generation may bind itself as long as its majority continues in life;” he wrote to Major John Cartwright in a letter on June 5, 1824, “when that has disappeared, another majority is in place, holds all the rights and powers that their predecessors once held, and may change their laws and institutions to suit themselves” (Jefferson 1984 1491-92; See also Jefferson to John Taylor, May 28, 1816, in Jefferson 1904-5, XI, 528-29).

According to historian Daniel Scott Smith, Jefferson applied the concept of generations in two senses of the word. In the first place, it designated a group of people born at the same time but becoming relevant as a generation only after turning twenty-one. In another sense, however, generation meant to him various age groups together retaining their majority position in relation to other generations only until a certain point of time (Smith 597). Jefferson deemed the size of population “stable,” “one changing in size but with constant birth and death rates and no net migration.” Under such circumstance, it is the number of births that becomes the key factor in “the length of a generation” (Smith 595). For him, this time span was 19 years, thus signifying the duration of a generation. The length of time that a new majority of generation in America took to take over was, in fact, 14.3 years (Smith, 607) and not 19 as computed by Jefferson. Jefferson also had faults in his calculations concerning generations because of his ignoring mortality and fertility rates over time as a determinant of the size of populations and consequently, generations (Smith 603).

All this, Jefferson argued, also had implications for a constitution made for a given nation: one generation, he thought, should have the power to devise such a document that the next would have the power to change and tailor to its own needs and dispositions. Hence, he claimed in his letter to Madison, “no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation” (Jefferson 1984 963). Hence, with the passing of one generation the laws that they made lose force and become null and void. For him, nineteen years was also the time period before a constitution could be changed by a new generation having become a majority (963).

The separation of generations in Jefferson’s system of thought was also underpinned by his conception of the dead, for whom the living, he asserted, were to feel no obligation. “Can one generation bind another and all others, in succession for ever?” Jefferson asked in his letter to Cartwright giving an answer immediately: “I think not.” “The Creator has made the earth for the living, not the dead. […] The dead are not even things. The particles of matter which composed their bodies, make part now of the bodies of other animals, vegetables, or minerals of a thousand forms. To what then are attached the rights and powers they held while in the form of men?” (Jefferson 1984 1493) One major innovation that Jefferson introduced through his formula about political change, rights, landed property, and generations was the fact that he replaced the concept of the people with that of one of its cohorts defined through time limits. He did so emphasizing the exemption of generations from obligations to each other and hence, one should add, their discontinuity (Sloan 1993 297).

Past generations, hence, counted as nothing in Jefferson’s scenario of cultural heritage and succession: rights, laws or debts belonged to one generation only. Furthermore, the material separation of one generation from a living one also amounted to a cultural one. Sloan has pointed out that Jefferson’s idea of the separation of past and present and the separate rights that generations could assume came from the more general cultural concept of “the dead hand of the past.” It was a more general Enlightenment cultural conception of the past as having no binding upon the present (Sloan 1993 294). For Jefferson, then, a new generation of the same people should necessarily have the chance to implement cultural change because of its difference from the previous one.

The concept of generations tied to that of cultural separation also occupied a pivotal position in Jefferson’s theory of black slavery, and his related views shed light on the theoretical application of his principles that he also found valid for Native Americans. As Peter Onuf has demonstrated, also thinking about blacks as divided by generational lines, Jefferson’s plans for the emancipation and expatriation of American black slaves ultimately rested on the notion of the sovereignty and total independence of generations. When he proposed the manumission of black children in Virginia after the year of 18 for girls and 21 for boys, he was willing to separate offspring from their parents, the former being colonized, the latter to be left in bondage, never to see their children again. Yet this was to follow naturally from his maxim that each generation should be ready to govern itself from the moment of reaching full maturity. In such a case, the only emotional factor to be involved in the separation would be the generational “altruism” of the parents of these children who would let the latter go while themselves would not benefit from the act of emancipation (Onuf 200b 155, 156). By contrast, in the case of Native Americans, the cultural transformation that Jefferson suggested, was to affect young and old alike, and in his direct addressing leaders of Amerindians, he rarely referred to the problem of generational differences. It was in different contexts that he seriously connected the case of modernization among them with his generational epistemology, and he did so with deeper cultural considerations in mind.

Historian David Noble has pointed out that in contrasting traditional cultures with their own vision of a modern one, western middle-class men believed that they could live in a world without generational interdependence and responsibility. They based this perception on another contrast that they set up between pre-modern and modern societies, deeming the latter superior in terms of rationality. To them the traditional world seemed irrational because it was characterized by the cycle of scarcity and plenty, which was in fact also linked with the generational cycle of birth, growth, death, and rebirth. Hence, they imagined a universe for themselves in which they could escape the finite world of generations, avoid recurring scarcity, and find permanent plenitude. As part of their desire to leave all this behind, in tandem with children and women living in the irrational world of domesticity, modern western elites hoped to find the possibility of realizing their illusion of permanent growth in the market place, free from generational interdependence. They therefore hoped to escape the home of irrationality with several generations living together and believed that in doing so they could also escape the cyclical pattern of generational relations together with the cycle of plenitude and scarcity in the hope of permanent abundance (Noble 2012 10).

In British America, such a state of mind developed in a specific way regarding indigenous population the period between 1789 and the 1940s, the Anglo-Protestant elites’ conception of the continent became part of their effort to see the United States in opposition to the Old World. This attitude was informed by the modern conception of progress and its links to notions about freedom and the nation-state as well as a desire to build an empire in the New World while denying the parallel use of violence and power. Appealing to principles of the Enlightenment, white Protestant male elites of the United States thought other peoples to be irrational, having meaningless histories and cultures, and existing outside the boundaries that designated the exceptional people of freedom and nationality that they identified with the US. In this vision indigenous cultures, for instance, appeared just as meaningless and irrelevant as those developed by Euro-Americans living south of the United States. (Noble 1996). An enthusiastic champion of the Enlightenment, Jefferson was an active participant is such cultural work as far as his relations with Native Americans were concerned as well as the problem of generations and followed such principles in implementing his blueprint for the assimilation of Indians.

Jefferson openly supported the acculturation of Native Americans and was ready to offer them help in connection with their wish to grow in knowledge, i.e. to make the expected cultural transformation. He did so, for instance, when addressing John Baptist de Coigne, (also known as Jean Baptiste Ducoigne) chief of the Kaskaskia tribe in 1781, during the War of Independence. Jefferson’s original purpose was to assure him and his tribe of the friendship of the American Patriots, and keep them from turning to the British as allies. The lure that Jefferson offered for friendship was the care and sustenance that American whites would provide for friendly Indians lasting longer than the one secured by the British. The latter, losing ground in the war, were soon to leave their former allies behind, whereas the Americans would provide lasting care. He set a contrast between tribes supporting the British and friendly ones:

They are clothed for a day, and will be naked for ever after;” he wrote, “while you, who have submitted to short inconvenience, will be well supplied through the rest of your lives. Their friends will be gone and their enemies left behind; but your friends will be here, and will make you strong against all your enemies. (Jefferson 1984 554)

Part of the care that Jefferson offered to the Indians was an effort to familiarize them with white ways at the request of Natives. This process of acculturation, he believed, was to the benefit of the tribe and included teaching them cultural traits that would make them similar to whites. As he continued in his address to de Coigne, “you ask us to send schoolmasters to educate your son and the sons of your people. We desire above all things, brother, to instruct you in whatever we know ourselves. We wish to [teach] you all our arts and to make you wise and wealthy.” Yet, he added, all this could happen only after the war was over. (554).

That was the time, in fact, when Jefferson had the chance to implement his program of assimilation as president of the United States. The gist of the change that he expected of various tribes in general consisted in the move from the hunting stage of stadial development to the agricultural one. This, he assured Handsome Lake, the Seneca leader, in his address of November 3, 1802, would result in a beneficial transformation of the standard of living for them. “Go on then, brother, in the great reformation you have undertaken,” he encouraged the chief. “Persuade our red brethren then to be sober, and to cultivate their lands; and their women to spin and weave for their families. You will soon see your women and children well fed and clothed, your men living happily in peace and plenty, and your numbers increasing from year to year.” Finally, as he assured Handsome Lake, in this enterprise, he would have the whole support of the United States (Jefferson 1984 556). Jefferson, then, assumed the low quality of life and scarcity of necessities in the present state of the people of Handsome Lake and the promise of plenitude that he connected with the expected reform.

Jefferson understood the superiority of the sedentary, agricultural way of life to the traditional one in terms of productivity and efficiency, promoting this position among Natives. Farming, he believed, would yield more food as well as raw material for subsistence than hunting. As he explained in a message of his to the Choctaws, “A little land cultivated, and a little labor, will procure more provisions than the most successful hunt; and a woman will clothe more by spinning and weaving, than a man by hunting” (December 17, 1803, in Jefferson 1984 559).

Productivity leading to better life, at the same time, was available to the Natives, Jefferson asserted, urging them to imitate white Americans in developing farming habits leading to demographic growth and prosperity. This, for him, also implied the superiority of white culture over the Native American one:

“Compared with you, we are but as of yesterday in this land.” … “Yet see how much more we have multiplied by industry, and the exercise of that reason which you possess in common with us. Follow then our example, brethren, and we will aid you with great pleasure.” (559-60)

This passage, nevertheless, also reveals how Jefferson associated the modern form of life, specifically agricultural activity with “industry,” suggesting the traditional way of life offering less space for hard work. Furthermore, it also highlights rationality as a factor in such great achievements, at the same time available to the Choctaws as well thereby facilitating their progress in further developing an agricultural way of life.

In his public addresses, Jefferson proudly reported on the progress that “Indian neighbors” of Euro-Americans had been making. His assertion was based on his normative ideal of self-sufficiency that he expected Americans to live up to, rooted in economic activities encompassing “agriculture & household manufacture.” He concluded that those shifting to this model of subsistence had understood and accepted his tenet about its superiority over their traditional way of life, offering more efficiency in providing for themselves. “They are becoming sensible that the earth yields subsistence with less labor & more of certainty than the forst,” he said. Furthermore, he also made clear that all this change would also result in a new conception of political economy for the Natives and benefits for white society, their understanding “it their interest from time to time to dispose of parts of their surplus & waste lands for the means of improving those they occupy, and of subsisting their families while they are preparing their farms.” Great efficiency in producing for subsistence thus allows Natives to have surplus both in terms of goods and land. The latter made it an object of exchange commodity in their interaction with whites with all the extra income they could desire (Draft of Jefferson’s Fifth Annual Message, December 3, 1805, in Jefferson 1904-5, X, 194; See also his Third Annual Message, October 17, 1803, in Jefferson 1904-5, X, 38; See also “Confidential Message on Expedition to the Pacific,” in January 18, 1803, in Jefferson 1904-5, IX, 424-32).

Addressing the most developed of civilized tribes, the Cherokees, in 1806, Jefferson praised them for the progress they had made, and provided them with a plan for the next stage of the transformation into an agricultural nation:

I see with my own eyes that the endeavors we have been making to encourage and lead you in the ways of improving your situation have not been unsuccessful: it has been like a grain sown in good ground, producing abundantly. You are becoming farmers, learning the use of the plough and the hoe, enclosing your grounds and employing that labor in their cultivation which you formerly employed in hunting and in war; and I see handsome specimens of cotton cloth raised, spun and wove[n] by yourselves. (January 10, 1806, in Jefferson 1984 561)

Jefferson now made the point that other tribes lagging behind the Cherokees in acculturation, should take them for an example “and seeing what you are they are encouraged to do as you have done”. The application of technological devices such as “mills” for grinding grains will provide them with more time to produce more clothes for themselves (561).

The next stage of development, as Jefferson anticipated, would be the establishing laws to protect private property, the consequence of the shift from a nomadic way of life to a sedentary one. All this would, in turn, happen in the name of rationality: the introduction of a legal system into tribal culture. “When a man has property,” Jefferson explained, “earned by his own labor, he will not like to see another come and take it from him because he happens to be stronger or else to defend it by spilling blood. You will find it necessary then to appoint good men, as judges, to decide contests between man and man according to reason and to the rules you shall establish” (561).

Jefferson also admitted that the cultural transformation that he expected from the Natives was in the vested interest of white society, and mainly because of its expansion generated by population growth. The surplus land of Natives that would be produced by their giving up forests and lands would then serve to cater to the white surplus population. As he argued in one of his addresses, “[We] are descended from the old nations which live beyond the great water, but we and our forefathers have been so long here that we seem like you to have grown out of this land” (To the Wolf and People of the Mandan Nation, December 30, 1806, in Jefferson 1984 564). This was, then, to be the end of the process leading Native Americans to acculturation, according to Jefferson.

He also advocated his proposed model for tribes living beyond the Mississippi River outside of settled US territory, arguing that it would result in prosperity for them. They were to give up their nomadic hunting lifestyle and together with that, constant intertribal warfare. All that will result in better subsistence for them: “If you will cease to make war on one another, if you will live in friendship with all mankind, you can employ all your time in providing food and clothing for yourselves and your families.” (To the Wolf and People of the Mandan Nation, December 30, 1806, in Jefferson 1984 565).

Jefferson explored intergenerational relations in the context of this blueprint for assimilation within the framework of his general assumptions about knowledge and education as key to its growth and progress in general. In his scheme different sorts of knowledge designated the dividing line between generations. This, on the other hand, had implications for his ideas about the relationship between generations of Native Americans.

As far as education was concerned, the core of Jefferson’s argument consisted in the idea that man in the abstract is capable of change, which he conceived of as a process leading to a more developed stage of human intellectual development. As he explored in the Report of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia in 1818 (i.e. the blueprint for the founding of the University of Virginia), “We should be far […] from the discouraging persuasion that man is fixed, by the law of his nature, at a given point; that his improvement is a chimera, and the hope delusive of rendering ourselves wiser, happier or better than our forefathers were” (Jefferson 1984, 461). For him, growth in knowledge was the result of one generation adding extra knowledge to the one bequeathed by the previous one thereby contributing to “the knowledge and well-being of mankind” (461).

Growth in knowledge, as it concerns generations, at the same time, was a process, according to Jefferson, that also distinguished mainstream white Americans from their Native American “neighbors,” who, because of the epistemological homogeneity, he deemed dependent on the older generations. “What, but education has advanced us beyond the condition of our indigenous neighbors?”, Jefferson queried. “And what chains them to their present state of barbarism and wretchedness, but a bigoted veneration for the supposed superlative wisdom of their fathers, and the preposterous idea that they are to look backward for better things, and not forward, longing, as it should seem, to return to the days of eating acorns and roots, rather than indulge in the degeneracies of civilization” (461-62.).

Jefferson’s vision of generations of Native Americans was thus a special study in obsolescence: young generations should necessarily have an amount of knowledge more in time with progress than their “fathers” do the latter being obsolete by nature therefore. In this interpretation, the world of the fathers’ generation by definition represented an inferior one and a break with it was a step necessary for improvement, that is, transition from “barbarism.”

Clinging to the fathers’ ways, Jefferson argued, derived from a pessimistic idea of progress, “that the condition of man cannot be ameliorated, that what has been must ever be, and that to secure ourselves where we are, we must tread with awful reverence in the footsteps of our fathers” (Writings 1984 462). In other words, generations must necessarily differ from each other in Jefferson’s vision of progress. He saw their being connected epistemologically as an obsolete pattern by definition, associating it with a characteristic of pre-modern Native Americans not minding eating “acorns and roots.”

In Jefferson’s vision, the dominant white civilization was to deal with any sign of the stagnation of knowledge – a major feature of the link he found between generations in Native American cultures influencing his open critique of Natives’ attitude to assimilation. The strong link between generations also accounts for his denouncing Native Americans for being reluctant to change. Their reverence for a state of affairs that he characterized as “barbarism,” with a diet of acorns and roots, was, in his eyes, an obstacle to changing their conditions. In his Second Inaugural Address, he depicted Native Americans as people captured by their “habits,” refusing to be governed by their “reason.” As he claimed, “they are combated by the habits of their bodies, prejudice of their minds, ignorance, pride, and the influence of interested and crafty individuals among them …” (Jefferson 1984 520) The latter were the ones that discouraged Native Americans’ break with the previous generations, Jefferson argued. As he claimed, “These persons inculcate a sanctimonious reverence for the customs of their ancestors, that whatsoever they did, must be done through all time.” […] Moreover, such an attitude, according to him, was based on the notion

that reason is a false guide, and to advance under its counsel, in their physical, moral, or political condition, is perilous innovation; that their duty is to remain as their Creator made them, ignorance being safety, and knowledge full of danger … (520)

In Jefferson’s argument, irrationality got yoked with stagnation, the unwillingness to change, which, in turn, he equated with rationality, and its antithesis, habit, seemed to him the major force among Native Americans. The representatives of this anti-progressive attitude, he argued, “find an interest in keeping things in their present state, … dread reformation, and exert all their faculties to maintain the ascendency of habit over the duty of improving our reason, and obeying its mandates” (521).

We have seen above that Jefferson conceived of generations in a general sense as a cohort of people born at the same time and also in a relational sense, taking the majority of several age groups. In the case of the Indians, he clearly favored a third sense, that of the familial understanding of generations, that is, the age group of fathers contrasted to that of children.

This, at the same time, had interesting repercussions with regard to intergenerational relations among Indians in Jefferson’s eyes. As historian Harold Hellenbrand has claimed, in his general views of the process of education, Jefferson emphasized the need for sons to develop a sense of independence from their parents, also replacing their love for them with that for their mentors. It was a crucial step in their maturing and becoming adults (Hellenbrand 84-85). This, however, also implied generational discontinuity in the case of Native Americans: the acculturation process for the children would amount to this process of education and independence from the generation of the fathers, with children shunning the latters’ ways in the name of rationality.

Jefferson, then, through his denunciation of Native Americans’ reluctance to change and reform, connected the problem of generations in Native American culture with the problem of irrationality. Such a move was also part of his critique of the interdependence of generations and affirmation of the need to sever ties among them, turning them modern.

Jefferson also understood that Native Americans had difficulty sustaining themselves in the face of invading settlers leading to the shrinking of hunting grounds. Hence, he believed, as has been seen, they were to be saved from disappearance by making them shift to agriculture. It would enable them to live on the land that they would be left with. At the same time, this change was to result in their transformation, too, in terms of moral and intellectual abilities. As he explained in his Second Inaugural Address, it was in such a spirit that he had promoted their assimilation: “We have therefore liberally furnished them with the implements of husbandry and household use, we have placed among them instructors in the arts of first necessity …” (Jefferson Writings 1984 520) Nonetheless, he also experienced difficulty making certain Native Americans change to white ways, as we have seen. This mainly concerned tribes of the Northwest who were reluctant to adapt themselves to the agricultural way of life and thereby modernization, together with generational independence.

Jefferson, then, through his denunciation of Native Americans’ reluctance to change and reform, connected the problem of acculturation of Native Americans with the problem of irrationality. He expected Native Americans to replace their exiting knowledge structure with a new one because he believed that a new generation was to come up with a new knowledge that had nothing to do with the old one, given that lack of intergenerational ties in modern cultures. That was the way in which they could become rational – only through a break with the old generational epistemology.

A haphazard glance at Jefferson’s treatment of the Natives may surely result in a moralistic critique of his attitude to peoples he was ready to subjugate using violence even – as seen above. However, this has not been the purpose here. Jefferson himself believed that the shift to agriculture and assimilation were in fact doing good to his Indians, however contorted his benevolence may seem to many today. Such an attitude was the corollary of his being positioned in Anglo-Protestant culture, as seen above, and as such had consequences independent of any kind of moral judgment of himself or that culture. In this sense, it was primarily an epistemological and cultural problem.

Jefferson seemed strict about his plans to save Native Americans by making them adopt white ways. Yet, by the end of his second term as president he was compelled to see that reluctance did remain with them. He took exception though, when, in 1808 he decided to pursue a different policy in the case of Cherokees allowing those of them who wished to remain hunters to exchange their lands for hunting grounds in the West. He was in fact willing to consent to their sticking to their old ways. He understood “how difficult it is for men to change the habits in which they have been raised” (Jefferson to the Deputies of the Cherokees of the Upper and Lower Towns, January 9., 1809, quoted in Sheehan 248). Nonetheless, such exceptional lenience did not shake his thesis about generations of Native Americans: even though accepting the old generation being reluctant to change, he demanded the new one to part with old ways, customs, and generational culture.


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