President Chester Arthur: Indian Policy Reform Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1881, Republican president Chester A. Arthur, during his first annual address to Congress, presented a series of reform proposals designed to improve relations between white settlers and American Indians. The “Indian question” was one of the most divisive issues facing the federal government in the latter nineteenth century, as military and humanitarian policy proposals abounded; complicating the matter, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the primary body tasked with addressing American Indian tribal issues, was hampered by corruption. Arthur's proposals to Congress included extending protections for reservations, promoting Indian agriculture, creating “Indian schools,” and, most significantly, breaking up larger Indian-owned territories and reservations. The latter proposal, known as “severalty,” would greatly enhance settlers' ability to negotiate land purchases as white frontiersmen continued their westward expansion.

Summary Overview

In 1881, Republican president Chester A. Arthur, during his first annual address to Congress, presented a series of reform proposals designed to improve relations between white settlers and American Indians. The “Indian question” was one of the most divisive issues facing the federal government in the latter nineteenth century, as military and humanitarian policy proposals abounded; complicating the matter, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the primary body tasked with addressing American Indian tribal issues, was hampered by corruption. Arthur's proposals to Congress included extending protections for reservations, promoting Indian agriculture, creating “Indian schools,” and, most significantly, breaking up larger Indian-owned territories and reservations. The latter proposal, known as “severalty,” would greatly enhance settlers' ability to negotiate land purchases as white frontiersmen continued their westward expansion.

Defining Moment

In the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction, one of the most pressing security issues facing the federal government was the “Indian question.” As settlers ventured westward and into Indian Territory, distrust, deceit, and violence between Indians and settlers were becoming more prevalent. Prior to the Civil War, the Bureau of Indian Affairs was transferred from the War Department to the Department of the Interior; after the Civil War, many in Congress called for the bureau's return to the War Department. Two clear factions existed: those who advocated for a peaceful solution to the Indian question and those who sought military action.

In 1869, a policy emerged to bring citizenship and cultural assimilation peaceably to the Indians. The Peace Policy, as it was known, established reservations on which Indians would reside as “wards” of the federal government as they worked toward economic independence and equal political rights with other Americans. Two years later, Congress altered the Peace Policy by changing the manner by which treaties with the various warring tribes were negotiated. Instead of addressing each nation individually, the United States would establish agreements with Indians as a collective, although individual land deals and treaties would remain intact.

By the 1870s, however, the Peace Policy was largely undermined by both corruption in the Bureau of Indian Affairs and an inability of white settlers and nomadic Indians to peacefully coexist. With the Peace Policy faltering, the militaristic faction returned to the fore. President Rutherford B. Hayes seemed torn, publicly calling for reforms to the federal government's Indian relations program that would restore peaceful options to both sides, while at the same time suggesting that military action against aggressive Indian groups was also acceptable in certain situations.

In 1880, the unlikely pairing of Republicans James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur as presidential and vice presidential candidates, respectively, brought the two to Washington, DC. Garfield and Arthur were ardently anti-corruption, and Garfield focused some of that sentiment on the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Unfortunately, an assassin took Garfield's life before the end of his first year as president. Arthur also took aim at corruption in the bureau, but he also advocated reforms to the system itself. Arthur called for a humanitarian approach to the Indians, although he also agreed with the policy of severalty. In 1881, as one of his first acts as president, Arthur presented his ideas for Indian policy reform to Congress, calling upon legislators to enact laws that would strengthen Indians' rights, enhance Indians' education (particularly with regard to agriculture), and facilitate more peaceful land agreements.

Author Biography

Chester A. Arthur was born on October 5, 1829, in Fairfield, Vermont. An 1848 graduate of Union College in New York, he taught school while studying for the bar. In 1854, Arthur, a strong abolitionist, began practicing law in New York City, taking on a number of civil rights cases. At the start of the Civil War, he was appointed quartermaster general of the state of New York. In 1871, he continued his political rise as collector of the port of New York.

In 1880, Arthur became Garfield's vice presidential candidate. Garfield's presidency was cut short when he was assassinated. Because of a kidney condition known as Bright's disease, Arthur served only one term as president. Leaving Washington, DC, in 1885, he moved back to New York and into private practice. A year later, in 1886, he succumbed to his illness.

Historical Document

…Prominent among the matters which challenge the attention of Congress at its present session is the management of our Indian affairs. While this question has been a cause of trouble and embarrassment from the infancy of the Government, it is but recently that any effort has been made for its solution at once serious, determined, consistent, and promising success.

It has been easier to resort to convenient makeshifts for tiding over temporary difficulties than to grapple with the great permanent problem, and accordingly the easier course has almost invariably been pursued.

It was natural, at a time when the national territory seemed almost illimitable and contained many millions of acres far outside the bounds of civilized settlements, that a policy should have been initiated which more than aught else has been the fruitful source of our Indian complications.

I refer, of course, to the policy of dealing with the various Indian tribes as separate nationalities, of relegating them by treaty stipulations to the occupancy of immense reservations in the West, and of encouraging them to live a savage life, undisturbed by any earnest and well-directed efforts to bring them under the influences of civilization.

The unsatisfactory results which have sprung from this policy are becoming apparent to all.

As the white settlements have crowded the borders of the reservations, the Indians, sometimes contentedly and sometimes against their will, have been transferred to other hunting grounds, from which they have again been dislodged whenever their new-found homes have been desired by the adventurous settlers.

These removals and the frontier collisions by which they have often been preceded have led to frequent and disastrous conflicts between the races.

It is profitless to discuss here which of them has been chiefly responsible for the disturbances whose recital occupies so large a space upon the pages of our history.

We have to deal with the appalling fact that though thousands of lives have been sacrificed and hundreds of millions of dollars expended in the attempt to solve the Indian problem, it has until within the past few years seemed scarcely nearer a solution than it was half a century ago. But the Government has of late been cautiously but steadily feeling its way to the adoption of a policy which has already produced gratifying results, and which, in my judgment, is likely, if Congress and the Executive accord in its support, to relieve us ere long from the difficulties which have hitherto beset us.

For the success of the efforts now making to introduce among the Indians the customs and pursuits of civilized life and gradually to absorb them into the mass of our citizens, sharing their rights and holden to their responsibilities, there is imperative need for legislative action.

My suggestions in that regard will be chiefly such as have been already called to the attention of Congress and have received to some extent its consideration.

First. I recommend the passage of an act making the laws of the various States and Territories applicable to the Indian reservations within their borders and extending the laws of the State of Arkansas to the portion of the Indian Territory not occupied by the Five Civilized Tribes.

The Indian should receive the protection of the law. He should be allowed to maintain in court his rights of person and property. He has repeatedly begged for this privilege. Its exercise would be very valuable to him in his progress toward civilization.

Second. Of even greater importance is a measure which has been frequently recommended by my predecessors in office, and in furtherance of which several bills have been from time to time introduced in both Houses of Congress. The enactment of a general law permitting the allotment in severalty, to such Indians, at least, as desire it, of a reasonable quantity of land secured to them by patent, and for their own protection made inalienable for twenty or twenty-five years, is demanded for their present welfare and their permanent advancement.

In return for such considerate action on the part of the Government, there is reason to believe that the Indians in large numbers would be persuaded to sever their tribal relations and to engage at once in agricultural pursuits. Many of them realize the fact that their hunting days are over and that it is now for their best interests to conform their manner of life to the new order of things. By no greater inducement than the assurance of permanent title to the soil can they be led to engage in the occupation of tilling it.

The well-attested reports of their increasing interest in husbandry justify the hope and belief that the enactment of such a statute as I recommend would be at once attended with gratifying results. A resort to the allotment system would have a direct and powerful influence in dissolving the tribal bond, which is so prominent a feature of savage life, and which tends so strongly to perpetuate it.

Third. I advise a liberal appropriation for the support of Indian schools, because of my confident belief that such a course is consistent with the wisest economy…

Glossary

aught else: anything else

ere long: before long

Five Civilized Tribes: a reference to those American Indian nations—the Cherokee, Choctow, Creek (Muscogee), Chicasaw, and Seminole—whom Anglo-European settlers thought to be the most congenial toward the settlers and their ways

holden: holding; beholden

Document Analysis

Arthur first references Indian policy to date, which, he argues, has been largely ineffective, marred by makeshift agreements, violence, and “unsatisfactory” results. The problems the US government has faced with regard to Indian relations date to the government's infancy, and yet, more than a century later, few solutions have been offered, Arthur states. The fundamental approach to the issue is flawed, he asserts. By dealing with each tribe as though it were a separate nation and, through treaties, assigning them to vast reservations, these tribes are left isolated from American civilization. As a result, he says, Indians are left to continue their own antiquated and “savage” way of life.

Arthur cites the fact that his recent predecessors have begun to see the folly of past Indian-relations policies. Too much money has been spent and too many lives have been lost over the last half century, he states, without improvement. However, the new approach—pursuing the assimilation of Indians into American civilization—offers great promise, he argues. It is, therefore, vital that the White House and Congress move collectively toward reform.

Having outlined the failings of the past and discussing the positive attributes of assimilation, Arthur presents his reform proposals. First, he states that the laws of the states and territories in which Indian reservations were located would apply to the people on those reservations as well (the only exception would be the territory of the so-called Five Civilized Tribes of what is modern-day Oklahoma—this territory comprised tribes that had largely adopted “civilized” practices and whose territory was by treaty left safe from additional white settlement). As a result of Arthur's proposal, Indians would enjoy the same protections under those laws as white settlers. Second—and, in his opinion, most important—Arthur called for passage of a law allowing for severalty. Indians, he believed, would benefit from such arrangements because severalty would provide them with opportunities to own land that is legally bound and free from additional (and disputable) settlement.

Arthur continues by suggesting that Indians could—in return for the government's “considerate action” of severalty and legal protection—take advantage of their new status as landowners and take a step away from an outdated nomadic hunting culture. Indeed, Arthur says, the fact that they would be entitled to a piece of property would almost certainly lead Indians to grow crops from it and live an agrarian lifestyle. Furthermore, passage of severalty and the adoption of agriculture would likely influence American Indians to disregard their tribal bonds and the “savage life” it promotes. Arthur states that many Indians have already expressed an interest in moving in such a direction, and the United States has an opportunity to educate American Indians on the benefits of American citizenship.

Essential Themes

Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, and Chester A. Arthur all served during a pivotal period of Indian relations. A lack of successful (and consistently peaceful) policy with regard to settlement in American Indian Territories meant that corruption, lawlessness, and violence would continue among settlers, Indians, and the government if the system were allowed to continue. Arthur acknowledged this persistent problem during his 1881 address to Congress and advocated for a more, in his view, humane approach of assimilating American Indians into American society and legal system.

The idea of severalty, in particular, was one that Arthur found compelling. By breaking reservations into smaller pieces that could be owned and operated by American Indians, Arthur believed, the new occupants would embark on an agrarian lifestyle that would create less tension with settlers on the open plains and bring Indians into modern society. Arthur also proposed educating Indians on the principles and practices of farming, leading them away from what he viewed as a “savage” hunting-oriented culture. Additionally, Arthur proposed extending to Indians the same protections under the law that other Americans enjoyed.

Arthur's address to Congress was an invitation as well as a challenge. To be sure, he said, Indian relations with the federal government had been a problem since the Constitution was ratified. Countless lives had been lost, innumerable crimes had been committed, and millions of dollars had been spent while trying to create stable relations with American Indians; each expenditure, he argued, was made in vain. In the late nineteenth century, however, Arthur hoped to steer away from the military option and toward a diplomatic, humanitarian approach to Indian relations.

In Arthur's opinion, the time had come to bring Indians into American society, providing them with legal protections and empowering them with the possibility of land ownership. Severalty and education, he told his congressional audience, would help foster an egalitarian relationship with Indians. In turn, American Indians would become “civilized” and gain a path to a better future.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Dehler, Gregory J. Chester Alan Arthur: The Life of a Gilded Age Politician and President. Hauppauge: Nova, 2007. Print.
  • Heidler, David Stephen, & Jeanne T. Heidler. Daily Lives of Civilians in Wartime Modern America: From the Indian Wars to the Vietnam War. Westport: Greenwood, 2007. Print.
  • Sturgis, Amy H. Presidents from Hayes through McKinley: Debating the Issues in Pro and Con Primary Documents. Westport: Greenwood, 2003. Print.
  • Wooster, Robert. The Military and United States Indian Policy, 1865–1903. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1995. Print.
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