Democracy Dies in Darkness

Made by History | Perspective

If Trump’s internal critics really care about their reputations — and the country — they’ll resign

Seeing themselves as morally superior to their colleagues and the president blinds internal critics to how they advance the president’s agenda.

September 8, 2018 at 1:24 AM

President Trump leaves the stage after an event in Sioux Falls, S.D., on Sept. 7. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

The author of Wednesday’s anonymous New York Times op-ed asks us to admire the “unsung heroes” supposedly undermining the Trump White House from within.

It feels safe to assume that these “adults in the room” are the sort of Very Serious People who hope the history books will smile upon their records as public servants. If so, they should consider the case of the federal Indian agents that 19th century presidents appointed to diplomatic posts next to Native American villages.

A “frontier” region’s Indian agent was the official intermediary between the federal government and the area’s Indian tribes. Like ambassadors and press secretaries today, Indian agents addressed audiences as appendages of the presidents they served.

Ideally, fatherly Indian agents were supposed to look after Native people’s interests, in addition to those of the government.

Even in theory, however, the latter was a lower priority than the former. “It is, doubtless, the duty of the agent to protect and cherish the Indians confided to his care,” explained Secretary of War John C. Calhoun in 1824 to John Crowell, agent to the Creek Nation in present-day Georgia and Alabama. “But he is still the agent of the Government, and is bound, in all cases, to give his zealous co-operation in effecting its views."

Many of the men whom presidents appointed to Indian agencies engaged in self-dealing. Sometimes this corruption took on monstrous proportions. One agent in Andrew Jackson’s administration used the spoils of his office to purchase “one hundred Negroes & an elegant & valuable sugar plantation.” When this man left his position, a group of Chickasaw chiefs wished “to forget that a heart so depraved ever resided amongst us.”

Other agents skimmed off the food shipments to Native people they were supposed to protect from starvation.

Some Indian agents, however, tried to do everyone justice: the Indians, the executive and the American people. But even men like Lawrence Taliaferro, who were were decent for Indian agents, participated in an exploitative, violent system.

Taliaferro arrived in 1820 at the new Indian agency that President James Monroe set up in what is now St. Paul, Minn. He spent the next two decades cultivating relationships with Dakota and Ojibwe leaders while also carrying out orders from Monroe and the next three presidents: John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren.

Taliaferro did what he could to deal more honestly with “his” Indians than was typical in Jacksonian America. He neither stole from the tribes nor accepted kickbacks from the fur trading companies who bribed some of his colleagues. Unlike many Indian agents, he saw Native people as fully human.

In the end, however, Taliaferro did not need to be personally corrupt or personally racist to take part in a system whose flaws he could see with his own eyes. “O white man, what degradation has your thirst for gold brought upon the poor savage!” he ruefully wrote in the memoir he published as a disappointed man of 70.

Taliaferro took comfort in knowing that unlike so many others, he had labored to make the best of a bad situation. He had “always tried, faithfully and honestly, to do his duty fearless of consequences.” As he saw it, his ability to communicate effectively with Native people set him apart from other white men active in Indian affairs, enabling him to peacefully resolve conflicts other agents would have let descend into bloodshed.

Given that the system of Indian agents and Indian agencies would certainly have outlasted a principled resignation from Taliaferro, there is a plausible case to be made that he did the right thing staying put in the Midwest for as long as he did. What if an agent like the outright criminal who used his office to create a slave plantation had replaced him?

At best, though, Taliaferro’s conduct should be painted with a shade of grey only slightly brighter than it is dark. Whatever good he did must be balanced against the simple, damning fact of his continued service in the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Taliaferro’s relative goodness sprang from a deeply personal sense that he was unusually talented, unusually blessed, unusually moral. His sense of apartness from the colleagues he called “the vilest of men” was a source of strength — but also of weakness. It allowed him to overlook the larger pattern in which his actions were embedded: the Republic’s steady confinement of the tribes to dwindling reservations, with one broken promise following another.

The limitations of Taliaferro’s personalized approach to political ethics were on display on one of the few occasions when he came close to airing public criticisms of the BIA. In 1836, a pseudonymous newspaper contributor condemned the federal government’s entire Indian affairs operation in the Northwest (today the Midwest). Under the pen name Veritas, the writer attacked several Indian agents — along with their superior, Secretary of War Lewis Cass — by name, including Taliaferro. Veritas feared that the thoroughgoing rottenness of American policy in the region would soon lead to a bloody new war with the Northwestern Indians. If this were to happen, the writer planned to blame the Indian agents, not the Indians.

Taliaferro got off relatively easy in Veritas’s critique. He was alleged to have misused the funds assigned to tribes as payment for land sales, but only a small amount, and only to increase his influence with one particular group of Dakotas. Others were accused of far worse.

Still, Taliaferro raged at the newspaper’s challenge to his personal honor. In a letter to the paper’s editor, he aggressively defended his own conduct in office — and only his own conduct.

This silence regarding the actions of his colleagues and his superiors spoke volumes. But it was a missed opportunity to critique the entire Indian affairs system.

Taliaferro argued that he could make working for the BIA mean what he wanted it to mean. Similar fantasies animate the so-called “internal resistance” within the Trump White House. Whatever limited good these self-righteous, apparently self-regulating individuals accomplish on a scale of days and weeks will be more than outweighed by the choices they are making on a larger scale of years and decades.

Taliaferro could have resigned in protest. So can the men and women whose continued service in the Trump administration helps a manifestly unfit president maintain his hold on power.

If the “adults in the room” cannot be persuaded to abandon ship for the country’s sake, perhaps they will at least think of their places in the history books. Early chapters are bound to document their decisions to associate with Donald Trump. But there is still time to change the later pages.

Zachary I. Conn, a Ph.D. candidate in early American history at Yale University, is writing a dissertation on federal agents and Native Americans in the early 19th century Midwest.

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