Opinion: History lesson in foreign relations from Indian nations

A view of the Hopewell Plantation in South Carolina, where three treaties were negotiated in the the 1780s. Photo from Clemson University

Professor Kathleen DuVal explores the history of foreign relations policy in the United States citing a key incident in 1783, when leaders of the Chickasaw Nation questioned who really had the power to negotiate:
The letter that 47 Senate Republicans addressed to Iranian leaders this week, warning them about making a nuclear deal with President Obama, came as a surprise to many Americans. But it would not have surprised our earliest forefathers. After all, it was not uncommon, in the years immediately following the American Revolution, for individual Americans to negotiate directly with representatives of foreign governments.

Many then doubted that the United States would hold onto its western settlements and remain a single country. In 1786, Congressman James White of North Carolina told the Spanish diplomatic envoy Diego de Gardoqui that if the United States made a treaty with Spain that did not guarantee Americans access to the Mississippi River and the port of New Orleans, far western North Carolina might declare independence and swear an oath of allegiance to Spain. In the spring of 1788, a group from Tennessee and Kentucky, seeking an alliance with the Creek Indians, also declared themselves willing to break away from the United States and become Spanish subjects.

As long as congressmen, state officials and private individuals presumed they had the right to negotiate with foreigners, no foreign government could trust that anyone claiming to speak for the United States actually did.

Chickasaw Indian leaders told the president of Congress, Elias Boudinot, in July 1783 that they had heard “that the Americans have 13 councils composed of chiefs and warriors” and that he was “the head chief of a grand council which is above these 13 councils.” People claiming to represent Georgia, Virginia, Illinois and smaller groups of settlers had approached the Chickasaws to negotiate. The Chickasaws asked to know who actually spoke for the United States. It became quickly clear that, as a new nation, America needed one voice in negotiations with both Indian nations and European empires in matters of war, peace and trade.

Get the Story:
Kathleen DuVal: We Have a President for a Reason (The New York Times 3/13)

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