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The Chief Of State And The Chief
In the snarled disputes over the Yazoo land claims in 1790 George Washington and an educated Creek chieftain turned out to be the diplomatic kingpins
October 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 6
The most persistent theme in Georgia’s protest was states’ rights. “It is not the Gonstitution we complain of, but the stretch and attempt to violate it,” cried one author. “The late Indian treaty made at New-York, will … become now a test , whether the United States have any separate territorial rights or privileges at all,” declared another. “The same power which can separate the Talassee county from Georgia can separate the state of Georgia, or any other state from the Union,” warned a writer for the Augusta Chronicle . In December the Georgia legislature published a report that, while recognizing the binding character of the treaty, severely criticized every provision as a violation of states’ rights.
In Congress, Georgia’s firebrand congressman, James jackson, bellowed his denunciation of the treaty: “It has ceded away, without any compensation whatever, three millions of acres of land guaranteed to Georgia by the Constitution. … It has given away her land, invited a savage of the Creek nation to the seat of Government, caressed him in a most extraordinary manner, and sent him home loaded with favors.” Said Fisher Ames to a friend: “Mr. Jackson of Georgia, yesterday let off” a balloon about the treaty with the Creeks.”
For the moment Ames was right. Jackson’s bellicose statements were mere hot air. Georgia stood alone. But the bitterness implanted in that southern state by the treaty had a lasting effect upon her attitudes toward the federal government and forecast ill for the future. Georgia’s protest was the first issue to raise the question of states’ rights after the adoption of the Constitution of 1787.
Georgia’s bitterness was overwhelmed in a general feeling of pride over the accomplishments of the treaty. Only a few die-hard Antifederalists stood by her. The rest of the country optimistically expected, like Washington, that “this event will leave us in peace from one end of our borders to the other.” His administration had ably averted the resumption of the Georgia-Creek war. More importantly, the treaty neatly parried Spanish designs in the Southwest. It may well have influenced Spain’s growing tendency toward negotiations with the United States, which came to fruition in the Pinckney Treaty of 1794, recognizing the American claim to the Yazoo Strip, granting free navigation of the Mississippi River, and bringing a measure of stability to the Southwest.
From the standpoint of the new government’s Indian policy the treaty was also significant. It firmly established federal supremacy in Indian affairs. It established the precedent of entertaining Indian delegations at the capital and outlined the manner in which future Indian treaties would be conducted.
Alexander McGillivray had entered into the treaty in the hope that it would solve his problems, and for a time it did. In the year that followed he was invincible among the Creeks, courted by the Spanish, and respected by the Americans. But as a basis for a lasting peace the agreement at New York fell far short of the expectations of both Washington and McGillivray. Renewal of the Georgia-Creek war was averted for a time, but the treaty was never carried out. The settlement required that a strip of land be cleared to mark the Georgia-Creek boundary. That in itself was a monumental task, but there is every indication that McGillivray intended to comply. Some preliminary plans were actually made. However, the Spanish were increasingly suspicious of him, and he was forced to devote much time to placating them.
Going to New Orleans in the spring of 1792 in an effort to steady his wavering power, McGillivray concluded another treaty with the Spanish that recommended the Creeks demand that the United States withdraw to the limits of 1773. Significantly, there was no commitment on McGillivray’s part to use force to achieve American withdrawal, and the evidence suggests that McGillivray had no intention of carrying out this aspect of the treaty. Still, the convention clearly conflicted with the Treaty of New York. The harried Creek desired a status quo situation. He gave up his American “salary” and failed to carry out the provisions of either treaty, pleading to the Americans that mutual depredations made it unsafe to run the line and to the Spanish that he lacked arms to force an American retreat.
Many have seen in McGillivray an unscrupulous and mercenary man. He could indeed be unscrupulous, even ruthless, in his dealings—lessons he learned well from the white officials with whom he dealt—but assertions that he callously “shifted his allegiance to the higher bidder,” as one historian put it, are unconvincing. His first loyalty was to the Creek nation, and his first duty was to further policies in line with Creek interests. Though he dickered, cajoled, and coaxed the Spanish and the Americans to the point of subterfuge, he scrupulously adhered to a foreign policy of enlightened self-interest. If he played the great powers against one another, he did so to preserve and improve the Creek nation.