The Spectacle Blog

The 19th Century Indian Wars Presaged Today’s War on Terror

By on 4.6.11 | 11:50AM

Do the Indian Wars waged on the American frontier in the 19th century have anything to teach us about presidential war making authority? Jim Antle and John Tabin raise that issue in their thoughtful debate about the constitutionality of Obama's military intervention in Libya.

Antle discounts these military actions and says they really aren't analogous to military interventions overseas, arguing,

Even though the presidents fighting Indian tribes were technically engaged in hostilities with foreign powers, they were protecting settlers who were U.S. citizens and land that was frequently being asserted as U.S. territory. That's a constitutional gray area in a way that attacking Libya is not.

Suffice it to say that if the Libyans were an indigenous people living on U.S. soil occasionally raiding Omaha, I'd view the president as being on much firmer constitutional ground. Custer's last stand doesn't need to be the Constitution's.

I can understand why Antle and other "non-interventionist" cons are eager to discount the Indian wars: these conflicts were waged incessantly throughout the 19th century and account for most presidential war making then. The Indian wars thus make it difficult to argue that only Congress can initiate or authorize war.

But in fact, the Indian wars are a very fitting historical precedent, because in significant ways the American Indians of the 19th Century are the precursors to 21st Century Islamist terrorists.

Indeed, just as modern-day Islamists terrorize the international frontier; so, too, did warring Indian tribes terrorize the American frontier. Historian William Osborn estimates, in fact, that more than 9,000 Americans were massacred by the Indians from the 16th to through the 19th centuries.

Now, obviously the analogy is inexact. Whatever their faults, the Native Americans were not jihadists bent on dominating and exterminating infidels. They were a largely primitive peoples who mostly lacked the Americans' appreciation for, and understanding of, private property rights.

The Indians, moreover, were the victim of reciprocal cruelty at the hands of the European settlers. (Osborn estimates that some 7,200 Native Americans were massacred by the white men.) Nonetheless, savage Indian terrorism on the urban frontier was very real and a legitimate source of angst and fear by our forbearers.

So how did American commanders in chief respond to Indian terrorism? Not by running to Congress each and every time for an "authorization" of war! Instead, successive presidents of the United States, from James Monroe to Grover Cleveland, dispatched the U.S. Army on peace-making and peace-keeping missions that resulted in hostile fire death and injury - i.e., wars.

"The U.S. government would expend incredible resources -- $1 million and 25 U.S. soldiers -- for each one of these fierce, courageous people [Indians] killed..." write historians Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen in A Patriot's History of the United States.

Today, of course, America is not just a continental power, but a world power. International trade and commerce, jet travel and instantaneous communications have all conspired to collapse national boundaries and make our world much smaller and more intimate.

And so, presidential military actions and U.S. military interventions have followed accordingly. The Western frontier has given way to the international frontier, and the genius of the American founding fathers has been confirmed. Because they bequeathed to us a founding document, the Constitution, designed to accommodate these changes.

Send to Kindle

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article

More Articles From John R. Guardiano