Updated 4 months ago
The two decades of the 19th century were the “time of troubles” for the once-glorious Spanish Empire. Madrid still held title to East Florida and part of West Florida, but had stripped both provinces of troops to put down rebellions erupting across Latin America. Unpoliced, the Floridas became a haven for fugitive slaves, pirates, renegades and Indians who regularly crossed into U.S. territory to pillage, burn and murder. President James Monroe gave the assignment to clean out the nests of villainy to Gen. Andrew Jackson, now in command of the U.S. Southern Division.
Earlier, Gen. Edmund P. Gaines had been authorized to chase the Indians out of Georgia and back into Florida, but to respect the Spanish forts and flag. Jackson was more ambitious. He wrote the president: “The whole of East Florida [should be] seized and this can be done without implicating the Government. Let it be signified to me through any channel that the possession of the Floridas would be desirable and in sixty days it will be accomplished.” Jackson’s letter to Monroe going north crossed one from the president coming south, which stated with fine diplomatic ambiguity: “The mov’ment against the Seminoles will bring you on a theatre where you may possibly have other services to perform. Great interests are at issue.”
With all the authority he needed, Jackson stormed into Florida. In April 1818 he seized St. Marks, tore down the Spanish flag and hoisted the Stars and Stripes. Two British subjects had the misfortune to fall into his custody: Alexander Arbuthnot, a 70-yearold Scot who sympathized with the Indians, and Robert C. Ambrister, 21, a mercenary and former lieutenant in the Royal Colonial Marines. Jackson ordered both court-martiaied. Arbuthnot was convicted of alerting the Indians to Jackson’s coming and providing them with ten barrels of powder. He was sentenced to be hanged. Ambrister pled “guilty with justification” to “assuming command of the Indians in a war with the United States” and threw himself on the mercy of the Court. He was sentenced to be shot, but one of Jackson’s officers reversed himself and resentenced him to 50 lashes and a year’s confinement. Next morning Jackson reversed the act of clemency. Both men were executed; in a report to John Calhoun, the Secretary of War, Jackson called them “unprincipled villains” whose execution should warn others of the retribution coming to “unchristian wretches” who aided the Indians.
Jackson was not finished. Claiming he had reports of more hostile Indians near Pensacola, he marched there, seized the capital of West Florida, and packed the Spanish governor and his garrison off to Havana.
Crisis in the Cabinet
When word of Jackson’s rampage reached Washington, Monroe was so shocked and upset by the crisis into which the general had plunged the country that he fled the capital for his farm in Loudon County. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams was left to deal with an enraged Spanish envoy who demanded the “prompt restitution of St. Marks, Pensacola, Barrancas, and all other places wrested by General Jackson from the Crown of Spain,” along with compensation for injuries and losses and the punishment of Jackson.
When Monroe returned to the capital, his shaken Cabinet began daily meetings on the crisis. It was one thing to chase Seminoles, a more serious matter to seize Spanish forts and the Spanish capital and expel the governor. But to hang or shoot British subjects and crow about it was to affront and insult the greatest power on Earth. Not only had Jackson exceeded orders, he had dragged the United States to the brink of war. Calhoun urged a court martial. But Jackson had one resolute, unyielding defender in the Cabinet - Secretary of State Adams. While no admirer of Jackson, Adams was a man of honor. For days he defended the general.
'Murder on the way'
When the report reached London of the executions of Ambrister and Arbuthnot, and of Jackson’s exultations, and public opinion moved swiftly toward a demand for apologies and reparations - or war. Fortunately, Lord Castlereagh, the British foreign secretary, had other fish to fry. His government was engaged in negotiations with the United States over the encouragement of trade, use of the North American fisheries and fixing the Canadian border. War would mean an end to the talks. After a drawn-out investigation, Castlereagh concluded that Ambrister and Arbuthnot had been engaged in “practices of such a description as to have deprived them of any claim on their own government for interference.” England neither demanded redress nor supported Spain’s protests. The poet Shelley might despise him (“I met Murder on the way/He had a mask like Castlereagh”), but the United States had an ally in the foreign secretary.
Surely in the back of Castlereagh’s mind was the futility of another war with the Americans. While Great Britain might thrash the U.S., the empire had n0 vital interest in who controlled Florida, and no interest at all in re-engaging General Jackson, the hero of the battle of New Orleans, where Jackson’s forces had butchered a British army under Gen. Pakenham. Then, there was Britaìn’s enduring vulnerability to an invasion of Canada. Best for all concerned if Ambrister and Arbuthnot were left to rest in peace.
Expediency vs. Principle
In defending Jackson, Adams showed a statesman’s grasp of the larger issue. Jackson had exceeded his authority and perhaps disobeyed orders and committed acts of war against a nation with which America was at peace, but Adams saw the immense opportunity created by Jackson’s insubordination. Fifteen years earlier, he had been concerned about the constitutional irregularities of Thomas Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana territory until Secretary of State James Madison had told him to “be still and reap the occasional fruits of expediency over principle,” in the words of historians Jeanne and David Heidler.
Fearful of Jackson’s soaring popularity, Monroe backed away from a confrontation; and though he returned the Spanish posts, he refused to apologize to Madrid. When Spain again demanded full apologies, reparations and punishment of Jackson, Adams responded. On shaky legal ground but full of righteousness, the Secretary of State sent a long letter to Madrid. The crisis had arisen, Adams wrote, because Spain had proven incapable of controlling the Indians. America, Adams thundered, had a God given right to protect its citizens, and if Spain could not control the Indians on her own territory, she should cede that territory to a nation that could and would. And if ever attacks on American Citizens came again out of Florida, Jackson’s remedy would be applied again. And the next time, America might not return Florida.
No precedent in diplomacy or international law could be found for Adams’ “derelict province” principle. It was brazen and brilliant. Then, Adams turned face-up the card Spain feared most as much as she feared another invasion by Jackson. If Spain rejected Adams’ offer, the United States would have to consider recognizing the Latin American revolutionaries in rebellion against the Spanish Empire.
At the Spanish court, nationalistic rage gave way to sober reflection. W ith Britain refusing to stand beside her and with revolution spreading across Latin America, Spain could not long hold Florida if the rapacious Americans were determined to seize it. Better to relinquish with honor than have Florida ripped away by Jackson. Spanish apprehension was justified. Jackson had sent Calhoun a new message, asserting that the Indians were viewing the return of Pensacola to the Spanish as a sign of American weakness, and urging another expedition to renew the Seminole War - and seize St. Augustine.
Adams sat down with Spanish envoy Don Luis de Onis and came away with Spain’s cession of all of East Florida, validation of America’s claims in West Florida, and Spain’s relinquishment of all claims to Oregon. In return the United States agreed to settle the claims of its own countrymen against Spain for losses to the Indians, and to concede that Texas had not been part of the Louisiana Purchase.
Politics and sausage
Jackson and Adams were men of vision, unapologetic about the means they employed to realize the destiny they foresaw for America. Adams once declared: “North America appears to be destined by Divine Providence to be peopled by one nation, speaking one language, professing one general system of religious and political principles, and accustomed to one general tenor of social usages and customs.” Jackson, Adams’ rival for the presidency in 1824, agreed: “What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages, to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns and prosperous farms, embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute.”
IF you wish to enjoy politics and sausage, it is said, you ought not inquire too closely how they are made. The same may be said of empires and nations. The sometimes duplicitous, often ruthless, way in which Jackson, Monroe and Adams took the Floridas was to prove indicative of how Americans would take Texas, California, Hawaii, the Philippines and the Canal Zone. To Europeans, the American republic seemed an insatiable predator on the prowl. But that is the way the world worked in the age of empires. And that appears to be the way the world will work in the 21st century, now that the West has given up its empires to lecture other nations on how to behave. Aspiring great powers are more likely to emulate the example ol' Jackson than the exhortations of Clinton.
Jackson had seen in Florida the land of a dying empire, there for the taking, as Iraqis in 1990 saw in Kuwait oil-rich and undefended land left behind by a defunct British empire. In 1991, America had the power and will to force Iraq to disgorge Kuwait. In 1818, Spain lacked the power 0r will to take back Florida. But the day is coming when Americans will tire of their imperial burdens. Then the Persian Gulf will be dominated by the most powerful of its littoral states. As Castlereagh sagely decided that no vital British interest was at risk in who controlled Florida, so must America decide what is vital and what we can let go.
Patrick J. Buchanan, a senior advisor to three presidents, political columnist and host of CNN's "Crossfire" program, was twice a candidate for the Republican Party's nominee for president. This article is excerpted from his new book, "The Myth of American Isolationism," which will be published in 1999. He and his wife, Shelley, live part-time in Delray Beach.