October 2, 2022

40 Florida Voices

How We Got Florida

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.

Tags: Government/Politics & Law

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