America’s Long Journey: Jackson and Florida

There’s no point in studying history if all you want to do is confirm the prejudices you bring to it. Not everything is black or white. Not all Indians were noble, nor were they all savage. Not every action of white settlers was right, nor were they all wrong. Not all underdogs were morally in the right, nor automatically wrong. It’s better to see the confusions and cross-currents than to pretend that all is clear. Nearly everything Andrew Jackson did in his lifetime polarized feelings, and polarizes them still. But if we are to understand his actions, and their causes and consequences, we will need to be aware of nuances and ambiguities that never would have troubled him.

The Florida situation in a nutshell:

In 1817, President James Monroe ordered the hero of the Creek War and the Battle of New Orleans to take volunteers from Tennessee to fight the Creek and Seminole Indians in Georgia, and prevent runaway slaves from finding refuge in neighboring Florida, which was then in the hands of the Spanish again, after a 20-year hiatus (1763 to 1783) under the British.

Seminoles attacked Jackson’s men; Jackson in turn captured their village, burned their houses, and in the process found letters indicating that the Indians were receiving secret assistance from the Spanish and the British in Florida. He invaded West Florida, captured Pensacola without a battle, deposed the governor, and then captured, tried and executed two British subjects who had been supplying and advising the Indians.

This caused an uproar for three reasons: First, he had invaded territory belonging to Spain, a country with which the United States was not at war. Second, he had executed British subjects captured outside American territory. And third, many worried, or for political reasons pretended to worry, that Jackson was an American Napoleon, who would turn the United States into a military dictatorship if he got a chance. Critics demanded that he be censured for exceeding orders.

Was this a land grab on the part of the United States? Well, maybe, maybe not. It depends on how you want to look at it.

On the one hand, the two Florida territories controlled the mouths of every river between the Appalachian mountains and the Mississippi, draining parts or all of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. And they constituted a potential jumping-off point for hostile forces seeking to invade or harass American territory. During the revolution, for example, the British were in control of Florida, and they recruited Seminoles to raid frontier settlements in Georgia. During the War of 1812, a British force on the Apalachicola River distributed arms to the Indian warriors and fugitive slaves, and began building a fort near Pensacola. Colonel Andrew Jackson drove them back to the Apalachicola River in 1814, and didn’t forget. Spain maintained only three small garrisons in Florida, and did not control the border.

Secretary of State John Quincy Adams defended Jackson’s actions, and, when an Adams defended the morality of an action, it was wise to listen. When the Spanish minister wrote asking that Jackson be punished, Adams answered the Spanish protest with a letter, and 72 supporting documents, blaming the war on the British, Spanish, and Indians. He said that Florida’s status as a province only nominally possessed by Spain was unsustainable. Spain must decide either to adequately garrison Florida or cede it to the United States. Spain got the point, and ceded Florida by the Adams-Onis Treaty earlier referred to. Jackson was named governor for a few months and went on to other things.

In any case, the United States took possession in 1821, and now had no southern border east of Texas. Early the next year, Capt. John R. Bell, provisional secretary of the Florida territory and temporary agent to the Seminoles, estimated the population at about 22,000 Indians, who held 5,000 slaves.

So what does this episode tell us?

Were the Indians in Florida the injured parties? Undoubtedly they were defending themselves, but (as usual) it wasn’t that simple. That wasn’t all they were doing. The Indians’ cross-border attacks, including killing settlers and stealing livestock, naturally made them targets for retaliation. Nor were they native to Florida. By 1710, Spanish slave raids, and disease, had virtually depopulated the entire peninsula, and when Spain ceded Florida to Great Britain in 1763, it took the few survivors to Cuba and New Spain. The Indians Jackson encountered had drifted into Florida in the years afterward.

Were the Spanish the injured party? Who depopulated the native Indians? Who encouraged slaves to escape from the United States by offering freedom and land? Spain, which had brought slavery to the New World, continued to practice it in Cuba, and would until 1886.

Were the British the injured party? The British government, on hearing the evidence on the two men Jackson hanged, agreed that their own actions had placed themselves beyond the protection of English law.

Was Jackson acting on his own, over-reaching in his high-handed fashion? Maybe not. Before setting off to fight the Creeks, Jackson had written the president, “Let it be signified to me through any channel … that the possession of the Floridas would be desirable to the United States, and in sixty days it will be accomplished.” The orders he received in return were ambiguous, either to allow for what a later age would call plausible deniability or to leave him flexibility to meet unforeseeable circumstances.

The rights and wrongs of frontier warfare were always intermixed, with few willing to see more than one side of any issue. American squatters and outlaws raided the Seminoles, killing villagers and stealing their cattle. The Seminoles retaliated, including a raid that killed a woman in Georgia and her two young children. This kind of thing when on for decades. Who was innocent? Who was guilty?

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