America’s Long Journey: The Embargo

We have seen that America got out of the War of 1812 as well as it did because the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1814. That ended the need for naval impressment and blockades, and it let the British realize the extent of their own war-weariness. But what if war between the United States and Great Britain had come five years earlier? America barely staggered through two years of war. Could it have survived seven? If not for Jefferson’s creative diplomacy, we might have found out.

All through America’s earliest years, America watched the world’s two most powerful empires fighting to the death. Every year, it got harder to stay uninvolved. In the 1790s, as we shall see, we only narrowly avoided war with France. But American shipping, and in fact American nationhood, was under pressure from the British Empire, in the person of the royal navy, every year during this whole time.

The Naval Battle of Trafalgar, in October, 1805, destroyed the French and Spanish fleets and left Britain mistress of the seas, But in December, the land battle of Austerlitz made the French army masters of the mainland. Deadlock. In the absence of a way for the whale to fight the lion, both sides turned to using trade as a weapon, each seeking to strangle the other economically. Naturally the big losers were the neutrals, and guess who had the largest neutral merchant fleet. Britain insisted that American ships trade through British ports before proceeding to Europe. France seized American ships that obeyed British regulations in defiance of the French paper blockade.

After Trafalgar, the British navy acted with ever-greater arrogance and ruthlessness. Thousands of American seamen were impressed into service – in essence, slavery — on British warships. American merchantmen were made to submit to examination within American waters, and many were seized, with their cargo, as contraband of war. Might was making right, without even a fig leaf. Americans seethed, but put up with it, seeing no choice. And then it got ever worse. In June, 1807, HMS Leopard, looking for deserters, attacked and boarded USS Chesapeake, an American frigate, outside the entrance to Chesapeake Bay.

How should America respond? By declaring war? Jefferson’s generation knew all about war. They had experienced the hazards of risking your life, your fortune and your sacred honor. Unlike the War Hawks of the next generation, they knew that war wasn’t anything to undertake lightly. America had only a few frigates, as opposed to England’s navy of hundreds of warships.

But if not war, what? Should the country – could the country — shrug its shoulders when its warship was attacked? Would this not amount to an open invitation to further and greater depredations, and might it not risk jeopardizing the nation’s existence quite as much as war? If only there were some response between war and inactivity.

There was, and Jefferson found it, or perhaps we should say invented it. His creative response was an experiment in economic warfare. Congress had already passed an act that refused entry to many British goods. In December, 1807, he recommended a full embargo, prohibiting all American ships from departing for a foreign port. The Embargo Act passed, and he signed it into law before the end of the year.

It was s drastic step, unprecedented, hazardous, unpredictable and ultimately unpopular – but then, the same could be said of war. It amounted to a unilateral shutting-down of America’s foreign trade, in the hope that either France or Britain or both would find the cost to their economy too great to bear. With luck, the resulting economic hardship would force one or both nations to stop harassing American shipping, and would force the British to end its practice of impressment.

Well, it didn’t. New Englanders conducted as much illicit trade as they could get away with. Border communities engaged in large-scale illicit trade across the Canadian border. The British picked up as much of America’s perforce abandoned foreign trade as it could. As it turned out, the embargo hurt various aspects of the American economy, yet proved ineffective in coercing either the British or French into changing policies.

Might it have worked, if more Americans had cooperated? Impossible to say. All areas of the United States suffered: shipping interests in New England and the Middle Atlantic states, and agricultural interests, particularly in the South. But if there ever was a chance, it was destroyed by the extensive smuggling operations that undercut it.

In Jefferson’s last months in office, his long successful leadership over Congress frayed, as the representatives naturally turned their eyes from their long time leader and turned to the man entering office. The embargo was revoked on March 1, 1809, three days before Jefferson left office. Historians often consider the Embargo to have been a failure, and perhaps they are right. The question remains, though. If Jefferson had not tried his great experiment, is there any reason to think the British would not have gone to ever newer extremes of coercion? And if those incursions had led the country into war five years earlier than happened in fact – seven long years before the overthrow of Napoleon removed what Britain saw as the necessity for conscription and economic warfare – would the country have survived?

America’s Long Journey: Jefferson

Historian Dumas Malone spent a lifetime studying, and writing six volumes, on the life of Jefferson. How in the world can anyone do him justice in a few hundred words?

John F. Kennedy, speaking to a gathering of Nobel Prize winners in the White House in 1962, famously said, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House – with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone. Someone once said that Thomas Jefferson was a gentleman of 32 who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, and dance the minuet.”

He also could, and did, write the Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom and bring into being the University of Virginia – which were the only three achievements he wished mentioned on his gravestone, “because by these, as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered.”

Jefferson’s long life of public service included a term as wartime Governor of Virginia, then Ambassador to France under the Confederation that preceded adoption of the Constitution. While in Europe, he studied its architecture, and the style he liked best found its way into public buildings first in Virginia, then throughout the country. He studied its vineyards and agriculture, and sent seeds and samples of many useful plants back to his native land. He studied Europe’s society and morals under monarchist governments, and reinforced his existing preference for republican simplicity.

Returning home at George Washington’s request, he became the first Secretary of State, then retired, then was elected John Adams’ vice president, then served as president in his own right for eight difficult and momentous years. Throughout his political life, he fought the centralizing and power-accumulating tendencies of the federalists, organized what is now the oldest political party in the world, and stage-managed the first peaceful transition of power to a loyal opposition. So successful were his policies that his federalist opposition vanished like spring snow, the leaders remaining in opposition but their followers changing allegiance. (His administrations and those of his friends James Madison and James Monroe stretched 24 years, the so-called “Virginia Dynasty.”)

After his presidency, he returned gladly to Monticello, the home he had planned and built and repeatedly modified, an architectural achievement that, with his design for the University of Virginia, was one of only 41 structures to be included in the 1987 UNESCO World Heritage List. (Monticello keeps company with such structures as the Great Wall of China and the Acropolis.) At Monticello, he functioned as elder statesman, prodigious correspondent, farmer, naturalist, amateur scientist, father, grandfather and master of his estate.

That he and John Adams died on the same day – and that day the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence — did not leave their compatriots unmoved. The New York American, in language a little flowery to our taste, but transparently sincere, said, in part:

“By a coincidence marvelous and enviable, THOMAS JEFFERSON in like manner with his great compeer, John Adams, breathed his last on the 4th of July. Emphatically may we say, with a Boston paper, had the horses and the chariot of fire descended to take up the patriarchs, it might have been more wonderful, but not more glorious. We remember nothing in the annals of man so striking, so beautiful, as the death of these two time-honored patriots, on the jubilee of that freedom, which they devoted themselves and all that was dear to them, to proclaim and establish.

“It cannot all be chance. It may be permitted to us to believe, that the prayer most natural on such a day, in the mouths of such men, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,” was put up and favorably heard. The god who gave them being, and inspired their hearts in the day of peril, and in a desponding land, filled them with hope and with confidence … may in his wisdom, and in his tenderness, have seen fit to interpose, and on the fiftieth anniversary of the great day of independence, have recalled to himself the spirits of these mighty TWO, who, having seen fulfilled and surpassed all that in the most daring aspirations of youthful hope and ardor, they had ventured to anticipate for their country, and having attained to the highest honors which a grateful nation could pay, could no longer worthily linger upon earth.”

Not that he didn’t have enemies! His entire public life from 1789 was lived under an unending stream of accusation, the most persistent of which was that he was an enemy of religion, that he was a “Jacobin” (the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century equivalent of calling him a Communist). But there were other charges: that he was a willing or unconscious dupe of Napoleon; that he was an impractical theorist who would ruin the country; that he intended to destroy civil liberties. Oh, and a few minor peccadilloes, as well: that he was perfidious, untruthful, treacherous – you get the idea. It all amounted to his having ideas of his own, and the ability to bring those ideas to a trial in real life. The fury and the calumny that pursued him for 30 years were based, as much as anything, in frustration that in fact his ideas mostly worked, and that the people mostly trusted and supported him.

If he had his failures and disappointments, and enemies who conceded him nothing – and he did! — what public figure has ever escaped any of this? With Washington and Lincoln, each of whom was great in different ways, he was one of the greatest men ever to fill the office of president of the United States.

A few final quotations from Emerson’s journals.

Emerson again. Still relevant as ever.

April, 1858:

“Because our education is defective, because we are superficial and ill-read, we are forced to make the most of that position, of ignorance. Hence America is a vast know-nothing party, and we disparage books, and cry up intuition…. [D]enouncing libraries and severe culture and magnifying the mother-wit swagger of bright boys from the country colleges, we have even come so far as to deceive everybody, except ourselves, into an admiration of un-learning and inspiration, forsooth.”

February, 1858:

“Felton told of [scientist Louis] Agazzi, that when someone applied to him to read lectures, or some other paying employment, he answered, ‘I can’t waste my time earning money.’”

October, 1862:

“George Francis Train said in a public speech in New York, ‘Slavery is a divine institution.’ ‘So is hell,’ exclaimed an old man in the crowd.”

July (?), 1865:

“I think it a singular and marked result that the War has established a conviction in so many minds that the right will get done; has established a chronic hope for a chronic despair.”

Autumn, 1868:

“In the perplexity in which the literary public now stands with regard to university education … the one safe investment which all can agree to increase is the library.”

May, 1869:

“God had infinite time to give us; but how did He give it? In one immense tract of a lazy millennium? No, but He cut it up into neat succession of new mornings, and, with each, therefore, a new idea, new inventions, and new applications.”


“One thing is certain: the religions are obsolete when the reforms do not proceed from them.”


America’s Long Journey: John Adams’ Son

John Quincy Adams was the sixth president of the United States, following James Madison and defeated by Andrew Jackson. Everyone knows that, even if they don’t know anything that happened during that term, and even if they know nothing of the congressional career that followed it, or the term as Secretary of State that preceded it. But even those who know that much often have little idea of his breadth of learning and experience or his long public service before he ever became Madison’s great Secretary of State.

Let’s look at his background. At age 10, he accompanied his father to Europe, where the elder Adams served as American envoy first to France, then to the Netherlands. When Francis Dana was sent to St. Petersburg, Russia, to seek diplomatic recognition from the Czar, he took along 14-year-old Adams as his secretary, and Adams spent the next three years in Russia, including travel in Scandinavia and Silesia. When he returned to the United States, he was fluent not only in Latin and Greek, learned from his father, but in French and Dutch, with working knowledge of several other European languages.

Adams earned a B.A. and an M.A. from Harvard College, gained admittance to the bar, and began to practice law, but his life took a decisive turn at age 26. He had won national recognition for a series of articles supporting Washington’s decision to keep America out of the hostilities surrounding the French Revolution. Washington appointed him minister to the Netherlands. He liked his quiet life of reading, and probably would have rejected the post, but his father persuaded him to take it.

At the end of his appointment, he wanted to return to private life, but Washington appointed him minister to Portugal, \then promoted him to the Berlin Legation. Washington called Adams “the most valuable of America’s officials abroad.” After that, his father, becoming President, named him minister to Prussia, where he served until his father was turned out of office in 1801.

On his return to the United States, Adams was appointed a Commissioner of Monetary Affairs in Boston by a Federal District Judge; but Thomas Jefferson rescinded the appointment. Adams entered politics, and was elected to the Massachusetts State Senate in April 1802. He was elected to the U.S. Senate, and served from March 4, 1803, until 1808, when he broke with the Federalist Party. Adams, as a Senator, had supported the Louisiana Purchase and Jefferson’s Embargo Act, actions which made him very unpopular with Massachusetts Federalists. The Federalist-controlled Massachusetts Legislature chose a replacement for Adams on June 3, 1808, several months early. On June 8, Adams broke with the Federalists, resigned his Senate seat, and became a Democrat-Republican.

Disowned by the Federalists and only partially accepted by the Republicans, Adams devoted his time to his Boylston Professorship of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard. The times were passing him by, not because he was unaware but because he remained loyal to principles that were passing out of favor. He remained true to the neo-classical politics of the founding generation, while the country at large moved to the commercial ethos and mass democracy of what would become known as the Age of Jackson.

In 1809, President James Madison named him our first minister to Russia. From the Czar down, he was popular, as was his English-born wife Louisa. (The Czar often met him on his walks.)

In 1812, Czar Alexander offered to mediate peace between the United States and Great Britain. The U.S. accepted, but the British declined. Finally, in 1814, Adams was recalled from Russia to serve as chief negotiator of the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812. From 1815 to 1817, he served as minister to Great Britain, the post first held by his father. When he returned home to become Secretary of State, none could deny that he knew as much about foreign affairs, first hand, as any other American, perhaps more than any. He brought to his new position a wealth of training, experience and learning unsurpassed by anyone in our history. As we have seen, the preparation bore impressive fruit.

America’s Long Journey: The War of 1812

The War of 1812 was a necessary corrective to British arrogance, or an unnecessary catastrophe, or a tragic blunder, or a hairsbreadth escape, or an expensive stalemate, or an amazing victory, or the basis for continued independence and lasting peace, depending on who you listen to and how you see it. Maybe it was all of these things. As with nearly all wars, the country that emerged was quite different from the one that had entered the war.

Great Britain’s provocative and often outrageous policies had been stoking American anger for years. British warships stopped American ships outside American harbors and impressed into their own navy any sailors who in their opinion were British deserters. They seized any cargo that in their opinion was contraband. In 1807, a British warship had even fired on an American warship in American waters. Years of such incidents had their effect. Jefferson’s response, as we shall see, had been the Embargo, but that policy had lapsed with his presidency, on March 4, 1809.

In 1810, the West and South elected to Congress a group of young Republicans who boiled with resentment of the economic injuries done by the British, and the national humiliation inflicted, and the British practice of inciting American Indians in the Northwest against white settlers., They intended to seize Canada and either annex it or hold it as a bargaining chip, and thought it would be easy. When, in June, 1812, President James Madison asked Congress to declare war, these War Hawks provided his margin. (Not one of the 39 Federalists in Congress voted for war.)

The war was fought on the Canadian border and the Great Lakes, on the seas, and in the Southwest.

In the North, an American invasion of Canada failed, but American naval victories on Lake Erie and Lake Champlain prevented a corresponding British invasion of the United States. More important results followed the Battle of the Thames, in 1813, when General William Henry Harrison’s forces defeated a smaller British force and killed the Shawnee chief Tecumseh.

Tecumseh had preached unity among all these Northwestern and Southwestern tribes, advocating a concerted effort to throw back the white settlers. Although he fought north of the Ohio, he encouraged the Red Stick Creek Indians to attack white settlements in northern Alabama and Georgia, and the Fort Mims massacre, which killed 400 to 500 settlers, set off what was known as the Creek War. That war ended in March, 1814, when Andrew Jackson’s mixed force of army regulars, Tennessee militiaman, and Cherokee, Choctaw and Creek Indians decisively defeated the Red Sticks in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. This action made Jackson a Major General and, along with his victory at New Orleans ten months later, a national hero.

At sea, the British strategy was to protect its own merchant shipping and blockade major American ports (except New England, which traded with Canada in defiance of American laws). American strategy was to employ hit-and-run tactics and engage Royal Navy vessels only under favorable circumstances. After the defeat of Napoleon freed military forces for use in the New World, the British mounted large-scale raids along the seacoasts, and three invasions. One failed to invade New York state via Lake Champlain, the second took Washington, D.C. and burned the Capitol and the White House but was repulsed at Baltimore, and the third was decimated at New Orleans.

Each side used both warships and privateers to attack the other’s merchant ships. (This was the last war in which the British used privateers) . American privateers captured 219 British merchant ships in the first four months of war, damaging British commercial interests, but not enough to send insurance rates soaring, which was their hope.

As additional ships were sent to North America in 1813, the Royal Navy tightened its blockade and extended it, by May 31, 1814, to the entire American coast. American exports decreased from $130 million in prewar 1807 to $7 million in 1814 – and most of the $7 million was in food exports that went to Britain or British colonies.

However, by mid-1814, neither the Americans nor the British wanted to continue the war. After a few months of haggling, they signed the Treaty of Ghent (in Belgium) on December 24, 1814, officially ending the war by returning relations to their pre-war status, with no territory lost or gained, and impressment left unmentioned because moot. The treaty was ratified by the British on December 27, and was quickly ratified after it arrived in Washington on February 17, 1815.

Meanwhile, on January 8, with neither side knowing that the peace had been signed, 8,000 British regulars trying to capture New Orleans were decisively defeated by Andrew Jackson’s 5,000-man army, which had prepared strong defenses just south of the city. The British regulars suffered heavy losses, amounting to more than 25% of their forces — 291 dead, 1,262 wounded, and 484 captured or missing. American casualties were less than two percent of their forces — 13 dead, 39 wounded, and 19 missing. The lopsided victory earned Jackson the official Thanks of Congress, and a gold medal. Meanwhile, the British had taken Mobile, but then, the following day, learned of the Treaty of Ghent, and so sailed home.

The big losers in the war were the Indians allied to the British. The British had demanded, as late as the fall of 1814, that a large “neutral” Indian state be created in what would become Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan, but the Americans absolutely refused, and the British conceded the point. After 1814, British policymakers never again offered the Indians arms or encouragement, and without that powerful foreign sponsor, the Indians posed no further threat to white settlement.

Other than the Indians, the big losers from the war were the New England federalists, who had flirted with treason throughout the war and had met, in Hartford Connecticut, late in 1814 to discuss resistance to the war and even possible secession from the rest of the Union. But the end of the war made their publicly expressed views look defeatist or even treasonous. The Hartford Convention spelled the end of the Federalist Party.

Abstractly considered, it could be considered an unnecessary war. But in practice, while the British were what they were and the Americans were what they were, and the Indians what they were, there was little or no chance that the war could have been avoided. The best chance for that had been Thomas Jefferson’s experiment at economic coercion in place of war, as we shall see. But statesmen are rarely as reasonable as he.

America’s Long Journey: Westward movement

All through the nineteenth century runs a continual, taken-for-granted background. Behind politics, and economics, and international affairs, and commerce, and the fine and useful arts, and industry and agriculture and everything else, there was this underground river, running quietly from east to west, transforming everything in its path.

The river was a river of internal immigration. People in New England upped stakes and moved to New York state, or Pennsylvania. People in the middle colonies, and people on the Atlantic seaboard of the old South moved across the Appalachians, or around them. The new nation’s boundaries extended to the Mississippi, and after the Louisiana Purchase extended to the distant Rockies, and after John Quincy Adams’ treaty extended to the Pacific Ocean. Could such vast expanses ever be populated by the new civilization?

Yes, it could.

The government of the Articles of Confederation had enacted Jefferson’s ideas in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, as we shall see. Instead of the original thirteen colonies holding land in common as a perpetual colony, that common land would be subdivided, and organized politically, and formed into states fully equal to the original thirteen. (The fact that it requires an effort for us to realize that things might have been different shows how thoroughly accepted this radical idea became.) Thus there was no political disadvantage to moving to a new territory.

No political disadvantage, and a tremendous economic advantage. America was desperately short of labor. Growing up with a new country, a man could make a good life for himself and his family. As Abraham Lincoln said, from his own experience, the paid laborer of today could become the independent laborer of tomorrow, and the employer of labor after that. Those conditions didn’t last forever, but they certainly lasted a good half-century, up to the onset of the Civil War.

And as people left the older states, their places were filled by continual and increasingly numerous immigration from the Old World, particularly after the War of 1812. What opportunity could hidebound, tightly controlled England and Scotland and Ireland offer a poor individual, compared to America? And what were the barriers? They already spoke the language. They were familiar with the political forms and the cultural background. They fit right in.

And then it wasn’t long before the various unhappy countries of Europe were providing waves of immigrants. They came, they did whatever work they found, they learned the language and absorbed the opportunities, and after a while – a few years, a couple of decades, maybe a generation – these immigrants or their children tended to move west as well, following economic opportunity, and their places in the older states were filled by new arrivals.

It was a vast, impersonal quiet kneading of peoples into one new people. No longer could the country be adequately described as New England, South, Middle Colonies. Yes, people tended to move west in more or less the same lines of latitude they were accustomed to, but the streams acted as streams do when they flow together. First there were eddies, then swirls, then mixture at the edges, and finally a new stream, larger than its constituent elements and no longer divisible. Behind the scenes, not directed by anybody, the republic was reshaping itself.

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?