The Conquest of the Floridas

Engraving of Andrew Jackson.

East and West Florida, property of the Spanish Empire, had become coveted land for America in the early 1800s. It could lend a strategic stronghold for America and open up the Pearl, Perdido, and Apalachicola Rivers to commercial trade. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 97.

President Thomas Jefferson and President James Madison attempted to acquire the Floridas but with no luck. See id. Under President James Monroe, however, things would be different. General Jackson gathered a militia of three thousand and two thousand Native American allies and destroyed many villages of the Seminole tribe. Id. at 100-01 quoting Kenneth W. Porter, The Black Seminoles (Gainesville, Fla., 1996), 19-21. He took the Spanish fort of St. Mark’s, demanding surrender so that the fort would not fall into the hands of “Indians and negroes.” Andrew Jackson to John C. Calhoun, April 8, 1818, Papers of Andrew Jackson, IV, 189-90.

In his conquest, General Jackson captured a British trader, Alexander Arbuthnot, and a British former royal marine who was training Seminoles to fight, Robert Armbrister. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 101. General Jackson tried the two Brits, in a total of just three days, not allowing them to have counsel or witnesses to defend themselves, and both defendants were found guilty. Id. at 102. General Jackson executed both of them the next day to ensure that no appeal could be taken. Id.

Congress discussed General Jackson’s actions in 1819. Henry Clay of Kentucky, then the Speaker of the House, addressed the House of Representatives, stating that General Jackson set a dangerous precedent: “Beware how you give a fatal sanction, in this infant period of our republic, scarcely yet two score years old, to military insubordination. Remember that Greece had her Alexander, Rome her Caesar, England her Cromwell, France her Bonaparte, and that if we would escape the rock on which they split, we must avoid their errors.” “Speech on the Seminole War” (Jan. 20, 1819), The Papers of Henry Clay, ed. James Hopkins (Lexington, Ky., 1961), II, 636-62.

John Rhea of Tennessee best captured the sentiment of most: “General Jackson was authorized by the supreme law of nature and nations, the law of self-defense, . . . to enter the Spanish territory of Florida in pursuit of, and to destroy, hostile, murdering savages, not bound by any obligation, who were without the practice of any moral principle reciprocally obligatory on nations.” Annals of Congress, 15th Cong., 2nd sess., 867, quoted in Reginald C. Stuart, War and American Thought (Kent, Ohio, 1982), 176.

When General Jackson returned to Washington at the end of the congressional debate, he got wind of what had happened and would never forgive Henry Clay for his words against him. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 106-07.

Andrew Jackson, in the immediate aftermath of the War of 1812, had shown that he had a gift for brutality. He only reinforced that notion through his actions in the Floridas, best characterized by brutality and a complete disregard for due process. While some contemporaries, like John Rhea, would justify and appreciate Jackson’s actions, it is difficult to imagine a modern American engaging in a similar course of conduct and not being severely reprimanded by the American public. Nonetheless, it should be remembered that a magnetic personality and charismatic aura, like Jackson had, can outweigh misdeeds or wrongdoing.

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