The Transcontinental Treaty of Washington

John Quincy Adams in 1818. By: Gilbert Stuart.

John Quincy Adams, Secretary of State from 1817 to 1825, was a principled, “tough negotiator.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 107.

In November 1818, following General Andrew Jackson’s demolition of the Floridas after the War of 1812, Adams wrote and sent a memorandum explaining how the events in East and West Florida were the result of “Spanish weakness and British meddling.” Id. Adams widely distributed this memorandum, even to the retiree Thomas Jefferson, who fully endorsed it. William Earl Weeks, Building the Continental Empire (Chicago, 1996), 45-47.

By this time, America had extensively negotiated for acquisition of the Floridas with Spain. Spain, by this time, had an empire spreading the world, and revolutions had broken out in 1809-1810 throughout much of Central and South America, putting the Floridas lower on the priority list for Spain. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 107.

Coloring Spain’s view of America, Spain had never recognized the legitimacy of the Louisiana Purchase. See id. at 108. Spain had ceded Louisiana to France in 1800, with the Spanish stipulating that the land could not be transferred to a third party without prior consent. Id. Adams wished to acquire the Floridas, secure Spanish recognition of the Louisiana Purchase, and expand American land to the Pacific Ocean, to strengthen America’s claim to the Oregon territory. Id. Adams knew that this would foster trans-Pacific trade with China. Id.

On February 22, 1819, Adams accomplished a landmark in American diplomacy, signing the Transcontinental Treaty of Washington. Id. Spain ceded the Floridas to America, Spain recognized the legitimacy of the Louisiana Purchase, fixing the western boundary of America’s land on the “Sabine, Red, and Arkansas Rivers and then north to the 42nd parallel of latitude.” Id. Also, this coincided with America securing a joint occupancy agreement with Britain of the Oregon territory. Id. at 109.

The Spaniards also obtained some concessions from America. The American government agreed “to pay off claims by private American citizens against the Spanish government, mainly arising out of events in the Napoleonic Wars, up to a limit of $5 million” and “the United States relinquished the claim that what is now eastern Texas should have been included in the Louisiana Purchase.” Id.

Later, in 1824 and 1825, the Russians had indicated their intent to claim the Oregon territory as its own, despite Britain and America’s joint occupancy of the territory. See id. at 115. Britain and America both made agreements, setting the souther limit of Alaska as 54° 40′ north latitude, which remains the present boundary of the northern United States. Id. citing Samuel Flagg Bemis, John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy, (New York, 1956), 523-27.

As a result of Adams’ negotiations, the United States had acquired and legitimized a significant portion of the now recognizable contiguous states. Through difficult, prolonged negotiations, Adams was able to obtain significant concessions from Spain. While some of this may be due to luck, given the Spanish empire’s dealing with revolutions springing up amongst its Central and South American territories, Adams’ abilities as a negotiator should also be credited.

Adams, as Secretary of State under President James Monroe, was sitting in the optimal government position to ultimately become president himself. To add to that, he was showing Americans that he understood their desires and was willing to negotiate for additions to American territory, rather than leading bloody campaigns like General Jackson. Americans would not soon forget Adams’ skillfully pragmatic style of governing, as his career progressed from Secretary of State to President.

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