SEIZING DESTINY

EXCERPT

Pages 334-338

 

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SEIZING DESTINY                                                                  Pages 334-338

 

 

Grabbing Florida

 

 

IN PLACING ANDREW JACKSON in charge of the so-called Seminole War, Monroe’s cabinet could have been under few illusions about his abiding enmity for the native peoples. Earlier the government had directed him, perhaps with a wink, to carry out one of the terms of the Treaty of Ghent, obligating the United States “to return to such Tribes or Nations [with which it had been at war] all the possessions, rights, and privileges which they may have enjoyed or been entitled to in 1811 previous to such hostilities.” That meant, beyond dispute, that the Creeks were fully entitled to the return of the 24 million or so acres taken from them, allegedly as war reparations, under the Treaty of Fort Jackson. But General Jackson did nothing of the sort. Indeed, his principal activity since his great victory at New Orleans had been evicting the Creeks and applying pressure to the other southeastem Indian nations to accept similar treaties of removal, sanitizing the region for white settlement.

If this open defiance of the Treaty of Ghent displeased his President, it is hard to understand why Monroe wrote to Jackson as he did, two days after Secretary of War Calhoun had sent off instructions to him to replace General Gaines and take charge of dealing decisively with the Seminoles. His mission against them, President Monroe told Jackson in a letter sent December 28, 1817, “will bring you on a theater where you may possibly have other services to perform. Great interests are at issue....  This is not a time for repose...until our cause is carried through triumphantly.” The President’s letter did not explain what “great interests” were at issue, or what “our cause” was, or what conditions would constitute a triumphant outcome. Did he mean the liquidation of the Seminoles – not precisely an ennobling mission – or was he untethering his pet fighting cock and telling him to go directly for the Spaniards’ jugular, driving them out of Florida? Surely Jackson could have been excused for making the latter assumption in light of his own frame of mind, as disclosed by the letter he sent to the President on January 6, 1818 – just a week after Monroe wrote his letter, which the general had of course not yet received. Jackson’s letter proposed that all of Florida be seized and “held as an indemnity for the outrages of Spain upon the property of our citizens; this done, it puts all opposition down, secures to our citizens complete indemnity, and saves us from a war with Spain. This can be done without implicating the government; let it be signaled to me through any channel [here he suggested Tennessee Congressman John Rhea, who carried the message to the White House] that the possession of the Floridas would be desirable… and in sixty days it will be accomplished.”

 

 

 

 

 

SEIZING DESTINY                                                                  Pages 334-338

 

 

Monroe would later claim that be was not shown Jackson’s letter until a year after it had been sent.  One can only wander why an important message from the commander of his southern forces would have been withheld for a year from the nation’s commander-in-chief.  And one can reasonably suspect Monroe of lying, because Jackson had stated all too boldly what the President’s letter had only cryptically hinted at. Monroe’s wording, though, perfectly accorded with Jackson’s surmise that the conquest of Florida could best be achieved “without implicating the government” – Monroe had not specified in writing what glorious mission Jackson was to undertake without “repose” and carry through “triumphantly.” Jackson’s letter was also revelatory in framing what would later become the hard-core American argument to justify seizure of East Florida. The Spaniards, Jackson charged, had committed “outrages” against American property, presumably by facilitating, if not actively fomenting, Seminole raids and enticing fugitive slaves to settle in Florida. That Americans might be at all responsible, through cruel and abusive conduct, for the Indian attacks or the flight of the slaves was not up for discussion. In fact, the only certifiable Spanish transgression had been failure to prevent Seminoles who had found a safe haven in the Floridas from attacking American settlers on either side of the border – a policing action over a broad stretch of difficult terrain far beyond the strength and resolve of Spain’s little garrison.

Whether the Spanish sin was one of commission or omission was a nuance of indifference to Jackson, who had his orders, and in their very vagueness he found all the instruction he required. Mustering 5,000 army regulars, Tennessee militiamen, and Indian allies in mid-March 1818, he headed south into East Florida and laid waste any Seminole villages encountered en route. It was a war in name only; there were no true battles, because what few Seminoles remained in the area fled before the advance of “Sharp Knife.” Approaching St. Marks, the only formidable Spanish fortress in Florida, Jackson revealed his justification for seizing the stronghold even if it was not harboring – as he later said had been reported to him – hundreds of Seminoles. “The Spanish government,” be contended in a letter dated March 25 to Secretary of War Calhoun, “is bound by [the Pinckney] treaty to keep the Indians at peace with us. They have acknowledged their incompetency to do this, and are consequently bound, by the laws of nations, to yield us the facilities to reduce them [the Indians].” In other words, Jackson’s forces were within their rights not just to assume the Spaniards’ unfulfilled duty as peacekeepers by preventing Indian incursions on American soil but also to enter Spanish territory and take over Spanish military posts to achieve that purpose. As he informed Calhoun,

 

 

 

 

 

SEIZING DESTINY                                                                  Pages 334-338

 

 

“Under this consideration, should I be able, I shall take possession of the garrison [at St. Marks] as a depot for my supplies, should it be found in the hands of the Spaniards, they having supplied the Indians; but if in the hands of the Indians, I will possess it, for the benefit of the United States, as a necessary position for me to hold, to give peace and security to this frontier.”

 

Consistent with his qualmless seizure of St. Marks was how rabidly Jackson dealt with two British subjects caught at the fort, perhaps because he had found no Seminoles there to slaughter. One captive was a kind, seventy-year-old Scottish trader who sympathized with the plight of the Seminoles and, in selling them supplies, had behaved so honestly that they entrusted him with acting as their spokesman in the region. The other Briton was an eccentric soldier of fortune, a former lieutenant in the Royal Marines who paraded about with a swagger stick, preaching the abolition of slavery and Indian resistance to American oppression. Jackson branded the pair as British spies and provocateurs and summoned a court-martial, which declined to credit the prisoners’ explanation – that they were just trying to help the Seminoles survive, not to incite them m violence against Americans – and ordered their summary execution. Heedless of the convicted prisoners’ pleas for mercy and of possible international repercussions for such dire treatment of third-nation citizens on foreign soil he had invaded, Jackson sent the pair to their deaths, one by hanging, the other by firing squad.

A few weeks later Jackson’s forces moved west to Pensacola, the capital of West Florida, where he claimed – once again without corroborative evidence – that hundreds of Indians were being sheltered. His men vanquished the Spanish defenders in a fight lasting only a few minutes and costing the American forces five fatalities. Jackson ordered the Spanish commander to take the remnant of his garrison to Havana forthwith and then raised the Stars and Stripes over the ramparts of the fort. As a practical matter, none of Florida remained under Spanish authority. Upon hearing of Jackson’s actions, the Spanish ambassador in Washington, Luis de Onis, denounced them as a heinous violation of international law “on the odious basis of violence and bloodshed” and demanded that the Monroe government reprimand Jackson, return the forts, and restore Spanish authority in Florida.

 

 

 

 

 

SEIZING DESTINY                                                                  Pages 334-338

 

 

At the time of his protest, the conscientious Onis, by then a thirty-eight-year veteran in Spain’s diplomatic service, the last nine of them in the United States, had been dickering with Secretary of State Adams for well over a year about the boundaries between American and Spanish territory. Their talks had gone slowly, but there had been some progress toward the close of 1817. The issue was no longer Florida, where the Spanish flag still flew only at the sufferance of the United States government.  The real trophy of the treaty Adams sought to fashion with Onis was an agreement on the sprawling, ill-defined southwestern boundary of the Louisiana Purchase – no easy feat, since the Spanish envoy kept insisting, under instructions from his foreign ministry, that the seventeenth-century French explorer La Salle had usurped Spain’s legitimate claim to the whole southern tier of North America and that Napoleon had compounded the insult.  Which was to say that Spain simply would not recognize other nations’ military might as a legitimate tool of statecraft – conquest (by anyone but Spain) was lawlessness – and thus the claims of the United States to Florida and lands west of the Mississippi were taken as an insult to Spanish honor and international law….

 

 

 

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