The Unsettled Southern Frontier - The Era Of Good Feelings
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Florida. The war of expansion in the North and South had ended without expansion. The military power of Britain had put Canada beyond American grasp, but the weakness of Spain made another effort to secure East Florida attractive. The successful seizure of West Florida had been preceded by Congress' issuance of the No-Transfer Resolution of January 15, 1811. It had pointedly declared: Taking into view the peculiar position of Spain and her American provinces; and considering the influence which the destiny of the territory adjoining the southern boundary of the United States may have upon their security, tranquillity, and commerce: Therefore, Resolved, by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that the United States, under the peculiar circumstances of the existing crisis, cannot without serious inquietude see any part of the said territory pass into the hands of any foreign Power; and that a due regard to their own safety compels them to provide under certain contingencies, for the temporary occupation of the said territory; they, at the same time, declare that the said territory shall, in their hands, remain subject to a future negotiation.
The question, therefore, was not whether, but when, Florida would be fully annexed to the Union.
Warfare in Florida. Some of the most brutal warfare of 1812 had occurred along the southern frontier where the British had encouraged the Indians to attack American outposts and settlements. No less than 250 men, women, and children had been massacred by Indians at Fort Mims, Alabama. And Andrew Jackson had made a considerable reputation for himself before the Battle of New Orleans by brutally suppressing the Indians in response. British efforts to stir up a slave insurrection in Florida had accentuated American fears. Florida in the hands of an enemy was an unendurable threat.
The Arbuthnot and Ambrister Affair. Once the war had ended, Britain abandoned efforts to extend her control in Florida. Spain made scarcely any effort to reassert her control. For all practical purposes, the territory was in the hands of British soldiers of fortune, Indians, and escaped slaves. Colonel Edward Nicholls, a British officer who had organized the Creek and Seminole Indians during the war, now turned to inciting the Seminoles against the Americans to the north. He was aided by three other British adventurers named George Woodbine, Alexander Arbuthnot, and Robert C. Ambrister. These four men unwittingly supplied the United States with justification for a drastic intervention. Spain had pledged in 1795 to keep Indians within her territory at peace with the United States; she had hardly carried out this promise, and the result was a mounting series of claims against Spain for damage wrought by Indian raids. The renewed raids only worsened the already deteriorating situation.
The Intervention of Jackson. The chaos was made to order for General Jackson. Proud, imperious, ruthless, he viewed the border raids with growing anger. Behind him stood the frontier traditions of hunger for land and hostility to the Indians. Taking Florida was for him, therefore, an article of faith and an act of patriotism. When orders came from Secretary of War Calhoun to suppress further Seminole raids from Apalachicola, with specific instructions "to adopt the necessary measures to terminate a conflict which it has ever been the desire of the President, from motives of humanity, to avoid," Jackson responded with alacrity. He immediately proposed to Monroe that all of Florida be seized and held as "indemnity for the outrages of Spain upon the property of our Citizens. . . ." Moreover, he proposed to carry out this project "without implicating the Government." All Jackson wanted was a single sign "that the possession of the Floridas would be desirable to the United States, and in sixty days it will be accomplished." When Monroe made no explicit response, the precipitous general was allowed to draw his own conclusions.
Seizure of Florida. Jackson acted swiftly. With a force of three thousand men he swept through Northwestern Florida. Arbuthnot and Captain Ambrister, both deeply implicated in Indian raids, were captured, tried by court-martial, and executed. The British government, despite strong objections at home, accepted the fate of their unsavory subjects without protest. But when news reached Washington of Jackson's action, a serious dispute shook Monroe's cabinet. Secretary of War Calhoun countermanded Jackson's order to General Gaines to occupy St. Augustine, and insisted that the government repudiate Jackson. Secretary of the Treasury Crawford joined Calhoun in his stand, hoping to destroy Jackson as a possible presidential candidate. The supporters of Henry Clay joined in the clamor; and soon the entire cabinet, with the one critical exception of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, supported Calhoun's proposal that Jackson should be "the subject of investigation by a military tribunal."
Monroe and Jackson. Jackson was saved by the weight of public opinion and the diplomatic realities of the situation. Monroe, an assiduous cultivator of public favor, hardly wished to alienate the populace. He also agreed with the vigorous arguments of Adams that to repudiate Jackson would only encourage Spain to renew its claim to Florida. Adams further justified the general's action as a necessary response to the inadequacies of Spanish government in Florida. "If the question is dubious," he protested, "it is better to err on the side of vigor than of weakness - on the side of our own officer, who has rendered the most eminent services to the nation, than on the side of our bitterest enemies, and against him." Finally a compromise settlement was reached - the American force would be withdrawn when Spain provided forces sufficient to keep the Indians in check. Jackson's behavior was justified as necessary to keeping the peace in Florida. As John Quincy Adams soon learned, Andrew Jackson had made an indelible impression on Madrid. The Spaniards were reconciled to the loss of Florida, and wanted now to obtain the best terms.
The Transcontinental Treaty of 1819. "The events which have occurred in both the Floridas show the incompetency of Spain to maintain her authority," Monroe explained by letter to Jackson. Withdrawal was necessary, therefore, to provide Spain with a face-saving device preliminary to final negotiations. Monroe and Adams did not intend to allow the Spaniards to escape the consequences of their weakness. Spain had decided Florida was irreparably lost; but she meant to save as many of her Pacific Coast possessions as possible. Such was the essential basis of the Transcontinental Treaty that the two countries ratified on February 22, 1821. In it, Spain ceded Florida to the United States, and defined the western boundary of the United States along the Sabine, Red, and Arkansas Rivers to latitude 42° and thence westward to the Pacific. The treaty provided the basis for further dispute by leaving the future of Texas to subsequent discussion. Before this problem could be settled, Mexico achieved independence from Spain and final settlement was left to another war.