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Acquiring Florida
Digital History ID 201

Author:   James Monroe


A critical foreign policy issue facing the United States after the War of 1812 was the fate of Spain's New World empire. In 1808, Napoleon deposed Spain's King, and Spain's New World colonies took advantage of the situation to fight for their independence. These revolutions aroused enormous sympathy in the United States. But this unrest also raised American fear that European powers might but down the revoltuions and restore monarchical order in the Spanish empire.

President Monroe's initial objective was to secure the nation's southern border. A particular source of concern was Spanish Florida. In December 1817, Monroe authorized Andrew Jackson to attack the Seminole Indians in Florida. Jackson proceeded to destroy their villages, overthrow the Spanish governor, and execute two British citizens whom he accused of inciting the Seminoles to commit atrocities against Americans. Instead of apologizing for Jackson's conduct, President Monroe, in the following message, defended the Florida raid as a legitimate act of self-defense and informed Spain that it would either have to police Florida effectively or cede it to the United States. In 1819, Spain transferred Florida to the United States and the U.S. government agreed to honor $5 million in damage claims by Americans against Spain.


Throughout the whole of those provinces [the Floridas], to which the Spanish title extends, the government of Spain has been scarcely felt. Its authority has been confined almost exclusively to the walls of Pensacola, and St. Augustine within which only small garrisons have been maintained. Adventurers from every country, fugitives from justice, & absconding slaves, have found an asylum there. Several tribes of Indians, strong in the number of their warriors, remarkable for their ferocity, and whose settlements extend to our limits, inhabit those provinces. These different hordes of people, connected together, disregarding on the one side, the authority of Spain, and protected, on the other, by an imaginary line, which separates Florida from the United States, have violated our laws, prohibiting the introduction of slaves, have practiced various frauds, on our revenue, and have committed every kind of outrage, on our peaceable citizens, which their proximity to us, enabled them to perpetuate....

This country had, in fact, become the theatre, of every species of lawless adventure.... The Indian tribes have constituted, the effective force in Florida. With these tribes...adventurers had formed, at an early period, a connection, with a view to avail themselves of that force, to promote their own projects of accumulation & aggrandizement. It is to the interference of some of these adventurers, in misrepresenting the claims, and titles, of the Indians, to land, and in practicing, on their savage propensities, that the Seminole war were principally to be traced. Men who thus connect themselves with Savage communities, and stimulate them to war, which is always attended on their part with acts of barbarity the most shocking, deserve to be viewed in a worse light than the Savages. They would certainly have no claim, to an immunity from the punishment, which according to the rules of warfare practiced by the Savages, might justly be inflicted on the Savages themselves.

If the embarrassments of Spain, prevented her from making an indemnity to our citizens, for so long a time, from her treasury, for the loss of spoliation, and otherwise, it was always in her power, to have provided it, by the cession of this territory. Of this, her government has been repeatedly apprized, and the cession was the more to be anticipated, as Spain must have known, that in ceding it, she would, in effect, cede what had become of little value to her, and would likewise relieve herself, from the important obligation, secured by the treaty of 1795....

There is nevertheless a limit, beyond which this spirit of amity & forbearance, can, in no instance, be justified.... The right of self defence never ceases. It is among the most sacred; and alike necessary, to nations & to individuals. And whether the attack be made by Spain, herself or by those who abuse her power, its obligation is not the less strong....

In authorizing Major General [Andrew] Jackson to enter Florida, in pursuit of the Seminoles, care was taken not to encroach on the rights of Spain.... The Commanding general was convinced that he should fail in his object, that he should in effect accomplish nothing, if he did not deprive those Savages of the resource on which they had calculated, and of the protection on which they had relied in making the war....

Experience has clearly demonstrated that independent Savage communities, cannot long exist within the limits of a civilized population. The progress of the later, almost invariably, terminated in the extinction of the former, especially of the tribes belonging to our portion of this hemisphere, among whom loftiness of sentiment, and gallantry in action, have been conspicuous. To civilize them, & even to prevent their extinction, its seems to be indispensable, that their independence as communities should cease; & that the control of the United States over them, should be complete & undisputed. The hunter state, will then be more easily abandoned, and recourse will be had to the acquisition & culture of land, & to other pursuits tending to dissolve the ties, which connect them together as a savage community and to give a new character to every individual.

Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute

Additional information: James Monroe, "Commencement" Address to Congress

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