[July 17th marks the 200th anniversary of the transfer of Florida from Spain to the U.S. The history of that addition is much more complex than that one date suggests, however—an idea which could be applied much more broadly as well. So this week I’ll highlight a handful of texts that can help us engage more accurately with the fraught, multi-layered histories of U.S. expansion, leading up to a weekend tribute to one of the best scholarly resources for doing so!]
On two darker sides to the history of American expansion that the historic treaty exemplifies.
The long and windy road to the 1821 Transcontinental Treaty (also known as the Treaty of Adams-Onís) and the finalized acquisition of Spanish Florida by the United States took more than a decade. In 1810, American settlers in West Florida—who had been immigrating to the region since the late 18th century—rebelled, declaring themselves an Independent Republic separate from Spanish rule. Although that republic did not last long, the event encouraged the US government to claim that the region had in fact been part of the Louisiana Purchase, setting in motion extended negotiations with Spain that began in earnest with Spanish Minister to the United States Don Luis de Onís’ arrival in Washington in 1815. Those negotiations continued for years, both exacerbated yet also pushed forward by General Andrew Jackson’s semi-authorized seizure of multiple Spanish forts as part of an 1818 raid against the Seminole tribe during the conflict that came to be known as the First Seminole War. Eventually Onís and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams reached an agreement in February 1819, “whereby” (quoting this State Department website) “Spain ceded East Florida to the United States and renounced all claim to West Florida. Spain received no compensation, but the United States agreed to assume liability for $5 million in damage done by American citizens who rebelled against Spain.”
Those histories are specific and complex on their own terms, but they also illustrate two broader (and quite dark) threads within the pattern of 19th century American expansion. For one thing, the US acquisition of Florida began quite similarly to the Mexican American War which produced the century’s single largest land acquisition (through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo): with an illegal incursion into a sovereign nation’s territory, one undertaken in support of American rebels fighting against that nation’s legal sovereignty over its own land. Jackson’s seizure of Spanish forts was even more blatant and aggressive than the actions undertaken by US forces in both the Nueces Strip and Alta California in late 1845 and early 1846; but in both cases, these were illegal occupations of sovereign foreign territory, and ones used by the US government as a pretext for further conflict and, eventually, the acquisition of a great deal of that territory. While we’ve begun in recent decades to collectively grapple with the ways in which American expansion depended on the theft of Native American land, I don’t know that we’ve even considered yet the illegal invasions of Spanish and Mexican territory without which the US might never have acquired Florida and much of the Southwest and West respectively.
Moreover, Jackson’s invasion also reveals even darker layers to the white supremacist histories that motivated such military actions (and the First Seminole War as a whole). His authorized invasion was motivated not just by a desire to destroy the Seminoles, but also to recapture enslaved people who had escaped from Georgia plantations and joined the Seminole nation; this cross-cultural Florida community was perceived as a threat to Georgia and the US. Indeed, as part of his invasion Jackson famously and controversially executed two British citizens, Alexander George Arbuthnot and Robert C. Armbrister, who were accused of encouraging both those runaway enslaved people and the ongoing Seminole resistance to the United States. Neither that action nor Jackson’s invasion overall were solely responsible for the US acquisition of Florida, of course—but they both played a significant role and reflected the overarching reality that such territorial expansions were always intertwined with white supremacist American histories and narratives. All part of the story of Florida and the expanding early 19th century United States.
Next expanded history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Expansion texts or contexts you’d highlight?