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Jefferson and his Colleagues, A Chronicle of the Virginia Dynasty
Chapter XIII. Spanish Derelicts in the New World
by Johnson, Allen


It fell to the last, and perhaps least talented, President of the Virginia Dynasty to consummate the work of Jefferson and Madison by a final settlement with Spain which left the United States in possession of the Floridas. In the diplomatic service James Monroe had exhibited none of those qualities which warranted the expectation that he would succeed where his predecessors had failed. On his missions to England and Spain, indeed, he had been singularly inept, but he had learned much in the rude school of experience, and he now brought to his new duties discretion, sobriety, and poise. He was what the common people held him to be a faithful public servant, deeply and sincerely republican, earnestly desirous to serve the country which he loved.

The circumstances of Monroe's election pledged him to a truly national policy. He had received the electoral votes of all but three States.[*] He was now President of an undivided country, not merely a Virginian fortuitously elevated to the chief magistracy and regarded as alien in sympathy to the North and East. Any doubts on this point were dispelled by the popular demonstrations which greeted him on his tour through Federalist strongholds in the Northeast. "I have seen enough," he wrote in grateful recollection, "to satisfy me that the great mass of our fellow-citizens in the Eastern States are as firmly attached to the union and republican government as I have always believed or could desire them to be." The news-sheets which followed his progress from day to day coined the phrase, "era of good feeling," which has passed current ever since as a characterization of his administration.

[* Monroe received 183 electoral votes and Rufus King, 34--the votes of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Delaware.]

It was in this admirable temper and with this broad national outlook that Monroe chose his advisers and heads of departments. He was well aware of the common belief that his predecessors had appointed Virginians to the Secretaryship of State in order to prepare the way for their succession to the Presidency. He was determined, therefore, to avert the suspicion of sectional bias by selecting some one from the Eastern States, rather than from the South or from the West, hitherto so closely allied to the South. His choice fell upon John Quincy Adams, "who by his age, long experience in our foreign affairs, and adoption into the Republican party," he assured Jefferson, "seems to have superior pretentions." It was an excellent appointment from every point of view but one. Monroe had overlooked--and the circumstance did him infinite credit--the exigencies of politics and passed over an individual whose vaulting ambition had already made him an aspirant to the Presidency. Henry Clay was grievously disappointed and henceforward sulked in his tent, refusing the Secretaryship of War which the President tendered. Eventually the brilliant young John C. Calhoun took this post. This South Carolinian was in the prime of life, full of fire and dash, ardently patriotic, and nationally-minded to an unusual degree. Of William H. Crawford of Georgia, who retained the Secretaryship of the Treasury, little need be said except that he also was a presidential aspirant who saw things always from the angle of political expediency. Benjamin W. Crowninshield as Secretary of the Navy and William Wirt as Attorney-General completed the circle of the President's intimate advisers.

The new Secretary of State had not been in office many weeks before he received a morning call from Don Luis de Onis, the Spanish Minister, who was laboring under ill-disguised excitement. It appeared that his house in Washington had been repeatedly "insulted" of late-windows broken, lamps in front of the house smashed, and one night a dead fowl tied to his bell-rope. This last piece of vandalism had been too much for his equanimity. He held it a gross insult to his sovereign and the Spanish monarchy, importing that they were of no more consequence than a dead old hen! Adams, though considerably amused, endeavored to smooth the ruffled pride of the chevalier by suggesting that these were probably only the tricks of some mischievous boys; but De Onis was not easily appeased. Indeed, as Adams was himself soon to learn, the American public did regard the Spanish monarchy as a dead old hen, and took no pains to disguise its contempt. Adams had yet to learn the long train of circumstances which made Spanish relations the most delicate and difficult of all the diplomatic problems in his office.

With his wonted industry, Adams soon made himself master of the facts relating to Spanish diplomacy. For the moment interest centered on East Florida. Carefully unraveling the tangled skein of events, Adams followed the thread which led back to President Madison's secret message to Congress of January 3,1811, which was indeed one of the landmarks in American policy. Madison had recommended a declaration "that the United States could not see without serious inquietude any part of a neighboring territory [like East Florida] in which they have in different respects so deep and so just a concern pass from the hands of Spain into those of any other foreign power." To prevent the possible subversion of Spanish authority in East Florida and the occupation of the province by a foreign power--Great Britain was, of course, the power the President had in mind--he had urged Congress to authorize him to take temporary possession "in pursuance of arrangements which may be desired by the Spanish authorities." Congress had responded with alacrity and empowered the President to occupy East Florida in case the local authorities should consent or a foreign power should attempt to occupy it.

With equal dispatch the President had sent two agents, General George Matthews and Colonel John McKee, on one of the strangest missions in the border history of the United States.

East Florida--Adams found, pursuing his inquiries into the archives of the department--included the two important ports of entry, Pensacola on the Gulf and Fernandina on Amelia Island, at the mouth of the St. Mary's River. The island had long been a notorious resort for smugglers. Hither had come British and American vessels with cargoes of merchandise and slaves, which found their way in mysterious fashion to consignees within the States. A Spanish garrison of ten men was the sole custodian of law and order on the island. Up and down the river was scattered a lawless population of freebooters, who were equally ready to raid a border plantation or to raise the Jolly Roger on some piratical cruise. To this No Man's Land--fertile recruiting ground for all manner of filibustering expeditions--General Matthews and Colonel McKee had betaken themselves in the spring of 1811, bearing some explicit instructions from President Madison but also some very pronounced convictions as to what they were expected to accomplish. Matthews, at least, understood that the President wished a revolution after the West Florida model. He assured the Administration-Adams read the precious missive in the files of his office-that he could do the trick. Only let the Government consign two hundred stand of arms and fifty horsemen's swords to the commander at St. Mary's, and he would guarantee to put the revolution through without committing the United States in any way.

The melodrama had been staged for the following spring (1812). Some two hundred "patriots" recruited from the border people gathered near St. Mary's with souls yearning for freedom; and while American gunboats took a menacing position, this force of insurgents had landed on Amelia Island and summoned the Spanish commandant to surrender. Not willing to spoil the scene by vulgar resistance, the commandant capitulated and marched out his garrison, ten strong, with all the honors of war. The Spanish flag had been hauled down to give place to the flag of the insurgents, bearing the inspiring motto Salus populi--suprema lex. Then General Matthews with a squad of regular United States troops had crossed the river and taken possession. Only the benediction of the Government at Washington was lacking to make the success of his mission complete; but to the general's consternation no approving message came, only a peremptory dispatch disavowing his acts and revoking his commission.

As Adams reviewed these events, he could see no other alternative for the Government to have pursued at this moment when war with Great Britain was impending. It would have been the height of folly to break openly with Spain. The Administration had indeed instructed its new agent, Governor Mitchell of Georgia, to restore the island to the Spanish commandant and to withdraw his troops, if he could do so without sacrificing the insurgents to the vengeance of the Spaniards. But the forces set in motion by Matthews were not so easily controlled from Washington. Once having resolved to liberate East Florida, the patriots were not disposed to retire at the nod of the Secretary of State. The Spanish commandant was equally obdurate. He would make no promise to spare the insurgents. The Legislature of Georgia, too, had a mind of its own. It resolved that the occupation of East Florida was essential to the safety of the State, whether Congress approved or no; and the Governor, swept along in the current of popular feeling, summoned troops from Savannah to hold the province. Just at this moment had come the news of war with Great Britain; and Governor, State militia, and patriots had combined in an effort to prevent East Florida from becoming enemy's territory.

Military considerations had also swept the Administration along the same hazardous course. The occupation of the Floridas seemed imperative. The President sought authorization from Congress to occupy and govern both the Floridas until the vexed question of title could be settled by negotiation. Only a part of this programme had carried, for, while Congress was prepared to approve the military occupation of West Florida to the Perdido River, beyond that it would not go; and so with great reluctance the President had ordered the troops to withdraw from Amelia Island. In the spring of the same year (1813) General Wilkinson had occupied West Florida--the only permanent conquest of the war and that, oddly enough, the conquest of a territory owned and held by a power with which the United States was not at war.

Abandoned by the American troops, Amelia Island had become a rendezvous for outlaws from every part of the Americas. Just about the time that Adams was crossing the ocean to take up his duties at the State Department, one of these buccaneers by the name of Gregor MacGregor descended upon the island as "Brigadier General of the Armies of the United Provinces of New Granada and Venezuela, and General-in-chief of that destined to emancipate the provinces of both Floridas, under the commission of the Supreme Government of Mexico and South America." This pirate was soon succeeded by General Aury, who had enjoyed a wild career among the buccaneers of Galveston Bay, where he had posed as military governor under the Republic of Mexico. East Florida in the hands of such desperadoes was a menace to the American border. Approaching the problem of East Florida without any of the prepossessions of those who had been dealing with Spanish envoys for a score of years, the new Secretary of State was prepared to move directly to his goal without any too great consideration for the feelings of others. His examination of the facts led him to a clean-cut decision: this nest of pirates must be broken up at once. His energy carried President and Cabinet along with him. It was decided to send troops and ships to the St. Mary's and if necessary to invest Fernandina. This demonstration of force sufficed; General Aury departed to conquer new worlds, and Amelia Island was occupied for the second time without bloodshed.

But now, having grasped the nettle firmly, what was the Administration to do with it? De Onis promptly registered his protest; the opposition in Congress seized upon the incident to worry the President; many of the President's friends thought that he had been precipitate. Monroe, indeed, would have been glad to withdraw the troops now that they had effected their object, but Adams was for holding the island in order to force Spain to terms. With a frankness which lacerated the feelings of De Onis, Adams insisted that the United States had acted strictly on the defensive. The occupation of Amelia Island was not an act of aggression but a necessary measure for the protection of commerce--American commerce, the commerce of other nations, the commerce of Spain itself. Now why not put an end to all friction by ceding the Floridas to the United States? What would Spain take for all her possessions east of the Mississippi, Adams asked. De Onis declined to say. Well, then, Adams pursued, suppose the United States should withdraw from Amelia Island, would Spain guarantee that it should not be occupied again by free- booters? No: De Onis could give no such guarantee, but he would write to the Governor of Havana to ascertain if he would send an adequate garrison to Fernandina. Adams reported this significant conversation to the President, who was visibly shaken by the conflict of opinions within his political household and not a little alarmed at the possibility of war with Spain. The Secretary of State was coolly taking the measure of his chief. "There is a slowness, want of decision, and a spirit of procrastination in the President," he confided to his diary. He did not add, but the thought was in his mind, that he could sway this President, mold him to his heart's desire. In this first trial of strength the hardier personality won: Monroe sent a message to Congress, on January 13, 1818, announcing his intention to hold East Florida for the present, and the arguments which he used to justify this bold course were precisely those of his Secretary of State.

When Adams suggested that Spain might put an end to all her worries by ceding the Floridas, he was only renewing an offer that Monroe had made while he was still Secretary of State. De Onis had then declared that Spain would never cede territory east of the Mississippi unless the United States would relinquish its claims west of that river. Now, to the new Secretary, De Onis intimated that he was ready to be less exacting. He would be willing to run the line farther west and allow the United States a large part of what is now the State of Louisiana. Adams made no reply to this tentative proposal but bided his time; and time played into his hands in unexpected ways.

To the Secretary's office, one day in June, 1818, came a letter from De Onis which was a veritable firebrand. De Onis, who was not unnaturally disposed to believe the worst of Americans on the border, had heard that General Andrew Jackson in pursuit of the Seminole Indians had crossed into Florida and captured Pensacola and St. Mark's. He demanded to be informed "in a positive, distinct and explicit manner just what had occurred"; and then, outraged by confirmatory reports and without waiting for Adams's reply, he wrote another angry letter, insisting upon the restitution of the captured forts and the punishment of the American general. Worse tidings followed. Bagot, the British Minister, had heard that Jackson had seized and executed two British subjects on Spanish soil. Would the Secretary of State inform him whether General Jackson had been authorized to take Pensacola, and would the Secretary furnish him with copies of the reports of the courts-martial which had condemned these two subjects of His Majesty? Adams could only reply that he lacked official information.

By the second week in July, dispatches from General Jackson confirmed the worst insinuations and accusations of De Onis and Bagot. President Monroe was painfully embarrassed. Prompt disavowal of the general's conduct seemed the only way to avert war; but to disavow the acts of this popular idol, the victor of New Orleans, was no light matter. He sought the advice of his Cabinet and was hardly less embarrassed to find all but one convinced that "Old Hickory" had acted contrary to instructions and had committed acts of hostility against Spain. A week of anxious Cabinet sessions followed, in which only one voice was raised in defense of the invasion of Florida. All but Adams feared war, a war which the opposition would surely brand as incited by the President without the consent of Congress. No administration could carry on a war begun in violation of the Constitution, said Calhoun. But, argued Adams, the President may authorize defensive acts of hostility. Jackson had been authorized to cross the frontier, if necessary, in pursuit of the Indians, and all the ensuing deplorable incidents had followed as a necessary consequence of Indian warfare.

The conclusions of the Cabinet were summed up by Adams in a reply to De Onis, on the 23d of July, which must have greatly astonished that diligent defender of Spanish honor. Opening the letter to read, as he confidently expected, a disavowal and an offer of reparation, he found the responsibility for the recent unpleasant incidents fastened upon his own country. He was reminded that by the treaty of 1795 both Governments had contracted to restrain the Indians within their respective borders, so that neither should suffer from hostile raids, and that the Governor of Pensacola, when called upon to break up a stronghold of Indians and fugitive slaves, had acknowledged his obligation but had pleaded his inability to carry out the covenant. Then, and then only, had General Jackson been authorized to cross the border and to put an end to outrages which the Spanish authorities lacked the power to prevent. General Jackson had taken possession of the Spanish forts on his own responsibility when he became convinced of the duplicity of the commandant, who, indeed, had made himself "a partner and accomplice of the hostile Indians and of their foreign instigators." Such conduct on the part of His Majesty's officer justified the President in calling for his punishment. But, in the meantime, the President was prepared to restore Pensacola, and also St. Mark's, whenever His Majesty should send a force sufficiently strong to hold the Indians under control.

Nor did the Secretary of State moderate his tone or abate his demands when Pizarro, the Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, threatened to suspend negotiations with the United States until it should give satisfaction for this "shameful invasion of His Majesty's territory" and for these "acts of barbarity glossed over with the forms of justice." In a dispatch to the American Minister at Madrid, Adams vigorously defended Jackson's conduct from beginning to end. The time had come, said he, when "Spain must immediately make her election either to place a force in Florida adequate at once to the protection of her territory and to the fulfilment of her engagements or cede to the United States a province of which she retains nothing but the nominal possession, but which is in fact a derelict, open to the occupancy of every enemy, civilized or savage, of the United States and serving no other earthly purpose, than as a post of annoyance to them."

This affront to Spanish pride might have ended abruptly a chapter in Spanish-American diplomacy but for the friendly offices of Hyde de Neuville, the French Minister at Washington, whose Government could not view without alarm the possibility of a rupture between the two countries. It was Neuville who labored through the summer months of this year, first with Adams, then with De Onis, tempering the demands of the one and placating the pride of the other, but never allowing intercourse to drop. Adams was right, and both Neuville and De Onis knew it; the only way to settle outstanding differences was to cede these Spanish derelicts in the New World to the United States.

To bring and keep together these two antithetical personalities, representatives of two opposing political systems, was no small achievement. What De Onis thought of his stubborn opponent may be surmised; what the American thought of the Spaniard need not be left to conjecture. In the pages of his diary Adams painted the portrait of his adversary as he saw him--"cold, calculating, wily, always commanding his temper, proud because he is a Spaniard but supple and cunning, accommodating the tone of his pretensions precisely to the degree of endurance of his opponents, bold and overbearing to the utmost extent to which it is tolerated, careless of what he asserts or how grossly it is proved to be unfounded."

The history of the negotiations running through the fall and winter is a succession of propositions and counter-propositions, made formally by the chief participants or tentatively and informally through Neuville. The western boundary of the Louisiana purchase was the chief obstacle to agreement. Each sparred for an advantage; each made extreme claims; and each was persuaded to yield a little here and a little there, slowly narrowing the bounds of the disputed territory. More than once the President and the Cabinet believed that the last concession had been extorted and were prepared to yield on other matters. When the President was prepared, for example, to accept the hundredth meridian and the forty-third parallel, Adams insisted on demanding the one hundred and second and the forty-second; and "after a long and violent struggle," wrote Adams, "he [De Onis] . . . agreed to take longitude one hundred from the Red River to the Arkansas, and latitude forty-two from the source of the Arkansas to the South Sea." This was a momentous decision, for the United States acquired thus whatever claim Spain had to the northwest coast but sacrificed its claim to Texas for the possession of the Floridas.

Vexatious questions still remained to be settled. The spoliation claims which were to have been adjusted by the convention of 1802 were finally left to a commission, the United States agreeing to assume all obligations to an amount not exceeding five million dollars. De Onis demurred at stating this amount in the treaty: he would be blamed for having betrayed the honor of Spain by selling the Floridas for a paltry five millions. To which Adams replied dryly that he ought to boast of his bargain instead of being ashamed of it, since it was notorious that the Floridas had always been a burden to the Spanish exchequer. Negotiations came to a standstill again when Adams insisted that certain royal grants of land in the Floridas should be declared null and void. He feared, and not without reason, that these grants would deprive the United States of the domain which was to be used to pay the indemnities assumed in the treaty. De Onis resented the demand as "offensive to the dignity and imprescriptible rights of the Crown of Spain"; and once again Neuville came to the rescue of the treaty and persuaded both parties to agree to a compromise. On the understanding that the royal grants in question had been made subsequent to January 24, 1818, Adams agreed that all grants made since that date (when the first proposal was made by His Majesty for the cession of the Floridas) should be declared null and void; and that all grants made before that date should be confirmed.

On the anniversary of Washington's birthday, De Onis and Adams signed the treaty which carried the United States to its natural limits on the southeast. The event seemed to Adams to mark "a great epocha in our history." "It was near one in the morning," he recorded in his diary, "when I closed the day with ejaculations of fervent gratitude to the Giver of all good. It was, perhaps, the most important day of my life . . . . Let no idle and unfounded exultation take possession of my mind, as if I would ascribe to my own foresight or exertions any portion of the event." But misgivings followed hard on these joyous reflections. The treaty had still to be ratified, and the disposition of the Spanish Cortes was uncertain. There was, too, considerable opposition in the Senate. "A watchful eye, a resolute purpose, a calm and patient temper, and a favoring Providence will all be as indispensable for the future as they have been for the past in the management of this negotiation," Adams reminded himself. He had need of all these qualities in the trying months that followed.

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