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"Filibusters and Expansionists adds a breath of fresh air to the history and historiography of antebellum foreign policy."
—Journal of American History
"A Special Kind of State Making": Jeffersonian Manifest Destiny
At four o'clock on Sunday morning, 23 September 1810, eighty armed Americans commanded by Philemon Thomas stormed the dilapidated Spanish fort in Baton Rouge, West Florida. As the invaders streamed through the undefended gate and gaps in the stockade and past the unloaded cannon, they demanded that Spanish troops surrender their weapons. Don Louis Antonio de Grand-Pré, commander of the bastion, bravely resisted as his few ill-equipped and invalid soldiers conceded. Other than the brave young leader and Manuel Matamoros (one of his soldiers), who died defending their honor and the Spanish flag, there were no casualties. Governor Carlos De Lassus, abruptly awakened by the screaming and gunshots, quickly dressed and hurried toward the fort. But before he had traveled the block from his house to the scene of activity, rebel horsemen overwhelmed and captured him. With the governor's apprehension, the conquest of Spanish Baton Rouge had ended in a matter of minutes.
After the conquest, the Americans called a convention of delegates representing the region and, on 26 September, issued a Declaration of Independence for West Florida. Soon thereafter the convention delivered a copy of the document to Governor David Holmes of the Mississippi Territory and Governor William C. C. Claiborne of the Orleans Territory, insisting they forward it to the government in Washington. They also requested annexation into the United States and protection against Spanish retribution.
Republican President James Madison faced a quandary. He wanted to annex Baton Rouge immediately, but he knew that he could not use military forces for such a venture without congressional approval, and that body would not meet until early December. Moreover, military occupation of Spanish territory would incur the wrath of not only Spain but perhaps even England and France. Madison feared that should the government not aid West Florida, there would "be danger of its passing into the hands of a third and dangerous party." Britain, the president had written to his friend Thomas Jefferson, had a "propensity to fish in troubled waters," and Madison realized that the moment would be lost should the United States not cast its line.
Rumors of the impending arrival of Spanish troops from Cuba or Veracruz, combined with fabricated accounts of a British landing at Pensacola and stories of American adventurers seizing additional Spanish territory, forced Madison to take action before Congress convened. On 27 October 1810 he issued a proclamation instructing American officials to take possession of West Florida, based on the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The United States, the president declared, had not previously exercised its title to the territory, not because of any doubt of its legitimacy, but rather because of "events over which [the country] had no control." He announced that the time had arrived; "the tranquility and security of our adjoining territories are endangered," and the country's revenue and commercial laws as well as slave importation statutes were being violated. Although Madison made no reference to the Baton Rouge revolution in that message, he did admit that "a crisis has at length arrived subversive of the order of things under the Spanish authorities," and should the United States not act immediately it "may lead to events ultimately contravening the views of both parties."
In conclusion, Madison instructed Governor Claiborne to take possession of the territory for the United States. The message also directed the inhabitants to obey the laws, to maintain order, and to cherish the harmony and protection of their life, property, and religion. The president had by executive order incorporated Spanish Baton Rouge into the American territory of Orleans; this claim included all of West Florida except the city of Mobile.
The annexation of the Baton Rouge district provided the most successful example of the covert Jeffersonian idea of expansion during the early years of the republic. It also established a pattern future filibusters would be eager to imitate. Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe all wanted American expansion, yet without embroiling the nation in a war; the Baton Rouge incident easily accomplished that goal. The government encouraged American citizens to emigrate into Spanish-held territory along the Gulf of Mexico. Once Americans saturated those provinces, the government covertly encouraged them to overthrow Spanish rule and, subsequently, to invite protection and ultimately annexation into the United States.
This type of operation was well suited to the goals of the young republic. The filibusters, many of whom were citizens of American descent operating within the boundaries of Spanish colonies, did not violate neutrality laws. They seized power at Spain's expense not only because they wanted an efficient, responsible local government to protect their rights, but also because they hoped to acquire land and/or wealth. Spain's archaic administrative system could not provide those securities, nor could it defend its North American colonies from lawless adventurers who threatened stability. Therefore, the patriots/filibusters acted for themselves; they revolted, seized power, and requested American protection of their cherished rights. The republican government of the United States, favoring continued expansion, accepted such invitations as long as those lands could be held short of war.
American expansionism such as the Baton Rouge incident has inextricably become linked to the term "Manifest Destiny," coined by John L. O'Sullivan in 1845. Yet discussion of that process generally centers not on the act of extension itself but around the concept of "destiny." By the 1840s the idea was widely accepted that Providence had destined the United States to continued growth and that expansion was a civilizing process based on moral progress rather than military might.
The "natural right" of expansion, however, unquestionably lay in the power to conquer. What ultimately made expansion not only possible but apparently inevitable was not some transcendent destiny but rather the absence of a powerful neighbor to check its progress. Earlier in the nineteenth century, the Jeffersonian presidents (Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe) benefited from the lack of powerful neighbors: a neglectful British empire ruled over Canada, and a disintegrating Spanish empire controlled the Gulf region.
This definition of Manifest Destiny provides the framework to study land expansion along the Gulf Coast during the Jeffersonian period. It also indicates that this process may in fact be "the first whisperings of Manifest Destiny." In any case, it certainly substantiates the premise that the concept embodied in Manifest Destiny emerged, not in the 1840s, but perhaps as early as Anglo-European contact in the seventeenth century. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, American colonials moved westward searching for new lands at the Native Americans' expense. The European wars for empire fought in North America during the eighteenth century only slowed their expansive desires. After independence, those former colonists found western territory controlled by Native Americans who did not understand white land hunger; Americans also discovered artificial boundaries separating the United States from British Canada and Spanish Florida and Louisiana.
The American Revolution demonstrated the ideological importance of natural rights, and paramount for Americans was the right of land ownership. Yet with a growing population and limited territory, those opportunities would be restricted unless the country continued to expand. And a study of Jeffersonian expansion indicates that the idea flourished early—if not in name, certainly as a part of government policy during the first two decades of the nineteenth century.
At the beginning of the century, many members of the Republican party supported expansion as a means of continuing the nation's growth and development; expansion also displayed to the world the country's faith in human freedom and republican government. Jefferson remarked in his first inaugural address that his United States was "a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the hundredth and thousandth generation." Yet in 1801 his United States was a country confined by the Great Lakes to the north, the Mississippi River to the west, and the thirty-first parallel to the south. Foreign powers surrounded the United States and threatened its security. The presence in Canada of English forces who were allied with Native Americans in the Northwest jeopardized the aspirations espoused in the American Declaration of Independence. Spanish control of the Gulf Coast and lands west of the Mississippi stymied fulfillment of Americans' natural rights. Jefferson and his immediate successors believed the only way to ensure the nation's survival was by removing the obstacles prohibiting future growth, whether they were Spanish or British, Native American or even African American.
Not all agreed with this vision of growth. The Northeast, especially New England, wanted no territorial expansion. Federalist opposition had manifested itself during the debates over the Louisiana Purchase as well as during attempts to acquire Canada and the Floridas. Generally, this group feared that each new southern or western state that entered into the Union diminished the influence and political power of the Northeast while enhancing the largely Republican South and West. Those fears were not unfounded. The balance of political power shifted during the first three decades of the nation's existence because of the admission of six new states, five of which were western or southern. The opening of vast areas of Indian lands for white settlement also strengthened the growing Republican party.
Despite the opposition, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe worked openly and covertly to incorporate neighboring regions into the United States. Louisiana, Texas, the Floridas, and even Canada interested those who wanted to extend the nation's boundaries. Republicans would use diplomacy, purchase, or, as a last resort, carry out clandestine activities to acquire these territories. The turmoil of the Napoleonic Wars preoccupied Europe while allowing Americans to strengthen their expansionist claims. England's struggle with France absorbed its energies and left Canada to fend for itself. Napoleon's invasion of Spain and the resultant Peninsula War only fostered an already disintegrating Spanish authority in North America. In fact, the population of Spanish Louisiana and Florida amounted to about fifty thousand people, with a mere fifteen hundred troops available to garrison the entire region. Further, U.S. commerce at New Orleans doubled Spanish trade, and the influx of Americans into the territory steadily increased. It was these weaknesses within Spain's North American colonies, as historian Frederick Merk has commented, that tempted Americans "to experiment with a special kind of state making—state making at the expense of a foreign power." In reality, Americans were filibustering in the hopes of state making, and their success depended upon taking advantage of and exploiting their superior position.
The United States quickly took advantage of the unrest in Europe, as well as Spain's weaknesses in North America. In 1802 Jefferson authorized Robert R. Livingston, minister to France, and James Monroe, minister extraordinary to that country, to negotiate the purchase of territory east of the Mississippi River, including New Orleans. While negotiations occurred, the president secured appropriations for Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore lands west of the Mississippi. Although publicly extolling the scientific purposes of the mission, Jefferson wanted a military reconnaissance to appraise the strength of Native Americans within the territory, to determine the region's commercial value, and, more importantly, to indicate the area's suitability for future American expansion. The Lewis and Clark expedition did not occur until after the Louisiana Purchase, but it nonetheless indicated Jefferson's desire to utilize covert operations to reconnoiter the area; it was but one of a series of incursions into Louisiana and Spanish territory under the guise of exploration.
Jefferson's successor, James Madison, more actively supported covert operations and filibustering attempts as a means of promoting territorial expansion. The beginnings of the Hidalgo Revolution in Mexico in 1810 provided the opportunity for the United States to strengthen its claim on Texas, an area Republicans believed to be part of the Louisiana Purchase. Madison's State Department unofficially provided financial and military assistance to Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara, José Alvarez de Toledo, and Augustus William Magee in their attempts to overthrow Spanish rule in the isolated Texas province. The Texas insurrection, coinciding with the previously mentioned revolution in Baton Rouge that created the original "lone star" republic, ultimately failed because of factors beyond the American government's control. Nonetheless, it indicated the administration's position on "local" revolutions and the desire to bring those like-minded movements into the American fold.
In East Florida in 1812, American "patriots" instigated a revolution similar to the one in Baton Rouge. Composed of both settlers and adventurers, these filibusters seized the settlement of Fernandina on St. Mary's Island, East Florida. After capturing the town, the movement, led by American Army General George Mathews, formed the "Republic of Florida," organized a provisional government, and thereafter laid siege to the Spanish fort at St. Augustine. The Madison administration initially supported the "patriots" and provided them with military assistance, but these activities soon threatened to drag the United States into a conflict with Spain. An impending war with England also created the possibility of having to fight both nations simultaneously. The young republic could not afford to jeopardize its freedom in such a manner, so Madison's administration disavowed Mathews's activities and withdrew support for the operation. The Republic of Florida failed and East Florida remained a Spanish colony.
During the War of 1812 the U.S. government strengthened its claim to southern lands by waging Indian wars to promote expansion. The administration sent General Andrew Jackson south to prosecute the war against those Creeks hostile to the United States. Although this did not represent a covert or filibustering operation, it nonetheless demonstrated the government's policy of expanding against weaker neighbors. The resultant war destroyed the buffer zone for Spain's Florida colonies and opened additional lands to white settlers, who flooded into the territory. Most of the defeated Indians who remained hostile to the United States fled to Spanish Florida, where they were joined by runaway slaves. These groups soon became a threat to peace and stability in the region as they began raiding the southern American frontier; this prompted the U.S. government to take decisive action.
Shortly before Madison's second term ended, American army and naval forces reduced Negro Fort at Prospect Bluff on the Apalachicola River. Abandoned by the British, the position had become a refuge for Indians and runaway slaves who were a threat to peace in the region. The position also represented a visible sign of opposition that jeopardized the southern plantation economy and endangered future American expansion. Military forces responded and destroyed the bastion to remove this obstacle. Although the Madison administration did not have prior knowledge of the operation and the attack was not authorized by the U.S. government, its results could not be ignored.
In 1817, James Monroe, Madison's successor, provided unofficial support for Scotsman Gregor MacGregor and his plan to seize Amelia Island, East Florida (in the mouth of the St. Mary's River), as an operational base for Venezuelan revolutionaries. MacGregor's revolt succeeded, and soon thereafter the island became a haven for pirates, smugglers, and slave traders. As long as the Monroe administration believed the filibusters could seize Florida from Spain without embroiling the United States in war, they waited. But Monroe saw no advantage to continuing covert operations once law and order deteriorated on Amelia Island and threatened the stability of the entire region. The U.S. government took action when that occurred; in the spring of 1818 the War Department instructed General Edmund P. Gaines to seize the island. Gaines dispatched Colonel James Bankhead, who accomplished the task without firing a shot.
Andrew Jackson's invasion of Florida during the spring of 1818 provided the last impetus of Jeffersonian expansion. The aftermath of the War of 1812 left Florida in an unsettled state. The existence of Negro Fort, as well as the MacGregor expedition, demonstrated Spain's inability to maintain control. In an attempt to restore peace to the region, the Monroe administration authorized Jackson to pursue unfriendly Indians into Spanish Florida (chapter 5 includes more detail concerning the Indians). The general, broadly interpreting his orders, proceeded to capture Spanish positions at St. Mark's and Pensacola, claiming they were bases of operation for Indian attacks against the United States. He also executed two British subjects whom he accused of fostering Indian violence. Though the general would be criticized for exceeding his orders, his actions vividly indicated that Spain could not hold Florida. In fact, less than a year after Jackson's invasion, the Spanish government agreed to the Transcontinental Treaty, relinquishing Florida to the United States.
Excerpted from Filibusters and Expansionists by Frank Lawrence Owsley Jr., Gene A. Smith. Copyright © 1997 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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|1||"A special kind of state making" : Jeffersonian manifest destiny||7|
|2||"To conquer without war" : the philosophy of Jeffersonian expansion||16|
|3||Followers of the green flag : revolution in the Texas borderlands||32|
|4||The first Spanish-American war : patriot effort to annex Florida||61|
|5||"Pacified by paternal solitude" : Indian wars as an expansionist movement||82|
|6||A leftover of war : Negro fort||103|
|7||"A set of desperate and bloody dogs" : the acquisition of Amelia Island||118|
|8||Destiny becomes manifest : Andrew Jackson invades Florida||141|
|9||"Taking advantage of propitious circumstances" : the struggle for Texas||164|
|10||A Jeffersonian leviathan : manifest destiny succeeds||181|