Historian Adam Wasserman's account of the West Florida annexation plot of 1810, a U.S. imperialist covert operation designed to wrest control of West Florida from Spain.
“The persistent desire of the United States to possess the Floridas, between 1801 and 1819, amounted almost to a disease, corrupting the moral sense of each succeeding administration.” 1
- Historian Kendrick C. Babcock summing up U.S. attempts to annex East and West Florida in the first two decades of the 19th century.
While most of us learn about
the Louisiana Purchase in grade school, very few Americans are even aware of the West Florida annexation scheme. This is because most traditional historians have accepted the argument put forth by powerful men - Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and Robert Livingston – that West Florida was included in the territory that France ceded to the U.S. in the Louisiana Purchase. In fact, most maps of the Louisiana Purchase unquestionably include West Florida as if there was never even serious controversy over its ownership. By mere omission, historians and cartographers generally ignore the heated debate between the U.S. and Spain regarding ownership of the territory following the Louisiana Purchase. They ignore that the debate began with an unsubstantiated interpretation of the Louisiana Purchase, proceeded along with bribery, coercion, and threat, and was concluded with aggressive force. They surely ignore the subsequent U.S. covert operations to illegally seize West and East Florida from Spain. These filibustering operations were some of the first on the U.S. expansionist record, setting forth arguments, ideas, and procedure for over two centuries of covert interventionist policy. Babcock further noted:
“These Florida incidents furnish the first instances of the enunciation of certain peculiar arguments to justify the United States in possessing itself of choice bits of territory here and there, arguments which have been used with great and continued effect in relation to Texas, Mexico, Hawaii, and Cuba.” 2
The pretexts used to justify intervention that the U.S. applied in its coercive measures to annex Florida became long-standing arguments for colonial expansion into other territories, including Texas and California. Historian Isaac Cox, in the West Florida Controversy, noted that operations in West Florida “established a precedent, and led the United States to pursue a similar course, deviously but without intent…into Texas and California.” 3 The U.S. received its first lesson in international relations in the West Florida annexation scheme. It learned that exploiting the weaknesses of its rivals proved more effective in making gains than diplomacy, negotiations, and treaties. While international law and other “niceties” looked nice on paper, they became regarded as obstacles to fulfill U.S. foreign policy objectives which were underlined by Manifest Destiny. Treaties, diplomacy, compacts, etc. ensured that colonial rivals and native tribes would attempt to enforce their rights on an international platform that the U.S. really had little consideration for. In real terms, the U.S. adhered to its expansionist policy as its victims complained about law. American exceptionalism, first established in these Florida operations, was meant to ensure others that the U.S. government had everybody’s best interests at heart. Altruism was the order of the day. So if the U.S. illegally seized a piece of territory, its leaders concocted a list of pretexts - instability, threat, progress, etc. – but failed to mention the economic or strategic reasons that U.S. officials quietly discussed among each other. Yet U.S. colonial expansion was not to be driven by conquering armies like those of the past, but through the initiative of its own frontier population. Isaac Cox noted that dispute with Spain over treaty terms was decided more so by the “happenings on the frontier than by the skill of American diplomats.” 4 This frontier population of Anglo settlers migrated into every Spanish colonial possession desiring U.S. expansion and implementing revolt to achieve it. In West Florida, the annexation movement, while quietly supported by U.S. officials, was made possible by Anglo settlers who schemed to transfer control of the territory into U.S. hands. A similar movement for Texas independence was formed at the same time. The political intrigue that revolved around West Florida’s annexation shared many parallels with that of Texas. Most important of all: to expand institutional slavery. In fact, the first “Lone Star State” was the “Republic of West Florida,” the short-lived independent territory of West Florida established in 1810 by an uprising of white settlers. 5
The political intrigue revolving around West Florida has its origins in the time period immediately following the American Revolution. The Treaty of Paris in 1783, which gave official recognition of U.S. independence, transferred British control of East and West Florida back to Spain, thus placing Spain to the south and the west of the newly formed United States. From 1784 to 1795, the newly formed United States disputed the northern border of West Florida, which had not been clearly established by the 1783 Treaty of Paris. In 1763, Britain had established the northern border of West Florida at the 31st parallel. But in 1764, the West Florida border was placed hundred miles north along the 32°28' due east of the mouth of the Yazoo River. When Spain received West Florida from Britain, it established the northern border of West Florida along the 32°28'. While Spain was in the right, no provision in the Treaty of ’83 explicitly addressed West Florida’s northern border, making conflict inevitable. Whoever possessed the one hundred mile strip of territory between the “Yazoo line” and the 31st parallel essentially commanded the navigation of the Mississippi River. After years of dispute, Spain conceded to U.S. pressures and established the northern boundary of West Florida at the 31st parallel in the Treaty of 1795. 6 But the concession to the U.S. didn’t satisfy expansionists, it only proved that if pushed diligently and persistently enough, Spain would yield to the stronger power. West Florida was desired for its strategic and commercial value. It would give the U.S. control of the eastern bank of the Mississippi and the shores of Mobile Bay. Many rivers flowing into the United States had their origins in the Gulf of Mexico through West Florida. It was becoming understood that possessing the mouths of these rivers was of great future importance to the United States.
In 1800, Napoleon compelled Spain to cede the Louisiana territory to France, but failed to define the eastern boundary. The renewed conflict over West Florida began with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the dispute over the eastern boundary of territory that Spain had ceded over to France. In 1803, Secretary of State James Madison commissioned James Monroe and Robert Livingston as diplomats to induce France to hand over its Louisiana territory. His instructions were clear: “A cession of the Floridas is particularly to be desired, as obviating serious controversies.” 7 Louisiana was firmly established as a French territory through negotiations with Spain, but the U.S. government falsely claimed that Spain ceded over West Florida in a package with Louisiana. The gripe of the argument was whether or not the Louisiana territory extended beyond the Mississippi to the Perdido River, the long-established east boundary of West Florida. But Madison admitted that obtaining possession of Florida from France would be difficult because “it may happen that the Floridas are so far suspended, on unfinished negotiations between her and Spain, as to admit or require the concurrence of both in gratifying the wishes of the United States.” 8 But the U.S. government still persisted on its claim that West Florida was included in the Louisiana Purchase. As early as August 1803, Thomas Jefferson was already espousing this interpretation:
“We have some claims, to extend on the sea coast Westwardly to the Rio Norte or Bravo, and better, to go Eastwardly to the Rio Perdido, between Mobile & Pensacola, the ancient boundary of Louisiana. These claims will be a subject of negotiation with Spain, and if, as soon as she is at war, we push them strongly with one hand, holding out a price in the other, we shall certainly obtain the Floridas, and all in good time.” 9
Jefferson also asserted that the U.S. would have to wait for an opportune moment, such as war in Europe, to take West Florida from Spain. His interpretation of the Louisiana Purchase would be the U.S. position for the following seven years. Yet France, Spain, and Britain disagreed with the U.S. interpretation. The U.S. was laying claim to a territory that Spain claimed it never sold and that France claimed it never bought. In fact, France was unaware of having acquired any claim to West Florida until Robert Livingston began inquiring on whether it had been included in the Louisiana Purchase. 10 As negotiations proceeded, U.S. officials hoped to procure West Florida from Spain through propositions, threats, coercion, flattery, and bribes. But after numerous propositions, Spanish officials absolutely refused to hand over an inch of West Florida on any terms. On the other hand, U.S. officials hoped to delay conclusive negotiations with Spain. They considered the U.S. acquisition of Florida so inevitable that it was only a matter of time. West and East Florida was necessary would complete the “rounding out of American dominions.” Yet it was the intervention of the U.S. government, not time, that caused the annexation of West Florida. On February 24, 1804, Thomas Jefferson signed the “Mobile Act,” which enacted the claim that West Florida was included in the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson backtracked when the Spanish angrily protested, hoping to avoid a costly war, but affirmed that the “voluntary action of its inhabitants” would eventually scheme possession of West Florida anyways. Jefferson had insisted: “However much we may compromise on our western limits, we never shall on our eastern.” 11
After Spain’s angry reaction to the Mobile Act, James Monroe was commissioned to conciliate the Spaniards into ceding West Florida. In 1804, Monroe set out to “negotiate” the cession of East and West Florida, the payment for individual claims to French damages, and the determination of boundary lines. By May 1805, Monroe had failed in his objectives. The Spanish Crown thoroughly rejected the U.S. proposal for Spain to cede over all of its possessions east of the Mississippi, pay claims for French spoliations, and set the western boundary of the Louisiana territory on the Colorado River. 12 In response to U.S. pressure, Spanish officials expressed outrage at the unjust, coercive measures that the U.S. applied in its “diplomatic” efforts to grab West Florida:
“The interpretation given by the United States to the treaty of Cession, is therefore equally extravagant and untenable, and will never be sanctioned or submitted to by the Spanish court, although the annihilation of the monarchy should become a possible consequence of its rejecting so degrading a proposal…the unjust pretensions of your government, an adherence to which, and that too for a barren and unimportant tract of country compare with Louisiana, would forever tarnish the honor of your nation, and stamp it with the character of that grasping ambition from which she alone of all powers of treaty, has been heretofore exempt.” 13
Negotiations were “delayed” because the U.S. had time on its side. Several factors now contributed to the U.S. push for Florida’s annexation: 1) The minimal presence of Spanish authority in Florida 2) The unprecedented introduction of a white settler population desiring U.S. annexation of Florida 3) The revolutionary spirit spreading throughout the Spanish American colonies 4) Napoleon’s invasion and occupation of Spain. U.S. settlers contributed their fair share of destabilizing West Florida, making the territory favorable for a U.S. grab. White settlers were the third branch of the U.S. Empire. Over the first decade of the 19th century, West Florida was the Wild West of the Southeast, providing refuge for an assortment of “unsavory” characters – buccaneers, debtors, army deserters, land speculators, smugglers, outlaws, pirates, political refugees, and insurrectionary frontiersmen. Spain’s hold over the territory of West Florida was tenuous at best. Regardless of how negotiations occurred between the U.S. and Spain, it was doubtful that Spanish rule over territory would last long under the pressure of a large, migratory population of Anglo frontiersmen. The Spanish force in West Florida only amounted to about nine hundred troops, mostly stationed in Pensacola, Baton Rouge, and Mobile. However, the West Florida militia, comprised mostly of Anglo settlers, carried a “general spirit of disaffection, and a great desire manifested to become Americans.” 14 Governor William Claiborne of the New Orleans territory reported that the “general wish and expectation here is–that our Governor will take immediate possession of that part of Florida which lies to the west of the Perdedo.” This was possible because “from the Inhabitants no opposition would be received-and the regular troops of Spain, in that district, are too inconsiderable to make a serious resistance.” 15 Among them were the Kemper brothers. Between 1804 and 1810, the Kemper brothers made numerous botched attempts to seize the territory. The Kempers were among the most prominent figures of the early 19th century international intrigue that characterized the U.S.-Spanish colonial borders. The Kemper trio – Samuel, Nathan, and Reuben - were partially interested in driving up the value of their West Florida lands through U.S. annexation. In 1804, a rise in land taxes “excited great clamor” among the numerous land speculators in the territory. Governor Claiborne reported that West Florida landholders were “becoming restless under the Spanish government” and “the wish is general, that the U. States may speedily take possession of the District.” 16 But the subsequent involvement of the “Colonel” Reuben Kemper in covert operations to seize Texas proves that the Kempers were unofficial agents of “empire-building,” not simply individual land-grabbers. After the failure of the native insurrection under William A. Bowles in East Florida, the Kemper brothers failed to rally up enough support for their Anglo “revolution” in West Florida in 1804. The Kempers failed to account for the loyalty of Spanish subjects in West Florida who felt threatened by the aggressiveness of recent Anglo arrivals. 17
While Secretary of State James Madison denounced the “criminal attempt” made by the Kemper brothers to seize the fort at Baton Rouge, declaring that they would be “brought to justice,” he only intended to exonerate any sort of U.S. complicity in the failed coup d’état. 18 U.S. officials still hoped to diplomatically strong-arm Spain into handing over West Florida. It should be remembered that Jefferson was looking for the “voluntary action of its inhabitants,” a war in Europe, and other circumstances if the U.S. was to make a move. If all the chips fell into the right place, the U.S. would no longer care about the repercussions of taking extralegal measures simply because there would be none. In 1808, Napoleon invaded and began a long occupation of Spain. With Spain directing most of its resources and attention to resisting the French occupation at home, U.S. expansionists saw the perfect opportunity to exploit Spanish weakness and seize its colonial possessions in the Americas. In 1810, independence revolutions exploded in the Spanish American colonies, convincing U.S. officials that the Spanish Empire had reached its death throes. Governor Claiborne of the New Orleans territory convinced President Madison to adopt his plan of intervention into West Florida, suggested three years prior. He was empowered to enlist the aid of William Wykoff, a member of the executive council of the New Orleans territory, to stir up revolt in the territory. Wykoff was to emphasize the possibility of a French invasion in the break-down of Spanish colonial authority. On June 20, Secretary of State Robert Smith wrote to Wykoff, confirming the purpose of his mission:
“It has been deemed proper to select you for the confidential purpose of proceeding without delay into East Florida, and also into West Florida, as far as pensacola for the purpose of diffusing the impression that the United States cherish the sincerest good will towards the people of the Floridas as neighbours, and as having in so many respects a common interest, and that in the event of a political separation from the parent Country, their incorporation into our Union would coincide with the sentiments and policy of the United States.” 19
It appears that Wykoff was successful in his operations. Between late June and August 1810, numerous conventions and clandestine meetings were frequently held in West Florida. Pro-American residents of West Florida, particularly in the district of Feliciana near Baton Rouge, were organizing in conventions and clandestine meetings to establish local rule. While giving the pretext that they were concerned about “foreign invasion and domestic disturbance,” David Holmes, the governor of the Mississippi Territory, confirmed that “the convention and a large Majority of the People were disposed to come under the protection of the United States.” 20 Nevertheless, a significant minority still existed in the territory that favored Spanish rule. 21 While the West Florida plotters associated their movement with the independence revolution in Venezuela, which was a genuine liberation movement against Spanish rule, in reality they merely wanted to change hands from one colonial ruler to another. An important aspect of the secret meetings and open conventions was land grants and taxes. Many settlers had not received titles for their lands despite settling there for some years, while the Spanish authorities had habitually made out grants to some. The insurrectionists desired that the U.S. recognize their claims to certain lands, which would essentially give them official title over their land grabs. Plus U.S. annexation would mean a spike in land prices. On October 10th, after the insurrection had already begun, John Rhea, president of the West Florida Convention, wrote to Secretary of State Robert Smith, declaring that the members of the convention were entitled to all the unoccupied lands of the territory because they had “wrested the Government and country from Spain at the risk of their lives and fortune.” 22 At this point, the revolt had revealed its true colors as an Anglo settler land grab. Slavery appeared to be a motive for the rebels as well. It wasn’t even two weeks into the revolt when the tax on slaves imported into the territory was repealed. Land taxes were reformed as well. Without Spanish law, the slave trade was quickly reinstituted. Governor Claiborne discovered that slaves were being shipped into Mobile and sold into the United States during the short period of the Republic. 23
The conflict finally broke out in September. After months of deliberating, news reached Pensacola of the rebel plans to overthrow Spanish rule. When the rebels learned that Governor Folch at Pensacola was planning to send a large force to restore order in the territory, they hastened their plans. On September 23rd, around seventy or eighty volunteers, commissioned by the rebel convention, seized Brookter’s Landing, the principle fort of Baton Rouge. 24 On September 26th, the convention, numbering five hundred insurrectionists, assembled and declared that West Florida was a “free and independent state” to David Homes, governor of the Mississippi territory. The convention established the territory as the independent “Republic of West Florida.” Its members requested U.S. annexation and protection from Spanish reprisal. 25 In October, an expeditionary force under the command of Reuben Kemper was commissioned from Baton Rouge to seize the Spanish garrisons at Mobile and Pensacola. But the Spaniards managed to maintain hold of Mobile against Kemper’s filibustering operations. 26 On October 10, the newly established regime requested the intervention of the U.S. government and eagerly awaited President Madison’s response:
“Should the United States be induced by these, or any other considerations, to acknowledge our claim to their protection as an integral part of their territory, or otherwise, we feel it is our duty to claim for our constituents an immediate admission into the Union as an independent State, or as a territory of the United States, with permission to establish our own form of Government, or to be united with one of the neighboring territories, or a part of one of them, in such manner as to form a State.” 27
On October 27, James Madison issued a proclamation declaring that the U.S. would endeavor to acquire the newly independent territory of West Florida. Without any deliberation he exploited this opportunity to obtain his long-awaited “prize” of West Florida. He justified this illegal move on several false pretexts: 1) The territory that France ceded to Spain included the Perdido River – the eastern boundary of the West Florida province 2) The quarrel with Spain had continued for a decade over the rightful possessor of West Florida, and considering that a “satisfactory adjustment” with the U.S. acquiring the territory had been “entirely suspended by events over which they had no control” than it was only right for the U.S. to take this opportunity to claim it 3) A possible foreign invasion could result from the crisis in the province and this would leave the U.S. vulnerable to its enemies. 28 Secretary of State Robert Smith instructed Governor Claiborne on the determination of President Madison to take possession of the West Florida territory. He was commissioned to the Mississippi Territory where he was to make the necessary arrangements with Governor Holmes to proceed into West Florida with an assortment of troops and take possession of it on behalf of the United States. 29 On December 10, Madison delivered his second State of the Union address announcing the annexation of West Florida:
“Among the events growing out of the state of the Spanish Monarchy, our attention was imperiously attracted to the change developing itself in that portion of West Florida which, though of right appertaining to the United States, had remained in the possession of Spain awaiting the result of negotiations for its actual delivery to them. The Spanish authority was subverted and a situation produced exposing the country to ulterior events which might essentially affect the rights and welfare of the Union. In such a conjuncture I did not delay the interposition required for the occupancy of the territory west of the river Perdido, to which the title of the United States extends, and to which the laws provided for the Territory of Orleans are applicable. With this view, the proclamation of which a copy is laid before you was confided to the governor of that Territory to be carried into effect. The legality and necessity of the course pursued assure me of the favorable light in which it will present itself to the Legislature, and of the promptitude with which they will supply whatever provisions may be due to the essential rights and equitable interests of the people thus brought into the bosom of the American family.” 30
The list of evidence already cited is enough to invalidate Madison’s ridiculous claim that “our attention was imperiously attracted to” the uprising in West Florida, as if the U.S. was simply a casual observer, rather than an active participant. For almost a decade, the U.S. had asserted a disproportionate amount of “diplomatic” energy in order to possess West Florida. Madison himself was one of the top U.S. officials who initially distorted the Louisiana Purchase to make it appear as if the U.S. had a rightful claim to the territory. While the U.S. contained actual control of the West Florida territory, Spain still wouldn’t formally relinquish possession until the Adams-Onis treaty of 1819. Now the U.S. would use West Florida as its base for operations to take East Florida. But not before receiving harsh criticism at home and abroad for the unjust aggression, coercion, and illegality of its measures in seizing a foreign territory from Spain - a friendly nation. Most of the Federalist papers attacked Madison’s course as unconstitutional, unjust towards Spain, and likely to involve the U.S. in war with Britain. 31 British diplomat Morier expressed outrage at the United States, “a free nation like this,” for “wresting a province from a friendly power…in the time of her adversity”:
“The act, consequently, of sending a force to West Florida to secure by arms what was before a subject of friendly negotiation, cannot, I much fear, under any palliation, be considered as other than an open act of hostility against Spain.” 32
An editorial from London carried a similar viewpoint, questioning the very “noble” pretense on which the U.S. presented itself to the rest of the world:
“The conduct of America to Spain, affords a curious and not very favourable view of the morality of American policy. She contends that West Florida formed a part of Louisiana, which she bought of France, what France had no right to sell, and the negotiation carried on by the United States at Paris, for Florida was, throughout, a series of humiliation and disgrace. But what is the defence set up by America for seizing East Florida! That Spain owes her money for spoliations on her commerce. But has Spain refused all satisfaction? No, it is acknowledged that she admitted the injuries done, and was not indisposed to enter into a negotiation respecting them. But delay has taken place—Why? Because Spain, infamously invaded by Bonaparte, had her whole attention engrossed in finding the means of resisting the invader. And it is in this state of affairs America, THE FRIEND OF FREEDOM, THE FOE OF TYRANNY, takes advantage, to wrest her territories from her! An eternal blot this, and indeed the whole conduct of the United States relative to Spain will be in the American annals. How will an American feel when investigating the history of the invasion of Spain, he shall inquire, what, on that occasion was the conduct of his ancestors, the only republican people then on earth, and who claim almost an exclusive privilege to hate and to denounce every act of ruffian violence, and every form arbitrary power? It certainly will not kindle a glow of emulation in his mind, when he shall be told that of this unparalleled crime, an oblique notice was once taken by the American Administration; that the people of that country seemed to rejoice at the conduct of the Invader, frowned on the efforts of his victims, and took advantage of their distress to despoil and rob them!” 33
1. Babcock, K. W. Rise of American Nationality, 1811-1819. New York: M. S. G. Haskell House, 1969. 22.
2. Ibid. 26-27.
3. Cox, Isaac J. The West Florida Controversy, 1798-1813: A Study in American Diplomacy. Baltimore, John Hopkins Press, 1918. 62
4. Ibid. 63.
5. For further information, see: Bice, David A. The Original Lone Star Republic: Scoundrels, Statesmen and Schemers of the 1810 West Florida Rebellion, Heritage Publishing Consultants, 2004.
6. Cox, The West Florida Controversy, 1-30.
7. American State Papers: Foreign Relations. Vol. 2. Washington: Gales and Seaton, 1832-1860. 541; Hereafter cited as ASPFA.
8. Ibid. 541.
9. Ford, Paul L., ed. The Works of Thomas Jefferson. Vol. 10. New York and London: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1905. 6.
10. Chambers, Henry E. West Florida and its Relation to the Historical Cartography of the United States. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1898. 46.
11. Cox, The West Florida Controversy, 96-101.
12. Ibid. 102-138; ASPFA 2: 665-667.
13. Boston Gazette, September 13, 1804.
14. Carter, Clarence ed. Territorial Papers of the United States: Territory of New Orleans, Vol. IX. Washington, DC: 1934-1962. 425.
15. Ibid. 604.
16. Ibid. 191
17. For a full account of the Kemper “Rebellion,” see Cox, The West Florida Controversy, 152-168; McMichael, Andrew. “The Kemper "Rebellion": Filibustering and Resident Anglo American Loyalty in Spanish West Florida.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Spring, 2002), pp. 133-165.
18. Clarence, Territorial Papers, IX, 332-333.
19. Ibid. 888; Cox, The West Florida Controversy, 330.
20. Ibid. 888-892.
21. Cox, The West Florida Controversy, 347.
22. Ibid. 365-366; ASPFA 3: 395-396.
23. Ibid. 420, 585.
24. Ibid. 386-395; Boston Repertory, November 2, 1810.
25. ASPFA 3: 396.
26. For the entire story, see Cox, The West Florida Controversy, 437-486.
27. ASPFA 3: 395
28. Ibid. 397-398.
29. Ibid. 396-397.
30. “James Madison’s Second State of the Union Address,” December 10, 1810.
31. Cox, The West Florida Controversy, 538.
32. ASPFA 3: 399.
33. Boston Repertory, February 14, 1812.