Today in history, on March 30, 1822, the territory of Florida was officially established by Congress. The region was extracted through a diplomatic arrangement with Spain wherein the United States purchased Spanish Florida for $5 million.

The episode that led to the acquisition of Spanish Florida was itself an event of immense historical weight. It all began in 1818, when General Andrew Jackson, in an act of insubordination against President James Monroe, invaded Spanish Florida, slaughtered many of the native Indians there, conquered several outposts, and charged and hanged two British subjects for inciting border raids. Jackson was only expressly ordered by the president to repel Indian invasions, and if necessary, to track them across the border and kill agitators. However, he was not to embark on an outright invasion of Florida proper.

Despite Jackson’s pleadings to the contrary, the conquest of Florida was generally perceived as an aggressive strike. Jackson’s ordeal in Florida was a stain to his reputation for the rest of his life, a deed that some would never forgive him for. The international fallout Jackson caused was such that it could have sparked a war with two major European powers, but such a catastrophe never came to fruition. In a cunning maneuver, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams thought the Monroe administration could use Jackson’s whimsical act of insubordination to its own advantage.

The general’s insubordination ultimately became a political victory for Monroe – the ease with which Jackson conquered Spanish Florida helped convince Spain that their North American holding was tenuous at best. Along with the masterful diplomatic expertise of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, Spain became convinced to sell Florida to the United States through the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819. Even still, the consequences of Jackson’s Spanish excursion brought about new questions regarding America’s role in territorial expansion and laid the groundwork for manifest destiny.

Despite his widespread popularity, some Americans came to view Jackson as an American Napoleon, a demagogue whose voracious ambition would leave a wake of destruction and counteract the axioms of republicanism. The fiercest attacks against Jackson were made through Thomas Ritchie’s prominent Virginian newspaper, the Richmond Enquirer.

One anonymous editorial condemned Jackson for “disregarding his orders” and “usurping the powers of Congress, which alone by our constitution is capable of declaring war.” Considering Jackson as an arbitrary and ambitious strongman, another tract declared that he had “promulgated a new code of his own, conceived in madness or folly, and written in blood.” He had, according to writer, “violated all laws human and divine, and violated them with impunity.”

Monroe’s own cabinet entered the debate, and mulled how to respond to Jackson’s delinquency. Believing the foray constituted an act of war, Secretary of War John Calhoun thought Jackson should be court-martialed and punished for the seizure of Pensacola and for the Arbuthnot and Ambrister incident. Nonetheless, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams disagreed with Calhoun on the basis that Jackson’s orders were ambiguous and susceptible to possible misinterpretation by the general. Jackson’s dereliction stirred dissention within Monroe’s cabinet, but Monroe ultimately sided with Adams.

The president criticized Jackson for exceeding his orders, but did nothing to punish the general.

Jackson’s act of disobedience undoubtedly threw an unexpected wrench into the traditional conception of American foreign policy. In the United States, never before had peaceful diplomatic engagements between world powers been so rapidly supplanted by military expansion. Short of the diplomatic handiwork of Adams and the Monroe administration, Jackson’s exploits could have exploded into a war that involved several European power

Dave Benner
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