Andrew Jackson’s Bold Trespass: Spain Loses Florida

On 22 February 1819, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and Spanish Foreign Minister Luis de Onis concluded negotiations and signed the Adams-Onis Treaty, whereby a weary Spain ceded to the United States all of Florida and the Gulf coastline west to New Orleans. After nearly three centuries of rapine and enormous profit, Spain’s New World empire was crumbling – revolutions would soon establish independence in Spanish colonies throughout Central and South America, and Spain knew it could not spare any resources to resist the Americans’ desire for Florida.

Map: the results of the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819
Map: the results of the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819. Credit: Citynoise; Wikimedia Commons.

Besides, just the year before the American general Andrew Jackson had invaded Spanish Florida and showed the whole world just how impotent Spain had become after the devastation of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe.

Spain received very little in return for its Florida territory. U.S. citizens had a number of claims against Spain for spoliations (over 1,800 claims were eventually filed), and the U.S. agreed to pay off these claims up to $5 million – Spain did not receive a single penny for Florida. In addition, the U.S. agreed to drop claims it was making on the Spanish-controlled territory of Texas.

Illustration: Secretary of State John Quincy Adams
Illustration: Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, by Gilbert Stuart, 1818. Credit: White House; Wikimedia Commons.

Why did Spain meekly accept the Adams-Onis Treaty, basically giving away Florida? The answer primarily lies in the success of Andrew Jackson’s invasion of Spanish Florida, one of the most ruthless, audacious and illegal raids in American history.

Late in 1817, President James Monroe commissioned Jackson to fight the Seminole Indians, who were making raids on American settlers in Georgia and then slipping across the international border into Spanish Florida. Jackson’s orders gave him permission to cross the border, if necessary, while in pursuit of hostile Indians – but at all times he was to respect Spanish authority in the towns and forts he encountered.

Secretary of War Calhoun wrote: “General Jackson is vested with full powers to conduct the war, in the manner which he may judge best.” Little did the Monroe administration know, however, what “manner” Jackson would judge to be the best.

Illustration: General Andrew Jackson
Illustration: General Andrew Jackson, by Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl, 1837. Credit: Tennessee Portrait Project; Wikimedia Commons.

Jackson gathered his men around him, and then took off on his raid. In just a few months in early 1818, Jackson: killed hundreds of Indians and runaway slaves in Spanish Florida; attacked and took control of several Spanish garrisons and towns including St. Marks and Pensacola, taking down the Spanish flag and hoisting the American one in its place; confiscated the Spanish royal archives; held a court-martial and executed two British subjects he suspected were providing aid to the Indians; named an American as governor in charge of the area; and announced that from now on, Spanish economic laws would be replaced by “the revenue laws of the United States.”

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This escapade caused an international furor. In both Spain and England, public opinion and outraged newspapers raised an indignant outcry, and Spain lodged official protests. Many members of Monroe’s cabinet – with the notable exception of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams – condemned Jackson, and Congress launched several investigations. Adams quietly assured the president that much good would come from Jackson’s boldness.

Jackson, the Hero of New Orleans, was a popular and well-respected figure, but Congress could not overlook how egregious his Florida raid was, and rebuked him. One congressional committee investigating Jackson’s raid declared:

“Your committee must here, in justice to their own feelings, express their extreme regret, that it has become their duty to disapprove the conduct of one who has on a former occasion, so eminently contributed to the honor and defense of the nation, as has Major General Jackson; but the more elevated the station, the more exalted the character of the individual, the more necessary is it, by a reasonable, yet temperate expression of public opinion, through the constitutional organ, to prevent the recurrence of incidents at variance with the principles of our government and laws.”

Another report stated: “We had hoped better things of the Hero of New Orleans, but we have been disappointed.”

However, the public praised Jackson for his boldness and success, and public opinion affected the congressional deliberations. Another report concluded:

“Under this view of the whole subject, the committee can discover much which merits applause, and little that deserves censure; and, from the incalculable benefits resulting to the nation, from the faithful and distinguished services of General Jackson and the officers and men who served under his command, in terminating finally the Seminole war, they are of opinion that they are entitled to the thanks of their country.”

The congressional investigations dragged on for 27 days, but in the end the four official resolutions condemning Jackson were voted down, and President Monroe decided it was unwise to take any action against the popular general. (Jackson’s fame only grew, and he went on to become the seventh president of the United States in 1829.) Spain, meantime, had been proven incapable of defending its interests in Florida, and accepted the lopsided terms of the Adams-Onis Treaty with quiet resignation.

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An article about the Adams-Onis Treaty, City of Washington Gazette newspaper article 25 February 1819
City of Washington Gazette (Washington, D.C.), 25 February 1819, page 3

Here is a transcription of this article:

Respecting the SPANISH TREATY, the National Intelligencer of this morning contains the following particulars and outline of its provisions:

It is seldom that we have had so acceptable an office to perform, as that of announcing to our readers the unanimous ratification, by the Senate, of a TREATY OF AMITY, SETTLEMENT, AND LIMITS, BETWEEN THE UNITED STATES AND SPAIN, as recently concluded at this place, by Mr. Secretary Adams and Don Luis de Onis.

As the Treaty, though ratified on our part, will not be promulgated officially until it has also been ratified by the sovereign of Spain, we shall state the principal provisions, as distinctly as we have been able to ascertain them, of this important instrument.

By this Treaty, we understand that Florida, including all the claims of Spain to territory East of the Mississippi, is ceded in full sovereignty to the U.S.

That the Western boundary, between the territory of the U.S. and that of Spain, is adjusted as follows: Beginning with the mouth of the Sabine river, and running with the west bank thereof to the North West limit of the state of Louisiana; thence by a direct line North to the Red river; thence along the south bank of that river to the one hundredth degree of Longitude; thence on that meridian to the Arkansaw; and thence along the Arkansaw to its source, in the forty-second degree of North Latitude; and thence upon that parallel to the Pacific.

A sum, not exceeding five millions of dollars, is to be paid by the United States, out of the proceeds of the sales of lands in Florida, or in stock or money, as the Congress may prescribe, to our own citizens, on account of spoliations and other injuries received by them from the government of Spain, or from the governments of the Colonies of Spain.

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To liquidate these claims, a Board is to be constituted by the government of the United States, of American citizens, to consist of three Commissioners, who are to make their report within three years.

There is a mutual renunciation, on the part of the two governments, of further claims on each other for spoliations, &c.

Spanish citizens are to enjoy, on the principle of the Louisiana treaty, the same privileges as American citizens in the ports of St. Augustine and Pensacola, for the term of 12 years.

These are the essential provisions of the Treaty, which is to take effect on the exchange of the ratifications, within six months of the present date.

It is probable that Mr. Forsyth, our newly appointed Minister to Spain, will be the bearer of this Treaty, and that the ratifications will be exchanged long before the commencement of the next session of Congress, in contemplation of which event, it is probable that Congress will, before they adjourn, pass an act authorizing the Executive to receive the surrender of the Provinces of Florida from the Spanish authorities, and to establish an independent government therein.

Note: An online collection of newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, is not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors – the old newspaper articles also help you understand American history and the times your ancestors lived in, and the news they talked about and read in their local papers.

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