The West Florida Rebellion & Madison’s Annexation
The Precedent Setter for American Imperialism
The occupation and annexation of the Republic of West Florida following the West Florida Rebellion is a relatively little-known event in early American history, despite the innumerable political precedents it set. Being the first instance of American occupation of both an independent sovereign state and of territory held by a European power, it is remarkable how small of a mark the event has left on America’s historiography. Examining American history textbooks and other documents, it is easy to find the political precedents set by this moment- such as annexation and occupation of sovereign states for American gain- but much more difficult to examine the event itself. While some historians may believe the West Florida Revolt and subsequent U.S. invasion of Spanish Florida to be a minor footnote in early American history, it can be accurately said that the revolt was a direct precursor to modern U.S. foreign policy through the Monroe Doctrine & President Madison’s No-Transfer Resolution, as well as set the standard for Manifest Destiny’s true intentions of American Imperialism.
Beginning in September of 1810, separatists supporting a new Republic of West Florida began to rise in what is now Louisiana outside of Baton Rouge. Months of deliberations took place beforehand, and by the end of these conventions, a clear structure for an independent state emerged with a governor, legislative body, and constitution. In their first move, the Spanish Fort of San Carlos in Baton Rouge was captured by rebel forces, and the flag of the Republic of West Florida was first risen. The Representatives of the People of West Florida, a convention very similar to the Continental Congress, stated that, “The several districts of West Florida having been declared a Free and Independent State… nothing shall be wanting on our part, in order to secure to our constituents and to our country, the blessings of liberty and equal rights, and to establish those rights on the most permanent foundation.” It is evident how similar this wording is to America’s constitution, and the convention’s desire to establish these rights permanently for their people. The first Lone Star Republic was subsequently born, the forebearer to the Republic of Texas and other rebellious Spanish territories later in the century, flying the same Bonnie Blue flag. With plans to expand their new Republic to the borders of the former Spanish colony, the people of West Florida were witness to an impending change of the political guard.
Outside of the new Republic of West Florida, President Madison’s administration was not happy with the new development. The annexation of West Florida by Madison would pick up its pace following the rebellion, changing from policies of patience to that of intense political pressure. Madison’s tenure in office would occur simultaneously as Napoleon’s conquests in Europe, and this destabilization overseas would allow Madison to make a play on Spanish West Florida. As the French were gaining control in Spain itself, the Spanish military would have a very difficult time defending their claims on Spanish Florida without the assistance of the black militias already stationed there. Subsequently, support among groups in the South near the border with West Florida began to seek out a potential occupation of some of the major West Floridian cities, such as Mobile and Baton Rouge. William C. C. Claiborne was one of these people, and at that time, he was currently in the office of Governor of the Territory of Louisiana. He would become one of the key players in this conflict, and would work with Madison to ensure that the territory was absorbed into the lands of the Louisiana Purchase. Claiborne is cited as stating that, "When speaking of East and West Florida, it was observed, that detached as they were from the other Spanish provinces, they were unimportant possessions, and ought and would be ceded to the United States.” Among Madison’s inner circle, statements arguing for the annexation of West Florida such as these were common. However, despite these remarks, Madison’s administration would not make a decisive move regarding the territory until a year past, where a new opponent, the British, entered the fray.
A potential British entrance into the territories of Florida was out of the question for Madison, seeing the writing on the wall that the Spanish were soon to fall and the high British population in the former British Florida, he made a move to introduce the possibility of annexation. In a proclamation made to the people of the Republic of West Florida, President Madison would make his position on the new nation widely known for the first time, changing the vector of the conflict permanently. He stated in this proclamation that, “I, James Madison, President of the United States of America, in pursuance of these weighty and urgent considerations, have deemed it right and requisite, that possession should be taken of [West Florida], in the name and behalf of the United States. William C. C. Claiborne Governor of the Orleans Territory of which the said territory is to be taken as part, will accordingly proceed to execute the same…and the good people inhabiting the same, are invited and enjoined to pay due respect to him in that character, to be obedient to the laws; to maintain order; to cherish harmony; and in every manner to conduct themselves as peaceable Citizens; under full assurance, that they will be protected in the enjoyment of their liberty, property and religion.” Madison had just pioneered a new precedent for the United States, and had justified the occupation and annexation of an independent Republic without the consultation of its citizens with merely a proclamation for the purposes of claimed protection. We can see him making a subtle threat in the latter half of this quotation, citing that West Florida is “invited” to pay due respect to Claiborne, even though he would be marching in with an army in tow. Although there was a large population of pro-Washington citizens of West Florida to which the proclamation was marketed toward, it was the American population itself that would be Madison’s largest domestic obstacle in annexing Florida. Madison’s actions go against the core of the American philosophy of supporting free and independent democracy, but to the President, it is apparent that imperialistic control was much more pressing than ideals. It would not be an easy task overcoming these ideals to justify to the American people his advances on a sovereign state, but luckily for Madison, he had a palpable weapon- fear.
In a gauntlet of irony, it was the American people’s fear of minority uprisings that allowed it to weaponize fear to achieve their political goals. As America began to expand beyond its initial borders and into other territories, increased people of colour lost their rights. Contrary to the ideals propagated by the up-and-coming United States, it only served to protect those who administered its economic capital, white land-owning men. As reported by an official in Mississippi, “So depleted were many families on the United States' side of the [West Florida] border of their ‘men folks’ that pleas were hurried to the Mississippi executive to furnish them with protection in case there might be ‘another San Domingo’ uprising of negroes.” This palpable fear of uprising motivated many Americans to permit the invasion of Spanish Florida, despite that they most likely would have otherwise not permitted any such invasion. Such tactics would be used repeatedly throughout American history, the weaponizing of fear to justify imperialism. This would not cease all Americans from protesting the new change in the status quo, but enough to allow Madison to begin his occupation of West Florida following his proclamation.
Following the occupation of West Florida by the United States, both domestic and international backlash would perpetuate the political sphere. Domestically, there was uncertainty as always of the potential unconstitutionality of the annexation of another free nation. Per Madison’s previous addresses to Congress, there was doubt that Madison truly saw the annexation as what he previously claimed was “right and requisite”, and if his power and control exceeded the powers that the Executive had been given under the Constitution. Many of these exceeding actions by the President were regarding the Territory of Louisiana, which it was thought that the President should not have leverage in determining the fate of any state body, as the state and federal governments were intended to be independent. Internationally, Madison faced the brunt of European powers waging against his acquisition of the territory, which neither Spain nor Britain recognized as being legitimate in nature. This stemmed into worries of a possible British interference in the West Florida affairs, and it was supposed that the British may occupy West Florida on the behalf of the embattled Spain. These worries were backed up by a formal correspondence from the British Chargè d’affaires, stating that the occupation of West Florida was not in the interest of Britain due to their alliance with Spain, and may warrant interference. In a subsequent address to Congress in 1811, President Madison would address this concern, and forever change United States foreign policy with the introduction of the No-Transfer Declaration. As the President stated, “The United States could not see, without serious inquietude, any part of a neighboring territory 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…authorizing the Executive to take temporary possession of any part or parts of the said territory, in pursuance of arrangements…” This No-Transfer Declaration is an essential and common theme throughout American Imperialism, and it happened just the same in West Florida. With this declaration delivered, Madison could finally fully justify the occupation and annexation of West Florida, although this would not prevent future British interference during the War of 1812. Most critically, this statement would set a foreign policy precedent in the United States that would be integral to the future implementation of the Monroe Doctrine, allowing the President to allow the occupation of a sovereign state when the U.S. deems it as being threatened from occupation by another European power.
A decade and a half following the No-Transfer Declaration, and four years following the formal purchase of Florida from the Spanish, President James Monroe would introduce the guidelines of American Imperialism through his Monroe Doctrine. In the speech which President Monroe gave to Congress, he remarks crucially on the exact opposite methodology the United States had taken regarding the West Florida Revolt, while echoing the terms of the No-Transfer Declaration by Madison. As the President stated, “With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power we have not interfered and shall not interfere. But with the Governments who have declared their independence and maintain it, and whose independence we have, on great consideration and on just principles, acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any other manner their destiny, by any European power in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.” Here Monroe truly lays down the cornerstone of American imperialism, expanding on the No-Transfer Declaration that came before. The future invasions of Mexico and elsewhere across Latin America, the Philippines, Hawaii, and so many other nations would rely on this single doctrine to justify, and the same can be said about Spanish Florida, where we have seen the United States exerting its power over the sovereign state of West Florida against the will of its Governor, many of its citizens, and a large number in America itself. Without the annexation of West Florida, it is arguable that this doctrine may have taken a totally different form, or not have existed at all, permanently damaging the grounds for American imperialism.
Despite the rippling effects of the doctrine, the Monroe Doctrine’s wording states that the US would never interfere in the internal politics of sovereign nations. Some scholars and politicians have argued in the past that the doctrine was only for use of protecting these countries. In that case, why then would the West Florida Revolt stand as a precursor to the doctrine? Although the Monroe Doctrine may try to claim it would never interfere in the affairs of other nations, the portions of the doctrine derived from the No-Transfer Declaration are the key. By promoting the idea to the American people that interfering in these sovereign nations to prevent European interference was just, the American political base and military would be able to execute these expeditions often with the support of the public. The doctrine gives grounds for imperialism to the people of America, and giving the nation an excuse to war against any power in the Western Hemisphere so long as it is framed in such a way to seem that it threatens America or Americans. The US has to convince its citizens that its actions are true, right, and inherently American values to invade sovereign territory, and here President Monroe sets the precedent for all presidents coming after him to do so.
It is evident that the West Florida Revolt and the subsequent occupation by the Madison administration had an undue effect on the future imperialistic ventures that the United States would embark on. President Madison’s addresses and proclamations resulted in setting the precedents of occupation in a time of perceived threat to the United States, the acceptance of annexation when it serves to benefit the United States, and the manipulation of the people to support annexation when they otherwise would not, and positioning itself as the protector of all independent nations in the Western Hemisphere. Without the West Florida Revolt, these precedents and our early history may have looked remarkably different today.
Ammon, Harry. “The Monroe Doctrine: Domestic Politics or National Decision?” Diplomatic History 5, no. 1 (1981): 53–70. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24911252.
Arthur, Stanley Clisby. The Story of the West Florida Rebellion. St. Francisville, Louisiana, U.S.: St. Francisville Democrat, 1935.
Belko, William S. “The Origins of the Monroe Doctrine Revisited: The Madison Administration, the West Florida Revolt, and the No Transfer Policy.” The Florida Historical Quarterly 90, no. 2 (2011): 157–92. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23035928.
Cox, Isaac Joslin. “The American Intervention in West Florida.” The American Historical Review 17, no. 2 (1912): 290–311. https://doi.org/10.2307/1833000.
Gannon, Michael, ed. The New History of Florida. Gainesville, Fla: University Press of Florida, 1996.
Hyde, Samuel C. “Consolidating the Revolution: Factionalism and Finesse in the West Florida Revolt, 1810.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 51, no. 3 (2010): 261–83. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25699413.
Landers, Jane. Black Society in Spanish Florida. University of Illinois Press, 1999.
Monroe, James. “Message of President James Monroe at the commencement of the first session of the 18th Congress (The Monroe Doctrine).” Presidential Messages of the 18th Congress, National Archives, 1823.
Owsley, Frank L. Filibusters and Expansionists: Jeffersonian Manifest Destiny, 1800-1821. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2014.
Richardson, James D. ed. A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1789-1897. Washington, D.C. Government Printing Office, 1896.
 Arthur, Stanley Clisby. The Story of the West Florida Rebellion. 103-113.
 Arthur, Stanley Clisby. The Story of the West Florida Rebellion. 112.
 Gannon, Michael, ed. The New History of Florida. 150-163.
 Landers, Jane. Black Society in Spanish Florida. 264-267.
 Arthur, Stanley Clisby. The Story of the West Florida Rebellion. 132.
 Richardson, James D. ed. A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents
 Hyde, Samuel C. “Consolidating the Revolution”, 270.
 Arthur, Stanley Clisby. The Story of the West Florida Rebellion. 119.
 Owsley, Frank L. Filibusters and Expansionists, 45-49.
 Richardson, James D. ed. A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents
 Owsley, Frank L. Filibusters and Expansionists, 91.
 Monroe, James. “The Monroe Doctrine.” 12.
 Belko, William S. “The Origins of the Monroe Doctrine Revisited”, 5-7.
 Cox, Isaac Joslin. “The American Intervention in West Florida.”
 Ammon, Harry. “The Monroe Doctrine: Domestic Politics or National Decision?”, 13.