An Era of Good and Bad Feelings

Monday, March 4, 1817, was unseasonably warm and sunny in Washington—a stroke of good fortune for the eight thousand spectators who had come to witness the inauguration of the new president. The House and Senate had wrangled over plans for the event, and with the public buildings still not yet fully repaired from their burning two and a half years before, indoor options were limited. So it had been decided to hold the ceremony in the open air on the steps of the Capitol.1 The site became a tradition, although since inauguration day has been moved back to January 20 the chances of good weather are even less.

James Monroe was the third of the Virginia dynasty of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, and the last president to have won fame in the Revolution. He had crossed the Delaware with Washington and been wounded leading a charge against the Hessians at the Battle of Trenton. What’s more, he looked like a Revolutionary veteran. At a time when male fashions had changed to long trousers, the fifty-eight-year-old Monroe still wore the “small clothes” of the eighteenth century: knee breeches and buckled shoes, with powdered wig and three-cornered hat.2 (Of course, it was a helpful image to cultivate.) Like all the early presidents, Monroe had served a long political apprenticeship. He had pursued an independent course and in earlier years had often been identified with state rights. Monroe had opposed the ratification of the Constitution and had run against Madison (and lost) for the House of Representatives in the First Congress. In 1808 the quids put him up against Madison again as their candidate for president. But in March 1811, Monroe and Madison achieved a momentous reconciliation and Madison named him secretary of state. From then on Monroe became Madison’s right-hand man, and after Armstrong’s resignation headed the War Department as well as the State Department. He emerged from the war a convert to nationalism and Madison’s chosen successor.

1. Harry Ammon, James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity (New York, 1971), 367–68.

2. Lynn W. Turner, “Elections of 1816 and 1820,” in History of American Presidential Elections, ed. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. et al. (New York, 1985), I, 311.

Monroe’s reputation has suffered somewhat by the inevitable comparisons with Jefferson and Madison.3 Unlike them, he was no intellectual, but he was a hard worker with a thorough understanding of the personalities and political conventions of his age. He had friends and contacts throughout all factions of the Republican Party. He brought to the White House a reputation for strict integrity: “Turn his soul wrong side outwards, and there is not a speck on it,” declared Jefferson.4 At a time that called for conciliation, Monroe conciliated well. In international affairs he possessed a firm grasp of U.S. national interest. In domestic affairs he knew how to wrap innovation in the mantle of respectable tradition. Behind the scenes, he was a more skillful practical politician than many people then or since have realized. Despite Jefferson’s confidence in the purity of his soul, Monroe appreciated the value of discretion over candor.

The president’s inaugural address emphasized continuity with his Jeffersonian predecessors and the new Republican nationalism, including protection for domestic manufacturing. He endorsed “the improvement of our country by roads and canals” but added “proceeding always with a constitutional sanction”—which seemed to second Madison’s Bonus Bill veto message of the day before. National self-congratulation provided the theme of his inaugural. Some of this was legitimate: Monroe gave thanks for peace, prosperity, and abundant natural resources. But in his enthusiasm for American institutions, the incoming president got carried away. “And if we look to the condition of individuals what a proud spectacle does it exhibit! On whom has oppression fallen in any quarter of our Union? Who has been deprived of any right of person or property?”5Monroe took it for granted that the answer to these rhetorical questions was negative. If someone had responded by pointing to 1.5 million persons held in chattel slavery, or to white women firmly deprived of rights of person and property, or to expropriated Native Americans, the president would have been startled, then irritated by the irrelevancy. To him and most of those in his audience, such people did not count. But within the next generation, that assumption would be seriously challenged.

Monroe’s inaugural address celebrated the people of the United States as “one great family with a common interest.” “Discord does not belong to our system.” While they may strike us as empty platitudes, these

3. Contrasting estimates of his abilities are presented in Noble Cunningham Jr., The Presidency of James Monroe (Lawrence, Kans., 1996), and George Dangerfield, The Era of Good Feelings (New York, 1952).

4. Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, January 30, 1787, TJ: Writings, 886.

5. Presidential Messages, II, 4–10, quotations from 5 and 8.

phrases actually embodied a key policy objective of the new administration. Monroe’s one-sided electoral victory led friend and foe alike to feel that the Federalists no longer provided a realistic alternative government. Party strife therefore seemed a thing of the past. “The existence of parties is not necessary to free government,” the president believed.6 Monroe wanted to be a president of all the people, to govern by consensus. Accordingly, he set out on a triumphal national tour. He even included far-off New England on his itinerary, something no Virginia president had done since Washington’s trip in 1789. Monroe saw all the sights; on the Fourth of July he climbed Bunker Hill. The New Englanders were grateful for this gesture of reconciliation and hoped to be included in the favors of patronage. A Boston Federalist newspaper welcomed the president’s visit as evidence of a new “era of good feelings.”7 The administration was happy with the expression, and the name stuck.

The concept of an era of good feelings that would transcend party conflict expressed some of the highest political ideals of the age. It was in keeping with the conventional wisdom of political philosophy, which viewed political parties as an evil. The political philosophers of classical times, including the Greek Aristotle and the Roman Polybius, taught that institutions of balanced government could prevent the rise of political parties and the decline of republicanism that partisanship heralded. Early-modern political theorists like Bolingbroke and the authors of Cato’s Letters and The Federalist Papers likewise relied upon balanced institutions of government rather than a balance between two or more political parties to preserve liberty. The framers of the American Constitution, far from favoring parties, had hoped to prevent their emergence.8Although political parties had nevertheless developed in the young republic as a result of the bitter policy debates of the 1790s, no one approved of them in principle. In his Farewell Address, Washington had warned his countrymen to beware “the baneful effects of the spirit of party.” Monroe felt he enjoyed an unparalleled opportunity to achieve the widely shared aspiration of eliminating parties. Through a quest for political unanimity, the original intention of the Founders could be

6. Ibid., 10; Ammon, James Monroe, 371.

7. Boston Columbian Centinel [sic], July 12, 1817.

8. There are many books on this subject, including Richard Hofstadter, The Idea of a Party System (Berkeley, 1969); Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic (Chapel Hill, 1969); and Paul Rahe, Republics Ancient and Modern (Chapel Hill, 1992). Cato’s Letters, published anonymously in England in 1720–23 by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, were much admired in America for their political philosophy.

restored. The elimination of party divisions was a goal shared by all of the first six presidents, but most especially sought by James Monroe.9 Despite all such good intentions, however, much partisanship and bad feeling persisted.

As a practical matter, to bestow patronage on Federalists would anger many Republicans, especially of the older generation, and Monroe was not quite ready for this. When General Jackson, among others, urged him to appoint to his cabinet a Federalist who had supported the recent war, Monroe demurred. What emerged in the new administration was therefore not so much nonpartisanship as one-party rule by a broadly based party.10

The closest Monroe came to a concession to the Federalists was to choose as his secretary of state John Quincy Adams, a New Englander and a former Federalist who had left that party back in 1807. This appointment strengthened the Republican Party in the Northeast, but it meant disappointing Henry Clay of Kentucky, who had hoped for the job. The State Department was perceived as a stepping-stone to the presidency, and some politicians already felt that William H. Crawford (his 1816 Republican challenger) should be Monroe’s successor. Monroe gave Crawford the Treasury Department. The War Department went to another rising light, John C. Calhoun. Calhoun’s ally John McLean of Ohio became postmaster general, a key position though not yet officially one of cabinet rank. It was a strong set of appointees, who made their mark on their respective departments. All save Crawford identified with the nationalist wing of the Republican Party, and all, including Crawford, aspired to the presidency. Throughout his incumbency, Monroe had to be careful to balance the rival ambitions of his cabinet secretaries in order to keep his administration from fragmenting. His triumphant reelection in 1820, winning every electoral vote but one, demonstrates Monroe’s measure of political skill.11

The administration sought not to absorb the Federalists but to render them irrelevant. At the national level this policy largely succeeded during Monroe’s first term. Supporters of a stronger central government, whether

9. Washington, Messages and Papers of the Presidents, I, 205–16; Ralph Ketcham, Presidents Above Party (Chapel Hill, 1984), esp. 124–30.

10. Andrew Jackson to James Monroe, Nov. 12, 1816, and James Monroe to Andrew Jackson, Dec. 14, 1816, Correspondence of AJ, II, 263–65, 266–70. Harry Ammon, “James Monroe and the Era of Good Feelings,” Virginia Magazine 66 (1958): 387–98.

11. For a sophisticated analysis of Monroe’s statecraft, see Stephen Skowronek, The Politics Presidents Make (Cambridge, Mass., 1993), 86–109.

for internal improvements, banking, or the tariff, had no longer any need to embrace Federalist politicians. Meanwhile, the defeat and exile of Napoleon in Europe removed the fear of Revolutionary France, which had been an important wellspring of Federalist feeling throughout the country. What sealed the doom of the Federalists was their failure to develop a nationwide coherence, a failure for which their last nominal standard-bearer, Rufus King, must bear a good deal of the responsibility. The Federalists in Congress found it difficult to agree even on individual issues, much less on a program differentiating them from the administration. At the state level the party declined more slowly and continued to make its influence felt even in defeat. In several states serious issues pitted Federalists against Republicans after 1816—including the disestablishment of the Congregational Church in Connecticut and New Hampshire, and state constitutional conventions in Massachusetts and New York—but the Federalists wound up on the losing side of most of these battles. Only in little Delaware did the Federalist Party remain dominant. Such leverage as the Federalists might have exerted at the national level they dissipated by dividing their support among the various Republican presidential aspirants, including Calhoun, Crawford, Clay, Adams, and General Jackson.12 The Federalists, who had identified themselves so strongly as the friends of national government, proved incapable of reorganizing as an effective national opposition to government. The demise of the Federalist Party had a significant ideological effect, extinguishing in America the tradition of statist conservatism that has been so strong in Europe.13

Monroe expected and wanted one-party rule to evolve over time into true nonpartisanship. What actually happened was something different. Since virtually all ambitious politicians joined the Republican Party, the party ceased to have coherence. As these politicians jockeyed for influence and advancement, the internal divisions that had plagued the party during and before the War of 1812 reappeared. Sectional differences superimposed upon these divisions made for an even more complex grid of rivalries. Monroe’s Era of Good Feelings proved transitory, and during his second term it led not to nonpartisanship but to factionalism.

12. Shaw Livermore, The Twilight of Federalism (Princeton, 1962); James H. Broussard, The Southern Federalists (Baton Rouge, 1978), 183–95.

13. This ideological tradition was weakening even among younger Federalists; see David Hackett Fischer, The Revolution of American Conservatism (New York, 1965).


Monroe made use of his solid base of domestic support to achieve substantial results in foreign policy. Some of these achievements addressed business left unfinished by the indeterminate conclusion to the war with Great Britain. The first one was the agreement of April 1817 signed by Richard Rush for the United States and Charles Bagot for Britain. It provided gradual naval disarmament on the Great Lakes, forestalling a costly arms race between the still mutually suspicious powers. Rush–Bagot was one of the earliest arms limitation agreements and proved remarkably durable. Although the Lincoln administration threatened to abrogate it in retaliation for British help to the Confederacy, it persisted until World War II, when Canada and the United States agreed that the Great Lakes could be used for naval construction and training—no longer, of course, directed against each other.14 Rush–Bagot did not deal with land defenses, and the U.S.–Canadian boundary on land was not demilitarized until 1871. (The Americans spent three years building a fort at the northern end of Lake Champlain only to discover in 1818 that it stood on the Canadian side of the boundary; it had to be evacuated.)15

The Anglo-American Convention signed in London on October 20, 1818, dealt with a variety of subjects. From early colonial days to recent times, fishing rights in the North Atlantic have been a recurrent source of contention between Newfoundland and New England fishermen competing for cod and other marine resources. The Convention of 1818 redefined the rights Yankee fishermen enjoyed along the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador, though it did not restore all the privileges they had been granted in 1783.16The negotiators also fixed the boundary between Canada and the Louisiana Purchase at the 49th parallel, which was considerably more to the advantage of the United States than the natural boundary, the area drained by the Missouri River system, would have been. In another article of the convention, Britain and the United States temporarily resolved their dispute over the Oregon Country by agreeing to treat it as a condominium or jointly occupied territory for the next ten

14. James Morton Callahan, American Foreign Policy in Canadian Relations (New York, 1937), 90–102; Arthur L. Burt, The United States, Great Britain, and British North America (New York, 1961), 388–95; Stanley L. Falk, “Disarmament on the Great Lakes,” Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute 87 (1961): 69–73.

15. Reginald Stuart, United States Expansionism and British North America, 1775–1871 (Chapel Hill, 1988), 91; Kenneth Bourne, Britain and the Balance of Power in North America, 1815–1908 (Berkeley, 1967), 3–33.

16. See Mark Kurlansky, Cod (New York, 1997), 101.

years. (In making their agreement the two countries conveniently ignored the claims of Russia and Spain to the same area.) The claim of the United States to Oregon arose out of the voyage of the Columbia in 1792 and the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804–6. It had been weakened during the War of 1812, when the fur-trading post of Astoria had been sold to the North West Company of Montreal by John Jacob Astor, who feared that otherwise it would be captured by the British and no compensation paid. Finally, the issue of British payment for persons rescued from American slavery during the War of 1812 was referred to arbitration. All in all, the convention constituted a remarkably favorable agreement from the U.S. point of view, and the Senate gave unqualified consent to ratification.17 It signaled the beginning of a new era of accommodation in Anglo-American relations.

Relations with Spain turned out to be much more problematic than those with Britain. After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, East and West Florida still belonged to the Spanish Empire, cutting off the United States from access to the Gulf of Mexico east of New Orleans. The Pearl, Perdido, and Apalachicola Rivers of Mississippi and Alabama all flowed into the Floridas before reaching the sea. Because Spanish control over these river mouths stunted the economic development of the American Southwest by limiting access to markets, commercial as well as strategic considerations encouraged the United States to covet the Floridas. But the most pressing motive prompting successive administrations to intervene was that the Spanish had allowed the Floridas to become a haven for African Americans and Native Americans fleeing oppression on the U.S. side of the border. Jefferson had tried in vain to take over West Florida through secret diplomacy and threats without overt military action. Madison had proved more successful, taking advantage of Spain’s preoccupations with the Napoleonic Wars and Latin American revolutions to snatch two substantial bites out of West Florida in 1810 and 1813. Monroe’s administration pursued this objective of Republican expansionism to its ultimate conclusion, the complete acquisition of both Floridas.18

The means by which Republican administrations had carried on their Florida policies never enjoyed unqualified support from American public opinion. Jefferson’s designs on West Florida had been frustrated when his behavior was denounced by John Randolph. An attempt by Madison to

17. Burt, British North America, 399–426; Bradford Perkins, Castlereagh and Adams: England and the United States, 1812–1823 (Berkeley, 1964), 166, 260, 273.

18. See William Earl Weeks, John Quincy Adams and American Global Empire (Lexington, Ky., 1992), 21–36.

gain East Florida by using freebooters from Georgia to stage a pretended revolt in the Spanish colony likewise ended in public embarrassment.19 The most controversial of all these episodes, however, was the invasion of Florida by Andrew Jackson in 1818.

After the defeat of the Red Stick Creeks at Horseshoe Bend, a renewed migration of Creek refugees flowed into Florida, and since the destruction of the Negro Fort incidents of violence had continued to erupt along the international boundary. On November 12, 1817, troops under the command of General Edmund Gaines burned the Creek village of Fowl-town on the Georgia side of the border and killed several of the villagers. The local Indian agent criticized the action as an unwarranted use of force against people who had never been hostile, but Fowltown was located on land claimed by the whites under the terms of the Treaty of Fort Jackson. On November 30, those who had been made homeless hit back hard. Warriors from Fowltown, allied with escaped slaves, attacked a boat carrying forty U.S. soldiers and eleven of their dependents on the Florida side of the border: Four men escaped; one woman was taken prisoner; everyone else was killed. The First Florida War, also called the First Seminole War, had begun.20

Upon receiving news of these events, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun issued orders to General Gaines, dated December 16, to demand satisfactory reparations from the Seminoles, as all the refugees of Florida, whether red or black, were called. If atonement was not forthcoming (it is not clear what could have been acceptable), the general was to cross into Florida and attack the Seminoles. But he was specifically forbidden to attack Spanish forts, even if they harbored Seminoles. Ten days later Calhoun diverted General Gaines to lead an expedition against Amelia Island on the east coast of Florida, long a center for smuggling. There was some possibility that the Amelia outlaws might seek an independent Florida, which would complicate U.S. objectives. Gaines captured the island in due course.21

The administration decided to turn over the main theater of operations to General Andrew Jackson, who was summoned from Tennessee to Fort Scott, not far from Fowltown. The choice of Jackson showed a disposition

19. See Virginia Bergman Peters, The Florida Wars (Hamden, Conn., 1979), 27–45.

20. David Heidler and Jeanne Heidler, Old Hickory’s War: Andrew Jackson and the Quest for Empire (Mechanicsburg, Pa., 1996), 94–108; Peters, Florida Wars, 49–50; Remini, Jackson, I, 345–46.

21. Calhoun to Gaines, Dec. 16, 1817, Correspondence of AJ, II, 342, n. 2; Ammon, James Monroe, 412–18; Weeks, Global Empire, 57–58, 64–69.

in Washington for a commander of demonstrated energy and aggressiveness. (He was also known to disobey orders, having refused instructions to return lands to the Creeks in 1815.) There is a letter dated January 30, 1818, in which the president tells Secretary Calhoun to instruct Jackson “not to attack any post occupied by Spanish troops.”22 But Calhoun never sent the order. Perhaps he forgot to send it; perhaps the president changed his mind and told him not to; or perhaps Calhoun believed the order to Gaines did not require restating for Jackson. Maybe the letter was only intended to absolve the president from responsibility. In any case, the limitations placed on Gaines’s discretion were never explicitly imposed on Jackson but left to implication. Jackson, however, had been sent a copy of Gaines’s orders, and indeed had expostulated over them.

On January 6, 1818, before receiving news of his own appointment, Jackson had already written Monroe stating that he disapproved of the limits imposed on Gaines. Jackson believed “the whole of East Florida [should be] seized and held as an indemnity for the outrages of Spain upon the property of our citizens.” He volunteered to carry out such a policy if the president agreed. To preserve the strictest confidentiality, Jackson proposed that the reply be sent through a trusted friend, John Rhea, congressman from Tennessee.23 Jackson never received a response to this suggestion. But Monroe did compose a letter to Jackson, dated December 28, 1817, giving him vague yet momentous instructions, or rather, exhortations. “Great interests are at issue, and until our course is carried through triumphantly & every species of danger to which it is exposed is settled on the most solid foundation, you ought not to withdraw your active support from it.” Quite possibly all Monroe really intended was to urge Jackson not to resign his commission (as he had threatened to do when feeling unappreciated) at a time when the country needed his services. But Jackson seems to have chosen to interpret this letter—even though its date proved it not a reply to his inquiry—as presidential authorization for the conquest of Florida.24

What did the Monroe administration really hope for from Jackson? Did they intend him to attack only Seminoles or Spanish forts as well?

22. James Monroe to John C. Calhoun, January 30, 1818, The Papers of John C. Calhoun, ed. W. Edwin Hemphill (Columbia, S.C., 1963), II, 104.

23. AJ to James Monroe, January 6, 1818, Papers of Andrew Jackson, ed. Harold Moser et al. (Knoxville, Tenn., 1994), IV, 166–67.

24. Remini, Jackson, I, 347–49, quoting from the Papers of James Monroe in the New York Public Library. The suggestion regarding Monroe’s intention comes from James E. Lewis Jr., The American Union and the Problem of Neighborhood (Chapel Hill, 1998), 247, n. 92.

Secretary of State Adams was already negotiating with Don Luis de Onís to see if Spain would cede the Floridas, and the administration was always careful to relate all foreign policy actions to this major objective. Monroe claimed he never saw Jackson’s letter of January 6 until a year later, after it had been overtaken by events, although Calhoun and Crawford both admitted reading it when it arrived.25 Once a decision had been made to entrust a highly sensitive operation to Jackson, the failure of the administration to provide him with a clear response to his proposal would seem culpable negligence—if negligence it was. It is conceivable that the administration deliberately chose ambiguity, leaving the impetuous Jackson to expose the weakness of Spanish authority, while allowing the president to disavow later an intention to wage an undeclared war. This is what Monroe had done in 1811–12, when as Madison’s secretary of state he had prompted General George Mathews to intervene in East Florida and then disavowed him when the episode became embarrassing to the government. Many a covert action in the area of foreign policy has been undertaken in such a way as to preserve official deniability. Andrew Jackson, however, proved to be a more dangerous loose cannon than his civilian superiors had foreseen.26

Jackson took a thousand volunteer Tennessee militiamen with him and led them by forced marches to Fort Scott. The 450-mile trip, on short rations and across swollen rivers, took forty-six days. On a similar tough march in 1813 his men had called him “Old Hickory”; this time he showed the nickname still appropriate. At Fort Scott, Jackson found reinforcements but little provision for his hungry men. He allowed them but a day’s rest before moving south toward Florida on March 10, 1818. In five days they reached the site of the ruined Negro Fort, where they were met by a long-awaited supply boat bearing food. Jackson ordered the fort rebuilt and renamed Fort Gadsden, and gathered further reinforcements, including friendly Creeks under the command of their chief, William McIntosh. McIntosh regarded the campaign as a resumption of the Creek civil war of 1813-14.27 By now Jackson had about three thousand white soldiers, both regulars and militia, and two thousand Indian allies. He then moved his army toward the east, attacking and destroying village

25. Ammon, James Monroe, 416.

26. Samuel Flagg Bemis, John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy (New York, 1956), 314. For an argument that the president was culpably negligent, see Heidler and Heidler, Old Hickory’s War, 119–21. For different viewpoints on what the Monroe administration intended, compare Remini, Jackson, I, 347–49, 366–68 with Ammon, James Monroe, 414–17, 421–25.

27. See George Chapman, Chief William McIntosh (Atlanta, 1988), 46–49.

after village of the Miccasukee band of Seminoles. The year before, the Miccasukee had refused General Gaines’s demand to allow him to send an expedition to recapture fugitive slaves. Jackson hoped for a decisive confrontation with his enemies, but they melted into the forest and swamps, leaving him to wreak vengeance on their homes and fields. In one of the villages, Jackson’s men found the scalps of those slain on the Apalachicola River the previous November.28

On April 6, Jackson’s army arrived at the Spanish fort of St. Mark’s. Here he demanded the commandant to surrender so as to prevent the fort falling into the hands of “Indians and negroes.” He promised to respect private property and to provide a receipt for all public property. Lacking the military capacity to resist, Francisco Caso y Luengo complied. As he later explained to Secretary Calhoun, Jackson primarily wanted the fort as a supply base for further operations. He found no hostile Seminoles there, but he did arrest a prominent British trader, Alexander Arbuthnot, whom Jackson blamed for encouraging and supplying his enemies.29

Jackson’s next objective was the cluster of Seminole villages on the Suwannee River. There he hoped to find Peter McQueen, a former Red Stick, as well as Billy Bowlegs, chief of the Alachua Seminoles. Especially important to Jackson were the hundreds of fugitive slaves living in settlements of their own nearby, among whom two talented leaders, Abraham and Nero, were accounted most dangerous. In the ensuing campaign, Jackson delegated responsibility for attacking the Indians to his Creek allies under McIntosh, while he went after the blacks. In the event, the Suwannee peoples of both races, warned of Jackson’s advance by Arbuthnot before his capture, mostly succeeded in escaping. A small force of black men engaged the invading army to cover the retreat of their families and friends. Once again Jackson could only burn houses and seize livestock. But the friendly Creeks rescued the white woman captured on the Apalachicola four months earlier. Jackson arrested another Briton, Robert Ambrister, a soldier of fortune and former royal marine, who had been helping train and equip Seminoles for battle. After a brief pause for his troops to rest and share their booty, Jackson’s force returned to St. Mark’s.30

28. Kenneth W. Porter, The Black Seminoles (Gainesville, Fla., 1996), 19–21; James W. Covington, The Seminoles of Florida (Gainesville, Fla., 1993), 43; J. Leitch Wright, Creeks and Seminoles (Lincoln, Neb., 1986), 204–6.

29. AJ to John C. Calhoun, April 8, 1818, Papers of Andrew Jackson, IV, 189–90.

30. AJ to John C. Calhoun, April 20, 1818, ibid., IV, 193–95; Covington, Seminoles, 45–46; Peters, Florida Wars, 51–53.

Back in St. Mark’s, the general convened a court-martial to try Ambrister and Arbuthnot on charges of helping the Seminoles fight against the United States. The two trials took little time (April 26–28); neither defendant was represented by counsel or had opportunity to obtain witnesses in his behalf. Arbuthnot, an idealist as well as a businessman, claimed he had only sought the Natives’ welfare and had actually tried to dissuade them from warmaking; this was probably the truth. Ambrister had indeed been helping the Seminoles prepare for war—but against the Spanish, whose rule in Florida he hoped to overthrow. Both defendants were found guilty. The court sentenced Ambrister to flogging and a year at hard labor, Arbuthnot to death. Jackson changed Ambrister’s sentence to death also and carried out the executions the next day so there would be no chance of an appeal. A former justice of the Tennessee state supreme court, he must have known the convictions would not stand up to appellate scrutiny. Jackson reported to Calhoun that he hoped “the execution of these Two unprincipled villains will prove an awfull example” to the British government and public.31

Meanwhile, an American naval officer had tricked two Seminole chiefs onto his riverboat by flying the Union Jack instead of the Stars and Stripes. They were Himomathle Mico, a former Red Stick, and Hillis Hadjo, also known as Francis the Prophet, who had served with Tecumseh and had sought British help to invalidate the Treaty of Fort Jackson. They too were executed, without a trial.32

In May, Jackson heard rumors (which turned out to be false) that Seminoles were gathering at Pensacola. He welcomed the opportunity to move against the capital of Spanish West Florida. Only then did Governor José Masot protest the invasion and declare he would pit force against force, but Jackson warned that if the capital city offered resistance, “I will put to death every man found in arms.” Threats by Andrew Jackson had to be taken seriously. Masot evacuated Pensacola and took refuge in nearby Fort Barrancas. There, after a brief exchange of artillery fire, the governor surrendered on May 28, 1818. Jackson proclaimed that American occupation of Florida would continue unless and until Spain could station sufficient military force there to control the borderlands. He sent the Spanish governor and his garrison off to Havana, appointed a U.S. territorial governor and a collector of U.S. customs, thanked his army, and went home

31. Frank Owsley Jr., “Ambrister and Arbuthnot,” JER 5 (1985): 289–308; Remini, Jackson, I, 357–59; AJ to John C. Calhoun, May 5, 1818, Papers of Andrew Jackson, IV, 199.

32. Heidler and Heidler, Old Hickory’s War, 144–46; Wright, Creeks and Seminoles, 205–7.

to Tennessee.33 In Florida the Seminoles, red and black, relocated their communities farther down the peninsula. In Washington there was an uproar.

The administration responded to events in Florida with the slowness typical of the era. In this case, problems of communication were compounded by bureaucratic inefficiency at the War Department and Monroe’s habitual deliberateness. The president learned of the execution of Ambrister and Arbuthnot from newspapers in mid-June; Jackson’s own reports took even longer to reach him.34 Much of the press bitterly criticized Jackson. Foreign envoys were demanding explanations. Not until July 15 did Monroe take up the Florida issue with his cabinet. By this time he faced a crisis, both diplomatic and political.

Jackson’s occupation of St. Mark’s does not seem to have upset official Washington, although it contravened the order given Gaines not to move against Spanish forts. But by now Jackson had evidently gone further than anyone in the administration had expected, executing two British subjects and evicting the whole Spanish government from Pensacola. Within the cabinet, Secretary of War Calhoun had the most at risk as a result of Jackson’s behavior. He had the biggest interest in preserving civilian authority over the military and was potentially the most to blame if negligence should be identified as the cause of the problem. He argued that the government should dissociate itself from Jackson’s conduct and court-martial him for disobeying orders. Secretary of the Treasury Crawford took the same line; he had experienced Jackson’s recalcitrance during his own tenure at the War Department in earlier years. Attorney General William Wirt supported Calhoun and Crawford. But Secretary of State Adams argued that the government could use Jackson’s conduct, head-strong and brutal though it had been, to advantage. He proposed to take a hard stand in his discussions with the Spanish envoy Onís, arguing that since Spain could not control what went on in the Floridas, she should sell them to the United States. Monroe deftly adopted a toned-down version of the Adams plan, which avoided antagonizing the general’s popular following while denying administration complicity in waging an undeclared war.35

33. AJ to [Luis Piernas,] Commanding Officer of Pensacola, May 24, 1818, Papers of Andrew Jackson, II, 371; Heidler and Heidler, Old Hickory’s War, 169–76; Remini, Jackson, I, 362–65; “Proclamation on Taking Possession of Pensacola” (May 29, 1818), Correspondence of AJ, II, 374–75.

34. Remini, Jackson, I, 366; Ammon, James Monroe, 421, 424.

35. See Ammon, James Monroe, 421–23; Bemis, Foundations, 315–16; John Niven, John C. Calhoun and the Price of Union (Baton Rouge, 1988), 68–70.

The president’s resolution of the crisis was initially explained through the Washington National Intelligencer, journalistic voice of the administration. The Spanish authorities in Pensacola would be restored. In occupying the Spanish posts General Jackson had acted on his own responsibility, without orders, but out of patriotic motives and on the basis of reliable information. Meanwhile, Monroe wrote personally to Jackson, taking the same position and choosing his language with care. The limits imposed on Gaines had also been intended for Jackson, and he should have understood this, said the president: “In transcending the limit” of your orders, “you acted on your own responsibility.”36

In the same letter (dated July 19), the president suggested to Jackson that the general might like to have his reports from Florida altered to make sure the written record backed up Washington’s interpretation of events, blaming everything on the Spanish authorities. He offered to have someone in Washington make the appropriate changes in the documents. Monroe was already worried about a congressional investigation. Jackson indignantly rejected the favor, for which historians can be grateful. He insisted that his orders had authorized him to do whatever was necessary to eliminate the Seminole threat and that he had nothing to hide or excuse.37 Monroe’s suggestion to Jackson casts some doubt upon the integrity and completeness of the other documentary records relating to the subject. Might Monroe’s letter to Calhoun of January 30, 1818, have been a later interpolation? It could have been intended to legitimate the assurances Monroe had provided Congress on March 25, 1818, that “orders have been given to the general in command not to enter Florida unless it be in pursuit of the enemy, and in that case to respect the Spanish authority wherever it is maintained.”38 Perhaps James Monroe’s soul had some speck on it that Jefferson did not know about.

When Congress assembled in December 1818, the pressure for inquiry and discussion of the Florida invasion proved irresistible. Interestingly, no one criticized the president; the controversy addressed Jackson’s conduct. Both houses took up the subject. The climax of the congressional debate occurred on January 20, 1819, when Henry Clay of Kentucky left the Speaker’s chair to address the House of Representatives. This was the first

36. Cunningham, Presidency of Monroe, 61–62; Washington National Intelligencer, July 27, 1818; James Monroe to AJ, July 19, 1818, Papers of Andrew Jackson, IV, 224–28, quotation from 225.

37. Ibid., 227; AJ to James Monroe, Aug. 19, 1818, ibid., 236–39. See also Skowronek, Politics Presidents Make, 95–97.

38. Presidential Messages, II, 31–32.

of the great speeches that would bring Clay renown. Having been announced in advance, it drew crowds to the galleries; the Senate adjourned so its members could attend too.39

Clay began with expressions of personal respect toward President Monroe and General Jackson, then listed the four motions before the House. The first expressed “disapprobation” of the trial and execution of Ambrister and Arbuthnot; the second would require presidential approval for future executions of military prisoners. The third expressed “disapproval” of the seizure of the Spanish posts as a violation of orders and an unconstitutional waging of war without congressional authority. The last would forbid the U.S. military to enter foreign territory without prior Congressional authorization, unless in hot pursuit of an enemy. (The issues were, of course, not unlike those confronted in later attempts by Congress to exercise oversight of American foreign policy.)

The genesis of the war against the Seminoles, Clay declared, lay in the unjust Treaty of Fort Jackson, which created a resentful population of refugees in northern Florida. In actually initiating hostilities, the whites bore at least as much responsibility as the Indians. Nor had the war been prosecuted with honor: Hanging the two chiefs captured by deception was a regression to barbarism. Jackson should have considered himself bound by the orders to Gaines not to attack Spanish posts. The possible capture of the forts by the Seminoles, offered by Jackson as his excuse, was wildly improbable. As to the British prisoners, there was substantial doubt of the guilt of Arbuthnot if not Ambrister, and the proceedings against them were indefensible. They had been charged with newly invented crimes before a court whose jurisdiction was unknown to international law; their trials had been a mockery of due process and their executions carried out with unseemly haste.40

Clay was still resentful that he had not been named secretary of state, but he had plenty of statesmanlike reasons as well as personal ones for finding that Jackson’s conduct set a dangerous precedent. “Beware how you give a fatal sanction, in this infant period of our republic, scarcely yet two score years old, to military insubordination. Remember that Greece had her Alexander, Rome her Caesar, England her Cromwell, France her Bonaparte, and that if we would escape the rock on which they split,

39. Merrill Peterson, The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun (New York, 1987), 55–56; Robert Remini, Henry Clay (New York, 1991), 162–68.

40. “Speech on the Seminole War” (Jan. 20, 1819), The Papers of Henry Clay, ed. James Hopkins (Lexington, Ky., 1961), II, 636–62.

we must avoid their errors.”41 Despite Clay’s eloquence, however, after three weeks of congressional argument, all the motions critical of Jackson were defeated. (On the most important, the bill to prohibit American troops entering foreign territory without prior Congressional approval, the vote was 42 for, 112 against.)42 Jackson’s confidant, John Rhea of Tennessee, summed up the attitude of the majority: “General Jackson was authorized by the supreme law of nature and nations, the law of self-defense,...to enter the Spanish territory of Florida in pursuit of, and to destroy, hostile, murdering savages, not bound by any obligation, who were without the practice of any moral principle reciprocally obligatory on nations.”43 Jackson’s critics in the cabinet, their views not having prevailed with the president, supported the Monroe–Adams line in public, though their political followers were not so constrained.

Nor did the foreign powers induce the administration to censure the general. The Spanish had hoped that because of what happened to Ambrister and Arbuthnot, the British would make common cause with them in denouncing the Florida invasion, but this was not to be. Britain was already finding the postwar renewal of commerce with the United States extremely profitable. The trade that the British had carried on for so long with the Native Americans of the borderlands was now dwarfed by the cotton trade with their white enemies. The foreign secretary, Lord Castlereagh, decided not to let the fate of two Scotsmen in a remote jungle interfere with the conduct of high policy, which now dictated good relations with the United States and a severing of those ties with the Indian tribes that had been advantageous before and during the War of 1812. Ignoring the outrage voiced in the British and West Indian press at Jackson’s action, he calmly went ahead with implementing the Anglo-American Convention of 1818. Even the indignation of the Spanish cooled when the Americans restored to them Pensacola and St. Mark’s—but not, significantly, Fort Gadsden, the former Negro Fort, which remained under U.S. occupation.44

Having arrived in Washington near the end of the congressional debate, Old Hickory felt he had been vindicated and was accorded the

41. Ibid., 659.

42. Richard W. Leopold, The Growth of American Foreign Policy (New York, 1961), 97. See also David S. Heidler, “The Politics of National Aggression: Congress and the First Seminole War,” JER 13 (1993): 501–30.

43. Annals of Congress, 15th Cong., 2nd sess., 867, quoted in Reginald C. Stuart, War and American Thought (Kent, Ohio, 1982), 176.

44. Weeks, Global Empire, 76–77; Dangerfield, Era of Good Feelings, 149–50; Wright, Creeks and Seminoles, 208.

treatment of a national hero. More than any other one person, John Quincy Adams had saved him from the disavowal and censure of his civilian superiors, but it was a debt Jackson never acknowledged. Jackson seemed to remember grievances more than favors. He never forgave Henry Clay.


John Quincy Adams was a tough negotiator. This Yankee in an overwhelmingly southern administration determined to prove himself worthy of having been entrusted with the State Department. In November 1818, Secretary Adams composed a truculent memorandum, blaming everything in Florida on Spanish weakness and British meddling, while completely ignoring the gross American violations of international law. This he sent to the U.S. minister in Madrid, George Erving, with instructions to show it to the Spanish government. Pensacola and St. Mark’s would be returned this time; next time, Adams warned, the United States might not be so forgiving. Actually, the letter was intended at least as much for British and American consumption as for the Spaniards, in order to rebut the critics of Jackson and justify the course the secretary of state was pursuing. Adams saw that it reached all its intended audiences. Jefferson, reading it in his retirement, gave the statement his hearty endorsement.45

The United States had been actively negotiating with Spain for the Floridas since before the War of 1812; their acquisition was a top priority within the Monroe administration. Spain at the time was locked in a gigantic and protracted struggle to retain her far-flung New World empire. Revolution had broken out in 1809–10 and spread through most of Latin America. This, Adams knew, was why Ferdinand VII’s government could not spare troops for service in Florida, either to control the Seminoles or to resist the United States. The administration did not wish to become involved in this Latin American war, though neither did it prevent some of its citizens from fitting out privateers to aid the revolutionaries and prey on Spanish shipping (as the Spanish government did not prevent the Seminoles from raiding across the border). Adams was not nearly as sympathetic toward the revolutionaries as Clay was; nevertheless, he intended that his own country should profit directly from the Latin

45. John Q. Adams to George W. Erving, Nov. 28, 1818, American State Papers, Foreign Relations (Washington, 1834), IV, 539–45; Bemis, Foundations, 325–29; William Earl Weeks, Building the Continental Empire (Chicago, 1996), 45–47.

American independence movements by seizing the opportunity they created to help dismember the empire of the conquistadores.46

Jackson’s invasion of Florida temporarily hindered Adams’s negotiations because the Spanish minister, Onís, withdrew from Washington in protest and did not resume direct contact with Adams until October 1818, after the restoration of Spanish rule in Pensacola and St. Mark’s. In the meantime, however, Adams communicated with Onís through the French legation. But the lesson of Jackson’s invasion had not been lost on the authorities in Madrid, who instructed Onís that it was hopeless to try to retain Florida and to make the best bargain he could for it. The negotiations progressed feverishly throughout the fall and winter.47

Adams’s ambitions were not confined to Florida. Spain had never recognized the legitimacy of the Louisiana Purchase, because in ceding Louisiana to France in 1800, the Spanish had stipulated that the province could not be transferred to any third power without their prior consent. Besides resolving this long-standing problem, Adams wanted to negotiate a treaty that would establish the boundaries between the United States and New Spain (Mexico) all the way to the Pacific in such a way as to strengthen the American claim to Oregon. Adams had a great interest in the trans-Pacific trade with China and had already been instrumental in recovering the Oregon fur-trading post of Astoria for the United States. At a critical juncture in the negotiations, therefore, Adams widened the scope of the discussions to include defining a boundary between Spanish California and the Oregon Country.48

On February 22, 1819, George Washington’s Birthday, Adams realized his dream in one of the most momentous achievements in American diplomacy, the signing of the Transcontinental Treaty of Washington. By the terms there set out, Spain not only acquiesced in the earlier American occupations of chunks of West Florida but ceded all the rest of both Floridas to the United States. The Louisiana Purchase was acknowledged and its western boundary fixed along the Sabine, Red, and Arkansas Rivers, and then north to the 42nd parallel of latitude. Adams had stubbornly insisted on the west banks, not the centers, of these rivers as constituting the boundary, so as to monopolize them for American commerce. The 42nd

46. See Charles Carroll Griffin, The United States and the Disruption of the Spanish Empire (New York, 1937); Arthur Whitaker, The United States and the Independence of Latin America, 2nd ed. (New York, 1964); John Johnson, A Hemisphere Apart: The Foundations of United States Policy Toward Latin America (Baltimore, 1990).

47. Bemis, Foundations, 317–25, 327–34.

48. Weeks, Global Empire, 55–56, 122.

parallel was identified as the limit of Alta California. North of that line Spain relinquished all of her claims in favor of the United States. Coming on top of the joint occupancy agreement recently concluded with Great Britain over Oregon, this Transcontinental Treaty constituted another big step toward making the United States a two-ocean power. (The maps consulted in the negotiations were inaccurate, so the lines that were drawn on them looked different from the way they would appear on a modern map.) At “near one in the morning,” Adams wrote in his monumental diary, “I closed the day with ejaculations of fervent gratitude to the Giver of all good.... The acknowledgement of a definite line of boundary to the South Sea forms a great epocha [sic] in our history.”49

Of course, the United States had had to give up something in return for these huge concessions by Spain. The Spanish negotiator was nobody’s fool; considering the weakness of his position, Onís did not make a bad bargain for his king.50 In the first place, the U.S. government agreed to pay off claims by private American citizens against the Spanish government, mainly arising out of events in the Napoleonic Wars, up to a limit of $5 million. More important, the United States relinquished the claim that what is now eastern Texas should have been included in the Louisiana Purchase. At the start, Adams had been demanding the Colorado River of Texas as the boundary, but over the course of the negotiations he had gradually retreated to the Sabine. In making this compromise the secretary had been encouraged by the president. Ever sensitive to American domestic politics, Monroe felt that the acquisition of Florida needed to be paired with gains in the Oregon Country, lest northern congressmen complain. Committed to the ideal of consensus, Monroe did not wish to expose the administration to accusations of sectional favoritism by refusing to make concessions over Texas for gains in the Pacific Northwest.51

After the signing of the treaty, two more years of anticlimactic wrangling preceded the exchange of ratifications. Ferdinand VII had secretly granted most of Florida’s lands to several court favorites just before the signing, and the treaty bound the United States to respect the rights of private property. If the grants were allowed to stand, there would be little

49. John Quincy Adams, Memoirs, ed. Charles Francis Adams (Philadelphia, 1875), IV, 274–75; Bemis, Foundations, 334–40.

50. See Philip Coolidge Brooks, Diplomacy and the Borderlands: The Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819 (Berkeley, 1939).

51. Weeks, Global Empire, 123–24, 167–68; Bemis, Foundations, 321. The text of the treaty is reprinted in Brooks, Diplomacy and the Borderlands, 205–14.


land left in Florida for white settlers from the United States. Adams was outraged that he had allowed himself to be outsmarted by this maneuver, and the Americans insisted on having the grants annulled. Meanwhile, several countries in South America made good their struggles for independence and awaited international recognition. The Spanish authorities realized that they could deter the United States from according such recognition by threatening not to ratify the treaty. By 1820, the Monroe administration was making thinly veiled threats to occupy Florida anyway—and Texas as well—if the treaty remained unratified much longer. The bitter pill was sweetened by an assurance from Adams that the United States “probably would not precipitately recognize the independence of the South Americans.”52 Finally, the land grants were revoked and ratifications exchanged in February 1821, two years to the day from the signing of the treaty.

The United States waited sixteen months and then, on June 19, 1822, formally received the first envoy from an independent Gran Colombia (which included Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, and Venezuela). The other new nations to the south were recognized soon thereafter—except for black Haiti, independent from France since 1804, which had to wait until 1862 for recognition by the Lincoln administration. Despite the delay, the United States was the first outside power to recognize the independence of the former Spanish colonies. Henry Clay, whose speeches on behalf of recognition had been welcomed in Latin America, could feel gratified.53 Among the earliest of the Latin American nations to be recognized was Mexico, which as an independent country inherited the boundary that had been negotiated between the United States and Spain such a short time before.

The hemispheric scale of the diplomacy of Monroe and Adams attained explicit statement in the famous Monroe Doctrine. Formulated by Adams and enunciated in Monroe’s State of the Union message of December 1823, the doctrine synthesized the administration’s concerns with Latin America, the Pacific Northwest, and Anglo-American relations. It was to become a fundamental statement of American foreign policy, though it originated in some very specific concerns of the moment.

During the summer of 1823, rumors circulated in diplomatic circles that the Spanish Bourbons might get help to regain their lost empire. The Holy Alliance, an association of the reactionary powers of continental

52. Quoted in Bemis, Foundations, 352.

53. Weeks, Global Empire, 169–74; Bemis, Foundations, 350–62; Henry Clay, “The Independence of Latin America” (March 24, 25, 28, 1818), Papers, ed. Hopkins, II, 512–62.

Europe under the nominal leadership of the Russian tsar, might send an expeditionary force to the New World. The possibility could not altogether be dismissed, since the French army had just intervened to restore Ferdinand VII to power in Spain itself. Neither Britain nor the United States welcomed these reports, which seemed inimical to the strategic and commercial interests of both.54 In August 1823, George Canning, who had become British foreign secretary, suggested that the two countries might issue a joint statement disapproving intervention in the conflict between Spain and its former colonies by any third parties. Canning was continuing the policy Castlereagh had begun, of cordial relations with the United States. Monroe took counsel with ex-presidents Madison and Jefferson, both of whom advised him to cooperate with Canning.55

When he raised the matter with his cabinet, however, Monroe found the secretary of state opposed to a joint declaration. Adams believed (correctly) that the chance of intervention by the Holy Alliance was small, and he argued that the United States would look stronger and risk little if it made a pronouncement of its own, rather than appearing to follow in the British wake.56 Besides a strategy for the United States, Adams was also implementing a personal political strategy that he hoped would make him the next president. This required that he run on his record as a successful vindicator of national self-interest as secretary of state. Being a New Englander and a former Federalist, Adams could not afford the slightest imputation of being pro-British.57

Meantime, another threat to American interests had materialized, one also involving the tsar. In the Pacific Northwest, Russia had been extending its claims from Alaska down into the Oregon Country. In 1821, Tsar Alexander I had issued an imperial ukase (edict) warning foreign ships not to come within a hundred miles of the coast of Russian America, as

54. British trade with Latin America was substantial, and from 1822 on, exceeded British trade with the United States. The United States was also hoping to expand commerce with Latin America. See Charles M. Wiltse, The New Nation (New York, 1961), 78, 86–87, 218.

55. Bradford Perkins, The Creation of a Republican Empire, 1776–1865 (Cambridge, Eng., 1993), 155–65. On Canning’s policy, see Dangerfield, Era of Good Feelings, 249–92. Jefferson’s advice to Monroe, dated Oct. 24, 1823, is printed in TJ: Writings, 1481–83.

56. For the discussions within the cabinet, see Cunningham, Presidency of Monroe, 149–59.

57. See Ernest R. May, The Making of the Monroe Doctrine (Cambridge, Mass., 1975), 181–89. This interpretation of Adams’s motivation is critiqued in Harry Ammon, “The Monroe Doctrine: Domestic Politics or National Decision?” Diplomatic History 5 (1981): 53–70.

Alaska was then called, north of the 51st parallel of latitude. This unilateral assertion of maritime monopoly showed that the Russians were serious competitors for the fur trade and intending to expand their influence in the Pacific Northwest. Both the United States and Britain determined to resist the edict. However, because of their rivalry with each other, it became necessary for the British and Americans to deal separately with the Russians.58

Within the administration, Adams carried the day, as he had on Florida; the president took his advice over that of Calhoun and the ex-presidents. The secretary had already delivered a warning to the tsar (July 17, 1823) against any further colonization in Oregon; on November 27 he presented the Russian minister with another note, this time warning the tsar against intervention by the Holy Alliance in Latin America. The president made it all public by incorporating much of Adams’s language into his own annual message to Congress on December 2. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the issues had been rendered moot. The tsar had already suspended enforcement of his ukase. And in response to pressure from Canning, the French ambassador to Britain, Jules de Polignac, had secretly assured him in October that the continental powers would not meddle in the New World. After Polignac’s promise had become public, Canning boasted to the House of Commons, “I called the New World into existence to redress the balance of the Old.”59 While the Latin American revolutionaries themselves deserved primary credit for the achievement Canning claimed, it was clear enough that Monroe’s pronouncement had come after its precipitating problems had already been resolved. The tsar was not disposed to undertake risky adventures in the Western Hemisphere, either as leader of the Holy Alliance or on behalf of Russia’s own imperial expansion.

The Monroe Doctrine of 1823, as the president set it forth, contained several components.60 (1) The United States proclaimed that the continents

58. The tsar’s ukase and other documents are printed in Charles M. Wiltse, ed., Expansion and Reform, 1815–1850 (New York, 1967), 46–53. The complicated three–way diplomatic maneuvers are related in Irby Nichals and Richard Ward, “Anglo-American Relations and the Russian Ukase,” Pacific Historical Review 41 (1972): 444–59.

59. John Quincy Adams, diary entry for July 19, 1823, in his Memoirs, VI, 163; Edward P. Crapol, “John Quincy Adams and the Monroe Doctrine,” Pacific Historical Review 48 (1979): 413–18; Worthington C. Ford, ed., “Some Original Documents on the Genesis of the Monroe Doctrine,” Massachusetts Historical Society, Proceedings, 2nd ser., 15 (1901–2): 373–436; Canning, Dec. 12, 1826, quoted in Dangerfield, Era of Good Feelings, 306.

60. See James Monroe, “Seventh Annual Message” (Dec. 2, 1823), Presidential Messages, II, 207–20; the doctrine itself is on 209 and 217–19.


of North and South America “are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European power.” (2) The United States declared it would regard any European political intervention in the Western Hemisphere as “dangerous to our peace and safety.” (3) In a gesture of reciprocal isolationism, the United States resolved that it would not intervene in European wars or “internal concerns.” (4) In Adams’s version of the doctrine, the United States also forbade Spain to transfer any of its New World possessions to any other European power. This “no-transfer principle,” as it has been called, was not included in the president’s speech, but it has been treated by U.S. policymakers as being of equal importance with the other components of the doctrine.61

In terms of international power politics, the Monroe Doctrine represented the moment when the United States felt strong enough to assert a “sphere of influence” that other powers must respect. In terms of national psychology, the Monroe Doctrine marked the moment when Americans no longer faced eastward across the Atlantic and turned to face westward across the continent. The changed orientation was reflected in domestic political alignments. In the 1790s, different attitudes toward the French Revolution had been of basic importance in defining the political allegiances of Americans as either Federalists or Republicans. In the second party conflict that would emerge as Monroe’s consensus disintegrated, different attitudes toward westward expansion, Indian policy, and war against Mexico would be correspondingly fundamental. In the 1850s, a third party system would also emerge out of a problem created by westward expansion: the extension of slavery into the territories.

The immediate Russian threat to Oregon was contained when the Americans and British made separate agreements with the Russians in 1824 and 1825 respectively, defining the southern limit of Alaska as 54° 40’ north latitude, its present boundary.62 (The agreements did not affect the Russian trading post at Fort Ross, California, for that was in Mexican territory.) In other areas of the Western Hemisphere, the United States made no early effort to enforce the noncolonization principle; for example, the British occupation of the Falkland Islands in 1833 evoked no U.S. response. For years the Latin American countries traded more with Britain than with the United States and relied more on the Royal Navy than on the Monroe Doctrine for their strategic security. American relations with

61. The no-transfer principle was originally enunciated by resolution of Congress in 1811, at a time when it was feared that Spain might transfer West Florida to a country more capable of defending it. See Cunningham, Presidency of Monroe, 159.

62. Bemis, Foundations, 523–27.

Russia soon became the most amicable of any with a major European power. As a result the Monroe Doctrine proved more important in the long run than in the short run. The United States seriously invoked the Monroe Doctrine for the first time only after the Civil War, when it persuaded Napoleon III to withdraw French military support from Maximilian von Hapsburg in Mexico. Thereafter the doctrine loomed increasingly large in the American public imagination.63

The Monroe Doctrine was destined to become a durable force in the shaping of U.S. public opinion and foreign policy. A hundred years later, in 1923, Mary Baker Eddy spoke for millions of Americans when she declared, “I believe strictly in the Monroe Doctrine, in our Constitution, and in the laws of God.” The doctrine’s influence was felt as late as the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, although by then the policy of renouncing U.S. intervention in Europe had been abandoned. The doctrine always remained purely a unilateral policy statement, never recognized in international law. The Latin American nations whom it claimed to protect resented its presumption of U.S. hegemony, especially in the years when the “Theodore Roosevelt corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine asserted a right to intervene militarily in Latin America. In the twentieth century, multilateral pan-American agreements gradually took the place of the Monroe Doctrine and led to the founding of the Organization of American States. But no one doubts that the United States still regards the Western Hemisphere as its special sphere of influence, whether or not the Monroe Doctrine is mentioned when defending it.64


The word “nationalism” did not come into usage until the 1830s, but the attitude antedated the name for it. Madison’s bank, Monroe’s aspiration to one-party government, Jackson’s invasion of Florida, and Adams’s assertive diplomacy: All displayed in one form or another the American nationalism characteristic of the period immediately after the War of 1812. These public policies paralleled the celebrations on national festivals like presidential inaugurations or the Fourth of July. But for national unity to acquire a tangible meaning, as opposed to a purely ideological one, required the country to become much more integrated economically.

63. See Leopold, Growth of American Foreign Policy, 41–53; Perkins, Republican Empire, 165–69.

64. Dexter Perkins, A History of the Monroe Doctrine (Boston, 1963); Mary Baker Eddy is quoted on ix. See also Donald M. Dozer, ed., The Monroe Doctrine: Its Modern Significance (Tempe, Ariz., 1976).

Surprisingly, one of the most important achievements of national economic integration came about not through the efforts of the national government, nor from those of private enterprise, but by the initiative of a single state. This state was New York; its project, the Erie Canal.

The Erie Canal extended from Albany on the Hudson River to Buffalo on Lake Erie. The veto of the Bonus Bill in early 1817 had dashed any hope that Congress might make a contribution toward the undertaking; some were cynical enough to think that Madison’s constitutional scruples against the bill might have been influenced by a reluctance to help New York in its economic rivalry with Virginia. After Madison’s veto, the New York legislature put together a funding package of its own for the canal. Planners took advantage of an opening through the Appalachians discovered centuries earlier by the Iroquois, who had made it a trade route. The canal realized the dream of New York’s Governor DeWitt Clinton, formerly mayor of New York City and an admirer of the Iroquois who called them “the Romans of the western world.” Derided by opponents as “Clinton’s big ditch,” the proposed canal seemed like “madness” to Thomas Jefferson. A coalition of Federalist and Republican business interests supported the undertaking. The New York City workingmen, organized through Tammany Hall, feared it would lead to higher taxes and opposed it. Martin Van Buren, Clinton’s arch-rival in the New York Republican Party, fought against the canal until the last minute; when legislative passage was assured in April 1817, he switched sides. Such sleight-of-hand gave Van Buren his nickname, “The Little Magician.” Once functioning, the canal became overwhelmingly popular in the state.65

DeWitt Clinton called the Erie Canal “a work more stupendous, more magnificent, and more beneficial than has hitherto been achieved by the human race.” He might be forgiven an excess of rhetorical zeal; most contemporaries found the canal an extraordinary triumph of human art over nature. The completed canal ran for 363 miles (the longest previous American canal extended 26 miles); workers dug it forty feet wide and four feet deep, with eighteen aqueducts and eighty-three locks to overcome changes in elevation totaling 675 feet.66 To make use of Lake Ontario for part of the course would have been cheaper, but planners feared that route would not be militarily secure in case of another war with

65. Evan Cornog, The Birth of Empire: DeWitt Clinton and the American Experience (New York, 1998), 121; Carol Sheriff, The Artificial River (New York, 1996), 21–22, 27; Ronald Shaw, Erie Water West (Lexington, Ky., 1966), 62–80.

66. DeWitt Clinton quoted in Daniel Feller, The Jacksonian Promise (Baltimore, 1995), 16; Shaw, Erie Water West, 87–88.

Britain. Besides, once boats got into Lake Ontario they might be tempted to follow the St. Lawrence to Montreal instead of the Hudson to New York City. So the canal route reflected its designers’ policy as well as their technology. To the generation that built it and benefited from it, the canal exemplified a “second creation” by human ingenuity perfecting the original divine creation and carrying out its potential for human betterment. What man had wrought became, indirectly, what God had wrought.67

Work began at Rome, New York, at dawn on the Fourth of July 1817. The date was no accident: The canal’s promoters saw economic development as fulfilling the promise of the American Revolution. With no adequate engineering training available in the United States, the engineers and contractors learned as they went along. They dug the level central section of ninety-four miles first. When it came time to construct the more challenging eastern and western termini, toll revenues from the completed segments were already more than paying interest on the bonded debt the state had incurred. Contracts were let to local builders, sometimes for only a fraction of a mile of construction, to allow many small businessmen to participate. About three-quarters of the nine thousand laborers were upstate New Yorkers, native born Americans of Dutch or Yankee descent, perhaps surplus workers out of the agricultural sector whose sisters would go off to textile mills. The rest were mostly Irish immigrants, as almost all canal diggers would be within a generation. (On July 12, 1824, a riot erupted at Lockport between rival mobs of Catholic and Protestant Irish workmen.)68

The Erie Canal represented the first step in the transportation revolution that would turn an aggregate of local economies into a nationwide market economy. Within a few years the canal was carrying $15 million worth of goods annually, twice as much as floated down the Mississippi to New Orleans.69 Wheat flour from the Midwest was stored in New York alongside the cotton that the city obtained from the South through its domination of the coastal trade; both could then be exported across the Atlantic. New York merchants began to buy wheat and cotton from their producers before shipping them to the New York warehouses. Soon the merchants learned to buy the crops before they were even grown; that is,

67. Sheriff, Artificial River, 19; Julius Rubin, “An Innovating Public Improvement,” in Canals and American Economic Development, ed. Carter Goodrich (New York, 1961), 15–66; David Nye, America as Second Creation (Cambridge, Mass., 2003), 151–54.

68. Sheriff, Artificial River, 36; Shaw, Erie Water West, 132.

69. Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution (New York, 1991), 43.


Contemporary depiction of technology devised to dig the Erie Canal. The horse inside the base of the crane supplies power to lift debris blasted out by gunpowder. From Cadwallader Colden, Memoir Prepared for the Celebration of the Completion of the New York Canals, 1825. Courtesy of the New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

they would advance the grower money on the security of his harvest. Thus the city’s power in commercial markets fostered its development as a financial center.

Meanwhile, New York City had adopted (in 1817) an auction system for imports that made it attractive to merchants shipping high-quality textiles from Manchester and Leeds, iron, steel, and tools from Sheffield and Birmingham in England, or wines from continental Europe. Traditionally, passengers had to wait around a port city until their ship’s hold filled with cargo. Commencing in January 1818, a transatlantic service from New York to Liverpool provided passengers with scheduled sailings for the first time; people called its ships “packets” because they had a government contract to carry packets of mail. New York also came to outdistance Boston in the China trade. Finally, the founding of the New York Stock Exchange in 1817 made it easier for entrepreneurs to raise capital from investors. When the Erie Canal reinforced all these other developments, together they made New York the most attractive place in the country to do business on a large scale. Jobs multiplied, and as a result the city grew in population from 125,000 in 1820 to over half a million by 1850. New York had redrawn the economic map of the United States and put itself at the center.70


The modern scholar Benedict Anderson has called nations “imagined communities.”71 Certainly it required some imaginative power to think of the enormous and diverse extent of the United States as constituting a single nation in the days before the railroad and the telegraph. Many orators and politicians exercised their imagination in the creation of American nationalism. But no imagination of a unified national identity would have more lasting significance than the jurisprudence of the United States Supreme Court under Chief Justice Marshall.

In 1815, John Marshall turned sixty years old and had been chief justice for fourteen years. He had already made a huge mark in history through his assertion of judicial review. In Marbury v. Madison (1803) he had declared an act of Congress unconstitutional; even more importantly, he had extended this power to state legislation in Fletcher v. Peck (1810). Marshall had not been President Adams’s first choice for his job, and he had

70. John Lauritz Larson, Internal Improvement (2001), 73–80. See also Robert G. Albion, The Rise of New York Port (New York, 1939); Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (New York, 1999).

71. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, 2nd ed. (London, 1991).

been confirmed without enthusiasm by the Federalist-controlled lame duck Senate of January 1801.72 But while Federalism withered away as a party, and failed to nurture a conservative political philosophy, Marshall preserved its legacy through his jurisprudence. The values the chief justice defended on the bench were those of the Augustan Enlightenment: He believed in the supremacy of reason over passion, the general welfare over parties and factions, the national government over the states, and the wise, virtuous gentry over the mob. He admired George Washington, under whom he had served at Valley Forge, and made time between court terms to write a multivolume biography of his hero. Marshall felt a deep respect for the rights of property, having worked hard himself to become a man of substance; as late as 1829, he endorsed property qualifications for voting.

His friends among the Virginia gentry found Marshall a hearty companion, enthusiastic sportsman, and appreciative wine-drinker. Unlike his cousin Thomas Jefferson he showed no inclination toward science or philosophy; Marshall preferred lighter reading like Jane Austen novels. Between Jefferson and Marshall there existed a bitter personal enmity of long standing. Ironically, of the two, Marshall possessed more of the common touch.73

The most important of Marshall’s personal qualities was the respect he commanded among his colleagues on the bench. In thirty-four years on the Supreme Court he almost always persuaded a majority to go along with his point of view. Although the justices spent much of the year “riding circuit” to try cases and hear appeals from federal district courts, when they were in Washington they all lived together in a single boardinghouse. (Their families, like those of congressmen, remained in their homes scattered about the country and did not set up residences in Washington.) In their boardinghouse the justices bonded closely together, which helps explain their tendency to decide cases unanimously. The chief justice approached the law with a practical rather than scholarly aim, relying upon his colleagues on the bench for supplementary learning. The associate justice who would prove Marshall’s most valuable coadjutor was the formidably learned Joseph Story of Massachusetts, who had joined the supreme bench in 1811. Appointed by Madison, young

72. Charles Warren, The Supreme Court in United States History (Boston, 1923), I, 172–78.

73. See Charles F. Hobson, The Great Chief Justice: John Marshall and the Rule of Law (Lawrence, Kans., 1996), 1–25.

Story reflected the new views of the nationalist wing of the Republican Party.74

Surprisingly enough, the major constitutional case confronting the Court in the winter of 1815–16 involved John Marshall not as chief justice but as an interested party in the suit. Back in 1793, Marshall, along with his brother and brother-in-law, had invested in 160,000 acres of land on the Northern Neck of Virginia. Their syndicate bought the land from the heir of Lord Fairfax, who had been one of the largest Loyalist landowners at the time of the Revolution. But the title conveyed to the Marshalls by their purchase was open to question. In 1779, the state of Virginia had laid claim to Fairfax’s land as part of a policy of confiscating the property of Loyalists. The Marshalls were relying on the 1783 peace treaty between Britain and the United States, which stipulated that confiscations from Loyalists would be restored and their property respected. However, state courts were notoriously unenthusiastic about enforcing the rights of Loyalists, and Virginia had subsequently conveyed some of the Fairfax land to other parties. Another complication was the fact that it was not clear whether Lord Fairfax’s will leaving the land to his nephew in England was valid under Virginia common law.

Jay’s treaty with Great Britain reaffirmed British and Loyalist property rights in 1795, strengthening the case for the Marshalls. But their local political position was weak, since Federalists had become almost as unpopular in most of Virginia as the Loyalists from whom their title to the land derived, and the landlords compounded their unpopularity by billing their tenants for quitrents, the feudal dues Lord Fairfax had collected in colonial times. In 1796, the state legislature enacted a compromise that divided the Fairfax lands between the Marshall syndicate and the commonwealth. But one legal issue was left unresolved: Had the state of Virginia the right to sell a parcel of the land to David Hunter long before the compromise had been enacted? Title to this part of the former Fairfax estate remained in litigation even after the legislative compromise.75 In 1809, the Virginia Court of Appeals (state supreme court) found for Hunter, upholding the confiscation act of 1779 and invalidating the Marshalls’ title to the tract in question. The opinion was written by Spencer Roane, the leading judicial exponent of state rights, son-in-law of Patrick Henry, and the man Thomas Jefferson would have liked to appoint chief

74. G. Edward White, The Marshall Court and Cultural Change (New York, 1988), 158–64; R. Kent Newmyer, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story (Chapel Hill, 1985).

75. The complicated reasons why the legislative compromise did not resolve this issue are explained in The Papers of John Marshall, vol. 8, ed. Charles F. Hobson (Chapel Hill, 1995), 108–26.

justice of the United States. Because rights involving a federal treaty had been called into question, the Marshalls were able to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Of course John Marshall recused (disqualified) himself from participating in the decision, and the opinion of the court was delivered in 1813 by Story. Story completely reversed Roane’s decision, declaring that the state confiscation had been invalidated by federal treaty, Fairfax’s will was valid under Virginia’s common law, and the Marshalls’ title to the disputed tract was confirmed.76

The case took an even more surprising turn when the Virginia Court of Appeals refused to obey the decision of the United States Supreme Court. Spencer Roane claimed that final authority to define Virginia law had to rest with Virginia’s own highest court, and that the U.S. Supreme Court had no power to review its decisions. He called the Constitution of the United States a “compact” to which the states were parties and cited the favorite proof-text of Jeffersonian state-righters, Madison’s Virginia Resolutions of 1798. Roane went so far as to declare that section 25 of the United States Judiciary Act, authorizing appeals from the highest state courts to the U.S. Supreme Court, was unconstitutional! When John Marshall learned of this, he wrote out an appeal petition in his own hand and took it to Associate Justice Bushrod Washington (nephew of George) to endorse for hearing at the next term of the Supreme Court, just weeks away.77 Since the Virginia court refused to forward the record of the case for review, files on it had to be hastily assembled. This time around, the case bore the name Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee. (Martin was the person who had sold the land to the Marshalls and whose title they had to validate.)

Once again, Story delivered the opinion. Now he was not so much concerned with the merits of the lawsuit as with defending the jurisdiction of his court. His opinion was a comprehensive vindication of the logical necessity and constitutionality of a single ultimate interpreter of the law. Instead of treating the federal Constitution as a compact among the states, Story characterized it as the act of a sovereign national people.

76. Fairfax’s Devisee v. Hunter’s Lessee, 11 U.S. (7 Cranch) 603 (1813); White, Marshall Court, 165–67; Newmyer, Joseph Story, 106–7; F. Thornton Miller, “John Marshall versus Spencer Roane,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 96 (1988): 297–314; Jean Edward Smith, John Marshall: Definer of a Nation (New York, 1996), 426–30. By this time the Marshalls had sold the land; those who had bought from them were confirmed in their possession.

77. An extraordinary act, given that Marshall had recused himself from participation in the case, but the handwriting seems conclusive. See White, Marshall Court, 167–73; and the exchange between Charles Hobson and G. Edward White, WMQ 59 (2002): 331–38.

Even William Johnson, a friend of Jefferson and the associate justice with the most sympathy for Roane’s point of view, concurred in the decision, though he filed a separate and more restrained opinion. In Richmond, the authorities chose to pretend they were complying with Justice Johnson’s opinion rather than Justice Story’s. They remained unconvinced of their subordination to the federal tribunal and would raise the jurisdictional issue again in the future.78

The judgment of history on the judgments of the courts must be qualified. Of course Story has been absolutely vindicated in asserting the right of the United States Supreme Court to hear appeals from state supreme courts. This, the major point at issue, is fundamental to ensuring legal uniformity throughout the country. On the other hand, Roane had a legitimate point too: the state courts came to be accepted as final arbiters of their own laws, except insofar as these conflict with the federal Constitution, laws, and treaties. Story presumed not only to decide the conflict issue, but also to overrule the state court on the meaning of Virginia’s own common law regarding the validity of the Fairfax will, a matter in which no issue of federal law was involved.79

Story had echoed the new Republican nationalism. His opinion represented the judicial counterpart of the legislative nationalism of Clay and Calhoun. Nor was Story embarrassed that his kind of Republicanism seemed so similar to John Marshall’s Federalism. When the chief saw his opinion, Story felt pleased that Marshall “concurred in every word of it.”80

Before long, Monroe’s Era of Good Feelings would splinter, and the different kinds of nationalism that flourished together briefly in his first term would be at loggerheads. American “nationalism” developed a variety of permutations. The judicial nationalism of Marshall and Story endorsed the legislative nationalist program of banking and internal improvements. But Andrew Jackson would encourage another kind of nationalism, based on territorial expansion, that embraced the strict constructionism of Spencer Roane. In the United States no less than in other nineteenth-century countries, nationalism turned out to be a concept that aroused strong feelings but could mean different things to different people. As communications improved in the years ahead, rival interests and rival leaders seized the opportunity to press their rival nationalisms on the public.

78. Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee, 14 U.S. (1 Wheaton) 304 (1816); Warren, Supreme Court, I, 442–53; Newmyer, Joseph Story, 107–11.

79. For a technical legal analysis of the case, see David P. Currie, The Constitution in the Supreme Court: The First Hundred Years (Chicago, 1985), 91–96.

80. Story quoted in Newmyer, Joseph Story, 111.

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