THE PLOT TO STEAL FLORIDA
(*The Plot To Steal Florida* by Joseph Burkholder Smith. New
York: Arbor House, 1983. ISBN: 0-87795-477-1)
In the purchase of the Louisiana Territory, then-Secretary of
State James Madison and his assistant, James Monroe, connived in
making the eastern boundaries of that territory uncertain. They
were plotting to eventually use the pretext of unclear boundaries
as part of the justification for seizing "the Floridas."
Like with later U.S. covert operations (such as the
Spanish-American War, such as the overthrow of Salvador Allende
in Chile, such as the Bay of Pigs fiasco, such as the Gulf of
Tonkin incident, such as the Persian Gulf War), a similar pattern
occurred during President James Madison's Florida intrigues: "a
preliminary propaganda phase -- working up excitement in and
about the target -- then the organizing of a 'patriot government'
opposed to the group we wished to get rid of, then an armed
attack by the 'patriots' on the nearest legitimate authority...
then an appeal to the United States government to assume control
and restore 'order,' a call which the United States government
usually answered." From the Florida plot, to the Bay of Pigs and
beyond, the basic technique has remained the same.
James Madison, married to the extravagant Dolley Madison (she, 17
years his junior), was as opposite to his wife as night and day.
A taciturn, morose man, James Madison may have been sexually
impotent, suggests author Joseph Burkholder Smith in his book,
*The Plot To Steal Florida*. Dolley Madison, according to some
indications, may have had a history of sexual indiscretions.
Madison and his cronies also liked their liquor, often drinking
to excess. He also suffered from hemorrhoids and was often
accused of "living on laudanum" (an opium derivative).
According to James Madison, the Floridas would sooner or later
belong to the U.S. "because their position and the MANIFEST
COURSE OF EVENTS guarantees an early and reasonable acquisition
of them." (Emphasis added.) This concept of "manifest course of
events" later, in subsequent administrations, became known as
Instead of a direct invasion of the Floridas, which would have
caused diplomatic problems, Madison decided on a more subtle
approach. He sent secret agents to the Floridas to stir up a
"patriotic movement." These agents offered bribes, principally
promises of land, to Americans already living in the region. The
"patriots" were to declare independence from Spain and "request
support and assistance from the United States."
Chief among the secret agents sent by Madison was the aged
Revolutionary War general, George Mathews. General Mathews, "a
short old man who spoke with an Irish brogue... and who insisted
on wearing one of the three-cornered hats that everyone wore when
George Washington was president," was assigned the task of spying
on the Spanish government in the area and assessing the chances
for the planned coup d'etat.
In December of 1810, "West Florida," an area roughly
corresponding to the Florida panhandle, was successfully annexed
into the United States, as part of the Territory of Orleans. But
"East Florida," the large peninsula jutting out into the oceans,
could not be so easily claimed as already included in the
Louisiana Purchase. Ponce de Leon had established the Spanish
claim to the area in 1521, and large cattle ranches thrived in
East Florida. By 1810, East Florida enjoyed increasing
prosperity and this led to its being coveted by persons north of
On January 15, 1811, Congress passed an Act "to enable the
President of the United States, under certain contingencies, to
take possession of [East Florida], and =for other purposes.="
(Emphasis added) "Those last three little words," writes Smith,
"were fateful. They gave Madison blank-check authority for
covert action." Those last few words, "and for other purposes,"
bring to mind the National Security Act of 1947 which established
the Central Intelligence Agency [CIA]. The CIA was originally
meant to function only as a central clearinghouse of intelligence
already provided to it by other agencies. Yet the 1947 Act
establishing CIA also, incidentally and in passing, allowed CIA
to "perform such services of common concern... and such other
functions... as the NSC [National Security Council] may from time
to time direct." Those last little, "incidental," words, both in
the 1811 Act and the 1947 Act, opened up a pandora's box.
General Mathews circulated amongst U.S. citizens already owning
property in East Florida, and especially recruited his "patriot
army" from settlers in southern Georgia. In return for their
assistance, offers of free land were given. Mathews sought to
stir up a "rebellion" as pretext for U.S. troops coming in and
"restoring order." But British spies by now were aware of what
was going on. British minister to Washington William Wyllys
wrote a stern letter to James Monroe, charging secret agent
Mathews with "corresponding with traitors, and... endeavoring by
bribery and every act of seduction to infuse a spirit of
rebellion into the subjects of the King of Spain." Since the
British were allied with Spain against the French, they did not
look kindly on U.S. attempts to grab East Florida. Understand
too that Spain was a hugely Catholic country and that the Vatican
must have had some interest in the affair. (British spies and
Catholic spies later swarmed throughout the south, just prior to
the American Civil War.)
In East Florida lived a large colony of escaped slaves. These
escaped slaves worked as tenant farmers for the Seminole Indians,
who also resided in the region. If East Florida were to be
annexed by the United States, both the escaped slaves and the
Seminoles feared what would come next.
The upshot is that the "spontaneous rebellion" and consequent
hopes of seizing East Florida for the U.S. were thwarted. Part
of what derailed the plot was the arrival of The War of 1812,
during which British troops burned Washington, D.C. to the
ground. President Madison had other worries on his mind, so the
grab of East Florida was put aside. Another factor was the
resistance put up by escaped black slaves and Seminole Indians:
"Bowlegs," half-brother of Chief Payne, went on the warpath. The
Spanish Governor helped instigate the Indian uprising by claiming
he was unable to deliver his usual gifts to the Seminoles due to
"the disruption of the Indian trade" caused by "white invaders."
Bands of Indian and black warriors began killing the "white
invaders." Fearing for the safety of their families, the
"patriot army" shouldered their muskets and headed north to
protect their homes.
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