West Florida Republic: The birth of US imperialism
- 20 June 2012
- From the section Magazine
In 1810, a colourful group of ambitious Anglo-American Louisianans declared a swathe of Spain's West Florida colony an independent nation. More than 200 years later, Rod Dreher explores the revival of West Florida rebel nationalism.
I, for one, have always hated that James Madison.
Actually, this is not exactly true. Until practically the day before yesterday, I revered America's fourth president as the author of the Bill of Rights and the Father of the US Constitution.
Yes, Madison may have kicked off the happily forgotten War of 1812 with the crackpot idea of invading Canada to spread democracy and seize its poutine mines, or some such thing.
The Washington war hawks predicted a cakewalk for the Americans ("a mere matter of marching," Thomas Jefferson reckoned), but it turned into a total debacle when three attempts to invade Canada were repulsed by five guys named Lorne.
If the War of 1812 had been the only imperialistic blot on Madison's record, forgiving him that lapse would have been effortless.
Alas, Madison had been a land-grabber from way back, though American history books hide this embarrassing fact. I only discovered it last year when I returned to live in St Francisville, my south Louisiana hometown.
I took up residence in an old house two blocks away from a monument on the courthouse square.
Not only had this concrete structure - a star atop a pillar - been erected after I first left, but the townspeople had taken to flying from their front porches a blue flag emblazoned with a large white star.
This turns out to be an expression of a revived nationalist pride.
For 74 days, our little town was the capital of the West Florida Republic, a tiny nation on the North American continent.
In fact, we, not Canada, were the first victims of American imperialism.
According to one historian, the hostile annexation of the West Florida Republic - a territory stretching from the Mississippi River eastward to the Perdido River, the current border of the American states of Alabama and Florida - was "one of the most tragically overlooked events in American history".
In 1803, Madison, then Jefferson's secretary of state, handled the transfer of the Louisiana Purchase, in which the United States bought French-held North American territory from Napoleon Bonaparte.
Though a transaction of dubious legality, it nevertheless doubled the size of US territory in a single stroke.
The sale did not include all of the president-day state of Louisiana. In fact, the Spanish crown held a thin strip of coastal land stretching from the east bank of the Mississippi River - including modern-day West Feliciana Parish - to the Florida peninsula.
Unfortunately for the Spanish, West Feliciana, like most of Louisiana's so-called Florida Parishes, was inhabited not by Castilians, but by settlers of Scots-Irish and English descent.
Those included loyalist Tory refugees from the American Revolution, who had fled to the region when it was under British sovereignty.
Jefferson figured it wasn't worth challenging Spain militarily over the Florida territory, anticipating that the influx of English-speaking settlers would eventually make the territory's absorption by the US a fait accompli.
It was a reasonable assumption: The region's Spanish commandant described its people as "inclined to insubordination and prone to insurgency".
William Claiborne, then the American governor of Orleans Territory on the west side of the Mississippi River and, later, the first governor of the state of Louisiana, said of the Florida Parishes: "A more heterogeneous mass of good and evil was never before met in the same extent of territory."
In 1810, a cabal of the planters' elite gathered in a hotel in downtown St Francisville to begin plotting the revolution.
On 23 September, rebel insurrectionists sneaked into the lightly defended Spanish fort in Baton Rouge and raised the "Bonnie Blue" flag of the nascent West Florida Republic - a white star on a blue field - over colonial headquarters.
The capital of North America's first Lone Star Republic - sorry, Texas - was St Francisville. Its president was a former American diplomat named Fulwar Skipwith.
To be sure, the West Floridians talked about the glories of national independence, but they intended to become Americans, if on their own terms. Skipwith's first address to the legislature was a farrago of gassy folderol.
"We are then entitled to independence, and wherever the voice of justice and humanity can be heard, our declaration, and our just rights will be respected," he said.
"But the blood which flows in our veins, like the tributary streams which form and sustain the father of rivers, encircling our delightful country, will return if not impeded, to the heart of our parent country."
One week later, on Madison's plainly unconstitutional orders and over the objections of the Skipwith government, Gov Claiborne sent troops over the river to seize the capital of the new nation and execute an Anschluss to the United States. The West Florida Republic had lasted only 74 days.
Historian William Belko describes the Yankee imperialist gesture as the first seeds of Manifest Destiny - the 19th Century ideology under which the US government justified expanding American settlement across the North American continent.
It all started in my backyard - with an American invasion of our friendly nation. Two years later, Madison sent troops into Canada in an attempt to annex Ontario. They ought to have seen it coming.
The political economist Robert Higgs has unhelpfully declared that this story "presents us with few genuine heroes".
He declares that, Skipwith excepted, all the rebellion's leaders "seem to have been land-grabbers, adventurers, or job-seekers".
So what? Andrew Jackson defeated the British in the Battle of New Orleans, the final act of the War of 1812, with the help of the pirate Jean Lafitte. As our state's fragrant political history shows, we Louisiana folks have no problem with public-spirited rogues.
Anyway, you cannot imagine how encouraging it was finally to discover that I, not a member of any recognised victim demographic, could join a grievance claque. I, a victim of US imperialism! Help, help, I'm being oppressed!
Naturally, I am caucusing with latter-day adventurers in these parts to mount a Crusade for West Floridian Dignity when West Florida Independence Day rolls around this fall.
If we, the sons and daughters of noble Skipwith, cannot have our independence back, then we deserve reparations. The tyrant Obama must hear the voice of justice and humanity. It's saying, "Send beer, podna , and all will be forgiven!"
Alas, time has largely tamed us West Floridians, who count ourselves as patriotic Americans.
So why does one see more Bonnie Blue flags flying from front porches all over St Francisville these days? It probably has to do with a rediscovered pride in long-forgotten local history, and a sense of particularity worth celebrating amid an ever-homogenising culture of 21st Century America.
We may be Tories to the marrow, but we are eccentrics to our fingertips. We are churchgoers and reliable Republicans, and we love that a local drag queen has a float in the town Christmas parade.
In the end, a merry rebellion against the boring hegemony of strip-mall America may be the best thing we can offer the nation that devoured us. In the imaginative sense, we West Floridians still have a fine republic, if we can keep it weird.
Rod Dreher blogs at The American Conservative's website.