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The odd couple who won Florida and half the West The General's invasion outraged Congress and the King of Spain, but the Secretary of State turned the scandal into a diplomatic coup The Congress knew nothing of the operation. The President later denied that he had ever given it a green light. But the brash American officer who did the deed in the name of American national security claimed he had the full backing of the executive branch of his government. The escapade caused an international furor, indeed an international crisis, and outraged members of both the Senate and the House of Representatives called for investigations. Many congressmen demanded public disavowal by the President and punishment of the officer in question. Just at the moment when such consequences seemed unavoidable, the Secretary of State stepped boldly forward to salvage the officer's name, silencing criticism at home and abroad.
It was the troubled winter of 1817-18. The United States had still not recovered from the War of 1812 with Great Britain, which had bitterly divided the nation and seen the near-secession of the New England states, whose livelihood depended on shipping. Because the British had burned the White House, the Capitol and many public buildings (SMITHSONIAN, September 1987), James Monroe, a forthright if sometimes indecisive Virginian, became the first American President to take the oath of office out-of-doors. The wrangling Congress, meanwhile, was obliged to carry on its often-raucous proceedings in the Patent Office. New England's leaders had been prevented from shattering the American Union during the war only by the eleventh-hour negotiation of the Treaty of Ghent in December 1814, and by the astonishing American victory won at New Orleans under the command of Andrew Jackson a month later.
President Monroe was eager to put his energy and talent to the task of avoiding any new international crises, hoping to mend not only the American capital but also the divided national spirit. Soon after his Inauguration, he embarked on a personal tour of New England prompting at least one observer to predict the start of an "era of good feelings."
Nonetheless, in 1817 two powerful Americans did not share Monroe's desire for a pacific posture at home and abroad. One was Andrew Jackson, an ambitious general and bellicose frontier nationalist whose driving obsession was the security of the United States. The other was the country's new Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, son of a President, America's foremost diplomat and a man whose ascetic, intellectual lifestyle stood in sharp contrast to that of the whip-wielding slaveholder, Jackson.
Adams had headed the American negotiating team at Ghent, barely winning a stalemate. As the architect of the victory at New Orleans, Jackson was well aware that he had simply smashed one badly led British army, doing little to change Britain's global reach and strident grasp. The border and trade disputes that had originally helped force James Madison into declaring war against Great Britain were still unresolved. So it was that in the early months of the Monroe Administration, Jackson and Adams shared an overriding concern for the nation's security. As they saw it, despite the war, the United States of 1817 was every bit as vulnerable as the United States of 1812.
As depicted in the fairly rough maps of North America of the time, the area that preoccupied both men was that sizable tract of land south of the border, whose outline resembled a massive, threatening pistol--the Spanish provinces of East and West Florida. The butt of this pistol was the peninsula of East Florida, a largely swampy region with a long and strategic coastline. The pistol's trigger guard, the valley of the Apalachicola River, then the boundary between East and West Florida, was made up of some of the best farmland in the Southeast. And its barrel, a long strip of fertile land slicing under Alabama and Mississippi, pointed menacingly at the Mississippi River, the most coveted commercial artery in North America.
Adams and Jackson held that without control of these provinces, then filled with hostile Indians, runaway slaves, foreign adventurers and duplicitous Spanish officials, there could be no real territorial security for the United States, and no safe process of westward expansion, let alone a secure export route through New Orleans. Spain, though officially bound by the Pinckney Treaty of 1795 to restrain Indian tribes and British adventurers from raiding American settlers over the border, had neither the will nor the troops to do …