On May 24, 1818, General Andrew Jackson occupied Pensacola, then the capital of the Spanish province of Florida. This was the terminus of an expedition in which his forces had destroyed a band of marauders which had been preying on the southern edges of U.S. territory from bases in Spanish territory. Jackson’s incursion, which also involved the hanging of two British subjects, led the Monroe administration to fear for its diplomatic efforts to purchase Florida, as well as for its relations with Great Britain. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, however, understood Jackson’s raid as an example of how American national security is to be served. His letters to Luis de Onís, Spain’s ambassador to Washington, on July 23, and to the Spanish court via George W. Erving, the U.S. minister in Madrid on November 28, are authoritative texts on how to deal with international terrorists effectively and lawfully.
During the war of 1812, Great Britain had fostered raids into U.S territory from Spanish Florida by Seminole Indians and escaped black slaves. The bands working loosely under British Colonel Edward Nicolls from a fort at St. Marks sustained themselves by selling their plunder. The war over and Nicolls withdrawn, the bands continued their depredations guided by British adventurers Alexander Arbuthnot and Robert Ambrister. The U.S. War Department had ordered Jackson not to enter Spanish territory except in hot pursuit. At a certain point, however, Jackson had seen enough of the terrorists’ horrors and examples of the Spanish authorities’ complicity with them that he decided to put a stop to the situation. Having killed such Indians and escaped slaves as his regiments encountered, he captured the Brits, ceremoniously court-martialed and hanged them. Then he captured the capital, chasing out its corrupt governor. Spain protested and Britain grumbled.
Adams’s letters recapitulated the arguments by which he had persuaded President Monroe and the rest of the cabinet that Jackson’s actions should be celebrated rather than punished. To de Onís, he cited the Spanish governor’s repeated professions of “incompetency” in restraining the terrorist bands, as he had been bound to do by treaty as well as by customary international law. That inability to act on its own soil to secure the American people’s elementary interest in their own safety made it incumbent on the U.S. government to act on that soil to secure it. But the Spanish governor had been worse than incompetent. He had been complicitous and had shared in the terrorists’ loot. Jackson would return control of Pensacola to any Spanish official who swore to uphold Spain’s obligations to the United States, and the fort in “Indian country” to any Spanish force large enough to maintain it against the marauding bands’ remnants. As for Arbuthnot and Ambrister, Adams’s letter to the Spanish court—intended for the British government and press as well—presented chapter and verse to show that they fit every conceivable definition of piracy, and that Jackson, by hanging them after a trial in which their piracy had been documented, had served the interests of all civilized nations. Britain was persuaded. Spain bowed to reality.