GLEN COVE, NY — Virginia Republicans occupied the
White House from 1801 to 1825, the golden age of American diplomacy.
During that time, the United States grew from a small nation to the
dominant power in the Western Hemisphere.
Thomas Jefferson, third
President of the United States, was in
office from 1801 to 1809
When Thomas Jefferson became President in 1801, imperial
powers hemmed in the United States on three sides. To the north
were the British Colonies of Upper Canada and Lower Canada. To
the south were the Spanish colonies of East Florida and West Florida.
On the west bank of the Mississippi River was the French colony
At the end of the French and Indian War, Britain acquired Canada
(then called “Quebec”) and all of Louisiana, except
New Orleans and a small surrounding area, from France. About the
same time, Britain also acquired Florida from Spain (along with
additional French territory). The acquisition divided Florida into
East Florida (approximately the present state of Florida) and West
Florida along the Gulf Coast of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
In 1783, Spain acquired both Floridas from Britain; in 1800, France
acquired Louisiana from Spain.
One of the first challenges facing Jefferson was the need to ensure
access for American commerce on the Mississippi River and the Gulf
of Mexico. Spain had interfered with this right during the administration
of John Adams and in violation of a treaty with the United States.
Jefferson offered to buy a piece of the Gulf Coast from France.
France responded by offering to sell all of Louisiana to the United
The sale, which was completed in 1803, gave the United States a vast
new territory, control of both banks of the Mississippi River, and
a major port city on the Gulf of Mexico. Ohio was admitted to the Union
in the same year, joining Kentucky and Tennessee as states and furthering
the westward expansion of the nation.
As great as Jefferson’s accomplishment was, diplomatic challenges
remained. Indians in parts of the Northwest Territory (especially today’s
Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin) waged war against American
settlers with arms supplied by the British and Canadians. The Indians
in the other western territory, Mississippi, were at times hostile.
The British maintained illegal forts in the Northwest Territory and
seized American seamen from American ships on the slightest suspicion
that they were British born. The United States fought skirmishes with
the Spanish over the border between Louisiana and West Florida.
James Madison, fourth
president of the United States,
was in office from 1809 to 1817
James Madison inherited these problems in 1809.
He had an opportunity to deal with the Florida border problem
the following year when the people of West Florida declared their
independence from Spain. The United States soon annexed West
Florida, providing a port at Mobile in addition to one at New
Orleans, and a long Gulf coastline. In 1812, Louisiana was admitted
to the Union, confirming Madison’s expansionist policy
to the South and West.
Madison had with an opportunity to deal with the Indian problem
in the Northwest Territory. A de facto war was being waged
between the tribes following Tecumseh, aided and supplied by
British and Canadians, and the United States. In 1812, Madison
asked for and got a declaration of war against Britain. The
United States had only a handful of frigates; the British had
over 1,000 ships of the line in addition to hundreds of smaller
vessels. Madison’s plan accordingly was for a land war.
Ironically, some of our greatest naval victories were won on
the Great Lakes. Contemporaries understood that the war was
waged for the survival of the United States as an independent
and respected nation. Francis Scott Key described the British
goal as one that sought to “leave us a home and a country
no more.” The subsequent Canadian myth that the United
States wanted to annex Canada was absurd. The South and New
England were both overwhelmingly against such annexation, making
it politically unfeasible.
Although the United States won key battles in the war overall, neither
side had a true military victory. The eventual peace terms, however,
constituted a great American victory. The terms recognized American
sovereignty over all its territories, ended the presence of British
forts in the United States, and -- without expressly saying so -- ended
the British and Canadian practices of arming American Indians and paying
them for American scalps. Although the British refused to give up the
right to kidnap allegedly British sailors, they stopped the practice.
James Monroe, fifth
president of the United States, was in office
from 1817 to 1825
James Monroe became the third consecutive President
from Virginia in 1817. His major diplomatic problem was Florida,
a Spanish colony without the former West Florida. Thinly populated
by the Spanish, it also had a British Tory population that was
Catholic and nominally loyal to the king of Spain. There was
one British fort without British troops that was manned by Indians
and escaped slaves. American troops entered Florida to destroy
the British fort. The sentiment in America was that the Spanish
were failing in their duty to colonize Florida. Border skirmishes
ensued. Finally, in 1819, Spain sold Florida to the United States.
By diplomacy, the three Virginian presidents had eliminated the
threats to the United States on all three fronts.
Monroe’s final diplomatic triumph came in his seventh
annual State of the Union message in 1823, in which he proclaimed
the Monroe Doctrine. This doctrine stated that the United States
would consider any European attempt to colonize any part of
the Americas as an act of war. It further held that any attempt
to colonize any former colony that had won its independence
would also be considered an act of war. The United States agreed
not to become involved in internal European conflicts.
In less than a quarter of a century, the United States progressed
from an endangered nation to the undisputed American power under
three consecutive Virginia presidents. The Monroe Doctrine served
the United States well for almost a century until Woodrow Wilson
involved the nation in World War I.
Monroe’s second term ended in 1825. He was followed by his Secretary
of State, John Quincy Adams, one of the negotiators of the treaty that
ended the War of 1812 and the main draftsman of the Monroe Doctrine.
Never again would we see a period of such unbroken diplomatic success.
The Confederate Lawyer column is copyright © 2011
by Charles G. Mills and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com.
All rights reserved.
Charles G. Mills is the Judge Advocate or general counsel for the
New York State American Legion. He has forty years of experience in
many trial and appellate courts and has published several articles
about the law.
See his biographical sketch and additional columns here.
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