An overview of Florida’s role in the American Revolution

This is an excerpt from the introduction in my new book Florida and the American Revolution. which is available via in paperback or Kindle format.

We learn as young children in school about the American Revolution and the “fight for freedom” of the colonists in the 13 “original” colonies. We learn about how plucky freedom fighting “patriots” fought the greatest world power and prevailed. We learn about the cruelty of the British. We learn about the supposed idealism and enlightenment that fueled the American rebel cause. 

History however tends to be written differently from generation to generation. Now in the 21st Century, historians are recognizing that Britain was already showing cracks of being the preeminent European power in 1775, surely still stronger than the others but wholly dependent on foreign mercenaries and Naval power.  

We also now recognize that the misplaced desire of the Bourbon kings in France and Spain to reclaim lost territory or prestige played a major role in the American victory. Much has been recently written about Britain’s more lenient policy towards runaway slaves and native Americans than that of the newly independent USA. In fact, in the 21st Century more of the conversation has centered around the “idealism” of the patriots being a supposed foil for “white supremacy.” This view is directly contrary to the prevailing narrative when I was a youngster, and like most topics in history, the truth lies somewhere in between. 

Whatever the motivations for the revolution and the motives of both sides, Florida’s important role in each of the above topics seems to be largely glossed over by those writing a general history of the era. This is particularly true among American writers.

As school kids, we learned very little about the 14th and 15th British colonies south of the St Lawrence River, colonies like Quebec to the north of that river which were acquired in 1763 and had largely Catholic populations when the British assumed control. We learn even less about Spain’s pivotal role in using West Florida as a front in the war to squeeze the British, undoing the Crown’s military strategy. We learn virtually nothing of St Augustine’s importance and the repeated efforts of the Continental Army to capture it by invading East Florida. And more often than not, American authors who discuss this period avoid most mentions of Florida. 

This is, however, not the case with British historians, who after nearly two centuries of downplaying the American Revolution, have embraced the topic area recently. At the center of what many British historians look at is Canada and the West Indies, and some even focus on Florida. 

While many of the residents of Spanish Florida in 1763, soon moved to other Spanish or French controlled areas, Florida was largely repopulated with Catholics by the British. Those who weren’t Catholic tended to be Anglican. Therefore, the two Florida’s from a religious composition were completely different from the Thirteen Colonies to the north. 

East and West Florida declined to attend the Continental Congress despite being invited.  The two Florida’s were a hotbed of loyalism, with the likes of  radicals Sam Adams, Joseph Warren and John Hancock even being hung in effigy in St Augustine. 

During the war the colony of East Florida was led by Governor Patrick Tonyn, a prickly individual with a military background and autocratic manner. Tonyn was a staunch loyalist but as we will see in this work, as a conservative plantation owner and slave holder, he often clashed with other loyalists and was more guarded about arming African-Americans and Native Americans than many of the other leaders around him. Nonetheless, he eventually was forced to give in on both counts, eventually embracing not only arming African-Americans and natives but also the scuttling of plantations as a war measure. 

Ironically, East Florida Lt. Gov. John Moultrie’s three living brothers (who resided in South Carolina) all became officers in the Patriot Army. In fact, Moultrie’s brother William handed the rebels perhaps its biggest victory before the Battle of Trenton during 1776, when he successfully defended Charleston, which was the largest city in the colonies south of Philadelphia.

East Florida was a major base of loyalist and British operations throughout the war. A staging ground for battle in the southern colonies, St Augustine became critical to Britain’s war plans. For this reason it also became a target of American planning. This having been the case does not mean the patriot cause did not have sympathizers in East Florida. But on the whole the majority of the population supported the British, and as the population swelled with loyalists and runaway slaves fleeing from colonies to the north, those with patriot sympathies were badly outnumbered. 

The colony once again became a sanctuary for runaway slaves, much as it had been in the period from 1693-1763. This at first made Governor Tonyn uncomfortable and the colony became an odd mix with many enslaved African-Americans walking the same streets as free blacks who were eventually armed. 

West Florida became a key in the war after Spain allied with the United States in 1779. The exploits of Bernardo de Gálvez, who liberated most of West Florida from British rule between 1779 and 1781, effectively crushing British hopes of holding Georgia, South Carolina and East Florida, played a huge role in the general trajectory of the war. 

The British did not intend to cede East Florida in any peace settlement but as we will discuss, they ended up giving the colony up in the treaties that followed the war.

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