Published On: Fri, Feb 16th, 2024

Florida’s Jeffersonian History

Excerpt from The American Conquest of Florida

In terms of Florida, Jeffersonian’s saw the area as a perfect place to expand the plantation slave-based economy and eventually bring into the union as a slave state. Spain’s desperation to repopulate the colony led to incentives to new settlers from the American south.This also meant Spain was less anxious to harbor runaway slaves than in the 1687-1763 period when it had been an official policy.

But as we saw above with the formation of the State of Muskogee, Spanish authorities had little control over the hinterland of the state. Encouraged by the British and taken in by the Seminole, the flow of runaway slaves to Florida never stopped under Spanish rule. Florida, contrary to the melting pot atmosphere of its largest urban areas, has been a distinctly southern state throughout much of its history as part of the United States. It is a state which fought on the side of the Confederacy in the Civil War and had as little debate as imaginable in terms of secession.  Only Richard Keith Call, an important figure in Florida’s territorial days, and long a Whig questioned the move. 

While modern Florida has attracted people from all over the United States and the world outside its urban and suburban areas the state retains a form of southern character and culture influenced by older migrants from smaller towns in the Midwest. And in fact prior to the 1920’s most migrants to Florida were from nearby southern states.  The Plantation economy which had developed in the state after it became a US territory in 1821 meant by 1860, Florida was entirely dependent on slavery and the southern style economy to survive in that era. Southern social attitudes also took hold quickly in American Florida. Prior to the land boom of the 1920’s, Florida attracted very few migrants from the north and was instead a magnet for residents from neighboring southern states. 

The fact that Florida’s had a historic role in equality and emancipation was lost by this time. That Florida the first place in North America to have free African-American settlements in Fort Mose, The Negro Fort and Angola Florida was also lost to history. The fact that there was a similar underground system of people that would take in runaway slaves and try to provide them access to the Caribbean was completely glossed over until recent years. By the 1920’s when Florida was a mecca for lynchings and vigilante violence, the fact that the area had been a source of liberation and equality was long gone – and seemingly deliberately cut out of the historical record. Peninsular Florida’s proximity to the islands of the Caribbean and its large populations of people of African descent eventually became a major part of the culture of the state. But this was not the case until the 1930’s in south Florida and until much later in the rest of the state – with the exception of pockets like Ybor City and Key West. 

It wasn’t just vigilante justice that was violent. Politically, southern defenses of slavery and after Reconstruction of racial segregation were often violent – the best episode of this was the infamous 1856 caning of the abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner (R-Massachusetts) by Representative Preston Books (D-South Carolina) on the Senate floor. Brooks almost canned Sumner to death, but was hailed as a hero in the south. It is no small coincidence one of the few recognitions Brooks still enjoys is the naming of Brooksville, Florida the county seat of Hernando County in his honor. Brooks’ violent defense of the honor of the south and the institution of slavery was a mainstream opinion in antebellum Florida. 

In 1917, Governor Sidney J. Catts was so motivated by prejudice he delivered this line in his inauguration speech. “Your triumph is no less in this good hour in beautiful Florida, for you have withstood the onslaughts of the county and state political rings, the corporations, the railroads, the fierce opposition of the press and organization of the negro voters of this state against you and the power of the Roman Catholic hierarchy against you. Yet over all of these the common people of Florida, the everyday cracker people have triumphed.”Florida where African-Americans escaped to freedom and where Catholics in the colonial era had built the area up and founded our oldest settlements were now squarely being targeted directly by the Governor.

This was what Florida had become. Florida was even when Martin Luther King Jr. and Andrew Young worked to integrate the beaches of St Augustine in 1964, among America’s most definitely and violently racist places.  Yet, St Augustine as we have discussed throughout the Albion Florida series culminating with this book, was prior to American rule of Florida a place where people of color escaped to relative safety and security. Florida in the postbellum period was a one-party state, ruled by conservative “Bourbon” Democrats. This political faction used violent rhetoric and at times organized vigilantism to maintain a strict order of not only racial segregation, but the subjugation of its African-American population. Violent episodes like the Rosewood Massacre, the Groveland Four, the Newberry Six lynchings, the Ocoee Massacre and the Claude Neal case among others underscored the racist political construct of Florida and the acceptance of such violently racist behavior by the United States in general.

Florida was arguably more violent than Mississippi, Alabama or Georgia at the time, which provides a remarkable commentary on the racism of both the white population and its elected leadership.    The reality and the brutality of those Americans who invaded Florida towards the natives and runaways as well as the violent nature of the state for many years is something we still grapple with today. Hopefully we can help educate the public as to what has transpired through the years in what is now the state of Florida – both in a positive sense from a largely forgotten colonial era and in a negative sense since the US began its efforts in earnest to conquer Florida in the early 1800’s. Florida at its heart has remained a Jeffersonian hotbed for much of its existence as part of the United States.  And much of its history has been lost, manipulated or simply ignored. 

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