This article appears in Vol III Issue I: Republics
In 1776, Florida decided to do what was necessary to secure its quality of life, blessings of liberty, and pursuit of happiness. It told Georgia, and other rebellious British colonies northward, to go to hell.
This may sound shocking to some—well, most, if not all—but Florida had good reason to eschew George Washington’s republican revolution. Then divided into two colonies at the Apalachicola River, namely East and West Florida, the proto-Sunshine State was a bastion of commerce. Serving as the nexus between Britain’s Caribbean and continental North American colonies, Florida profited handsomely from the Empire.
A remarkably diverse array of subjects populated Florida’s landscape, including, yet far from limited to, Anglo-Saxons, Scots-Irish folk, ethnic Mediterranean whites, American Indians, and free blacks. They held little, if anything, in common, save for being fervent in the idea that those ideals championed by Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton, among other founding fathers, were best ensured by remaining under King George III.
Indeed, sentiment against the armed treason hatched in Philadelphia was so strong that the founders were burned in effigy at what is now the Plaza de la Constitución in St. Augustine. Way back when, it served as the capital of East Florida. Needless to say, Floridians were passionate beyond measure about their future being best served by the King and his Parliament.
Among Floridians, what, exactly, was so enticing regarding this monarchical arrangement?
“To encourage the settlement of” Florida, which Britain obtained from Spain in 1763, “the English government gave generous land grants to officers and soldiers who had served in the” French and Indian War, Caroline Mays Brevard, perhaps her home state’s most revered historian, wrote during 1904.
She continued: “Reports of the country’s natural wealth and advantages were published in England so that settlers might be induced to come out. A great number of men, energetic and of good character, were persuaded to make homes in Florida. Some came from South Carolina or Georgia, others from England, and a colony of forty families came from Bermuda. Good public roads were made, indigo, sugar cane, and fruits were cultivated, lumber was shipped, and the Floridas prospered as they had never done before.”
This was not all. Whether under Amerindian, French, or Spanish rule, Florida never experienced such a unique system of government as they did under Britain. As Brevard told: “Best of all, for people whose liberty was dear to them, the governors were directed to call general assemblies as soon as possible, to make laws for the colonies. In the meantime the governors were, with the advice of the councils, to establish courts.”
Ergo, Floridians had what other British colonists desired and were offered. In March 1778, the British Parliament enacted a series of bills that undid legislation since 1763 that were the chief grievances of the colonists. As Joseph M. Siracusa writes in Diplomacy, colonists were offered “the right to control their own taxation, to elect their governors and other officials formerly appointed, to be represented in Parliament if they so desired, to continue Congress as an American legislature, release from quitrents…assurance that their colonial charters would not be altered without their consent, and full pardon for all who had engaged in rebellion.” Had the concessions come before the Declaration of Independence or General Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga, they might have been accepted.
Meanwhile, monarchy worked out so well for Florida that military units were raised to ward off those who sympathized with Washington’s rebellion. The most upstanding of Floridians were those who remained intensely loyal to the Crown, alongside a consensus of what may be described as “ordinary people.” It was the unscrupulous, the seedy, and the disreputable who, generally speaking, sympathized with the founders’ militant gamesmanship.
Fortunately for Florida, the vast majority—nearly all—of its citizenry remained in league with Britain. Unfortunately, Spain exploited the United Kingdom being stretched too thin via the Continental Army. Part of West Florida, anchored by Pensacola, was captured, though all of East Florida remained under the British Crown’s authority until the revolution ended. Unable to afford its Floridian project, the Crown ceded all of Florida back to Spain.
As a native Floridian, baron, and knight, I must state the obvious: said revolution concluded in a mournful fashion, put mildly. Oh well. Water under the bridge, I suppose.
When one hears certain people extolling the purported virtues of republicanism over the vices of monarchy, he or she would do well to consider Florida’s story in the American Revolution. Needless to mention, if the Washingtonian cause was all it was cracked up to be, then the story of Florida would have unfolded quite differently. The strictly limited government which Uncle Sam allegedly guaranteed has, over time, not proven itself as anything other than the figment of various imaginations.
The level of autonomy, in a comprehensive sense, which Florida enjoyed under the United Kingdom was a real-life example of what Washington and his friends fantasized about creating, particularly in the federal republic which soon replaced the articles-based confederation.
Remember this when folks wax poetic about republicanism-versus-monarchism, or even bluecoats-versus-redcoats. Be not deceived, if what you really care about is the preservation of individual rights and liberties within a decentralized government.
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