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From James Madison to Congress, 3 January 1811

To Congress


Washington January 3d 1811

I communicate to Congress, in confidence, a letter of the 2d of December, from Governor Folch of West Florida, to the Secretary of State;1 and another of the same date, from the same, to John McKee.2

I communicate, in like manner, a letter from the British Chargè d’affaires, to the Secretary of State, with the answer of the latter.3 Altho’ the letter can not have been written in consequence of any instruction from the British Government, founded on the late order for taking possession of the portion of West Florida, well known to be claimed by the United States; altho’ no communication has ever been made by that Government to this, of any stipulation with Spain, contemplating an interposition which might so materially affect the United States, and altho’ no call can have been made by Spain, in the present instance, for the fulfilment of any such subsisting engagement; yet the spirit and scope of the document, with the accredited source from which it proceeds, required that it should not be withheld from the consideration of Congress.

Taking into view the tenor of these several communications, the posture of things with which they are connected, the intimate relation of the country adjoining the United States Eastward of the River Perdido to their security and tranquility, and the peculiar interest they otherwise have, in its destiny; I recommend to the consideration of Congress, the seasonableness of a declaration, th⟨at⟩ the United States, could not see, without serious inquietude, any part of a neighbouring territory in which they have, in different respects, so deep and so just a concern, pass from the hands of Spain, into those of any other Foreign power.

I recommend to their consideration, also, the expediency of authorizing the Executive to take temporary possession of any part or parts of the said territory, in pursuance of arrangements, which may be desired by the Spanish authorities; and for making provision for the Government of the same, during such possession.4

The wisdom of Congress, will at the same time determine, how far it may be expedient to provide for the event of a subversion of the Spanish authorities, within the territory in question, and an apprehended occupancy thereof by any other foreign power.

James Madison

RC and enclosures (DNA: RG 46, TP, Florida). RC in the hand of Edward Coles, signed by JM. For enclosures, see nn. 1, 2, and 3.

1JM enclosed a translation of Vicente Folch’s letter to Robert Smith, 2 Dec. 1810 (2 pp.; printed in ASP description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States … (38 vols.; Washington, 1832–61). description ends , Foreign Relations, 3:398), offering to deliver West Florida to the U.S. “provided I do not receive Succour from the Havanna or Vera Cruz during the present month; or that His Excellency, the Marquis of Someruelos, … should not have opened directly a negociation on this Point.” Folch declared he had no alternative to this step to spare his province “from the Ruin which threatens it,” but he urged the U.S. government to order its forces at Fort Stoddert to compel the “Party under the command of Reuben Kemper to retire within the Limits of the District of Baton Rouge; intimating to him that if, in future, he should repeat his Incursions in the Districts of Mobile & Pensacola, the Troops of the United States, joined to the Spanish Troops, will use force to keep them back.” Folch also pointed out that Kemper’s party had been “recruited, armed and provisioned” within the U.S. Should his proposition be accepted, the governor concluded, he would treat with some authorized person to arrange for the evacuation of West Florida.

2In his 2 Dec. 1810 letter to John McKee (2 pp.; printed ibid., 3:399), Folch explained his reasons for writing to Robert Smith with a proposal to deliver West Florida to the U.S., and he requested McKee to convey duplicates of his letter to Washington—one copy by mail and the other in person with an “eye witness” account of the situation. Also filed with the RC is a copy of McKee’s 5 Dec. 1810 letter to Eustis (1 p.; printed ibid.), in which McKee enclosed Folch’s letters to Smith and himself and announced his intention to proceed to Washington immediately.

3In a 15 Dec. 1810 letter, John Philip Morier had protested to Robert Smith the American decision to take possession of West Florida (3 pp.; printed ibid.). Describing the U.S. claim to the province as “manifestly doubtful,” Morier asked why the administration had resorted to force rather than to negotiations with Spain, and he dismissed those Americans who were attempting to subvert Spanish authority in the region as “a band of desperados who are here known by the contemptuous appellation of Land-jobbers.” Morier declared that his sovereign had a “deep and lively interest” in Spain’s affairs and that he could not “see with indifference any attack upon her interests in America.” On that basis, he requested the U.S. government to make such explanation of its conduct “as will at once convince His Majestys Government of the pacific disposition of the United States towards His Majesty’s Allies the Spaniards.” The British chargé repeated this request on 22 Dec. 1810 (1 p.; printed ibid., 3:400), and on 28 Dec. Robert Smith responded that documents before the public made it clear that “no hostile or unfriendly purpose is entertained towards Spain” (1 p.; printed ibid.). Smith declined any further discussion of Morier’s letter with the remark that the American minister in London had “been enabled to give to your Government whatever explanations may comport with the frankness and the Spirit of Conciliation, which have been invariably manifested on the part of the United States.”

4After several days’ debate behind closed doors, both houses of Congress, on 15 Jan. 1811, agreed on a resolution that the U.S., “under the peculiar circumstances of the existing crisis, cannot, without serious inquietude, see any part of the said territory pass into the hands of any foreign Power; and that a due regard to their own safety compels them to provide, under certain contingencies, for the temporary occupation of the said territory.” On the same day, Congress also approved an act authorizing the president to “take possession of, and occupy” Spanish territory east of the Perdido River in the event of an arrangement being made with the local authorities to deliver the region to the U.S., or in the event of an attempted occupation by any foreign power. The president was authorized to employ any part of the U.S. Army and Navy he deemed necessary, and $100,000 was appropriated to cover the costs. Should the territory come into the possession of the U.S., the president was also authorized to establish a temporary government until Congress made other provisions. On 3 Mar. 1811, Congress passed, and JM signed, a further act stating that neither the resolution of 15 Jan. 1811 nor the act of the same date be “printed or published, until the end of the next session of Congress, unless directed by the President of the United States” (Annals of Congress description begins Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States … (42 vols.; Washington, 1834–56). description ends , 11th Cong., 3d sess., 370–80, 1117–48; U.S. Statutes at Large description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America … (17 vols.; Boston, 1848–73). description ends , 3:471–72).

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