James Madison Papers

To James Madison from John Williams, 3 December 1812

From John Williams

In camp one mile from Knoxville
December 3rd. 1812


Late intelegence shews a want of troops in East Florida to check the hostile savages. A considerable part of the Georgia Militia it is said have refused to afford relief to the troops of the United States Stationed at St. Johns from a fatal exposition of the constitution relative to the militia.1 And believing from the course of political events that the Government of the United States will shortly wish to occupy the Floridas, I determined to collect some military force and march directly to that Quarter.2 Upon short notice one hundred & sixty five mounted men convened at this place on Tuesday the first of this month and will march on tomorrow under my command for St. Johns—where it will afford us pleasure to execute the orders of the President. In executing your orders not a man in this corps will entertain constitutional scruples on the subject of boundaries. Accept Sir assurances of my high respect

John Williams3

RC (DNA: RG 107, LRRS, W-14:7); Tr (DNA: RG 46, TP, Florida). RC docketed as received in the War Department on 12 Jan. 1813.

1The role of the Georgia militia in East Florida was a subject of discussion at the fall 1812 session of the Georgia state legislature. Responding to rumors that the Spanish were encouraging Indian and black insurgency against Americans in East Florida, Gov. David B. Mitchell opened the session on 3 Nov. 1812 with an address describing “The present force in Augustine” to be “of a description which we can not tolerate” and the mode of warfare that the governor of East Florida had commenced to be “so savage and barbarous, that it is impossible for an American to hear of it without feeling the utmost indignation and resentment against the power that commands or even permits it.” Mitchell expressed his belief that JM would “proceed in the business” of occupying East Florida, should Congress allow it, an event which he viewed as crucial to the “peace and happiness” of the state, and he recommended that the legislature take the situation under consideration. The state senate referred the matter to a committee, which reported on 9 Nov. 1812 that “immediate and decisive measures ought and must be adopted by the General or State Government, for the possession and occupancy of said Province.” The committee reasoned that a state could engage in warfare without the consent of Congress only in the event of an invasion or when in such danger “as will not admit of delay.” In their view “the facts are before the public, that a warfare has been commenced on the frontiers—that murders have been perpetrated under the sanction, or with the connivance of the governor of East Florida—and that a savage warfare is still in operation under the sanction of the said authority—which surely places our fellow citizens immediately exposed to its effects in imminent danger, and a danger too, not admitting of delay.” The committee argued that if the General Assembly admitted to “a danger of this complexion,” the state was vested with the power to organize a force to march into and occupy East Florida, “the occupation to be relinquished by the State troops, so soon as the National Legislature shall have adopted efficient measures to relieve the people, from the imminent danger with which they are now menaced.” The committee then submitted a bill authorizing the occupation of East Florida, but it was read once and dropped.

On 17 Nov. the committee issued a report, which was sent to the U.S. Congress, describing the dangers posed to Georgia’s citizens by the current situation in East Florida and explaining that only their reverence for the Federal Constitution kept the legislature from “avenging the manifold injuries they have received.” The memorial promised that if “the constituted authorities of the United States shall deny them that aid which the safety, the honor and interests of the southern frontier of the Union, the state they represent, so imperiously require; they will deeply regret the necessity, which shall compel them to resort to those means which God and nature has placed within their reach” (Journal of the Senate of the State of Georgia [Milledgeville, Ga., 1813; Shaw and Shoemaker description begins R. R. Shaw and R. H. Shoemaker, comps., American Bibliography: A Preliminary Checklist for 1801–1819 (22 vols.; New York, 1958–66). description ends 28622], 5, 6–7, 9, 12, 23–25, 41–43).

2For several weeks Williams had been preparing a force of Tennesseans to fight in East Florida. On 23 Nov. 1812 he placed a call to arms in the Nashville Democratic Clarion and Tennessee Gazette, explaining that there was a “want of troops in East Florida to check the hostile Indians” and requesting that Tennesseans come forward “well mounted, and prepare to march to Saint Johns.” On 12 Dec., Gov. Willie Blount wrote to the secretary of war to express his support of the Tennessee mission to East Florida (Patrick, Florida Fiasco, 226–27).

3John Williams (1778–1837) of North Carolina, cousin of Marmaduke Williams, relocated to Tennessee and took up the practice of law in Knoxville in 1803. In 1812 he became colonel of a corps of Tennessee mounted volunteers, which he led on an expedition against the Seminole Indians in 1813. At the same time he held a captain’s commission in the regular army and was promoted to the rank of colonel in 1813. In that capacity he fought against the Creek Indians in Alabama and participated in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in March 1814. He was elected to complete George W. Campbell’s term in the U.S. Senate and was then reelected, serving from October 1815 to March 1823 (Powell, Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, 6:209–10).

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