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A People's History of Florida 1513-1876

Book Excerpts
People's History


In the past several decades, history has been changing form. After so long being told from the perspective of the victor, i.e. the white male elite, the perspectives, achievements, and movements of common people are coming to the forefront in revised historical narratives. The movement was sparked with Howard Zinn’s masterpiece A People’s History of the United States, and since then has rapidly spread out to different places, eras, and events of history. The old way of idolizing the masters as the most important aspect shaping our past is quickly fading away. Zinn has successfully begun a movement to turn history upside down. Since then, various authors have put out book after book narrating the role that common people have played in different historical events when they had previously gone unmentioned. If the momentum keeps up, it can be expected that history will no longer reflect the perspective of state and capitalist power. The People’s History series intends to not only discredit the orthodox history that has been accepted by academia, taught in schools, and implanted in the popular conscious, but supplant it with the historical perspective of oppressed people who have long been marginalized in standard history. Standard history textbooks can best be understood by what they don’t say than what they do. They emphasize patriotic obedience and marginalize dissenting voices. They have largely been the de facto voice of the powerful simply by omitting the voice of the powerless. The People’s History series intends to dispel many historical myths that were created to benefit the few in power. Since history was for so long told from the viewpoint of the powerful, historical concepts had to be fabricated, romanticized, and sugarcoated in order to protect that power. Zinn’s history, in turn, recalls the popular movements of black slaves, indigenous people, women, and working class whites in the United States that challenged that power.

But if People’s History was simply about critiquing the present set-up, it would be doing little to make change. People’s History is first and foremost about how history was affected and shaped from the bottom-up. Beneath the concessions that leaders made to quiet popular outrage are the historical collective actions of common people who attempted to have some say in their own lives. The standard history of a nation-state has often been the history of its leaders and painted a rosy picture at that. For this reason, a student knows more about Andrew Jackson than the very black Seminoles whom he viciously opposed throughout most of his life. Even though many modern scholars are beginning to recognize the horrors perpetrated by Andrew Jackson with his aggressive interventionist stance, undemocratic covert operations, Indian Removal policy, and a foreign policy that sought to expand and protect slavery, many historians still emphasize the Battle of New Orleans and “Jacksonian democracy” when narrating Jackson’s history. People’s history seeks to redefine historical events by narrating the popular currents that underlie governments and leaders. History never exists in a social vacuum. The orthodox viewpoint will always support the standard ideology of a society. Since popular ideologues emanate from the dominant power, we can expect that history taught in classrooms will remain within the parameters of capitalism, white supremacy, imperialism, nationalism, and patriarchy. As Marx once said, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” The very underlying prejudice of standard history is that human progress is centrally directed by the edicts and actions of the powerful and wealthy, a very important means of social control. It teaches us to rely on the wisdom of leaders to solve our problems instead of our own intelligence, logic, and reasoning. In contrast, People’s History emphasizes the organized actions of common people to shape their own lives.

Public school curriculums are carefully constructed agendas. Romantic fables, glittering generalities, and sugarcoated terminology, i.e. freedom, democracy, and independence, cover up the reality of a U.S. history drenched in conflict based on race, class, and gender divisions. The Florida state legislature is at the forefront in protecting the rigid foundations of public education. With a diminishing education budget, crowded classrooms, teacher layoffs, and crumbling infrastructure, the Florida legislature has taken measures to institute a more rigid, rudimentary education system, ensuring that education reciprocates class relations in an ever more unequal system. In 2006, Governor Jeb Bush approved a law barring revisionist history in Florida public schools. “American history shall be viewed as factual, not constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable,” declares the Education Omnibus Bill, “and shall be defined as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” 1 In effect, this piece of legislation has sought to make sure that history speaks highly of its “wise leaders,” never criticizing the wealthy white slaveholders who “founded” this nation. The foundations of this nation were not the Declaration of Independence or Constitution, but the ethnic cleansing and termination of natives, the enslavement and exploitation of Africans, the destitute conditions of millions of working class white men, and the general oppression of women across racial and class lines. There was always a vast difference between America’s words and its action. America’s colonial rivals were always shocked that a nation could so hypocritically claim to base its foundation on freedom, democracy, and progress, while displaying absolute contempt for international law, attempting to expand slavery through conniving to annex territorial possessions in its vicinity, and removing or exterminating the native tribes that stood its path. So who were the real freedom fighters? The American patriots intending to expand slavery and destroy native tribes after they defeated the British, or the black Seminoles who determinately resisted U.S. military attempts to enslave them for over thirty years? A People’s History of Florida does not teach “history, meaning, significance and effect of the provisions of the Constitution of the United States and the amendments thereto.” It does not emphasize “flag education, including proper flag display and flag salute” or “the nature and importance of free enterprise to the United States economy.” This book teaches readers about the people who stood on the opposite side of imperialism, capitalism, white expansionism, and patriarchy. This book narrates the people who struggled to liberate themselves from these oppressive, exploitative structures that have underlined the patriotic kool-aid of traditional American history.

In applying a bottom class viewpoint to a single state such as Florida, we can perceive how the major popular movements of the United States influenced the nation on a microcosm. At the same time, we can see how popular struggles on a microcosm shaped national currents, i.e. the black Seminole liberation during the Second Seminole War provided the theoretical backbone for the Emancipation Proclamation. If we were to, for example, generalize the Indian Removal policy, failing to note the particulars in a state like Florida, misconception could easily arise. The particulars of Indian Removal in Florida indicate that the policy was motivated equivocally by the expansion of institutional slavery as it was white hegemony. Florida developed a legacy of indigenous and black militancy unparalleled by any other region of the country. While Seminole defiance was characteristic of the Southeast tribes, they also drew the United States into the longest “Indian war” in its military history. They suspended the consummation of the Indian Removal policy for years until the U.S. government completely gave up on removing the remnants. The absolute defiance of some Seminole elements meant the failure of Jackson’s policy to cleanse the Southeast of its indigenous population. For this reason, whites in Florida only maintained absolute control of the state for a period of three years prior to the Civil War. Not until after the Reconstruction Era were whites guaranteed dominion over Florida. Plus the wars of the U.S. government against the Seminole tribe were anything but traditional “Indian Wars.” The Seminole wars could be more characterized as maroon wars. The reason that they were drawn out for so long was the refusal of many Seminoles to emigrate until their black allies were granted freedom and security. Since general history has attempted to ascribe the Seminole wars as traditional frontier campaigns, they have been forced to ignore the overwhelming amount of primary sources that indicate the black Seminoles as the central players and focus of the wars.

While free black maroon settlements were located throughout the United States, the Seminole maroon population of Florida was easily the most populous, defiant, and autonomous of them all. Even those historians such as Joshua R. Giddings who have devoted huge amounts of work to revealing the role that blacks played in the Seminole wars, have ignored the massive slave revolt in East Florida that broke out at the start of the second war. This is no small matter as the degree of disaffection and destruction was unparalleled by any slave revolt in U.S. history. The black Seminoles, along with a handful of the slaves who had disaffected from the plantations of East Florida, were eventually granted their freedom as means to undermine the overall resistance. This induced many of the Seminoles to consent to emigration with the feeling that their counterparts were now secure against the slaveholders. For the first time in U.S. history, a disaffected slave population was officially given their liberty on the field of battle. Interestingly enough, blacks are even marginalized when there is mention of the Seminole wars, even though the leading commander of the Florida war termed it a “negro war.” While most standard textbooks are least willing to concede that the U.S. removed the native population of the Southeast, most fail to refer to it as ethnic cleansing. So it’s no surprise that most also fail to acknowledge that U.S. government was particularly interested in enslaving the black Seminoles of Florida. Perhaps history books need to grab onto the myth that the Federal government was opposed to Southern slavery, just as they point to Southern segregation as the main problem of the Civil Rights Era. They fail to mention that the Federal government spent enormous amounts of public money in protecting the institution. Is the real story of free blacks, natives, and runaway slaves cooperating together to militantly resist the U.S. government too radical for children to hear? If students learned that their government was engaged in enslaving a free black population for over half a century it would be a cold splash of water to the face on the patriotic euphoria they had been taught in history classes. The lesson would be more important for young people of color who may begin to contemplate that their interests are intertwined with other dark-skinned people. Why fight each other when they share the common enemy of white supremacy?

A People’s History of Florida is harshly critical of U.S. imperialism. As slavery relied on sheer force to maintain the master-slave relationship, it shared uncanny similarities with European colonialism. The manufactured uprisings and covert operations in Florida throughout the early 19th century would lay the foundations for U.S. foreign policy to declare on its own terms when it could tread on the sovereignty of nations and peoples. The United States had little regard for the sovereignty of Spain over Florida and even less so for the sovereignty of the blacks and Seminoles over the vast amount of territory they had cultivated, formed, and resided on for several generations. Indeed, the Patriots War in East Florida was more so characterized by its disposition to eliminate black and Seminole towns, seize the blacks, and divvy up their lands, than it was to simply overthrow Spanish rule in Florida. The acquisition of Florida was mostly desired to institute chattel slavery as it existed in the rest of the South and therefore faithfully execute the U.S. foreign policy objective of slaveholder hegemony. The Patriots War and Andrew Jackson’s later incursion into the territory were at least similar in their underlying motives if not anything else. The mass slaughter at the “Negro Fort” was the most blatant and devastating assault out of the three. The several U.S. interventions into Spanish Florida were successful at breaking the back of black autonomy in the state, clearing the way for the safe expansion of slavery, and protecting institutional slavery throughout the South. Shortly after the U.S. acquired Florida, the successful elimination of the free black community of Angola was equally significant as it broke up a significant rallying point for runaway slaves from other Southern states. Imperialism played a significant part in shaping the history and social relations of Florida as did the half-a-century long resistance of free blacks and Seminoles.

Common whites in Antebellum Florida, for the most part, were notably lacking in class consciousness, collaborating with the white elite in subjugating blacks and natives. For this reason their mention in the first volume of this book is extremely sparse. Except in several brief periods, the whites of Florida failed to question the status quo and protest the vast class inequality between themselves and the slaveholding oligarchy. There were some brief instances when whites reverted to class conflict though. During British control of the territory, an unprecedented number of white indentured servants were transported to work on the plantations. However, their mass disaffection to the near-slavery conditions procured their freedom. While the British agents in Florida were interested in turning the territory into a British protectorate around the time of the war of 1812, some of them actually identified with the cause of people of color. William Bowles had lived with the Seminoles and blacks for some years and understood that they underwent a constant threat of displacement and enslavement. In 1803, he formed the Muskogee State in West Florida, assembling hundreds of natives, maroons, and runaway slaves to seize Spanish Florida. British agent Col. Edward Nichols sincerely protested the raids of white settlers on his Seminole and Red Stick Creek allies. George Woodbine located the blacks of the Appalachicola Fort to Tampa Bay where they would be safe from slave raids. Arburthnot ensured their safety during the Seminole war and had warned the black settlement at the Suwannee of the impending invasion of the U.S. military forces. This had given enough time to move their families to safety. So while the British were far from altruistic in their designs in Florida, they proved themselves to be valuable allies of the blacks and Seminoles. During the Second Seminole War, numerous white officers and soldiers expressed their disillusion with the war cause and believed that the Seminoles were fighting on the right side. White soldiers would desert, disobey officers, and even inflict injuries on themselves in order to get out of the service. Many U.S. soldiers, having been told stories of the American Revolution since their youth, identified with the patriotic self-determination that Seminoles displayed in resisting the whites.

The historical myth of white unity in the Antebellum South, on the basis of socioeconomic class, was contradicted in the banking crisis of 1837. In the midst of the Second Seminole War, the Florida territorial banks externalized the $4,000,000 debt of the aristocracy onto the general population, creating mass public protest. The “faith bonds” instituted by the Union Bank in Middle Florida ensured that planters could increase their capital, using imaginary slaves and lands as collateral if they defaulted on the payments. When cotton prices plummeted from overproduction, they did just that. The poor whites of the state were expected to pay for expanding the capital of a privileged few. In response, the white yeomen organized in mass public meetings and dominated at the voting polls. As white countrymen for the first time expressed their belief in Republican democracy and equality, they successfully self-asserted their rights and undermined the power of the slaveholding oligarchy. The white countrymen adopted the ideals of Jeffersonian democracy and railed against corporate monopolies. For the first time, the majority abandoned the idea of white unity and sought to reduce their “social betters.” At the start of the Civil War, poor whites gave up inner-white conflict and rallied to fight for the “Confederacy” to protect the slave property of a few. As white Floridians at home suffered bitter starvation and oppression from the Confederate government, mass army desertions and conscript evaders severely drained the man power of Confederate regiments. The whites of Florida resided on the isolated frontier and held more allegiance to their families than to state authority. Companies of regulators, guerillas, and conscript hunters attempted to bring them in for military service and inflicted numerous atrocities on their families. It became widely understood that the war was a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight” as the wealthy slaveholders back home purchased substitutes for the draft. The poor white deserters and conscript evaders organized into armed bands with runaway slaves and sought to undermine Confederate Florida from within. After forty years of persistent violence on the Antebellum Florida frontier, bands of runaway slaves and poor white deserters replaced the Seminoles as the new threat to the planter aristocracy.

The Civil War was characterized by a mass defection of slaves who entered the “white man’s war” on their own terms and took freedom into their own hands. The Emancipation Proclamation was not some majestic edict coming from above that shocked the country. Runaway slaves were organizing into armed bands to fight the Confederacy, hiding out in the swamps, scouring the countryside, and filling up the Federal camps. If the disaffection spread to the general slave population, the results could have been disastrous on both sides. But the Union planned to expand industrial capitalism into the South and overrun the old aristocratic system, creating a profitable business climate using low black wage labor. The Union decided to manipulate the disaffected slaves for their own ends. A tacit alliance formed between Northern whites and slaves to cooperatively undermine the Confederacy for the benefit of both. But typical history doesn’t record it in this fashion. To white historians, the benign endeavors of Northern Republicans and abolitionists were what resulted in freedom for the South’s slave population. Yet A People’s of Florida gives credit to the slaves first and foremost. They had asserted their own right to liberty long before the Republican Party did. The Union had three objectives for the South’s slave population in the war: 1) Prevent insurrection 2) Utilize their defection for the benefit of the war effort 3) Drain the slave population that the Confederacy heavily relied on for its rebellion. This was the same pragmatism that military officials applied in the Second Seminole War, acknowledging the freedom of the black Seminoles as means to divide the black and Seminole resistance. The mythologies that have been constructed to tell the history of Southern Reconstruction after the Civil War, have all been based on one common notion: blacks were inadequate for self-government. For years after the time period, Northern scholarship parroted the viewpoint of Southern whites: that Reconstruction governments plundered the public treasuries of Southern states; that the ex-slaves mismanaged and abused their political seats for personal gain; that the ex-slaves were indolent and preferred to wander about living easily off of the white man’s tax money than work; that Union officials and soldiers incited the ex-slaves to disaffect from their former masters; that Southern whites were willing to except black liberty. Most new scholarship has retained some of these Reconstruction myths, but has also emphasized the progress made by the Reconstruction governments in reforming the South. This book instead emphasizes the conservatism of Reconstruction regimes that worked hand in hand with Southern whites in enforcing black subservience. This book emphasizes the direct action applied by organized and individual blacks to assert their independence, autonomy, and equality.

Following the war, the North sought to deny the former slave the right to their former master’s lands and place blacks under a renewed system of slavery where they would labor for white planters under contract. These sharecropping contracts re-enslaved black laborers under debt peonage. Moderate Republicans sought to undermine black political organization and deny full representation and true equality to the former slave. To them, the New South meant one in which black laborers were fully subordinate to white employers. The Ku Klux Klan was the paramilitary arm of the Southern planters to prevent blacks from achieving independence from an exploitative plantation system. The rampant violence was the most important aspect to reinstate white dominance in Florida. During the period, blacks made huge advances in education, political activism, and procuring homesteads. Black union activism in the small port cities of Florida foretold years of class struggle following the Reconstruction era. With the expansion of the phosphate, turpentine, and lumber industries following Reconstruction, both black and white laborers took action to improve their conditions. The only sure result of the Reconstruction Era was that the combined efforts of Democrats and Republicans instituted white capitalist dominance in Florida and throughout the South. Northern capitalists and Southern landowners found that political “moderation” was in their best interests, while relying on the radical violence of the Ku Klux Klan to create an environment in which their investments were safe. But with rampant exploitation through debt peonage in the turpentine camps, phosphate mines, and lumber mills, and the migration of a radical class of Italian and Cuban migrants, the decades following the period were characterized by class conflict organized mostly on racial lines. The people of Florida were not done attempting to resist their subservient social position. For the first time in a compiled text, the struggles of the bottom class in the Sunshine State can be fully appreciated.

2009 Adam Wasserman

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