James Madison

Special Message

July 01, 1812

To the House of Representatives of the United States:

In compliance with the resolution of the House of Representatives of the 26th of June, I transmit the information contained in the documents herewith inclosed.


From the Secretary of State to General George Matthews and Colonel John M'Kee.

DEPARTMENT OF STATE, January 26, 1811.

The President of the United States having appointed you jointly and severally commissioners for carrying into effect certain provisions of an act of Congress (a copy of which is inclosed) relative to the portion of the Floridas situated to the east of the river Perdido, you will repair to that quarter with all possible expedition, concealing from general observation the trust committed to you with that discretion which the delicacy and importance of the undertaking require.

Should you find Governor Folk or the local authority existing there inclined to surrender in an amicable manner the possession of the remaining portion or portions of West Florida now held by him in the name of the Spanish Monarchy, you are to accept in behalf of the United States the abdication of his or of the other existing authority and the jurisdiction of the country over which it extends. And should a stipulation be insisted on for the redelivery of the country at a future period, you may engage for such redelivery to the lawful sovereign.

The debts clearly due from the Spanish Government to the people of the Territory surrendered may, if insisted on, be assumed within reasonable limits and under specified descriptions to be settled hereafter as a claim against Spain in an adjustment of our affairs with her. You may also guarantee, in the name of the United States, the confirmation of all such titles to land as are clearly sanctioned by Spanish laws, and Spanish civil functionaries, where no special reasons may require changes, are to be permitted to remain in office with the assurance of a continuation of the prevailing laws, with such alterations only as may be necessarily required in the new situation of the country.

If it should be required and be found necessary, you may agree to advance, as above, a reasonable sum for the transportation of the Spanish troops.

These directions are adapted to one of the contingencies specified in the act of Congress, namely, the amicable surrender of the possession of the Territory by the local ruling authority. But should the arrangement contemplated by the statute not be made, and should there be room to entertain a suspicion of an existing design in any foreign power to occupy the country in question, you are to keep yourselves on the alert, and on the first undoubted manifestation of the approach of a force for that purpose you will exercise with promptness and vigor the powers with which you are invested by the President to preoccupy by force the Territory, to the entire exclusion of any armament that may be advancing to take the possession of it. In this event you will exercise a sound discretion in applying the powers given with respect to debts, titles to lands, civil officers, and the continuation of the Spanish laws, taking care to commit the Government on no point further than may be necessary; and should any Spanish military force remain within the country after the occupancy by the troops of the United States, you may in such case aid in their removal from the same.

The universal toleration which the laws of the United States assure to every religious persuasion will not escape you as an argument for quieting the minds of uninformed individuals who may entertain fears on that head.

The conduct you are to pursue in regard to East Florida must be regulated by the dictates of your own judgments, on a close view and accurate knowledge of the precise state of things there, and of the real disposition of the Spanish Government always recurring to the present instruction as the paramount rule of your proceedings. Should you discover an inclination in the governor of East Florida, or in the existing local authority, amicably to surrender that province into the possession of the United States, you are to accept it on the same terms that are prescribed by these instructions in relation to West Florida. And in case of the actual appearance of any attempt to take possession by a foreign power, you will pursue the same effective measures for the occupation of the Territory and for the exclusion of the foreign force as you are directed to pursue with respect to the country east of the Perdido, forming at this time the extent of Governor Folk's jurisdiction.

If you should, under these instructions, obtain possession of Mobile, you will lose no time in informing Governor Claiborne thereof, with a request that he will without delay take the necessary steps for the occupation of the same.

All ordnance and military stores that may be found in the Territory must be held as the property of the Spanish Government, to be accounted for hereafter to the proper authority, and you will not fail to transmit an inventory thereof to this Department.

If in the execution of any part of these instructions you should need the aid of a military force, the same will be afforded you upon your application to the commanding officer of the troops of the United States on that station, or to the commanding officer of the nearest post, in virtue of orders which have been issued from the War Department. And in case you should, moreover, need naval assistance, you will receive the same upon your application to the naval commander in pursuance of orders from the Navy Department.

From the Treasury Department will be issued the necessary instructions in relation to imposts and duties, and to the slave ships whose arrival is apprehended.

The President, relying upon your discretion, authorizes you to draw upon the collectors of Orleans and Savannah for such sums as may be necessary to defray unavoidable expenses that may be incurred in the execution of these instructions, not exceeding in your drafts on New Orleans $8,000 and in your drafts on Savannah $2,000, without further authority, of which expenses you will hereafter exhibit a detailed account duly supported by satisfactory vouchers.

POSTSCRIPT.--If Governor Folk should unexpectedly require and pertinaciously insist that the stipulation for the redelivery of the Territory should also include that portion of the country which is situated west of the river Perdido, you are, in yielding to such demand, only to use general words that may by implication comprehend that portion of country; but at the same time you are expressly to provide that such stipulation shall not in any way impair or affect the right or title of the United States to the same.

The Secretary of State to General Matthews.


General MATTHEWS, etc.

SIR: I have had the honor to receive your letter of the 14th of March, and have now to communicate to you the sentiments of the President on the very interesting subject to which it relates.

I am sorry to have to state that the measures which you appear to have adopted for obtaining possession of Amelia Island and other parts of East Florida are not authorized by the law of the United States or the instructions founded on it under which you have acted.

You were authorized by the law, a copy of which was communicated to you, and by your instructions, which are strictly conformable to it, to take possession of East Florida only in case one of the following contingencies should happen: Either that the governor or other existing local authority should be disposed to place it amicably in the hands of the United States, or that an attempt should be made to take possession of it by a foreign power. Should the first contingency happen it would follow that the arrangement, being amicable, would require no force on the part of the United States to carry it into effect. It was only in case of an attempt to take it by a foreign power that force could be necessary, in which event only were you authorized to avail yourself of it.

In neither of these contingencies was it the policy of the law or purpose of the Executive to wrest the Province forcibly from Spain, but only to occupy it with a view to prevent its falling into the hands of any foreign power, and to hold that pledge under the existing peculiarity of the circumstances of the Spanish Monarchy for a just result in an amicable negotiation with Spain.

Had the United States been disposed to proceed otherwise, that intention would have been manifested by a change of the law and suitable measures to carry it into effect; and as it was in their power to take possession whenever they might think that circumstances authorized and required it, it would be the more to be regretted if possession should be effected by any means irregular in themselves and subjecting the Government of the United States to unmerited censure.

The views of the Executive respecting East Florida are further illustrated by your instructions as to West Florida. Although the United States have thought that they had a good title to the latter Province, they did not take possession until after the Spanish authority had been subverted by a revolutionary proceeding, and the contingency of the country being thrown into foreign hands had forced itself into view. Nor did they then, nor have they since, dispossessed the Spanish troops of the post which they occupied. If they did not think proper to take possession by force of a province to which they thought they were justly entitled, it could not be presumed that they should intend to act differently in respect to one to which they had not such a claim.

I may add that although due sensibility has been always felt for the injuries which were received from the Spanish Government in the last war, the present situation of Spain has been a motive for a moderate and pacific policy toward her.

In communicating to you these sentiments of the Executive on the measures you have lately adopted for taking possession of East Florida, I add with pleasure that the utmost confidence is reposed in your integrity and zeal to promote the welfare of your country. To that zeal the error into which you have fallen is imputed. But in consideration of the part which you have taken, which differs so essentially from that contemplated and authorized by the Government, and contradicts so entirely the principles on which it has uniformly and sincerely acted, you will be sensible of the necessity of discontinuing the service in which you have been employed.

You will therefore consider your powers as revoked on the receipt of this letter. The new duties to be performed will be transferred to the governor of Georgia, to whom instructions will be given on all the circumstances to which it may be proper at the present juncture to call his attention.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, sir, your obedient servant,


The Secretary of State to His Excellency D. B. Mitchell, the governor of Georgia.

DEPARTMENT OF STATE, April 10, 1812.

SIR: The President is desirous of availing the public of your services in a concern of much delicacy and of high importance to the United States. Circumstances with which you are in some degree acquainted, but which will be fully explained by the inclosed papers, have made it necessary to revoke the powers heretofore committed to General Matthews and to commit them to you. The President is persuaded that you will not hesitate to undertake a trust so important to the nation, and peculiarly to the State of Georgia. He is the more confident in this belief from the consideration that these new duties may be discharged without interfering, as he presumes, with those of the station which you now hold.

By the act of the 15th of January, 1811, you will observe that it was not contemplated to take possession of East Florida or any part thereof, unless it should be surrendered to the United States amicably by the governor or other local authority of the Province, or against an attempt to take possession of it by a foreign power, and you will also see that General Matthews's instructions, of which a copy is likewise inclosed, correspond fully with the law.

By the documents in possession of the Government it appears that neither of these contingencies have happened; that instead of an amicable surrender by the governor or other local authority the troops of the United States have been used to dispossess the Spanish authority by force. I forbear to dwell on the details of this transaction because it is painful to recite them. By the letter to General Matthews which is inclosed, open for your perusal, you will fully comprehend the views of the Government respecting the late transaction, and by the law, the former instructions to the General, and the late letter now forwarded you will be made acquainted with the course of conduct which it is expected of you to pursue in future in discharging the duties heretofore enjoined on him.

It is the desire of the President that you should turn your attention and direct your efforts in the first instance to the restoration of that state of things in the Province which existed before the late transactions. The Executive considers it proper to restore back to the Spanish authorities Amelia Island and such other parts, if any, of East Florida as may have thus been taken from them. With this view it will be necessary for you to communicate directly with the governor or principal officer of Spain in that Province, and to act in harmony with him in the attainment of it. It is presumed that the arrangement will be easily and amicably made between you. I inclose you an order from the Secretary of War to the commander of the troops of the United States to evacuate the country when requested so to do by you, and to pay the same respect in future to your order in fulfilling the duties enjoined by the law that he had been instructed to do to that of General Matthews.

In restoring to the Spanish authorities Amelia Island and such other parts of East Florida as may have been taken possession of in the name of the United States there is another object to which your particular attention will be due. In the measures lately adopted by General Matthews to take possession of that Territory it is probable that much reliance has been placed by the people who acted in it on the countenance and support of the United States. It will be improper to expose these people to the resentment of the Spanish authorities. It is not to be presumed that those authorities in regaining possession of the Territory in this amicable mode from the United States will be disposed to indulge any such feeling toward them. You will, however, come to a full understanding with the Spanish governor on this subject, and not fail to obtain from him the most explicit and satisfactory assurance respecting it. Of this assurance you will duly apprise the parties interested, and of the confidence which you repose in it. It is hoped that on this delicate and very interesting point the Spanish governor will avail himself of the opportunity it presents to evince the friendly disposition of his Government toward the United States.

There is one other remaining circumstance only to which I wish to call your attention, and that relates to General Matthews himself. His gallant and meritorious services in our Revolution and patriotic conduct since have always been held in high estimation by the Government. His errors in this instance are imputed altogether to his zeal to promote the welfare of his country; but they are of a nature to impose on the Government the necessity of the measures now taken, in giving effect to which you will doubtless feel a disposition to consult, as far as may be, his personal sensibility.

I have the honor to be, etc.


P. S.--Should you find it impracticable to execute the duties designated above in person, the President requests that you will be so good as to employ some very respectable character to represent you in it, to whom you are authorized to allow a similar compensation. It is hoped, however, that you may be able to attend to it in person, for reasons which I need not enter into. The expenses to which you may be exposed will be promptly paid to your draft on this Department.

The Secretary of State to D. B. Mitchell, esq., governor of Georgia.


SIR: I have had the honor to receive your letter of the 2d instant from St. Marys, where you had arrived in discharge of the trust reposed in you by the President, in relation to East Florida.

My letter by Mr. Isaacs has, I presume, substantially answered the most important of the queries submitted in your letter, but I will give to each a more distinct answer.

By the law of which a copy was forwarded to you it is made the duty of the President to prevent the occupation of East Florida by any foreign power. It follows that you are authorized to consider the entrance, or attempt to enter, especially under existing circumstances, of British troops of any description as the case contemplated by the law, and to use the proper means to defeat it.

An instruction will be immediately forwarded to the commander of the naval force of the United States in the neighborhood of East Florida to give you any assistance, in case of emergency, which you may think necessary and require.

It is not expected, if you find it proper to withdraw the troops, that you should interfere to compel the patriots to surrender the country or any part of it to the Spanish authorities. The United States are responsible for their own conduct only; not for that of the inhabitants of East Florida. Indeed, in consequence of the compromitment of the United States to the inhabitants, you have been already instructed not to withdraw the troops, unless you find that it may be done consistently with their safety, and to report to the Government the result of your conferences with the Spanish authorities, with your opinion of their views, holding in the meantime the ground occupied.

In the present state of our affairs with Great Britain the course above pointed out is the more justifiable and proper.

I have the honor, etc.,


James Madison, Special Message Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/205051

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