The Rogue Republic – Book Review
The Rogue Republic. William C. Davis. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishers, 2011. 400 pages with 8 pages of photographs and illustrations.
William C. Davis, the author of numerous works on early American and Civil War history, including biographies of John C. Breckenridge, Jefferson Davis, and the Lafitte brothers, as well as a highly regarded history of the War for Texas Independence, has produced another original work of historical narrative. The Rogue Republic is an exhaustive but fast-paced work describing a little-known episode on the borders between Spanish territory and the new United States in the early 19th century.
Davis gives a full, very detailed account of the creation of the Republic of West Florida, a republic that lasted two-and-a-half months. The Republic was a part of the complex and unsavory history of Western land grabs by seminal Americans, following closely on the Aaron Burr conspiracy, and with sure foreshadowing of the Texas and California rebellions. Indeed, Davis stresses that this history is "almost a template for the Texas Revolution … and the Bear Flag Revolt" And it’s easy to see why. In fact, the rebellion bears a shocking similarity to the Texas revolt, except in miniature. A small band of locals, unhappy with restrictions they feel are holding back their attempts at financial improvement, force government action that eventually leads to incorporation of their, in this case small, region into the United States.
The book is filled with a very colorful cast of characters, starting with Reuben Kemper and his brothers, who found opportunity in the almost lawless regions of "West Florida," a land still under the nominal suzerainty of Spain. Davis sets the scene for Kemper’s actions with a brief history of the Spanish territory. With the large acquisition of territory under the Louisiana Purchase, one issue left unresolved was the status of West Florida, a strip of Gulf Coast land stretching from Pensacola west to Baton Rouge on the Mississippi River. It was the US contention that West Florida was part of the purchase, but Spain disagreed. Though officially considered American territory, on a de facto basis, Spain administered the land without US interference. This caused anger and confusion on both sides. The failure of the US to press this claim limited the usefulness of the Mississippi, despite US occupation of New Orleans. Equally, the Spanish possession of Mobile further east into the West Florida territory blocked access to undoubted American territory east of the Mississippi.
Enter Reuben Kemper. Kemper was a flatboatman out for his big opportunity. At the time West Florida was a blend of cultures and populations—French, Spanish, and a large number of Americans, especially in the west, nearer the Mississippi. Kemper came down the Mississippi from the Ohio Territory with a partner, John Smith. With merchandise brought down the river they opened a store in a settlement known as Bayou Sara in Spanish territory. The store struggled and Smith went back to Ohio. Kemper stayed, now joined by his brothers Samuel and Nathan, and began land speculation in the area.
Failure of the store led to a suit brought by Smith in Spanish courts. In August 1803, the territorial government sent a militia of deputized Americans expatriates to seize the store and the Kemper land holdings. This led to Kemper becoming an outlaw and forming a band of men engaged in raids against Spanish interests. According to Davis, "the whole period of militant unrest with Spanish rule in West Florida began with [Kemper] and he, and later his brothers, kept up the agitation that eventually led to armed revolt." In 1804, Kemper and his band issued a declaration of independence from the Spanish, but it was not taken seriously by the US territorial governor of the Orleans Territory, nor by the US Government who considered it fueled more by personal grievances and ambitions than high ideological concerns.
Another interesting line of argument is built by Davis here: that the rebels were eager to use the rhetoric of freedom and liberty, but even the residents of West Florida were not fooled by that. "Even the Kempers seemed uncertain of their motivation, operating from a mix of aims that shifted with circumstances." In fact, "The rhetoric of liberty more than once masked a thirst for plunder, and the efforts of American settlers to halt such activity shows how little most of it had to do with American nationalism." The inhabitants of West Florida actually preferred Spanish rule, being as it was indolent and inefficient. American law would have meant a more active justice system than the inhabitants of the area were used to.
But it was the raids and activities by the Kempers that led to political tensions. Their actions "broke down law and order, provoking a response that aroused anger at the authorities." And this eventually caused the American government to act. For, though nominally recognizing Spain’s occupation and therefore de facto governance of the region, President Thomas Jefferson didn’t acknowledge Spain’s title to it. According to Davis, "The Kempers had forced even Jefferson to act."
Still, the confrontations with the Spanish helped fuel six years of turbulence in West Florida. By 1810 the independence movement had been taken over by more substantial West Floridians: cotton planters, lawyers, businessmen and with covert backing from the U.S. government, a more substantial revolution broke out in the western part of West Florida. This culminated in the capture of Fort San Carlos on September 22 and resulted in the very short-lived Republic of West Florida. (The more eastern parts of the Spanish colony, including Mobile and Pensacola, for the time being remained under Spanish dominance—which was to change as part of the larger events of the War of 1812).
The rebels appointed a "committee of safety," and petitioned for redress of grievances. By then Spain was considered to be standing in the way of the inhabitants’ prosperity, and there were those willing to take the conflict even further. But, perhaps inevitably, the Republic of West Florida was not eager to keep its independence once it had thrown off the Spanish. For a brief period, it was unclear with whom West Florida wanted to ally. Though most of its inhabitants were Americans, President James Madison worried that a US occupation of West Florida would invite retribution from Britain, Spain and France.
But when the republic petitioned President Madison for annexation, he complied, claiming that West Florida was included in the Louisiana Purchase. Britain did not protest—it had other issues with the U.S. that would come to a head in the War of 1812. The French, similarly, had other concerns, including their perennial conflict with England. Davis describes the Spanish as being too weak to make any practical dispute. The riverbanks of the Mississippi on both sides became entirely American. Throughout the story, Reuben Kemper remained involved, became friends with Andrew Jackson, was acquainted with Jefferson and Monroe and later was a leader in the War of 1812, but he and John Smith kept suing each other, and both died poor.
The Rogue Republic is a detailed, almost minute-by-minute account of a "rebellion" and incursion that in many ways was a fiasco. But due to the processes of news transmission of the time, it took on larger importance than perhaps was warranted. According to Davis, "Right or wrong, an impression of discontent and insurrectionary sentiment in West Florida gained currency in the United States," leading to some public pressure to act. It is instructive to contemplate how often such misunderstood happenings have caused pressure to act in unforeseen ways throughout American history. William C. Davis’ book is a fascinating description and analysis of a slice of early American life and is a worthy addition to his collection of narrative history. It leaves the reader stirred with anticipation to what he will next turn his gaze.
Douglas Sterling is a bookseller and freelance writer from Northern Kentucky who has published works on Julius Caesar’s army, the later Crusades, the Hundred Years’ War and World War II. He has Master’s Degrees in Military History and American History. In addition to several book reviews, his articles for ArmchairGeneral.com include "Erwin Rommel – Roots of Victory, Seeds of Defeat."