“Murdered by the Federal Government”: Abolitionists and the Destruction of Negro Fort

Friday, January 6, 2017: 2:10 PM
Centennial Ballroom A (Hyatt Regency Denver)
Matthew J. Clavin, University of Houston
In the summer of 1816, a joint United-States Army-United States Navy expedition on the Apalachicola River, which divided the Spanish colonies of East and West Florida, resulted in the destruction of Negro Fort, the largest colony of fugitive slaves in the history of the present-day United States. The unprecedented invasion of a sovereign nation by the American military, which was orchestrated by Major General Andrew Jackson with the tacit approval of the federal government, resulted in the deaths of as many as 300 fugitive slaves from both the United States and Florida, including men, women, and children. It also resulted in the re-enslavement of the survivors of the obliterated fort; sparked the first of three Seminole Wars; and ensured the annexation of Spanish Florida by the United States several years later.

Though little-known today, the United States’ destruction of Negro Fort was in the decades between the War of 1812 and the Civil War an important touchstone of the American abolitionist movement. In public speeches and printed texts, abolitionists repeatedly invoked the fort’s reduction as proof of an emerging slaveocracy—a government of the slaveowners, by the slaveowners, for the slaveowners—that trampled on the rights of both enslaved black southerners and free white northerners. Through an analysis of abolitionist speeches and writings, this paper illuminates how the heroic efforts of hundreds of enslaved people to break their bonds and live as free people in the Florida wilderness inspired generations of abolitionists to fight for the destruction of slavery through a radical transformation of the federal government that allowed its existence and encouraged its expansion.

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