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  • Border Law: The First Seminole War and American Nationhood by Deborah A. Rosen
  • Mikaëla M. Adams
Border Law: The First Seminole War and American Nationhood, by Deborah A. Rosen. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2015. ix, 316 pp. $45.00 US (cloth).

In 1816 and 1818, General Andrew Jackson led US troops into Spanish Florida, where they seized forts, razed towns, executed Creek and British prisoners, and killed or enslaved dozens of Seminoles, Creeks, and black people. In Border Law, Deborah A. Rosen analyzes the congressional and [End Page 559] public debates that followed this invasion and evaluates their implications for American nation-building. In seven meticulously-researched chapters, Rosen demonstrates how Jackson’s supporters rejected Enlightenment concepts of universal natural law and embraced ideas of positive, utilitarian law in order to justify US ambitions. Americans used this new legal framework in four ways: to demand US inclusion into the European family of nations; to differentiate between the Old and New Worlds; to define national borders and the limits of legal protection along racial and cultural lines; and to change the rules for acting across territorial borders in order to secure US interests abroad. As Rosen shows, these debates provided Americans with an opportunity to express their core values and to define their nationhood at a key moment in the history of the Early Republic. Ultimately, the legal demarcations they created laid the groundwork for “the Monroe Doctrine, the Dred Scott decision, US westward expansion, and late nineteenth-century interpretations of international law and overseas imperialism” (p. 219).

Although acquiring Florida had long been a US policy goal, Jackson’s invasion of Spanish territory set off a political firestorm. Monroe administration officials launched a public relations campaign to justify the general’s actions to both the American public and the international community. The invasion, they argued, was “both necessary and entirely defensive in nature” since Spain had failed to control the so-called Seminole “bandits” who raided frontier settlements (p. 36). Jackson’s critics retorted that “violence along the Florida border was mostly the result of American aggression, rather than Indian violence” (p. 75). They declared the invasion unnecessary, unlawful, and unconstitutional since Jackson had not waited for Congress to declare war before entering Florida. To make their cases, both groups cited the legal writings of Swiss jurist Emer de Vattel, but they interpreted his work to suit their own purposes. Ultimately, the arguments of Jackson’s supporters resonated with Congress and the American public. Spain’s weak colonial hold on Florida put the United States in danger. The United States had a right — even a duty — to secure its borders and expand throughout the continent. In making these arguments, supporters maintained that the United States was the natural leading power in the Western Hemisphere — an idea that found full expression in the 1823 Monroe Doctrine.

The claim that the United States acted in self-defense rested on the premise that Creeks, Seminoles, and allied blacks posed a serious threat to American settlers. In the Seminole War debates, Jackson’s supporters described Indians as “uncivilized and beast-like” to justify their pursuit into Florida (p. 110). According to this view, Indians were incapable of belonging to their own sovereign polities and thus did not warrant equal consideration under the law of nations. Black people received even worse [End Page 560] treatment. As Rosen points out, the US military actions in Florida extended American domestic slave laws extraterritorially. Americans defined fugitive slaves as outlaws to whom the rules of war did not apply. As such, they became “legal targets for unrestrained violence wherever they were” (p. 159). The “racially inflected civilized/savage and sovereign/nonsovereign distinctions” articulated in these debates paved the way for future policies like Indian Removal and westward expansion (p. 122). Black people, meanwhile, were deemed “subjects of U.S. law but assured of no rights” — a position later affirmed in the Dred Scott decision (p. 181). These racial-cultural boundaries reinforced an emerging “racial nationalism” and contributed to an evolving understanding of international law that later justified both American and European imperialism overseas (p. 179).

Most controversial in the Seminole War debates was Jackson’s...


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