- The Threshold of Manifest Destiny: Gender and National Expansion in Florida by Laurel Clark Shire
LAUREL CLARK SHIRE
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016
Laurel Clark Shire, an assistant professor of history at Western University, articulates an important argument in The Threshold of Manifest Destiny—scholars of gender and the American South have to consider the important theories of settler colonialism that have come to the forefront of recent scholarship in indigenous studies. White women were not only complicit in the removal and expulsion of Seminole families from their lands in Florida but key participants in American territorial expansion. Utilizing the propaganda that the settlers and American government used to justify the Seminole campaign, Shire’s work makes it abundantly clear that these were no “innocent homemakers” but rather beneficiaries of a “highly gendered ideology of female vulnerability and domesticity” that helped push Manifest Destiny into the Florida territory (2). This study highlights the nature of this aggressive American expansion within the framework of settler colonialism and the lengths to which settlers and propagandists [End Page 821] went to frame removal of the Seminole as a “defensive policy to protect ‘peaceful’ settler families.” These settlers appear frequently throughout the historical narrative as “persecuted migrants, refugees seeking asylum, or hardworking pioneers” and in the case of Florida women, as champions of the virtues of the American family and household, defenders of the domestic hearth (11). The push for settlement of Florida must also be understood in the context of American expansionism, even though the acquisition of the territory predates the official rhetoric of Manifest Destiny. The historiography of Florida is complicated and problematic. Sometimes the focus is only on the region as a failing northern outpost of Spain’s colonial empire. At other times, the region is included as part of the American Old South, even though its annexation has more in common with events in the West than in other southern states. The role of women in this expansion can be traced back to the colonial examples whereby a cohesive family unit was the most desirable settler unit capable of taking a territory from settlement to society; however, in the case of Florida, American national and military leaders placed special importance on women in what Clark Shire calls “expansionist domesticity” (15).
Among the contributions that Clark Shire’s book brings to the study of Florida is an understanding that invading settlers who created a household in Florida were engaging in a political act. The domestic work of these women had importance to American expansionism; even if the women were not aware of the undertones of their actions, they were supporting the expansion of slavery and territory. As southern women, they were not only mistresses of the plantation or their farms but settlers into Seminole land, seeking to destroy Seminole independence. With the expansion of slavery and the Americanization of these spaces, they were also complicit in the diminishing rights of free blacks in Florida. The popular literature of the 1830s included racist and ethnic stereotypes and the “Indian depredation narratives” became a popular mode of depicting the violence in Florida by framing conflicts between settlers and indigenous peoples as a war to “protect white women and children from ‘savages’ and ‘barbarians’” (25). In two parts and through five chapters, Clark Shire examines the expansion of the plantation economy, the Seminole Wars from both the written settler accounts and Seminole oral history, and the federal welfare program for resettlement of the territory by white families.
Florida was originally a Spanish colony, and the remnants of that legal [End Page 822] system had benefits for white women in the territory, who often possessed different rights than women in other states during the antebellum period. For example, colonial-era white women had the right of separate property, a clause that allowed white women in the Florida territory to protect their interests in a court of law, a resource that Clark Shire examines closely in her first chapter. While a source of empowerment for white women, this “legal hybridity” often resulted in the removal of rights...