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  • Border Law: The First Seminole War and American Nationhood by Deborah A. Rosen
  • Adam Pratt
Border Law: The First Seminole War and American Nationhood. By Deborah A. Rosen. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015. 328 pages. $45.00. ISBN 978-0-6749-6761-8.

At the heart of Deborah Rosen's Border Law is the contrast between two sets of executions, both of which were overseen by Andrew Jackson during his invasion of Spanish West Florida in 1816. Pursuing a group of Red Sticks into land claimed by Spain, Jackson's forces captured Hillis Hadjo and Homathlemico, declared them outlaws, and summarily executed them. In contrast, two Britons, Robert Armbrister and Alexander Arbuthnot, were likewise captured, but subjected to the ruling of a military tribunal. When the panel reconsidered Ambrister's sentence, Jackson overruled them and ordered his execution as well. According to Rosen, these executions represent the forceful adoption of what she terms "border law," a form of positive law that was more stridently nationalist, expansionary, and racially motivated. Although this new mode of legal thought did see the growth of American territory, a redefinition of political rights for whites, and increasing nationalism, it was also fraught with problems.

When Andrew Jackson invaded West Florida in 1816, he propelled the United States into the club of European-style sovereign nations that could claim supremacy over land and, in order to protect national interests, could also take interest in adjacent territory. The war helped fashion a distinct outlook on international law and national sovereignty that developed in parallel with a unique American identity. That shift in identity, argues Rosen, provided fodder for Jackson's congressional supporters to craft a narrative of events that defended Jackson's bellicose ways and American expansionism in general. [End Page 155]

Border Law's path traces U.S.-Spanish relations, moves into an analysis that presents the arguments of both the supporters and detractors of Jackson's actions, examines how race solidified notions of American nationhood, and ends with the ways that military tribunals extended American law beyond national borders. Backed by an impressive array of sources, formidable analysis, and impeccable organization, Rosen's examination has far-reaching consequences for the Jacksonian era and our own.

Jackson's forces attacked numerous Indian villages, forts, and even Spanish-occupied Pensacola. When it became clear that his actions could benefit the nation, the U.S. government and President James Monroe had to reconfigure their own legal geography and arguments about sovereignty. At stake was the legality of Jackson's invasion of sovereign Spanish territory during peacetime and, in particular, his execution of two British subjects. The argument they formulated centered on military necessity. Citing the danger posed by Creeks and Seminoles who crossed the American boundary with violent intent, President Monroe argued that if Jackson had stopped at the boundary rather than pursue its targets, such an action would have represented the "height of folly" (59). Military necessity became a convenient way for the U.S. to strengthen its law, and national leaders believed international legal traditions supported the foray. That legal framework borrowed heavily from Emer de Vattel, the eighteenth-century Swiss jurist who articulated that cultural differences, especially those between Natives and Euro-Americans, justified the expansion of white settlements. In de Vattel's mind, tribes "ranged through rather than inhabited" their land, which made their land use inefficient. Natural law, therefore, dictated that better stewards of the land had a greater right to it, "provided they left the natives with a sufficiency of land" (118-19). Thus, Americans during the Seminole War used the logic of Vattel's law of nations to bolster their claim to Florida by denying Spanish sovereignty (because it housed outlaws) and Native nationhood (because of racism), which they could back up with force. [End Page 156]

Border law, with its emphasis on racial distinctions and the creation of international legal thinking that discriminated against Native peoples by denying them a claim to nationhood, had important consequences for the rights of citizens and non-citizens in the American republic. Within America, Rosen states, "The United States clarified the borders of its own legal community domestically by showing that only...


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