Thursday Bookshelf : 1775 and why Florida didn’t join the American Revolution

Kevin Phillips 1775: A Good Year for Revolution is a definitive and intellectual look at the causes of the American Revolution. Like Phillips other woks we’ve reviewed here on the “Bush Dynasty” and the politics of the American wealthy and the developing theocracy that appeared during the 2000’s , Phillips makes any subject interesting. The former Republican political consultant turned independent intellectual political commentator has done the same thing with this book, describing all of the factors that contributed to the outbreak of revolution and looking at entire continent; Phillips argues strongly that historians emphasis on 1776 is flawed and that 1775 was the key year in developing revolution. He also points out that commentators often overlook the impact of the Quebec Act on the colonists and the role of religion in fomenting sides in the conflict. Phillips also goes to great lengths to describe why some colonies were further along in 1775 toward rebellion and ultimate independence than others. This is a unique angle which professional historians have often glossed over in the studies and works they have formulated on the period.

Of particular interest to myself and our readers is why the British colonies of East and West Florida didn’t join the rebellion. The Continental Congress, as I am sure many of you know did invite the Florida’s to participate. Both Florida’s declined even though Lt. Gov. John Moultrie’s three living brothers (who resided in South Carolina) all became officers in the Patriot Army. In fact Lt. Gov. Moultrie’s brother William handed the rebels perhaps its biggest victory before the Battle of Trenton during 1776, when he successfully defended Charleston.

As Phillips points out the two Florida’s with its large catholic population inherited from nearly 200 years of Spanish rule much like Quebec (catholic because it was settled by the French), stayed loyal to the crown. The British had spent the previous decade trying to reconcile with Catholics in Ireland and in other parts of the empire, after over two centuries of animosity. Phillips has previously studied and written about the religious origins of the three major civil wars in the English speaking world. The American Revolution as he demonstrates in this work fits the same pattern. Catholics, who about two decades earlier had loathed anything British by-and-large stayed loyal to the crown, while Protestant denominations were split. But ultimately religion did play a role in many cases as to who fought for independence and who stayed loyal to King George III.

As the two Florida’s stayed loyal to Britain, Pensacola became an important military staging ground and St Augustine became that and more – a strategic city whose population swelled thanks to fleeing loyalists from Georgia and South Carolina. The American rebels made several failed attempts to capture St Augustine, and raiding was a common occurrence along the Georgia-East Florida border at the St Marys River. In 1778, British forces defeated an American combination of Militia and Cavalry at the Battle of Alligator Bridge in present day Nassau County. The British in Florida cultivated Indian allies and thus was able to prevent any sort of successful penetration by rebel forces.

In 1781, a joint Spanish-French force captured Pensacola from the British and brought West Florida back under Spanish rule.  However, St Augustine remained firmly within British hands.  East Florida was ceded to Spain in the peace treaty that ended the Revolutionary War. The explosive growth of St Augustine aided by fleeing loyalists is why the city that was ruled by the Spanish for over 200 years (1565-1763 and then 1784-1819) has several areas with a strong English flavor. The British only ruled over St Augustine from 1763 to early 1784, but much of the city’s growth took place in that period.

Getting back to Phillips book, it is an impressive read and a critical one for anyone who wants to truly understand the cross-currents and background to why the colonies went to war with the mother country . It’s also an important read to comprehend why Quebec and Florida stayed loyal to the British crown.

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