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The Causes and Impacts of the Adams-Onis Treaty

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: History
Wordcount: 2581 words Published: 24th Sep 2021

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The Adams-Onis Treaty is known by several different names, the Florida Purchase Treaty, the Transcontinental Treaty, or simply the Florida Treaty. The treaty was signed between Spain and the United States in 1819, settling border disputes between the Spanish colonies and that of the United States as well as ceding Florida to the U.S. The treaty was considered a diplomatic triumph for the fact it settled a long standing border dispute between the two countries as well as the fact the treaty was signed during rising tensions between Spain and the United States over the ever increasing territorial boundaries in North America between Great Britain and the United States fallowing the aftermath of the American Revolution. With the fact that Florida had become more of a burden on Spain then anything remotely assembling a profit making colony Spain decided to forfeit Florida in exchange for settling the boundary dispute along the Sabine River in Spanish owned Texas. Along with the boundary between Texas and the United States the treaty also establish the boundary of the U.S. territory and the claims through the Rocky Mountains and onward out west to the Pacific Ocean, all of this the Spanish government gave to the United States in exchange for the Americans paying residents’ claims against the Spanish government up to a total of $5,000,000 as well as the United States had to relinquish any claim on parts of Spanish Texas west of the Sabine River and other Spanish areas that had been under the terms of the Louisiana Purchase.[1]

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In the years following the acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon by President Thomas Jefferson’s administration there arose an issue pertaining to the fact that the United States was not completely sure where their new border lay in regards to the territory obtained from France and that of the Spanish territory to the south. Almost from the beginning of the purchase Americans exploring southward were being apprehended by Spanish authorities and being sent back to the United States, the issue was clear, even if the border was not.[2] There must be a clear cut boundary between the two countries before these trespassing issues became something more serious then just being sent home after being arrested. Both James Madison and James Monroe sought to purchase the Spanish territories of West and East Florida, because of the hardships Spain was facing in holding onto the two territories the crown was willing to negotiate a deal for the two if the United States would agree on clarifying who owned the western territories beyond East and West Florida. One of the many issues facing the Spanish crown in maintaining control over the territory and making it a profitable province was the fact that while it claimed the territory it in all actuality had very few outpost set up and hardly any of it was settled. There really was no form of governance to the territory and because of this settlers from the United States were continuously encroaching upon the borders, for lack of a better term the Americans were squatters on Spanish lands. Tensions were bond to come to a head and they did in 1810 when Americans who had settled in West Florida rebelled against the Spanish crown, declaring their independence from Spain.[3] President James Madison and his administration took advantage of the incident, knowing because of Napoleon’s invasion of Spain that the Spanish crown was notably weakened and because of this Spain was not paying as close attention to their North American territories as they normally did. The Madison administration claimed that the part of West Florida from the Mississippi to the Perdido River was part of the Louisiana Purchase that President Thomas Jefferson had acquired in 1803 from Napoleon.[4]

The French had originally controlled the territory from 1699 until France ceded it to Spain in 1762 at the end of the Seven Years War to keep it out of the hands of the British. In 1800 Napoleon with grand aspirations of re-establishing a French empire in North America regained ownership of the Louisiana territory. However it was not to come to fruition as France’s failure to end the revolt on Saint-Domingue and thus the loss of the island made ownership of the Louisiana territory useless to the French. Added to that was the strong possibility of France going back to war with England Napoleon had a strong incentive to sell the territory to the United States in order to fund his military ambitions on the continent. The issue arose of the disagreement over the territorial boundaries of the purchase, the United States maintained the French claim that Louisiana included the Mississippi River and all lands whose waters flow to the Mississippi. West of New Orleans the United States also stood by the French claim to all lands east and north of the Sabine River while Spain maintained their claim that all land west of the Calcasieu River and south of the Arkansas River belonged to Tejas and Santa Fe de Nuevo Mexico.[5] The huge amount of land between the United States and Spain was a constant source of disputes for the two countries and was not very populated by settlers from either but that of primarly native peoples with a few traders. The land that lay between the Calcasieu and Sabine rivers became a lawless no man’s land.

 In 1815 Don Luis De Onis arrived in Washington to start negotiations of Florida in earnest, meeting with then Secretary of State James Monroe. Unfortunately the issue would not be resolved until Monroe was President himself and a new Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams had taken his place. Don Luis De Onis was appointed minister plenipotentiary to the United States in June of 1809 and was to set sail for New York immediately upon receiving his letter of appointment. His orders where at the same time simple and complex, he was to ensure peace between Spain and the United States and to win the formal recognition of Fernando VII from the Americans as the legitimate ruler of Spain. Along with those orders he was to negotiate all disputes between the two countries, encourage the loyalty of the Spanish colonials in the New World, buy supplies, armaments, order the construction of war ships in order for Spain to use in its war with the French and to counter Bonapartist propaganda in the United States. These orders proved difficult for Onis to carry out as President James Madison refused to recognize him as an ambassador so long as the Peninsular war raged on the European continent. President Madison refused to accept his request for an audience so he could present his credentials, instead he was informed that the American government could not recognize nor receive any minister from the provisional governments of Spain because at the moment the crown was in dispute and that until it was resolved the United States had to remain neutral. Onis returned to New York and set about carrying out his orders without the recognition of Washington.

It would not be until December of 1815, once the war in Spain had come to a conclusion that the United States finally officially recognized Onis as the Spanish ambassador. American and Spanish relations remained strained however, but became critical when in 1818 General Andrew Jackson marched into Florida territory and seized the two Spanish forts at St. Marks and at Pensacola as part of his raids against the Seminole Indians and against escaped slaves who had made their way into Spanish lands.[6] Both groups were seen as threats to the state of Georgia which prompted Jackson’s marching American soldiers into lands governed by the Spanish crown. Events came to a head when Jackson executed two British citizens he had charged with inciting the Indians and encouraging more runaways. Back in Washington there were talks to consider denouncing Jackson’s actions in the Florida territory, but Secretary of State John Q. Adams defended the generals actions, stating they were necessary to restrain the Indians and the escaped slaves because the Spanish government had failed to do it themselves. To say that Adams was well qualified for his seat as Secretary of State was putting it mildly, Adams was the eldest son of John Adams, the second President of the United States. By the time the issue with Florida arose, Adams had served United States Minister to the Netherlands, Russia, the United Kingdom, and to Prussia. From 1803 to 1808 he served as a United States Senator from Massachusetts.

To say the Adams-Onis treaty had a rough journey to ratification is putting it mildly, it took two years of difficult negotiations as well as the intervention of Hyde de Neuville, the French ambassador to the United States. Neuville supported the Spanish’s position against the radicalism of Henry Clay in the congress as well as defending the Spanish against General Jackson who was famous for being openly hostile to the Spanish presence in East Florida. Another reason for the two year delay in ratifying the treaty was the issue of the revolutions taking place in Spain’s South American colonies, they hoped that by holding out on signing the treaty with the United States that it would give the Americas enough of an incentive to stay out of Spain’s affairs in Latin America. By the time the it was finally signed and sent before the US Senate it was unanimously voted to be ratified, only there was one small problem at hand. Because Spain took so long to sign out of fear of American involvement in the South American uprisings there had to be a new ratification to the treaty and there lie the issue. In this issue many of the western spokesmen, most notably Henry Clay rose up and stated that Spain should also ceded Texas along with the Florida territory, fortunately or unfortunately depending on who you ask that demand was shot down by the Senate and so on February 19, 1821 the Adams-Onis Treaty was ratified for a second time. Spain had already ratified the treaty on October 24, 1820. On February 22 1821 the ratifications were exchanged between to the two countries and the treaty proclaimed.

There were 16 articles in the treaty, over half of them settled issues that had plagued both countries since 1783.[7] It ceded all lands that belonged to the Spanish Crown east of the Mississippi to the United States. The most serious issue the treaty laid to rest was that of finally determining the borders to the northwest and west of the Mississippi. Onis put off settling this issue until the last possible moment because he hoped to keep California, Texas, and New Mexico under the control of the Spanish Crown, it worked too, all three remained under Spain’s power. The treaty laid out very clearly the boundary of the Louisiana Purchase, saying that it began at the mouth of the Sabine River and ran along its south and west bank to the 32 parallel and then directly north to the Red River, following its banks westward to the degree of longitude 100 west from London and 23 from Washington, then from crossing the Red River and running by a line due north to the Arkansas. From there it followed the course of the southern bank of the Arkansas to its source, latitude 42 north, from there on the same parallel of latitude it ran to the South Sea. Finally, after many years there was a clear cut boundary of the new American lands. One of the more interesting aspects of the treaty was the relinquishment on Spain’s part of the North American lands north of the 42nd parallel, this relinquishment of Spanish held land was against 327 years of strong pursuits of American lands.[8] With this treaty the United States now had a solid foothold on the Pacific Coast and would soon begin endorsing settlers to venture westward in hopes of occupying Oregon Territory which would in later years give rise to another border dispute, this time between Oregon and California. In 1850, when California entered into the Union it declared the 42nd parallel as it’s border, saying it had been thus since the days when it was a part of Spanish Mexico. In the late 1860s with the admission of Oregon into the Union a mistake was made on marking the border between the two states, it is, unfortunately a dispute that is ongoing even today.

The Adams-Onis treaty laid to rest many issues that faced the two countries and had plagued its citizen for many years. It finally gave a clear cut border to the United States acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase as well as gaining East and West Florida as well. While the U.S. gave up claims to Texas it was finally able to firmly and legally lay claim to lands that stretch from the east coast to the west cost of the North American continent. It saw an end to 327 years of Spanish pursuit of North American lands and a new beginning for what would soon be a westward expansion of the United States. The Adams-Onis treaty was a great achievement for the United States, as without it the it is not clear how or even if the U.S. would have been able to open trade agreements with the countries in the Pacific.


  • Adams, John Quincy. Manuscript letter from Secretary of State John Quincy Adams to President James Monroe regarding the Adams-Onis Treaty. 1819. 2.
  • Adams–Onís Treaty of 1819. n.d. .
  • Binkley, William C. “Diplomacy and the Borderlands: The Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819. By Philip C. Brooks. University of California Publications in History. Edited by H. E. Bolton, W. A. Morris, and J. W. Thompson. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1939. x + 262 pp. Illustrations, maps, and bibliography. $2.00.).” The Journal of American History 27.3 (1940): 465-466. 2 12 2018. .
  • Brooks, Philip Coolidge. “The Pacific Coast’s First International Boundary Delineation, 1816-1819.” Pacific Historical Review 3.1 (1934): 62-79. 2 12 2018. .
  • Gerhard, Peter. “Whose frontier? The Mexican‐United States border in perspective.” Geopolitics 2.2 (1997): 57-69. 2 12 2018. .
  • USA.gov. Acquisition of Florida: Treaty of Adams-Onis (1819) and Transcontinental Treaty (1821). 2009. 2 12 2018. .

[1] (Binkley)

[2] (Gerhard)

[3] (Baade)

[4] (USA.gov)

[5] (Gerhard)

[6] (Binkley)

[7] (Adams–Onís Treaty of 1819)

[8] (Brooks)


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