Conquest Without War: U.S. Expansionism, the Age of Revolution, and the First Filibuster

This post is a part of the 2020 Selected Papers of the Consortium on the Revolutionary Era, which were edited and compiled by members of the CRE’s board alongside editors at Age of Revolutions.

By Marco Cabrera Geserick

The Age of Revolutions was a period of ideological contradictions. Recently created republics became empires; constitutions declared equality for all while maintaining large sectors of the population enslaved; and claims of liberty, freedom, and democracy sparked an era of conquest and expansionism. The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic age exacerbated ideas of republicanism that justified conquest in the name of liberty.[1] On the other side of the Atlantic, the United States was founded with expansionism as one of the main justifications for declaring Independence.[2] Once the new nation secured the Trans Appalachian borders, its conquering impulses were redirected towards La Florida and Louisiana.[3] These Imperial desires of conquest seem to contradict the universal brotherhood ideals of republicanism. Another part of the conundrum presented by U.S. expansionism was the intent to avoid direct war with European powers. The answer came through the example set by the filibuster William August Bowles in his attempts to take over Spanish Florida (1787-1803). Bowles, inspired in part by the ideas of the Revolutionary Era, showed the United States the way to conquer without war.

The first preview of U.S. expansionist policies in Spanish territory was the dispute for the northern boundary of La Florida, the Spanish controlled territories along the Gulf Coast. When Spain recovered the territory in 1783, it claimed the borders of West Florida including the land added to the territory when it was under British control. The United States, through its representative Thomas Pickney, insisted instead on the use of the 1763 borders. The issue was solved in October 1795 with the signing of the Treaty of San Lorenzo, with Spain ceding the northern part of Western Florida to the United States. This action signaled a Spanish need to pacify a possible enemy because it did not have the resources needed to defend the territory, due in part to a devastating Spanish defeat in Europe against France during the War of the First Coalition, just three months before. 

The expansion of the War of the First Coalition to the Americas gave the United States the first glimpse of what a filibuster expedition may look like. In 1792, Edmund Gênet was appointed as French Ambassador to the United States, with the official mission of promoting rebellion and “foster the principles of liberty and independence in Louisiana and in the other provinces of America neighboring the United States.”[4] The French Consul in Charleston, Michel Mangourit, was charged with preparing an invasion of East Florida. Mangourit was able to buy and secure the support of members of the Georgia militia, as well as to prepare expeditions commanded by French privateers. To assure the support of his Georgian allies, Margourit announced that surely the Rights of the Man and the Citizen should serve as the basis for the new constitution of the conquered territory, but also that the 1794 French Abolition of Slavery Act would be disregarded, showing that ideology was merely a tool of conquest. The affair was partially stopped when the United States government complained about how Gênet’s actions violated the recently approved Neutrality Act of 1794, which was issued precisely because of the possibility that the French Revolution could drag the United States into war against other European powers. 

The French government recalled and replaced Gênet, but the wheels of rebellion were already set in motion.[5] In July of 1795, Georgian militias carrying the French flag and wearing Republican tricolor cockades attacked Florida and terrorized the local farmers. A month later, the Spanish regained control of the region and expelled the invaders.[6]Although U.S. citizens participated in the attack against Spain, thanks to the Neutrality Act the United States government escaped responsibility for the actions of private citizens, avoiding an undesired international conflict. This same declaration was later used to support expansionist policies using filibuster expeditions when U.S. officials financed and supported them while denying any involvement.[7]

In 1799, La Florida suffered another invasion, this time led by William August Bowles, a former British officer during the war of U.S. Independence, who threatened to create an Independent Republic in Spanish Florida.[8] Bowles’ adventures served as great examples for U.S. expansionists on how to conquer European controlled territory in the Americas without having to openly commit to war. Bowles’s strange career started in 1778 when he was part of the British forces garrisoned in Pensacola. After being dismissed, he joined a group of Creeks, with whom he stayed for two years in what is now Alabama.[9] Like many loyalists, Bowles left the U.S. mainland after 1783 for the Bahamas. There, he developed strong connections with John Murray, Earl of Dunmore, Governor of Bahamas, and former governor of British Virginia. As Bowles, Dunmore was a veteran of the U.S. war of Independence and a loyalist. In 1787, financed by Dunmore, Bowles first invaded Florida to take over its Southeastern region.[10] The main goal of Dunmore was to reestablish the commercial links the British had with Florida’s indigenous groups, a connection lost after the Spanish conquest of Bahamas in 1782. Bowles was a good choice to accomplish the objective, since he knew the area well, and had developed strong networks in the region.

In 1787, Bowles approached William Panton, another British loyalist and a merchant authorized by the Spaniards to work in Florida, and the Creek leader Alexander McGillivray to gain support for the idea of opening a port in the Atlantic that would serve as a contact point for “a newly-organized Indian State” with the British Caribbean.[11] Bowles’s idea behind the construction of a port in the Atlantic coast of Florida was to eliminate the Spanish commercial connections with the local indigenous people and supplant them with new links with the Bahamian New Providence group. As Bowles realized, commerce was an important issue for the political control of the region. Spanish officials used goods to bribe and gain support from the Creek and other groups, and it did so through gifts and exchanges performed at Panton’s stores. In this manner, Spain was able to establish alliances, sometimes of a more formal nature than others, with the indigenous people, against any advance from Georgian invaders.[12] The difficulty for Spain in establishing a strong military force in the region during this period was balanced with the support received from the Creeks. Eliminating or substituting the commercial links between Spaniards and Creeks would also possibly have made them shift allegiances, as Bowles and the Providencianos realized.[13]

Panton and McGillivray wanted nothing of it, and the proposal earned Bowles the animosity of Spanish officials. For U.S. officials, Bowles’ adventures awakened the concern that the Spanish lack of strength to defend its American territories in the Gulf could produce the creation of an independent indigenous territory on its underbelly.[14] An indigenous nation formally recognized by Spain’s enemies, especially the British, could stop the advance of U.S. expansionism. The possibility of the creation of new internationally recognized nations in North America could present serious competition to the United States. This perception would prove correct, since the British saw the Bowles-Dunmore enterprise as a kind of North American version of the East India Company, with the power to establish protectorates and satellite states in benefit of the Empire.[15]

After being rejected by Panton and McGillivray, Bowles left the region and arrived in Canada in 1789 where he introduced some of his Florida friends as representatives of the “Indian Nation of Creeks and Cherokees.”[16] He then continued to England, where he gave a similar performance, gaining even more supporters for his supposed British protectorate. In 1791, Bowles returned to Florida and attacked one of the stores owned by Panton. Then, he wrote a letter announcing to the world of the new sovereignty in the territory, and the intention of the United Nation of Creeks and Cherokees “to have the free navigation of the Sea on their Coasts, and . . . to establish two Ports, one at the mouth of the Apalachicola River, and the other on the Florida Cape.”[17] Bowles also threatened king Charles IV, by reminding him of the advantages to Spain if they remained in good terms with Bowles, declaring that “if Your Majesty does not grant the free concession, my Nation will immediately make war on Your Majesty to obtain it.”[18] Using the commercially oriented mindset of Bowles, the Baron of Carondelet, then Spanish Governor of Louisiana, requested the adventurer to visit him in New Orleans to establish negotiations to transfer the commercial monopoly of the region from Panton to Bowles.[19] After convincing him that, in reality, only the authorities in Havana could take that decision, Carondelet put Bowles in a boat to Cuba, where he was arrested and imprisoned.

Bowles had time to refine his plans during imprisonment. Gilbert C. Din states that by 1796 Bowles had abandoned his original idea of creating a British protectorate or colony, and instead started to form the idea of creating a new independent nation-state, with him at its head.[20] After escaping imprisonment in 1797, Bowles organized another expedition to invade Florida. Soon, news that Bowles escaped from prison in Spain and had a plan to create a “Republic in the Tapaluche Nation” reached the ears of the new Governor of Louisiana, Manuel Gayoso.[21]

In 1799, Bowles captured the fort of San Marcos de Apalache and declared the foundation of the State of Muskogee. On October 6th, during an inter-tribe meeting he organized, Bowles declared the formation of the Supreme Council of Muskogee, and himself as Director-General.[22] Among the first of Bowles’ decrees was one dated October 25th, 1799, which declared “the ports of Apalachicola, Okwelockone, and Tampa,” to be “free to all nations that are not at war with us.” On October 31st, he ordered all persons holding commissions from Spain or the United States to leave the territory of the State of Muskogee by November 8th “on pain of being held responsible at the risk of their lives.” Finally, on November 26th, he offered all new settlers one hundred acres of land “within thirty miles of the Sea between our Free Port of Apalachicola and Sand Cape,” with the right to purchase more by presenting a petition to the Supreme Council of Muskogee.[23] Offers of land grants also became a common scheme among future filibusters. 

The State of Muskogee was an unrecognized independent State formed mostly by local Seminole and Muscogee, which also included, at least nominally, the Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw. Surprisingly for a British loyalist, Bowles attempted to create a new Nation under republican ideals: his government had both an executive position under the title of Director General, and he also established a Chamber of deputies.[24] Bowles worked patiently in the creation of a constitution for Muskogee, a newspaper, an army and navy, and an educational system.[25] This enclave seems to be a political aberration for the times, but it responded to a new context, a period of Imperial conflict framed by the ideas of Enlightenment, and redefined by the Corsican Revolution, the U.S. war of Independence, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic wars. Bowles’s adventure was only able to exist due to the converging of ideological and political factors derived from the Revolutionary era.  

The fact that Bowles chose the term Director-General for his position, at a time when France was ruled by the Directorate, tells us of the influence the French Revolution had on him. His republicanism is contradictory considering that his original adventure was sponsored by the Governor of Bahamas on behalf of the British monarchy, while his loyalism made him a strong enemy of the United States, a republic. A deeper analysis may reveal that he was influenced by the ideological conundrum of the period: for example, a republican and democratic United States promoting ideals of individual freedom while thriving on slavery, or a republican and revolutionary France that became a dictatorship and later an Empire promoting the creation of constitutional republics and the dismantling of the traditional monarchical system in Europe. 

The Peace of Amiens, signed in 1802, ended the War of the Second Coalition, and with it the direct British support for Bowles from the Bahamas. Bowles’ expedition was defeated after Spanish forces finally took back the San Marcos de Apalache fort and pursued him until his arrest in May 1803.[26] Still, the failed adventure of the British filibuster left an important legacy. His presence in Florida showed the United States two important lessons: First, Spain’s little capability to stop Bowles’s invasion and the time it took them to finally expel the filibuster, demonstrated the lack of resources the Spaniards had to defeat any invasion from either more adventurers, from European enemies or, of course, from the United States. Second, the government of the United States realized that Bowles had just established a perfect formula for the takeover of Spanish territory without having to enter in conflict with a European power: private citizens claiming to work as bonafide revolutionaries looking for independence, freedom, and the foundation of democratic republics while being armed and financed by an expansionist empire waiting to annex the new territory once control of the area was secured.[27] The modern U.S. filibuster project was born.

Before Bowles, filibuster expeditions into Spanish territory and attempts to create new independent Republics in North America were seen negatively by the United States, including James Wilkinson’s attempt to severe Kentucky and Tennessee from the Union during the 1780s, and the case of Philip Nolan’s filibuster expedition into Texas in 1800-1801.[28] Except for President Jefferson, U.S. leaders avoided conflict with European powers.[29] Among other actions, in 1805 he proposed the formation of an alliance with the British to conquer Spanish territory in Texas and Florida, but James Madison, then Secretary of State, declared a strong apprehension about the project, knowing that Britain would request an open declaration of war against France in exchange for the alliance.[30] Madison, instead, preferred covert approaches. Between 1804 and 1810, he supported Louisiana’s governor William Claiborne efforts to subvert Spanish control of West Florida, by arming and hiding bandits and separatists.[31] The French Ambassador to the United States, General Louis Marie Turreau recognized at the time that the main strategy behind U.S. expansionism was “to conquer without war.”[32]

For some time, U.S. authorities showed some restraint about openly using the filibustering formula, but the Napoleonic invasion of Spain finally opened the doors for the accomplishment of their plans of expansion.[33] The fall of the Supreme Spanish Junta, in January 1810, signaled the almost complete occupation of Spain by Napoleon. In September of that year a rebellion in Baton Rouge declared the foundation of the Republic of West Florida. Spanish forces in the region were unable to respond, and the rebels requested immediate support from the United States. By December, President Madison had already taken possession of the region.[34] The excuse for this action was that by not annexing the territory, the rebels may look for support from a European power (other than the Spanish, of course), installing a future center of tension under the belly of the United States.

In 1811, General George Mathews, a former Governor of Georgia, was secretly assigned by President Madison to “induce the inhabitants” of West and East Florida “to rebel.”[35] According to George F. Clarke, a witness, Mathews started to work on the conspiracy about two years before the rebellion started. This will put President James Madison’s government as part of the conspiracy to take West Florida in 1810.[36] On January 3rd, 1811, Madison sent a confidential message to the U.S. Congress asking for the passing of a resolution concerning the occupation of Florida.[37] This message was the basis for the No Transfer doctrine and a predecessor of the Monroe Doctrine, establishing that the United States would not allow, for reasons of national security, the transfer of territory in the Americas from one European power to another. The same message requested authorization from Congress to invade Spanish Florida. The resolution was indeed passed by Congress on January 15th, 1811.[38] General Mathews declared in a letter to Secretary of State James Monroe, that the United States should “seize upon (Florida) independent of a rupture with Great Britain.”[39] This put the United States in a dangerous path of collision against European powers. The invasion was recalled in part due to the beginning of the U.S.-British War of 1812. This conflict was followed by the Creek War and the Seminole Wars, which sealed the U.S. takeover of the Florida peninsula without the need to ever declare war on Spain.

U.S. filibuster incursions into Spanish-speaking America continued with James Long’s invasion of Texas (1819), filibuster expeditions organized to support the Texas rebellion (1835-1836), Narciso López’s expedition (Cuba, 1850 and 1851), plus others like John Quitman (Cuba, 1855), and of course, William Walker (Mexico, 1853 and Central America, 1855-1860). Ideas derived from Republicanism promoted global brotherhood and respect to popular sovereignty. In this context, expansionism and conquest were understood as remnants of ancient regime political behavior and unbefitting of the revolutionary spirit of the period.[40] This was not meant, though, to refrain free nations from occupying new territories if the justifications were based on notions of liberation and offering the gift of a democratic and republican system to the world. Imbued by contradictory ideas of republicanism, progress, liberty, conquest, ethnic cleansing, and slavery, the governments of both France and the United States expanded at the expense of their neighbors. The latter was originally concerned about confronting European powers and becoming fully involved in the Napoleonic Wars, but found a perfect solution by replicating the example of Bowles, the first filibuster. Recruiting individuals to engage in covert actions that benefited the Imperialist and expansionist tendencies of the United States became a strategy derived from the conundrum of the revolutionary era. While the scheme was first applied in Latin America, the United States continues to justify invasions and interventions around the world as wars of liberation, and a needed sacrifice in the name of republicanism and democracy. 

Marco Cabrera Geserick is Assistant Professor of History, Latin American Studies, and Peace Studies at Gustavus Adolphus College.

Title image: 1822 map of Florida Territory.


[1] The idea of a republican regeneration of society was a common thread among Jacobin Clubs. Michael L. Kennedy. The Jacobin Clubs in the French Revolution, 1793-1795. (New York: Berghahn Books, 2000), 230. The conquering of foreign territory to bring liberty was made explicit by the National Convention with the Edict of Fraternity of November 19th, 1792. T.C.W. Blanning. The French Revolutionary Wars, 1787-1802. (London: Arnold, 1996), 92.

[2] The U.S. Declaration of Independence cites the ban on the new appropriation of lands as one of the main reasons for rebellion. This refers to the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the creation of an Indian Reserve, which established the Appalachian Mountains as the limit for colonial expansion. 

[3] Langley, Lester D. Struggle for the American Mediterranean, 1776-1904. (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1975), ix.

[4] O’Riordan, Cormac A., “The 1795 Rebellion in East Florida” (1995). (Jacksonville, FL: UNF Graduate Theses and Dissertations. 99), 82. (retrieved 3/27/2020)

[5] Ibid., 83-86.

[6] Ibid., 8-14.

[7] See, for example: Robert E. May. Manifest Destiny’s Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.; Joseph A. Stout. Schemers and Dreamers: Filibustering in Mexico, 1848-1921. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 2002.

[8] The terms used to define Bowles varied. The report sent by Spanish Captain Manuel García calls him an adventurer, while some Anglo settlers in the area described him as a Banditti. Archivo Nacional de Cuba, Fondo Floridas. Legajo 2, Expediente 20, Folio 1-6, and Legajo 1, Expediente 25, Folio1. 

[9] Gilbert C. Din. “William August Bowles on the Gulf Coast, 1787-1803: Unraveling a Labyrinthine Conundrum.” The Florida Historical Quarterly, 89, no. 1 (Summer 2010): 5-6.

[10] Dunmore had great expectations for this adventure, he furnished Bowles with men, horses, and at least 16 pieces of artillery, and believed that he would be joined by 15,000 indigenous followers in Florida. The same report on Bowles and Dunmore’s activities refer that “great gains…might be expected from the enterprise, in negroes…, horses…, and others.” Archivo Nacional de Cuba, Fondo Floridas. Legajo 1 Expediente 25, Folio 1-5.

[11] Duvon C. Corbitt and John Tate Lanning. “A Letter of Marque Issued by William August Bowles as Director-General of the State of Muskogee.” The Journal of Southern History, 11 No. 2 (May, 1945), 249.

[12] For example, see the Treaty of Nogales of 1793, which ratified agreements made since 1784 between the Spanish Crown and several indigenous groups in the area. See: Gobierno de España, Ministerio de Cultura y Deporte. “Tratado de Amistad y Garantías entre S.M.C. Rey de España y Emperador de las Indias…” Portal de Archivos Españoles. Archivo General de Indias, MP-DOCUMENTOS_REALES, 7. (retrieved 3/27/2020).

[13] It refers to the Spanish use on several documents of Providencianos as those coming from New Providence, the largest island of the Bahamas, and more specifically to the Bowles-Dunmore camarilla and their British and French followers. See: Bowles, William August. William August Bowles to H. Ferguson. Thackwitla, January 28th, 1800. Letter. Archivo Nacional de Cuba, Legajo 1, Expediente 25, Folio 9., and García, Manuel. Relación hecha por el Sr. Manuel García de la Reconquista del Fuerte de Apalache por el aventurero W A Bowles. 1800. Archivo Nacional de Cuba, Legajo 2, Expediente 20, Folio 10.

[14] Duvon C. Corbitt and John Tate Lanning. “A Letter of Marquee…, 246-247 and 258-259.

[15] Ibid., 249-251.

[16] Ibid., 251.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Bowles, William August. William August Bowles ‘To All People to whome these presents shall Come Greeting.’ Mekkesuky (sic), February 1st, 1802. Letter. In: Duvon C. Corbitt and John Tate Lanning. “A Letter of Marquee…, 260-261.

[19] Leslie, Robert. Robert Leslie to William Panton. San Marcos de Apalache (Appalachy), Florida, March 9th, 1792. Letter. In: D.C. Corbitt. “Papers related to the Georgia-Florida Frontier, 1784-1800.”, The Georgia Historical Quarterly, 22, no. 2 (June, 1938): 184.

[20] Din, Gilbert C. War on the Gulf Coast. The Spanish Fight Against William August Bowles. (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2012), 63.

[21] Manuel Gayoso de Lemos. Manuel Gayoso de Lemos to Juan Ventura Morales, New Orleans, February 7th, 1799. Letter. In: D.C. Corbitt. “Papers related to the Georgia-Florida Frontier, 1784-1800.”, The Georgia Historical Quarterly, 25, no. 2 (June, 1941): 164-169. According to David Narret, Tapaluche was the Spanish term for the Creeks. See: Narret, David. Adventurism and Empire: The struggle for Mastery of the Louisiana-Florida Borderlands, 1762-1803. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 323. This last expedition counted with the support of the Governor of Jamaica, making clear the British ties to Bowles’s adventures. Archivo Nacional de Cuba, Fondo Floridas. Legajo 1, Expediente 25, Folio 12.

[22] Bowles, William August. William August Bowles ‘To All People…, 254.

[23] Ibid, 255.

[24] Bowles hired Thomas Hugh Ferguson to be his Collector and ordered him to build a town that would become the new capital of his nation. Archivo Nacional de Cuba, Fondo Floridas. Legajo 1, Expediente 25, Folio 12.

[25] Wright, James Leitch. William August Bowles: Director-General of the Creek Nation. (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1967), 148-149, n63 (182).

[26] Din, Gilbert., War in the Gulf Coast, 211.

[27] William Claiborne, governor of Louisiana, supported and protected Anglo bandit activity in Spanish territory since 1804. The bandits attacked from their bases located in U.S. territory. See: Gilbert C. Din. “A Troubled Seven Years: Spanish Reactions to American Claims and Aggression in West Florida, 1803-1810.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, Vol. 59, No. 4 (Fall 2018), pp. 409-45.

[28] Andro Linklater. An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson. (New York: Walker Books, 2009), 77.; David E. Narrett. “Geopolitics and Intrigue: James Wilkinson, the Spanish Borderlands and Mexican Independence.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 69 No. 1 (January 2012), p. 104 note 5.

[29] Jefferson had the intention to ally with the British and declare war against France if the latter did not relinquish New Orleans to the United States. See: Jefferson, Thomas. Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, Washington, January 13th, 1803. Letter. In: H. A. Washington, ed. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. (New York: John C. Riker, 1857) Vol 4, 453-456. As cited in: Holden, Robert H. and Eric Zolov. Latin America and the United States: A Documentary History. (New York: Oxford University Press,) 5-6. Also, see: Jefferson, Thomas. Thomas Jefferson to Robert Livingston. Washington, April 18th, 1802. Letter. In: H. A. Washington, ed. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. (New York: John C. Riker, 1857) Vol 4, 431-434. As cited in: Holden, Robert H. and Eric Zolov. Latin America and the United States: A Documentary History. (New York: Oxford University Press,) 3-5.

[30] Cusick, James G. The Other War of 1812: The Patriot War and the American Invasion of Spanish East Florida. (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2003), 13.

[31] Gilbert C. Din. “A Troubled Seven Years…, 437.

[32] Osley, Frank Lawrence and Gene A. Smith. Filibusters and Expansionists: Jeffersonian Manifest Destiny, 1800-1821. (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1997), 31.

[33] Ibid, 62-63.

[34] Ibid, 63.

[35] “Statement of McIntosh’s case”, p. 13. As quoted in: James Cooper and Charles E. Sherman. Secret Acts, Resolutions and Instructions under which East Florida was Invaded. (Washington: George S. Gideon, 1860), 6.

[36] The governor of Louisiana, William Claiborne, unsuccessfully pushed Jefferson to occupy West Florida for years. Madison was easier to convince. See: Gilbert C. Din. “A Troubled Seven Years…, 448.

[37] Madison, James. James Madison to Mr. Coles. Letter. In: Holden, Robert H. and Eric Zolov. Latin America and the United States…, 7.

[38] Holden, Robert H. and Eric Zolov. Latin America and the United States…, 7-8.

[39] Mathews. George. General George Mathews to James Monroe. Georgia, county of Oglethorpe, October 14th, 1811. Letter. In: James Cooper and Charles E. Sherman. Secret Acts, Resolutions and Instructions under which East Florida was Invaded. (Washington: George S. Gideon, 1860), 8.

[40] McLaughlin, J. P. (1976). “Ideology and Conquest: the Question of Proselytism and Expansion in the French Revolution, 1789‑1793.” Historical Papers / Communications historiques, 11 (1), 49–66. (accessed 9/22/2020)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s