Saturday, April 02, 2011

"[T]o call it murder would be to defame all ordinary murderers"

Following up on my last post on the 1818 military trial and execution of Robert Ambrister and Alexander Arbuthnot, I thought I'd see what Andy Jackson's partisans might have to say in Old Hickory's defense. To do this, I consulted two sources that might be expected to give Andy Jackson the benefit of the doubt: Volume 2 of James Parton's Life of Andrew Jackson and Volume 1 of Robert Remini's Andrew Jackson.

Parton's verdict on the incident is harsh. The execution of Arbuthnot – whom both Parton and Remini portray as less culpable, and probably entirely innocent – was an “unmitigated atrocity.” Nor did Ambrister's conduct warrant summary execution:

Such was the tragedy enacted at St. Mark's [in Spanish Florida], in the year of our Lord 1818. Who can characterize it aright? The execution of Arbuthnot, apart from all the extenuating circumstances, was an act of such complicated and unmitigated atrocity, that to call it murder would be to defame all ordinary murderers. He was put to death for acts every one of which was innocent, and some of which were eminently praiseworthy. Even Ambrister's fault was one which General Jackson himself would have been certain to commit in the same circumstances. He sent a party to “oppose” the invasion of the province; and even his seizure of Arbuthnot's schooner seems to have been done to provide his followers with the means of defense. Arbuthnot was convicted upon the evidence of men who had the strongest interest in his conviction. And who presided over the court? Was it not the men whose treatment of the Fowltown warriors, first arrogant and then precipitant, was the direct cause of the war and all its horrors? [The First Seminole War had begun when, on November 21, 1817, 250 troops sent by General Edmund P. Gaines under the command of Col. David E. Twiggs burned down the Seminole village of Fowltown, located just north of the Florida border on land claimed by the United States under the Treaty of Fort Jackson, and drove off the inhabitants. Nine days later, on November 30, 1817, the Seminoles took revenge by ambushing a boat on the Apalachicola River and killing 46 of 51 people on board – 36 soldiers, six women and four children. The same Gen. Gaines who had ordered the Fowltown expedition later served as President of the fourteen-officer military tribunal that convicted and sentenced Arbuthnot and Ambrister.]

Having accused Jackson of presiding over an “atrocity,” however, Parton then oddly lets Old Hickory off the hook, characterizing him as “perhaps, the least blameworthy” of the participants:
Of all the men concerned in this tragedy, General Jackson was, perhaps, the least blameworthy. We can survey the transaction in its completeness, but he could not. He carried out of the war of 1812 the bitterest recollections of [British Major Edward] Nicols [or Nicolls] and [British Marine Captain George] Woodbine, who had given protection, succor, and honor to the fugitive Creeks. A train of circumstances led him to the conclusion that Arbuthnot and Ambrister [who were also British subjects] were still doing in Florida the work that Nichols and Woodbine had begun in 1814. He expressly says, in one of his dispatches, that, at the beginning of his operations, he was “strongly impressed with the belief that this Indian war had been excited by some unprincipled foreign agents,” and that the Seminoles were too weak in numbers to have undertaken the war, unless they had received assurances of foreign support. Woodbine had actually been in Florida the summer before, brought thither by Arbuthnot. To the “machinations” of these men General Jackson attributed the massacre of Lieutenant Scott [the November 30, 1817 massacre on the Apalachicola River mentioned above, during which, according to Parton, “[m]en, women and children were involved in one horrible massacre, or spared for more horrible torture. The children were taken by the heels and their brains dashed out against the sides of the boat.”], and considered them equally guilty. They were at length in his power, and he then selected fourteen of his officers to examine the evidence against them. After three days' investigation those officers brought in a verdict that accorded exactly with his own previous convictions, as well as with the representation of . . . others who surrounded his person and had an interest in confirming his impressions.
Nonetheless, Parton warns in conclusion, “This is not a justification; for it is not permitted to a man to make mistakes which involve the lives of human beings.”

Remini likewise delivers a discordant verdict. While seemingly condemning Jackson's actions he simultaneous explains and excuses them:

Whether the executions of Arbuthnot and Ambrister were necessary or justified may be questioned. The war with the Indians was over and the trials could have been delayed until Jackson had consulted with his superiors in Washington. But Jackson was not a merciful man in these circumstances, nor was it his style to defer to Washington for decisions. He could have delayed the execution of the sentences; he certainly stood on shaky legal ground in decreeing that a person forfeits his nationality and becomes an outlaw by warring against another nation [Jackson maintained that Arbuthnot and Ambrister were no longer British citizens or subjects but international outlaws]. But this was the early nineteenth century, along a frontier where the Indian menace kept settlers in a perpetual state of alarm and apprehension. Jackson had no patience with those who trifled with this fear. To him, Arbuthnot and Ambrister were guilty of inexcusable crimes and their punishment was obligatory under frontier law and conditions. “The proceedings of the Court martial in this case,” he reported to [Secretary of War John C.] Calhoun, “with the volume of corruption, and barbarity at which the heart sickens and in which in this enlightened age it ought not scarcely to be believed that a christian nation would have participated and yet the British government is involved in the agency.” He hoped that the execution of Arbuthnot and Ambrister would “convince the Government of Great Britain as well as her subjects that certain, if slow retribution awaits those unchristian wretches who by false promises delude and excite a [sic] Indian tribe to all the horrid deeds of savage war.”
About the illustration at the top of the post, entitled The Little Magician Invoked (1844):
Martin Van Buren, known as "the Little Magician" for his remarkable political agility, summons spirits to divine the Democratic or "Loco Foco" prospects for election in 1844. He sits in an astrological circle, conjuring up three imps in the smoke of his pipe, and addresses them: Spirits white and Gray appear! appear! / my call attend! my power revere! / Their destiny the Locos ask / Apply ye to the mighty Task! First spirit: Loco-Focos! desperate Chaps. / Make your speech & draw your Caps! / You've had your day--you've had free scope / And hanged yourselves with your own rope! Second spirit: When Arnold rises form the Tomb / To receive a Traitors doom! / When Yankee Children bear his name / And all are proud of Arnolds Fame! / Then Tyler shall his honors share, / And keep the Presidential chair! Third spirit: When the stars fall from above. / When the Globe shall cease to move, / When flowers grow amid the snow / And Lions fear the timid Roe. / When Lawyers shall refuse a feel / And misers pray for poverty /Till then, you'll find that many folk, / Will never vote for Master Polk! / Till then, they'd swing upon the Gallows / Before they'd vote for Master Dallas! Democratic nominees James K. Polk, wearing the striped trousers associated with the Loco Foco or radical wing of the Democratic party, and George M. Dallas stand at right. Visibly awed, Polk says, "By Heavens! these words remind me of the dream I had when I first heard of my nomination!" Dallas, fleeing to the right, asserts, "I'll get out of this scrape as quick as possible Texas wont save us!" On the left Andrew Jackson brandishes his cane and threatens, "By the Eternal! you old Hags! if I get hold of you, I'll hang you all up under the 7th section as I did Arbuthnot and Ambisiserter!" Alexander Arbuthnot and Robert Ambrister (not "Ambister") were two Englishmen hung by Jackson during the Florida campaign in 1818, for aiding the Seminole Indians in their fight against the general's militia. The act was one which Jackson's political foes invoked throughout his career as evidence of his brutality.

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