1818: Alexander Arbuthnot and Richard Ambrister

On this date in 1818, on the authority of a military tribunal of doubtful legality, a general who would become a president hanged two British citizens for aiding America’s Indian enemies.

You don’t get to be the $20 bill guy without knocking a few heads.

The First Seminole War saw the ambitious General Andrew Jackson appropriate for himself authority considerably beyond that authorized by Washington to escalate border conflicts around Spanish Florida into an outright invasion.

Though both Spanish and British interests had a foothold on the peninsula, neither was ever formally drawn into war; the conflict pitted Jackson’s armies against Seminole Indians who were also known to take in escaped slaves from over the border. Regardless the immediate casus belli, the war’s eventual effect was to force the Spanish to cede Florida, fitting it unmistakably into America’s evolving pattern of imperial conquests. But Europeans proved not to be exempt from Jackson’s fury.

The elderly Scottish trader Alexander Arbuthnot and the young British ex-marine Robert Ambrister were swept up as Jackson pillaged through Florida. Both had friendly relations with the natives, and somewhere amid personal pique, deliberate provocation, and squelching their knowledge of white Americans’ provocations against the Seminoles lay sufficient reason to string them up.

Due process

Jackson, who would win the White House himself on a populist platform in a decade’s time, has had many advocates in history; few of them would deny the man’s authoritarian streak.

A decidedly unsympathetic — arguably corrective — study of Jackson’s conduct in the Southeast during this period unravels Jackson’s reasoning as to how British citizens in Spanish territory were capitally liable in the eyes of a third country that neither state was at war with:

As soon as [Jackson] reached St. Marks, he set into motion the wheels of his personal justice system to punish Alexander Arbuthnot and Robert Ambrister for crimes against the United States.

Jackson appointed a military court of twelve voting officers, Edmund Pendleton Gaines presiding, to hear charges that Arbuthnot and Ambrister had aided and abetted the enemy of the United States in the Seminole War. Of the panel, five were Volunteer officers whom Jackson had personally recruited for the campaign. Even though partially stacking the board and conducting the proceeding as a court-martial in the Florida wilderness obviated the need for precise legal punctilio, Old Hickory ruminated over just how to go about the business. His original idea of charging his two prisoners with piracy had appeal because it allowed him to take action against these subjects of a neutral power for aiding one nation against another nation. Yet the similarities of such a circumstance to that of the Marquis de Lafayette’s Revolutionary War service nagged at Jackson as an embarrassing comparison. By the time he convened the court-martial, Jackson had hit upon the solution. “The laws of war did not apply to conflicts with savages,” he solemnly intoned, and thus was he able to dispense with not only the laws of war, but virtually all laws altogether. The court would charge Arbuthnot and Ambrister with assisting and encouraging the Seminoles. In Jackson’s legal universe, these were capital offenses.

The specific charges accused Arbuthnot of inciting the Creeks to make war on the United States, of spying for the Seminoles, and of inciting the Seminoles to kidnap, torture, and kill William Hambly and Edmund Doyle. Charges against Ambrister stated that he had aided and abetted Seminoles and had led Seminoles against the United States.

Arbuthnot requested counsel, and the court obliged him by appointing one, but he apparently managed most of his own defense. Some describe his efforts as eloquent, but both he and Ambrister must have realized that their part in this show was already scripted to its conclusion. Ambrister, in fact, finally abandoned all pretense of due process simply to throw himself on the mercy of the court.

(The original minutes of the trial are available from Google books here.)

Jackson’s justification of himself, essentially placing the condemned men outside the law by stripping them of their whiteness, will not much flatter his latter-day partisans:

These individuals were tried under my orders by a special court of select officers, legally convicted as exciters of this savage and negro war, legally condemned, and most justly punished for their iniquities … I hope the execution of these two unprincipled villains will prove an awful example to the world … that certain, though slow retribution awaits those unchristian wretches who, by false promises, delude and excite an Indian tribe to all the horrid deeds of savage war.

… although a further point takes a tack the modern reader may find more familiar:

The moment the American army retires from Florida the war hatchet will be again raised, and the same scenes of indiscriminate massacre, with which our frontier settlers have been visited, will be repeated, so long as the Indians within the territory of Spain are exposed to the delusion of false prophets and poison of foreign intrigue; so long as they can receive ammunition, munitions of war, from pretended traders and Spanish commandants, it will be impossible to restrain their outrages. … The savages, therefore, must be made dependent on us, and cannot be kept at peace without being persuaded of the certainty of chastisement being inflicted on the commission of the first offence.

Even at the end of his life, this day’s hanging was still flung against Jackson: “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 Ambrister!” (click to see the entire cartoon)

(The letter is as read by a friendly congressman here.)

Jackson’s own popularity essentially carried the day against a measure of Congressional censure, but the affair caused him ongoing political annoyance; for Jackson’s enemies, it would forever impugn the man’s motives and behavior. (See the cartoon, which dates to the incipience of a later generation’s own imperial war.) The success that sufficed to exonerate him to his peers might seem rather less compelling to posterity.

Nevertheless, there are defenders of America’s “War on Terrorism” military tribunals prepared to number this farcical procedure among their precedents.*

* A 2004 Congressional Research Service report (pdf) on military tribunals also touches the Arbuthnot and Ambrister affair and hints, in its neutral way, at the Napoleonic direction Jackson’s legal reasoning would mark out:

Experts in military law have differed on the legitimacy of Jackson’s action. William Winthrop, writing toward the end of the nineteenth century, noted that if any officer ordered an execution in the manner of Jackson he “would now be indictable for murder.” To William Birkhimer, in his 1904 treatise, Jackson had asked the special court only for its opinion, both as to guilt and punishment, and the delivery of that opinion could not divest Jackson of the authority he possessed from the beginning: to proceed summarily against Arbuthnot and Ambrister and order their execution. Birkhimer’s analysis would allow generals to execute civilians without trial or to dispense with the fact-finding and judgment that results from trial proceedings.

It bears remembering that this incident was in fact only three years removed from Bonaparte’s last hurrah, and some few of Jackson’s countrymen saw such a figure in Old Hickory.

On this day..