Guest Essayist: Benjamin DiBiase


Florida is the southernmost state in the contiguous United States, situated at the bottom of the Atlantic seaboard. It is a peninsula, bordered by the Atlantic to the east, Gulf to the west, Caribbean Sea to the south and the U.S. states of Georgia and Alabama form its northern border. Archaeologists believe the peninsula was first occupied by a nomadic group of hunter-gatherers around 14,000 years ago. These indigenous groups slowly adapted to a changing climate and grew crops, established large chiefdoms, and eventually numbered over 350,000 people by the end of the 15th century.[1]

Florida was first sighted by Europeans in 1513, when Juan Ponce de Leon traveled north from Puerto Rico in search of natural resources, slaves, and potentially a new landmass for the Spanish colonial dominion. Although probably not the first European to set eyes on Florida, his expedition was the first officially sanctioned and recorded by the Spanish. He landed somewhere on Florida’s eastern Atlantic coast, but did not attempt to settle the region. In fact, much of the 16th century saw hundreds of potential settlers attempt colonization on the Florida peninsula, only to be driven away by hostile indigenous groups, decimated by exposure and starvation, or simply left to seek resources elsewhere in the Caribbean. In 1564, a group of French Protestant Huguenots built a small community in what is now Jacksonville on Florida’s northeast coast, only to be driven away by the Spanish led by Pedro Menéndez de Áviles in 1565. In driving away the French, Menéndez established what is now the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in North America, St. Augustine. The colonial settlement of St. Augustine remained a small military outpost for the next few centuries. By the end of the 18th century, a second settlement was established in west Florida’s Gulf Coast, known as Pensacola. Governance of both colonial outposts was administered from Cuba.[2]

In 1763, as part of the Treaty of Paris ending the French and Indian War, Florida was transferred to the British in exchange for Havana. The British ruled Florida for another twenty years, remaining loyal to the British crown during the American Revolution. As a result of that conflict, and Spain’s assistance in capturing Pensacola from the British, the newly formed American government handed Florida back to Spain. Now broken into two separate colonies, East and West Florida, the Spanish struggled to form a productive colony and attract settlers. However, the Spanish government promulgated the Constitution of Cádiz in St. Augustine in 1812, which was Florida’s first written constitution, and governed the cities administration for almost another decade.[3] Several attempts to overthrow the government, the War of 1812 and increasing pressure from American colonists to the north, eventually forced Spain to relinquish control of Florida to the Americans. The Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819 was officially ratified in 1821, and Florida became a U.S. Territory.[4]

The U.S. Territorial Period was marked by the establishment of a southern-style plantation economy, and years of federal military efforts to remove the Seminole Indians to reservations in the Oklahoma Territory, known as the Seminole Wars. By 1838, representatives from every county met in St. Joseph, a small town outside of Tallahassee and drafted a state constitution. They relied on the Alabama Constitution of 1819 as a model, and were guided by the several hot button issues central to the lives of Floridians at the time; statehood, banks and slavery.[5]  It was voted on later that year, and sent to the U.S. Congress. It was not until March 1845 that Congress officially voted in favor of admitting Florida into the Union as the 27th state.

By January of 1861, however, another delegation of statewide representatives met in Tallahassee and voted in favor of secession, rewriting the state Constitution, and joining the Confederate States of America a month later. Florida remained in the Confederacy until the end of the war in 1865, finally admitting defeat and beginning a years-long federal occupation of the state as Reconstruction began. Ravaged by years of war, the legislature passed a proposed constitution, but it was never adopted.[6] In 1868, Floridians voted on, and accepted a new state Constitution, and Governor Harrison Reid addressed the State Legislature in his inaugural address in June 1868.[7] By 1877, efforts to enfranchise emancipated slaves and integrate them into Florida society had largely failed. Despite tremendous strides made by African Americans to run and be elected to state offices, the efforts of former Confederates and white southerners derailed any major gains, establishing strict segregation laws and utilizing violence to intimidate minority populations.[8]

In 1885, Florida drafted a new state Constitution, codifying what would be generally referred to as “black codes” or “Jim Crow” policies to hinder black opportunity in the state. Nearly a century late, however, as Florida figured prominently in the Modern Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the state wrote a new Constitution in 1968, reversing many of the discriminatory laws that existed in the 1885 document. It was the changing demographics of the state, coupled with the national movements toward equality and transparency that finally pushed Florida’s lawmakers to substantially revise the 1885 constitution more than eight decades after it went into effect. Unique to the 1968 constitutional rewrite was the provision to automatically introduce amendments and augment the Constitution every 20 years. The Constitutional Revision Committee (CRC) is appointed by the Governor, state officials and the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and takes input from the public concerning changes to the language of the document, which would then be voted on by the public in the next election cycle. It was this 1965 creation of the CRC that enabled the 1968 constitution to be created.[9]

Ben DiBiase, MA, is a native Floridian. He holds a Master’s degree in History from the University of Central Florida. Ben currently works as the Head Archivist and Educational Director for the Florida Historical Society. He is the editor of French Florida (2014) and is a regular contributor to the Florida Frontiers radio and podcast program that airs around the state on NPR stations.


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[1] Jerald T. Milanich, Florida’s Indians from Ancient Times to the Present (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1998) 3.

[2] James C. Clark, A Concise History of Florida (Charleston: The History Press, 2014) 15-22.

[3] M.C. Mirow, Florida’s First Constitution: The Constitution of Cádiz Introduction, Translation, and Text (Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2012) 3-5.

[4] Ibid., 25 – 31.

[5] Stephanie D. Moussalli, “Florida’s First Constitution: The Statehood, Banking and Slavery Controversies,” Florida Historical Quarterly, 74 no.4 (1996) 423.

[6] Mary E. Adkins, Making Modern Florida: How the Spirit of Reform Shaped a New State Constitution (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2016) 5.

[7] Journal of the Senate for the First Session, Fifteenth Legislature of the State of Florida, (Tallahassee: Office of the Tallahassee Sentinel, 1868) 5.

[8] Adkins, Making Modern Florida, 6-7.

[9] Ibid., 56-57.