Ben Franklin, the Gulf Stream, and the 1868 Florida Constitution 

 Benjamin Franklin's map of the Gulf Stream

At least to this author’s mind, one of the greatest enigmas in all of Florida history is the insertion in the 1868 Florida constitution of the “Gulf Stream” as the eastern boundary of the Sunshine State. It is unique among the state constitutions of every state in the Union.  No other state uses an indefinite, amorphous and ever-changing geographical feature in describing at least one of its boundaries. Benjamin Franklin was the first to map this feature in 1760.  The stream runs as close as three miles and as distant as two hundred miles from the east coast. The feature changes so rapidly that in a single day, the Gulf Stream changes as much as ten or more miles in width.

Other states use boundaries such as rivers to separate states or the banks of lakes to define their boundaries. Still others, like the coastal states, use statute miles or leagues from the shoreline to define their coastal boundaries, contemplating matters like the distances a cannon ball could be fired from an enemy ship. It’s true that the boundaries of rivers change–over time. But, generally, changes in the courses of rivers depend upon erosion and other natural, predictable, slow-moving changes over time.

Second, the circumstances under which the “Gulf Stream” boundary was inserted remain a mystery subject to speculation.  At the conclusion of the Civil War, before a seceding state could be readmitted to the Union, such state would be required to submit to Congress an acceptable constitution.  In 1868, a duly constituted convention of delegates met in Tallahassee, at the Capitol, and adopted a conservative constitution. A group of radicals bolted the convention and met several miles away at the small town of Monticello. A new “radical” state constitution was adopted under guard behind closed doors.  No complete set of minutes of those meetings survives.  We only know that Congress accepted the “radical” constitution adopted at Monticello and readmitted the State of Florida back into the Union.  The insertion of the Gulf Stream in the 1868 constitution survives to this day.

Its usefulness is doubtful in light of federal law; but as a matter of state history, there it is. And it has never been changed.  Some speculate Florida simply wanted to “flex its muscles”; others believe that the expansion was a protection of important fishing rights in disputes with the Bahama Islands.  Nevertheless, it remains a conundrum without a resolution. Perhaps some day we may know the real reasons for the language.  But for the moment, it remains a mystery.

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