Reviewed by Barbara Kemper
If you’ve ever sewn a crazy quilt from a bag of scraps, you can appreciate what William C. Davis has done to write the book, The Rogue Republic: How Would-Be Patriots Waged the Shortest Revolution in American History.
First, you have to find sound material to use. Then, discard any thin worn cloth that won’t hold up. Deciding what works best and fitting the pieces together has to be the hardest part. And, the stitching takes a lot of time and effort.
Embroidery can be added, but it does not contribute to the integrity of the final product.
The Rogue Republic is interesting, colorful, and a cohesive work of art, in spite of the fragments it is made from.
The topic of this book is the West Florida Rebellion. My great-great-great-great grandfather, Nathan Kemper and his two brothers were involved in this part of history.
I don’t remember the first time I heard about the Kemper Devils, the fightin’ swearin’ preacher’s kids. I must have been in elementary school.
My parents had the Kemper Records (1946) about our family’s genealogy, and none of the other stories in it were nearly as interesting as the one about these three brothers who were blonde and over six feet tall, fighting off Spaniards with hickory chairs, starting a war and displaying the pickled pieces of an enemy’s ear at the Kemper Tavern.
No one else had ever heard of them and I wondered if the tales were true.
I finally found references to Kempers and the West Florida Republic in reference books at my University’s library, but a few brief sentences were all they included.
Ever since I have had access to the internet, I have googled the rebellion, as well as Reuben, Nathan, and Samuel Kemper from time to time. There are brief but conflicting accounts from a lot of old books.
Recently, after going on the inspiring Germanna Heritage tour of Germany I was at it again, looking up online references to my ancestors while wishing I could have just a short talk with them.
Doggone, if there wasn’t a new book out about West Florida! That was the contested piece of land between the Mississippi River and the current state of Florida, that was (or wasn’t) part of the Louisiana Purchase.
It was a Territory of Great Britain (1763-83) then of Spain (1783-1800), then of France (1800-1803) and then disputed [1803-1810]. I ordered a hardcover edition of The Rogue Republic right away, hoping it would give me some information on my ancestors who were involved in the goings on there.
It seems that in 1803 the Kemper brothers, who lived near St. Francisville, raised a flag of their own design and attempted to overthrow the Spanish government in Baton Rouge.
Most who had settled in this area were U.S. citizens. This was “The Kemper Rebellion” and it failed. Later, there was another uprising in the same territory, under the Bonnie Blue Flag, which succeeded in creating the Republic of West Florida.
This nation existed only 78 days before becoming part of the U.S. The flag went on to other purposes.
I had several burning questions about my relatives there at the turn of the 19th century.
The three brothers came down the Mississippi from Cincinnati. They had not lived in Cincinnati long having moved there from Virginia with their parents and numerous siblings.
First, were they outlaws or idealists? (Yes, they liked to fight, Andrew Jackson was glad for the help, so were the Texans.)
Were they murderers? If they were outlaws, why is Kemper County, Mississippi named for them (or for just Reuben)?
Were they on a secret government mission led by Ohio Senator/Reverend John Smith, their father’s friend? (That is my own conspiracy theory.)
How does Aaron Burr figure in this scenario? But, most importantly, what did their parents, Reverend Peter and Isabella Kemper think about their sons’ exploits?
What about Uncle Reverend James and Aunt Judith Kemper with their well-behaved children working as ministers and school teachers in Cincinnati? Were the folks at home aware? Were they ashamed, supportive, or astonished?
As I suspected, the book was not written just to satisfy my curiosity, but to place this tiny obscure rebellion into the big history of the U.S. and show how events there shaped U.S. history and even the secession of the Confederate States.
I hoped there would be mention of Nathan, Ruben or Samuel Kemper. And, I was pleasantly surprised when I opened the index. Davis read all the same sources as I did and a thousand more. He pieces them into a narrative that tells the whole story well.
The primary sources for this story are many and varied: from exaggerated east coast newspaper reports, to the official government documents, letters from Presidents Jefferson and Madison, and many less famous people.
He culls out the lies and exaggerations to ascertain what really happened. When he assumes stuff, he says so. It’s not a novel, but it does have a decent plot.
The unnamed villain in the story is time: the time it takes to get a message from Havana to Mobile or Washington, D.C. to New Orleans.
Telephones would have made events much different in the chain of events here.
I now understand why the Kemper Rebellion did not succeed and how what was happening on the other side of the world changed West Florida in the few years before the second rebellion.
Like the special features on a DVD, Davis has painstakingly included notes for every page. He also includes period maps, and a cast of characters because there are so many and the story is very complicated.
Even though he doesn’t answer all my questions, I learned what the true character of Reuben Kemper was, and a little about Nathan and Samuel.
My conspiracy theory may even have a grain of truth in it. I also learned they were in touch with their family in Cincinnati because their brother, Presley, came down.
Now, my question is, “Did Presley slam the door when he left home?”