The Governor, the Swamp, and “Fake News”: Napoleon Bonaparte Broward’s Battle to Drain the Everglades and His War on the Press

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Photograph of Florida Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward from UFDC

Today we bring you a guest post by R. Boyd Murphree, Project Manager, Florida Family and Community History, Digital Services and Shared Collections, University of Florida, George A. Smathers Libraries. He can be contacted at bmurphree@ufl.edu and is also on Twitter @boyd_murphree.

American politicians have always had a love-hate relationship with the press. The current presidential row with the media, while extreme, has plenty of historical antecedents. Thomas Jefferson, a resolute defender of a free press, was not so complimentary to newspapers of his day when he was president. Dismayed by attacks on his administration, he lamented, ‘”Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”” Florida history also has many examples of conflict between chief executives and the media. John Milton, governor during the Civil War, accused unfavorable newspapers of treason and recommended to the legislature that “no Yankee of doubtful character be permitted to edit a public journal at the South. An editor can insidiously influence the minds of thoughtless men against the good of the country.” A much more publicized example of a clash between a Florida governor and the media came forty-six years after Milton’s newspaper flap when Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, angry over opposition to his plan to drain the Everglades, called for censorship of the state’s press.

One of the most colorful characters to sit in the governor’s chair, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward—his name proclaimed ambition and action—fought to transform Florida by draining and reclaiming the vast wetlands of the Everglades for agricultural and homestead development. Like his contemporary Teddy Roosevelt, Broward was a supremely energetic and charismatic leader—both were strong, sturdy men with large mustaches—who thought big. Roosevelt had his Panama Canal while Broward dreamed of dredging “the Swamp” to transform Florida’s economy. They also had large families: Roosevelt had six children and Broward had nine kids.

Born outside of Jacksonville on April 19, 1857, Broward, like Teddy Roosevelt, led an adventurous early life. Broward was a sailor, steamboat captain, and lawman, serving for several years as the sheriff of Duval County. His exploits in that position made him a leading figure in Duval Democratic politics, where he was a leader of the progressive or “Straightout” faction of Democrats who opposed the influence of corporations, especially railroads, in Florida politics. Broward became a statewide and even nationally recognized name in 1896, when he captained a large tugboat named the Three Friends on gunrunning or filibustering voyages to Cuba in support of the revolution against Spain. Press accounts of his Cuban exploits made him a popular if exasperating figure—in 1896 the United States was trying to remain neutral in the Cuban conflict that eventually led to the Spanish American War—who ended his gun running days as a hero to many. Capitalizing on his popularity, Broward was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1900 and won the governorship in 1904.

Filibusters Siezed
The Ocala evening star-June 30, 1896

Broward waged a populist campaign, lambasting the powerful railroads and special interests. His most dramatic message by far, however, was his promise to pursue the drainage and reclamation of the Everglades as a way of transforming South Florida, which had far less population and political clout in those days, and Florida’s economy. Broward even carried a state map to campaign rallies so he could point out to the crowds the boundaries of his proposed drainage district. During his inauguration on January 3, 1905, he reiterated his campaign stand on the Everglades, promising to “convert what is now unsurveyed waste land into a state asset more valuable than all the lands now under cultivation within her borders.”

Broward Inaugural Address
The Pensacola journal-January 4, 1905

After touring the Everglades in February to gather facts and figures for his upcoming address to the legislature on drainage, he delivered his message on the topic on May 3, 1905. The governor detailed the political, legal, and engineering history of past efforts to reclaim the Everglades for development. He argued that railroads and canal companies opposed the drainage plan on land that the state had granted to them in previous administrations: the vast extent of the Everglades was mostly “swamp and overflowed” lands that the federal government had granted to Florida since the 1850s. The state, in turn, granted land to railroads and other companies for transportation improvements, but the companies controlled vast amounts of undeveloped Everglades land that they refused to turn back over to the state for Broward’s drainage effort. Broward insisted that the public good and past court cases allowed the state to drain those lands. He proposed establishing a massive drainage district across much of South Florida to raise revenue to pay for the drainage project, which would be placed into law through a state constitutional amendment.

Governor Broward devoted most of his time during the rest of his term to establishing the drainage district and began dredging the Everglades. He campaigned hard to get the public to pass the drainage amendment. Although there was public and political support for his drainage plan, as the months went by, opposition to the project gained strength as critics challenged the cost and questioned the feasibility of the undertaking. Broward debated the merits of his plan with opponents and spoke across the state to win over the public; however, voters turned down the constitutional amendment in November 1906. The Governor was still able to pursue drainage through legislative bills, but he was disappointed and angry that his project had not been made “permanent” through constitutional amendment. For this failure, he did not blame the public, but pointed to his old corporate enemies and the newspapers they influenced—he would have said controlled—as the real culprits responsible for railroading his amendment.

Broward-Beard Debate
The Pensacola journal-August 21, 1906

As a result, during the 1907 session of the state legislature, Broward delivered an attack on those newspapers that he believed had used false and slanderous stories to convince voters not to support the drainage amendment. In what he called “The Right of the Public to Correct Information,” the governor pointed to Jacksonville’s Florida-Times Union and a handful of other newspapers as the puppets of the railroads and the main publications responsible for spreading false information about his drainage project. He described newspaper cartoons ridiculing him and his drainage plan as uncalled for, untruthful, and malicious: one cartoon depicted a bloated, gun-toting Broward taking the public school fund from a little girl in order to pay for his depleted “Drainage Scheme.”  Unamused, Governor Broward called for legislation to combat this scourge of “fake news” though appropriate punishments for newspapers, owners, editors, and reporters who intentionally published false information. He appealed to “that great jury, the people,” as the only opinion that mattered, and who should not be allowed to be misinformed and deceived by false information presented as fact.

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The Florida times-union-October 4, 1906

The press, of course, was not enthusiastic about Broward’s call for censorship. Newspapers across the state denounced his message as unconstitutional and even deranged. The Tallahassee Weekly True Democrat compared the governor’s stance to that of a schoolyard bully, “overgrown and loudmouthed.” While the Tampa Tribune (quoted in the True Democrat) called his message on newspapers “full of the evil intolerance and despotic utterances of a czar.” The paper went on to question the governor’s sanity: “That any sane man with the liberal and democratic environment of the twentieth century should be capable of a deliberate attack upon the freedom of the press is, we confess, quite beyond our powers to understand . . . Is it possible that the Governor allows a petty vindictiveness to control him?” The massive reaction against his censorship proposal encouraged the legislature not to pass any of Broward’s recommendations on punishing the press. Governor Broward continued to push his drainage plan for the rest of his term. After leaving office, he ran for the Unites States Senate in 1910, winning the primary but dying of illness brought on by exhaustion before he could take office. As the Ocala Evening Star observed, “A Mighty Man Has Fallen.” Successor administrations built on Broward’s drainage efforts, oblivious, until too late, to the tremendous environmental damage that development caused. Broward’s battle to “drain the Swamp” had long-lasting negative and unforeseen consequences.

Citations and Additional Sources

Jefferson quoted in Ryan Mattimore, “Presidential Feuds With the Media Are Nothing New,” History, January 26, 2018 (accessed on June 22, 2018, at https://www.history.com/news/presidents-relationship-with-press).

John Milton quote in “Special Message of the Governor,” December 5, 1861, Florida House Journal, 1861, p. 183 (accessed on June 22, 2018, at http://sb.flleg.gov/nxt/gateway.dll?f=templates&fn=default.htm$vid=House:all).

On Broward’s life, including his relationship with Teddy Roosevelt, see Samuel Proctor, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward: Florida’s Fighting Democrat (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1950).

Broward’s message on newspapers is in “The Right of the Public to Correct Information,” in “Message of the Governor, April 2, 1907, Appendix, Florida House Journal, 1907, 64‒70 (accessed on June 22, 2018, at http://sb.flleg.gov/nxt/gateway.dll?f=templates&fn=default.htm$vid=House:all).

The cartoon, map image, and photos of Broward are located in the Napoleon Bonaparte Broward Papers in the University of Florida Smathers Libraries Special and Area Studies Collections (http://web.uflib.ufl.edu/spec/pkyonge/Broward.htm). Digital copies of these items and much more from his papers are in the University of Florida’s Digital Collections under The Floridians.

For a popular history of the Everglades see Michael Grunwald, The Swamp (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006).

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