James Monroe, the Founding Father who had the most impact on Florida, died on July 4, 1831, the 55th anniversary of the country he spent decades service as a young officer in George Washington’s army until his two terms as our fifth president. A strange coincidence but one that was overshadowed by the deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence they played a large role in creating.
Monroe is somewhat overlooked in American history and the same can be said of the Sunshine State. Former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, R-Fla., and journalist Laura Mize attempted to rectify this in Florida Made: The 25 Most Important Figures Who Shaped the State.
LeMieux and Mize do an excellent job of looking at some of the men and women who helped craft Florida. There are some familiar figures--Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Walt Disney--but, to their credit, LeMieux and Mize often turn their attention to far lesser known individuals from around the state like Julius Stone, Douglas Dummett, Capt. Washington Chambers and Dr. Karl Debus. LeMieux and Mize are sharp enough to cover figures covering the entire state, ranging from Dr. John Gorrie from Apalachicola to Julia DeForest Tuttle who helped found Miami. Not all of the 25 figures are shown in a positive light as Fidel Castro, whose tyrannical regime led to many exiles from Cuba, is included.
Despite LeMieux’s background in politics, he and Mize shows how people outside the realm of government influenced Florida. There are some politicians of course--the two presidents named above, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, LeRoy Collins--but LeMieux and Mize also include businessmen like George W. Jenkins who founded Publix, Henry Flagler and Henry Plant who built railroads across the state, civil rights leaders like Mary McLeod Bethune and conservationists like Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
Of course, in any list like this, you can argue against some of the choices and make the case for including other figures. LeMieux and Mize could have included more figures from colonial history besides Pedro Menendez for example or looked at transplants who lived in Florida during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age like Harriet Beecher Stowe and former Gov. Harrison Reed who helped publicize the state. However, these are, at best, minor quibbles and don’t take away from what is a valuable book.
LeMieux and Mize offer a breezy, informative and readable look at Florida’s history. offering interesting biographical insights to how the state grew. Too many residents of the Sunshine State don’t quite grasp how rich, how varied Florida’s history is. LeMieux and Mize have crafted an excellent introduction to the Sunshine State’s past and the people who crafted it. For readers wanting to get a better understanding of Florida, this book is a great start.