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Chapter 13

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Spanish-American Frontier, 1783‑1795

by
Arthur Preston Whitaker

as reprinted by
Peter Smith,
Gloucester, MA, 1962

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

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This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

p201 Chapter XIV
San Lorenzo: A frontier treaty

If you want to follow along on the author's maps, they're here. (They'll open in another window, so you won't lose your place.)

A South Carolina gentleman

On October 27, 1795, at the palace-monastery of San Lorenzo a treaty was signed whereby Spain surrendered its dispute with the American republic. It was a crucial document that was signed on that day by Manuel de Godoy, the handsome guardsman of Badajoz, and Thomas Pinckney, South Carolina gentleman; for the treaty of San Lorenzo marks the beginning of the disintegration of the Spanish empire as well as the first stage in the territorial expansion of the United States. The following pages will show how the concatenation of events in a Swiss town, on royal Spanish backstairs, and in the backwoods of North America forced this portentous surrender.

It was in November, 1794, that Thomas Pinckney, minister to Great Britain, was directed by his government to undertake a special commission to the Spanish court. His appointment was made in response not to Godoy's proposals of July 26, 1794, but to his invitation of the preceding May. Curiously enough, the royal order of July 26, the result of such earnest and prolonged deliberation in the anxious Council of State, had not the slightest effect on the course of the Spanish-American negotiation. Its contents were never formally conveyed, by Jáudenes or otherwise, to the United States government, and it played no part in the final negotiation between Pinckney and Godoy. It may at first sight seem incomprehensible that Jáudenes, a diplomatic agent of the humblest rank, should have failed to obey the positive command of his king to communicate p202to Washington's government the contents of the order. It has been suggested by way of explanation that Jáudenes was engaged in an intrigue with the Kentuckians and was unwilling to have it interrupted, as it might have been had he obeyed the order.1 The most probable explanation, however, seems to be that just one week before he received the despatch of July 26, he had written informing Godoy of Pinckney's appointment to Spain. Since this appointment tied the hands of the United States government, it would have been worse than useless for Jáudenes to reveal his royal master's eagerness for a treaty.

The period from July 26, 1794, the date of the order to Jáudenes just mentioned, to June 29, 1795, the date of Pinckney's arrival at the Spanish court, was marked by the almost complete suspension of the negotiation between the two governments. The same period, it may be remarked by way of anticipation, was one of intense activity on the Mississippi Valley frontier, where Spanish officials and American frontiersmen ploughed an independent furrow, with little knowledge of the plans of their respective governments and with little regard for their wishes.

The length of this diplomatic hiatus of eleven months was due to Pinckney's delay in reaching Spain; and his delay is in turn explained by various causes. In the first place, one of the considerations that led to his appointment seems to have been Washington's desire to placate the Kentuckians. There was little hope in administration circles that a new minister would succeed where Short had failed; but the whole American West was in a ferment, many Kentuckians angrily demanding that the Mississippi be seized while Spain was engaged in war at home. Something must be done p203to quiet the clamor on the Ohio; and it is significant that at the same time that Colonel James Innes was sent to Kentucky to convince its governor of Washington's determination to open the Mississippi, the President resolved to accept Godoy's invitation of May, 1794, and send a new and more distinguished envoy to Spain. As one writer has expressed it, the king of Spain asked for a gentleman, and Washington sent him Thomas Pinckney; but it is interesting to recall that first Thomas Jefferson was offered and declined the apparently futile appointment.

Maladroit diplomacy

In view of the origin of his mission, there seemed to be no reason why Pinckney should proceed post-haste to Spain; and the maladroit policy of the United States government actually delayed his departure from London. So long indeed was it delayed that he lost all the immense benefit that he might have derived from Jay's mission to England (1794). The American government's policy has been called maladroit because it relied on the worst and neglected the best means of extorting the desired terms from Spain. Reliance was placed in the good offices of France, which, it was hoped, would utilize its victories over Spain to secure the terms desired by the United States. This fatuous optimism found its best expression in the letters of James Monroe, American minister at Paris, who wrote in 1795 that France was giving us material aid in the Spanish negotiation.2 As a matter of fact, the French government was engaged at that very time in a determined effort to secure from Spain the retrocession of Louisiana, and in order to carry its point was exciting Spain's fear of the ambitious Americans and was promising p204to keep the Mississippi River closed in order to check their westward expansion.3

The opportunity neglected by Washington's government was afforded by Jay's mission. The hindsight test is often unfair, and yet it seems strange that Randolph, Jay and Pinckney, the three best-informed persons in the diplomatic service of the United States at that juncture, should all have failed so utterly to perceive the real relation of Jay's mission to the negotiation between their government and Spain. They either knew or should have known by the winter of 1794‑95 that the Anglo-Spanish alliance was in danger of dissolution, that the secrecy surrounding Jay's mission and his treaty with Grenville had created great alarm in Spain, and that this Spanish fear of an Anglo-American alliance would be the most effective means of extorting a treaty favorable to the United States. Since, as these three diplomats knew, Jay's treaty did not in fact provide for an alliance between England and the United States, it would seem as plain as day that Pinckney should have hastened to Spain before the veil of secrecy was lifted from Jay's treaty and while Godoy was still haunted by the spectre of Anglo-American union.

Instead, the American diplomats followed the opposite course. On the advice of Jay and with the approval of Randolph, Pinckney deliberately awaited in London news of the ratification of Jay's treaty by the United States Senate; and it was only when he learned that there would be a long delay in the consideration of the treaty that he proceeded to Spain.4 This maladroit diplomacy secured its immediate object, for Jay's treaty was ratified while Pinckney was in Spain and news of the ratification and the text of the treaty reached Spain a full month before the conclusion of the treaty with p205Godoy. As might have been foreseen, and as Pinckney now frankly admitted, this news was prejudicial to his negotiation.5 It might indeed have wrecked it but for an abrupt change in the European situation which the American diplomats could not have foreseen.

Godoy deserts England

This abrupt change was brought about by the treaty of Bâle (July, 1795) whereby Spain deserted England and made peace with the victorious French Republic. The negotiation was kept even more profoundly secret than Jay's with Grenville, for Godoy feared to face British resentment until the treaty with France was a fait accompli. When we consider that desperate straits to which Spain had been reduced in the winter of 1794‑95, it must be admitted that Godoy came off very well at Bâle, for the only price that he had to pay to secure peace with France and the evacuation of the Spanish provinces conquered by French arms was the cession of Spanish Santo Domingo to the republic. Louisiana he stubbornly refused to surrender, possibly out of deference to opinion in Spain, possibly for use in a future bargain.6

It was while negotiations at Bâle were in progress that Thomas Pinckney arrived at court (June 29, 1795); and of course he was unable to make the slightest progress until that affair was terminated. Once the French treaty was concluded, Godoy gave the North American situation his immediate attention. On August 4, 1795, King Charles IV ratified the French treaty. Ten days later (August 14) the Spanish Council of State completed the diplomatic retreat begun in the time of Floridablanca and decided to surrender the dispute with the United States. In the first stage of p206the controversy (1780‑87), Spain had refused to concede on any terms the navigation and boundary demanded by the United States. In 1787, under the combined pressure of a frontier menace and European complications, Floridablanca had offered boundary concessions in return for an alliance with the United States. In 1791, he was apparently ready to include the navigation of the Mississippi in the bargain; and in the despatch to Jáudenes of July 26, 1794, Godoy had virtually declared Spain's willingness to concede both points in return for a defensive alliance and territorial guarantee. Now in August 1795, the Council of State decided to surrender both points without exacting the equivalent alliance. What were the considerations that led it to make this momentous decision?

Ever since the publication of Godoy's Memoirs, most American historians have been content to repeat his statement that the surrender was due to the secrecy surrounding Jay's treaty and the consequent fear that the treaty included an alliance between Great Britain and the United States.7 We now know, however, that this product of the blurred memory of an old man in exile is not supported by the facts; for, far from being ignorant of the terms of Jay's treaty, Godoy had a copy of it in his possession a full month before he signed the treaty with Pinckney, and far from facilitating, Jay's treaty actually rendered more difficult Pinckney's negotiation. Even before the publication of its terms Jay's treaty had ceased to be a decisive factor in shaping Spanish policy. It was not even mentioned in the lengthy minutes of the Council of State of August 14, 1795, when the surrender to the United States was agreed upon.

p207 It was not Jay's treaty with England but Godoy's treaty with France that made possible Pinckney's triumph at San Lorenzo. By concluding a separate peace with France at Bâle, Godoy violated Spain's treaty of 1793 with England and he knew that as soon as he made peace with the former he would have to face the angry resentment of the latter. Even in 1794, while the unnatural union was still in existence, the perfidy of Albion had been taken for granted at the Spanish court. After the treaty of Bâle, the danger seemed tenfold greater. Godoy's best informant, the trusted ambassador Bernardo del Campo, showered him with letters from London in August, September and October, 1795, warning him to prepare immediately against British aggression.8 The blow might fall in Santo Domingo, or in Mexico, or somewhere else; but in any case it appeared certain that Great Britain was about to assail some colony of Spain in the neighborhood of the Gulf of Mexico. In that case the attitude of the United States would be of the utmost importance. An alliance with the Americans would be of great value; their neutrality at least was indispensable, and Thomas Pinckney could not be suffered to leave Spain unsatisfied. Hence it was that only ten days elapsed between the Spanish ratification of the treaty of Bâle and the decision of the Council of State to yield to the United States in the matter of the boundary and the navigation of the Mississippi. Six months after San Lorenzo, Godoy himself gave this explanation of its terms. In a conversation (May, 1796) with Earl Bute, the British ambassador, Godoy complained that Britain's hostile preparations against Mexico in 1795 had forced him to make extensive concessions to the United States.9

Backstairs intrigue

p208 It was not only Spain's insecurity in Europe and America, but also Godoy's insecurity in Spain that led to the capitulation at San Lorenzo. Most precarious was the royal favorite's situation in the summer and early fall of 1795. Heavy taxation had created intense discontent, and military reverses had done much to discredit the youthful minister's conduct of affairs. So cordially was he hated at this time that he rarely showed his face in public; and on one occasion, when the court was moving from one royal estate to another, the danger of popular violence was so great that he deserted his own carriage and took refuge with the king and queen.10

One result of this widespread discontent was the Malaspina plot, a typical backstairs episode of the old régime. In it were implicated Antonio Valdés, one of the most influential, though the laziest, of Godoy's colleagues in the ministry; the confessors of the king and queen; and the naval officer and explorer, Malaspina, an Italian by birth. The object of the conspirators was simply to persuade the king to get rid of Godoy, who they said was endangering the monarchy by his incompetence; but to the favorite their intrigue seemed nothing less than treason. To meet the crisis, he first set to work to remove the chief grievances, which were military reverses and heavy taxation. Clearly the only way to remove both grievances at once was to make peace. Peace was accordingly made with France, and, to avert war with the United States, the treaty of San Lorenzo was signed. Having thus strengthened his position, Godoy proceeded to crush the conspiracy, imprisoning the confessors, exiling Malaspina, and forcing the resignation of Valdés. Finally, to justify p209himself against the charge of incompetence, he read before the Council of State a review of his services to the crown, and one of the two achievements on which he laid most emphasis with the treaty of San Lorenzo.11

From Spanish backstairs to the backwoods of North America may seem a far cry, and yet backwoods as well as backstairs played an important part at San Lorenzo. Had not Spain's frontier policy proved a failure by 1795, and had not Godoy been acutely conscious of the failure, it hardly seems probable that he would have made so complete a surrender of the Mississippi Valley controversy. Had the Indians proved themselves trusty allies, had immigrants poured into the Floridas and Louisiana, had the West rebelled just as Spain desired, and had the Spanish treasury been equal to the ever-mounting demands of its frontier provinces, Godoy might well have tried to placate the American government with the commercial treaty that it so eagerly desired.

Carondelet courts the Kentuckians

While diplomacy drifted in the doldrums from the summer of 1794 to the summer of 1795, Carondelet fought the Americans tooth and nail on the frontier. His object was twofold: To defend Louisiana, and to aid Spanish diplomacy by tightening Spain's grip on the Mississippi Valley. In Miró's time, this object had been pursued through Floridablanca's immigration policy, with the Kentucky intrigue playing a distinctly subordinate part, since the court considered it a remote possibility. Upon Carondelet's arrival in Louisiana (1792), he had modified the immigration policy beyond recognition, and since the Western intrigue gave but faint promise of success, he had devoted all his energies p210to the elaboration of an aggressive Indian policy. Baffled in this effort by his unsympathetic superiors and the intractable Indians, and threatened with invasion from Georgia and Kentucky, he had welcomed with open arms the treasonable overtures of General James Wilkinson and Judge Harry Innes in the early months of 1794. At the same time, the Baron began to execute a plan that he had long had in contemplation: the military occupation of the east bank of the Mississippi River up to its junction with the Ohio.

The Kentucky intrigue was nothing new, as we have already had abundant occasion to see; but it was now given a decidedly novel character by Carondelet. Hitherto, according to various orders of the court, the revolutionizing of Kentucky had been neither the immediate nor the sole object of the intrigue. Floridablanca's purpose in cultivating it had been to use the Kentucky conspirators as propagandists and information agents for Spain; the revolutionizing of the American West was regarded as a remote possibility; and Spain was to have no open dealings with the conspirators until after they had set up a separate government. Now Carondelet's avowed object was to foment an immediate insurrection in Kentucky, to bring Wilkinson and other leading conspirators into Spanish territory and conclude an alliance with them, and, by supplying them liberally with munitions and money, to aid them in establishing their independence. Thus divided into two rival powers, he said, the United States would no longer be a serious menace to Spain in North America. We have already discussed, in connection with Spanish diplomacy and the royal order of July 26, 1794, his despatches of that year to Godoy on the subject of the conspiracy; but to Wilkinson also, without waiting p211to receive the court's reply, he began to communicate his designs.

We have no space here to trace the sinuosities of the intrigue, but it may be pointed out that despite the lukewarmness of the American frontiersmen as well as his own government, the Baron continued the intrigue to the bitter end. Already, early in 1795, he had received a disconcerting proof of the indifference to Spain of even the most discontented frontiersmen. After the collapse of the Whiskey Rebellion, David Bradford, one of its leaders, took refuge in Spanish territory; and when he was examined by Governor Gayoso at Natchez he did not even pretend that he and his followers had had any desire to from a connection with Spain.12 In Cumberland, as Carondelet knew, the Clark-Genêt plan of invading Louisiana had met with a ready response, and he also knew that even in Kentucky, which he regarded as the stronghold of the Spanish interest, many besides Clark were the sworn enemies of Spain.13

Nevertheless, the Baron went doggedly ahead with his plans. On July 16, 1795, he wrote Wilkinson a letter that was designed to bring the intrigue to a head at once. "My letter of the first instant," he wrote, "was already signed when I received orders from his Majesty very satisfactory to the Western states: since his Majesty being very desirous of giving them a commerce reciprocalyº advantageous to both parties has authorized me to treat privately with the Agents chosen & sent by the State of Kentucky to New Madrid on that purpose. Consequently I send to Colonel Gayoso the necessary instructions, & sufficient powers to agree privately with the aforesaid Agents upon every point and object of this momentous plan. . . ." The letter concluded with p212the following: "G. W. [General Wilkinson] can aspire to the same dignity in the western states that P. W. [President Washington] has in the eastern."14 Carondelet knew his man.

This letter was sent to Gayoso with an order directing him to proceed at once to New Madrid, forward it to Wilkinson, and negotiate with the Kentucky envoys who should come down in response to the invitation. His powers were narrowly limited, as he was instructed to conclude only a commercial convention, and even that was to be kept secret at first from all but the "notables" of Kentucky; but we learn from Carondelet's other correspondence that in his shallow optimism he expected this proof of Spain's generosity to effect the separation of Kentucky from the Union. Thereupon it was the Baron's plan to conclude an offensive and defensive alliance with Kentucky and to aid their revolution with ammunition, twenty field guns and ten thousand rifles.15

Gayoso ascended the Mississippi to New Madrid, as he had been directed, and from September to December, 1795, he was engaged in correspondence with Wilkinson, Lacassagne and Innes. Wilkinson displayed little enthusiasm at the opportunity of embracing his dear friend, Gayoso, to whom he had once written that he would willingly sacrifice one arm if he might embrace Gayoso with other. Now he protested that he had a difficult game to play, as he was suspected by both his commander-in‑chief, Wayne, and by Washington, and that the ground had not yet been sufficiently prepared in Kentucky. Nevertheless, though he could not visit Gayoso himself, had not consulted Innes, and did not trust Lacassagne, he finally sent a delegate, Benjamin Sebastian, to confer with the Spaniard, adding p213that, while Sebastian had no power to make a treaty, the conference would undoubtedly forward Spain's interests in Kentucky. In order to prepare the ground in Kentucky and oil the wheels of intrigue, he urgently requested the immediate remittance of twenty thousand dollars and an increase in the amount of his pension. In December, 1795, Sebastian actually descended the Ohio and conferred with Gayoso; but the powers of both were so limited that it was soon decided to adjourn the discussion to New Orleans and, under Carondelet's guidance, concert a plan of action. Arriving at the capital early in January, they were busily engaged in hatching a scheme when, to their consternation, despatches from Havana brought news of the treaty of San Lorenzo.16

The witch's plot of intrigue in the West was being stirred up at the same time by the unhappy Jáudenes and Viar. Hardly had Sebastian left Kentucky to join Gayoso when a certain Antonio Argote arrived there, ostensibly to secure recognition as Spanish consul in Kentucky, but with secret instructions to get in touch with the Spanish conspirators and to enlist the services of Governor Shelby in the good cause. An interview with the governor was obtained, and although it was disappointing, Argote was still hopeful of success when news of Pinckney's treaty arrived and paralyzed his efforts.17

Fort San Fernando: fur trader and land speculator

The extension of Spain's military frontier was, as we have seen, Carondelet's second device for gaining the upper hand in the controversy with the United States. As early as his first year in Louisiana (1792), he had p214persuaded the Cherokee to request the establishment of Spanish posts at Muscle Shoals and Chickasaw Bluffs (the Barrancas de Margot, or Ecores à Margot, the site of the present Memphis, Tennessee), both of which localities, by the way, were outside the Cherokee hunting grounds. Various circumstances had prevented his granting this complaisant request; but in 1794 a step in that direction was taken when, under circumstances already described, Fort Confederation was built on the Tombigbie River, well within the territory claimed by the United States.

Just as the designs of the South Carolina Yazoo Company had led Miró to occupy Walnut Hills (Los Nogales) in 1791, so in 1795 the activities of the Georgia land companies were immediately responsible for the erection of the Fort San Fernando de las Barrancas at Chickasaw Bluffs. Towards the end of 1794, land speculators interested in the Yazoo country began to bestir themselves, perhaps encouraged by the federal government's assurance that it was at last going to force a settlement of the dispute with Spain. Gentle pressure was brought to bear on the Georgia legislature, and once more in the history of the American frontier political power was exploited in the interest of land speculation. Their pockets bulging with shares and banknotes, the legislators deeded away principalities for a pittance. Millions of acres of Georgia's western territory were conveyed to three companies, two of the grants lying on the Mississippi between Natchez and Chickasaw Bluffs, and one on the Tennessee River around Muscle Shoals.18

As soon as Gayoso heard of the designs of the companies he hastily forwarded a detachment up the Mississippi to hold the Bluffs until his arrival with well-armed p215reinforcements, for he was much disturbed by a visit that Cumberland settlers had paid to the Bluffs in 1794, and by their influence among the Chickasaw. Carondelet, when advised of Gayoso's action, gave his approval, took command of the situation, and despatched instructions, reinforcements and supplies. Most important of all, he persuaded Panton, Leslie and Company to send one of its partners, John Forbes, with a boatload of goods to open a store at the new fort. Again the American land speculator and frontiersman found the Anglo-Spanish fur trader in their path.19

As the Chickasaw Bluffs extend for many miles along the Mississippi, the site of the fort was not chosen until after Gayoso's arrival. That done, a review of the troops was held and the construction of the fort begun on May 30, 1795; and since that was the name-day of the Prince of Asturias, Fernando, the fort was called San Fernando de las Barrancas, St. Ferdinand of the Bluffs.20 Thus the last outpost of Spanish advance in the Mississippi Valley received the ill-omened name of that prince who later, as the notorious Ferdinand VII, lost the bulk of Spain's empire in America.

By the judicious employment of the means usual in such cases — presents, rum and flattery — Gayoso obtained from a friendly faction of the Chickasaw a treaty ceding to His Catholic Majesty the site of the fort and a small strip of territory around it. Panton's store was then established; and, despite vigorous protests from Governor Blount and General Wayne, fort and store were maintained there until the spring of 1797 when, in compliance with the treaty of San Lorenzo, Carondelet ordered its evacuation. Shortly thereafter, having learned of Blount's conspiracy and determined to postpone the treaty's execution, he p216countermanded the order; but the second messenger arrived too late. The lonely garrison had executed the first order with alacrity, and no attempt was made to reoccupy the Bluffs.21

Godoy looks at the Mississippi Valley

In despatches that still glow with pride and tremble with eager hope, Carondelet informed Godoy of his achievements in Kentucky and at Chickasaw Bluffs.22 In a despatch of June 10, 1795, he reported the establishment of Fort San Fernando, which, he declared, forestalled the Americans, strengthened Spain's hold on the Mississippi, and would promote Panton's trade and Spain's influence among the Chickasaw and Choctaw, at the same time that it advanced the Western intrigue by facilitating communications with Kentucky. This conspiracy was the subject of a despatch of July 1, and the burden of the Baron's song was a plea for funds, more funds, and still more funds. The plan to revolutionize Kentucky was feasible, he declared, and such a revolution was almost essential to the safety of Spanish North America; but tens of thousands of dollars must be made available at once for propaganda, bribery and aid to the insurgents. Whether this were done or not, he continued, still larger sums must be placed at his disposal to consolidate his recent gains on the frontier. Forts San Fernando and Confederation as well as the older forts must be strengthened, their garrisons reinforced, Panton subsidized and the annual Indian presents increased to meet the competition of the United States government. Otherwise, he concluded, Spain must face the necessity of surrender in the controversy with the United States, and all the dire consequences that would flow from the surrender; but p217such a calamity need never occur, since, thanks to Carondelet's Kentucky intrigue, Indian alliances and string of forts, His Majesty held the fate of the Mississippi Valley in the hollow of his hand.

These despatches Godoy received more than a week before he signed the treaty of San Lorenzo and almost a week before Pinckney brought the negotiation to a crisis by demanding his passport. Had Godoy been convinced by the Baron's eager optimism, he would have issued the passport that Pinckney had requested but did not expect or desire to receive. The situation thus created was similar in many respects to that of July, 1794. On both occasions the Council of State, on Godoy's advice, had decided to make concessions to the United States in the frontier controversy, and on both occasions, after the decision had been made but before its execution, despatches had been received from Louisiana urging continued resistance and giving positive assurance of success. The parallel was completed when, on October 27, 1795, as on July 25, 1794, Godoy turned a deaf ear to the Baron's rhetoric and consummated the surrender. This time there was no miscarriage. Pinckney was on hand, the treaty was signed, and both the disputed territory and the control of the Mississippi were irrevocably lost to Spain.

We have already intimated that the treaty of San Lorenzo was essentially a frontier treaty. It is of course true that, as we have seen, the European situation was one of Godoy's reasons for concluding the treaty, and that it contained provisions of no little significance in the history of neutral rights on the high seas in time of war. At the same time, it is equally true that by far the most important terms of the treaty related to the Spanish-American frontier: the disputed territory, the p218navigation of the Mississippi, the right of deposit at New Orleans; and that one of the chief reasons why the Spanish government agreed to these terms was that it had failed, and knew that it had failed, in its frontier conflict with the United States.

That the most important terms of the treaty related to the frontier is so obvious that the mere statement of the fact would be sufficient, since that fact requires not proof but emphasis. It may, however, be well to remind the reader that the navigation of the Mississippi was an essential element in the frontier controversy, for while the exclusive control of the river was still prized by Spain as a means of suppressing contraband trade, it was prized still more as a means of checking the growth of the American West, separating it from the United States, and stimulating immigration into Louisiana and West Florida.

That the fact as well as the terms of the Spanish surrender was conditioned by Spanish failure in the frontier conflict stands more in need of proof; for historians, relying on Godoy's Memoirs, have generally explained his course at San Lorenzo by the existing diplomatic situation. These Memoirs, however, were written nearly forty years after the event, and contemporary records tell a different story, a story in which the frontier plays a prominent part.

On August 14, 1795, occurred a meeting of the Council of State to which reference has already been made. Two official accounts of the deliberations of the Council have been preserved, each relating to a separate aspect of the subject under discussion. The first of these documents possesses great interest for us, since it throws a flood of light on the reasons for Spain's surrender to the United States and since it has never p219been utilized by any previous writer on this subject. According to this record, Godoy carefully explained the nature of the controversy to the Council with the aid of documents and maps, and in his exegesis he established two "capital facts." The first of these was that Spain's failure to protest against the Anglo-American treaty of 1783 was taken by the Americans as the silence of consent. The second "capital fact" was the small importance of the disputed territory and the forts contained within its limits; the unsatisfactory state of relations with the "barbarous, voluble and perfidious nations of Indians" of the region, who were incessantly menacing the possessions of Spain; and the undesirability of continuing a very uncertain and very expensive dispute. Godoy concluded with the observation that, even if this controversy were settled according to the "moderate ideas" of the United States, Spain would still have "possessions, peoples and rights quite sufficient, and important to our navigation and commerce in those and other principal parts of the two Americas."23

There are many omissions from this document and there are some distortions in it. For example, the "moderate ideas" of the United States had long been regarded as "absurd pretensions" by the Spanish government, and Godoy's novel characterization was simply a sugar-coating to render palatable the bitter pill of defeat. Our interest, however, lies in the second of his two "capital facts," for it shows that the treaty of San Lorenzo was not signed until the Council had canvassed the situation on the Spanish-American frontier and had decided that the chances of success did not justify the continuance of the struggle. From the second report of the Council's deliberations on August 14, and from other documents, we learn that at this time the government p220was much alarmed by two other developments in the Mississippi Valley, namely, by the activity of British fur traders in the upper Missouri Valley, and by the efforts of Americans to establish settlements at Muscle Shoals and Chickasaw Bluffs.24

It may be observed that neither of these reports of the Council's deliberations mentioned the Kentucky conspiracy. Other sources show that Spain did not trust Wilkinson, and was unwilling to incur the expense of revolutionizing Kentucky or the danger of war with the United States. Hence it was that Godoy was unmoved when, on October 18, 1795, he read Carondelet's perfervid despatches about the progress of the western conspiracy. Like Floridablanca, he had no stomach for dealing with the American frontiersmen. His first object was to check their progress through Spain's frontier, and since that appeared impossible he preferred a treaty with the established government of the United States to an intrigue with its irresponsible frontiersmen.

Stripping for action

Our task is now done, for we are not concerned either with the details of the Pinckney-Godoy negotiation, or with the execution of the treaty. Pinckney conducted himself most becomingly and quite creditably; but in no essential respect did he get more than Godoy was ready to concede when their conferences began, and he failed to secure either a commercial treaty or a satisfactory article on the right of deposit. His rôle was very much like that of Monroe and Livingston at Paris in 1803, when Napoleon tossed Louisiana into their laps. As for the long delay in the treaty's execution, we must content ourselves with pointing out that p221a frontier event, William Blount's conspiracy, provided Spain with its chief pretext for postponing compliance with its terms.25 When Natchez, the chief post in the disputed territory, was at last evacuated (1798), it was no less a person than General James Wilkinson who took possession of it in the name of the United States government.

From what has been said, it should be apparent that the treaty of San Lorenzo did not so much change the situation in the Mississippi Valley as accord recognition to changes that had taken place there since 1783. Even before the treaty was signed, citizens of the United States were enjoying the navigation of the Mississippi River from its headwaters to its mouth. From Kentucky down to New Orleans, their commerce had been legalized by a royal order; from the mouth of the Mississippi up to New Orleans, it was connived at by the governor of Louisiana, who informed his government that no other course was possible. As for the disputed territory, Spain was still in actual possession of it in 1795; but it was by that time apparent that this territory as well as upper Louisiana would fall an easy prey to the United States in case of war. For Spain indeed the treaty of San Lorenzo was one of momentous significance, for it was in effect an admission of the failure of Floridablanca's attempt to make of the Mississippi Valley another Mexico. The admission of failure on the east bank of the Mississippi involved the tacit admission of failure on the west bank as well. The treaty of San Lorenzo of 1795 found its fitting, its inevitable complement in the treaty of San Ildefonso of 1800, whereby Spain retroceded Louisiana to France.

For the United States as well this treaty was one of p222great significance. It was a victory not only for the United States over Spain, but also for expansionists in the United States over particularists, both Eastern and Western. It appeased frontier discontent, gave a mortal blow to separatism, and secured the Union from a serious menace to its integrity. It completed the work begun by Jay's treaty and established the frontiers claimed by the United States at the end of the Revolution;a and yet it did more than Jay's treaty, for the rights that it established had hitherto rested on a dubious legal basis. By terminating a dangerous controversy and by securing the American government's terms without the formation of the alliance which Spain ha long required as the price of concession, the treaty carried one step further the government's policy of cutting loose from the European state system; a policy which, in retrospect, seems a kind of stripping for action in the western hemisphere. Finally, by confirming the United States in the possession of virtually the whole of the east bank of the Mississippi and by validating the Americans' claim to the free navigation of that river, the treaty laid a substantial foundation for the further extension of the new republic in North America.


The Author's Notes:

p244 1 Bemis, 244; AHN, E, l. 3895 bis, Jáudenes to Alcudia, Dec. 8, 1794, No. 275.

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2 B. W. Bond, The Monroe Mission to France, 40; Monroe Papers (MSS., N. Y. Public Library), (Monroe) to the Secretary of State, March 17, 1795, No. 13.

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3 AMAE, CP, Espagne, Supplément, vol. 25, fol. 04, Committee of Public Safety to Barthélémy May 10, 1795; ib., fols. 06‑12, Instructions to Barthélémy, same date.

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4 Department of State, Bureau of Indexes and Archives, Despatches, England, T. Pinckney, Pinckney to the Secretary of State, April 3 and 23, 1795.

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5 AI, Indiferente General, 146‑3‑10, Thomas Pinckney to Wm. Short, Sept. 26, 1795. I am preparing for early publication a note on Godoy's knowledge of the terms of Jay's treaty.

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6 AHN, E, l. 3370, carpeta 13, the original treaty, dated at Bâle, July 22, 1795, together with three secret articles, same date.

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7 W. H. Trescot, op. cit., 253‑54, quoting from Godoy's Memoirs; Roosevelt, IV, 207; H. Adams, History of the United States, etc., I, 348‑49; E. Channing, History of the United States, IV, 146; Bemis, 326‑31. Other explanations are advanced by B. W. Bond, op. cit., 40; F. J. Turner, "The Policy of France," in AHR, X, 266‑67; and F. W. Paxson, History of the American Frontier, 85.

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8 AHN, E, l. 4247, Campo to Alcudia, July 10, Aug. 7, Aug. 18, Sept. 25, 1795; Godoy, Mémoires du Prince de la Paix, I, 349‑50.

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9 B. P. R. O., F. O., Spain, 72/41, Bute to Grenville, May 18, 1796, No. 12.

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10 Ib., 72/38, Bute to Grenville, July 19, 1795, "Most secret & private."

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p245 11 AHN, E, ACE, Nov. 22 and 27, 1795; B. P. R. O., F. O., Spain, 72/39, Bute to Grenville, Oct. 31, 1795, No. 30, "Most Secret."

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12 Bradford to Gayoso, Jan. 22, 1795, cited in note 21, ch. XIII.

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13 AI, PC, l. 1447, Carondelet to Las Casas, Aug. 18, 1794, No. 123 res.; ib., l. 2354, Address of the Democratic Society of Kentucky, Dec. 13, 1793, Spanish translation.

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14 AI, PC, l. 2374, copy in English, with interlinear cipher. The letter given in Bodley, lxxx, was fabricated in 1796: AI, PC, l. 2371, Sebastian to (Carondelet), New Orleans, Feb. 22, 1796.

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15 AI, PC, l. 1447, Carondelet to Las Casas, Jan. 30, 1796, No. 154 res.

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16 Ib., l. 178 (Carondelet) to the Prince of the Peace, Feb. 10, 1796, No. 73 res., draft.

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17 AME, Archivo de la Legación de S. M. C., Washington, D. C., l. 69, Antonio Argote Villalobos to Viar, Frankfort (Kentucky), Dec. 15, 1795, March 22, 1796 (two letters): AHN, E, l. 3896, Jáudenes to Alcudia, July 29, 1795, No. 297 and enclosures.

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18 C. H. Haskins, The Yazoo Land Companies, loc. cit.

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19 AI, PC, l. 203, Panton to Carondelet, April 18, 1795; ib., l. 2354, Carondelet to Las Casas, March 4, 1795, No. 131 res.; same to same, May 1, 1795, No. 134 res.

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20 Ib., "Galeota la Vigilante, Diario desde la Salida de Natchez," entry for May 30 (1795).

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21 Ib., Carondelet to Gayoso, March 5, 1797.

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22 AHN, E, l. 3899, Carondelet to Alcudia, June 10, 1795, No. 53 res., and July 1, 1795, No. 54 res.

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23 Ib., l. 3384, Montarco to Alcudia, Aug. 17, 1795.

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24 Ib., ACE, Aug. 14, 1795; ib., May 27, 1796; AI, PC, l. 2371, Lord Dorchester to Carondelet, Aug. 21, 1794, copy; draft of Carondelet's reply, June 19, 1795.

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25 AI, PC, l. 2371, Gayoso to Lt. Pope, May 1, 1797, copy. Panton was suspected of complicity in Blount's conspiracy: ib., l. 1502, Gayoso to Santa Clara, Sept. 24, 1797, No. 22 res. See also reference in note 21, above.


Thayer's Note:

a The precise boundary between the United States and Florida was to be settled later by a joint commission on the terrain; the details are given by F. Cubberly, "Florida against Georgia" (Publications of the Florida Historical Society, III.20 ff.)


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