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Chapter 6:

Spain and the United States.


early in the year, Juan de Miralez, a Spanish
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emissary, appeared in Philadelphia. Not accredited to congress, for Spain would not recognise that body,1 he looked upon the rising republic as a natural enemy to his country; and through the influence of the French minister, with whom he had as yet no authorized connection, he sought to raise up obstacles on all sides to its development.2 He came as a spy and an intriguer; nevertheless congress, with unsuspecting confidence, welcomed him as the representative of an intended ally.

Of all the European powers, Spain was the most consistently and perseveringly hostile to the United States. With a true instinct she saw in their success the quickening example which was to break down the barriers of her own colonial system; and her [158] dread of their coming influence shaped her policy

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during their struggle. She was willing to encourage them so far as to exhaust the resources of Great Britain by one campaign more; but she was bent on restraining France from an alliance with them, till she should herself have wrung from their agents at Paris all the concessions which she deemed essential to the security of her transatlantic dominions, and from France all other advantages that she could derive from the war. She excused her importunities for delay by the necessity of providing for the defence of her colonies; the danger that would hang over her homeward-bound troops and commerce; the contingency of renewed schemes of conquest on the part of the Russians against the Ottoman empire; the succession of Bavaria; the propriety of coming to a previous understanding with the Netherlands, which was harried by England, and with the king of Prussia, who was known to favor the Americans.3

Count Montmorin, the successor of d'ossun as French ambassador at Madrid, had in his childhood been a playmate of the king of France, whose friendship he retained, so that his position was one of independence and dignity. As a man of honor, he desired to deal fairly with the United States, and he observed with impartiality the politics of the Spanish court. On receiving a communication of the despatch, which embodied the separate determination of France to support the United States, Florida Blanca quivered [159] in every limb and could hardly utter a reply.4 Sus-

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piciousness marked his character, as well as that of the government of Spain, which, for its remote dominions, was ever haunted by the spectres of contraband trade and of territorial encroachments. He was appalled at the example of the Americans as insurgents, at their ambition as republicans, and at the colossal greatness which their independence foretold; he abhorred any connection with them as equals, and would tolerate at most an alliance of protection and superintendence. With these apprehensions he combined a subtle jealousy of the good faith of the French, who, as a colonial power, were reduced to the lowest rank among the nations of western Europe, and who could recover their share in the commerce of the world only through the ruin of colonial monopoly.

When, therefore, in April, the French ambassador

pressed Florida Blanca to declare at what epoch Spain would take part in the war, the minister, beside himself with passion, exclaimed: ‘I will take the opinion of the king. Since April of last year, France has gone counter to our advice. The king of Spain seems to be looked upon as a viceroy or provincial governor, to whom you put questions as if for his opinion, and to whom you then send orders. The American deputies are treated like the Roman consuls, to whom the kings of the East came to beg support. The declaration of your treaty with them is worthy of Don Quixote.’5 He persisted in the reproach, that France had engaged in a war which [160] had neither an object for its beginning, nor a plan
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for its close.

Baffled in her policy by France, Spain next thought to use Great Britain as her instrument for repressing the growth of the United States. Her first wish was to prevent their self-existence, and, as mediator, to dictate the terms of their accommodation with their mother country; but, as this was no longer possible after the intervention of France, she hoped at the peace to concert with England how to narrow their domain, and secure the most chances for an early dissolution of their inchoate union.

No sooner had Louis the Sixteenth and his council resolved to brave England, than the system which had led to the family compact of the Bourbons recovered its normal influence; for it was through the Spanish alliance that they hoped to bring the conflict to a brilliant issue. Swayed by the advice of d'ossun, they made it their paramount object to reconcile the Spanish government to their measures. In this way doubt arrested their action at the moment of beginning hostilities. If it was to be waged by France alone, they held it prudent to risk everything and make haste to gain advantages in a first campaign, before the English could bring out all their strength; but, if Spain was determined not to stand aloof, they would put the least possible at hazard till it should declare itself.6 Moreover, this persistent deference to the younger branch of the Bourbons brought with it obstinate contrarieties, both as to the place of the United States in the conduct of the war, and still more so in settling the ultimate conditions of peace. [161]

In the conflict between fears and desires, the king of

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Spain was spell-bound by indecision. The precipitate alliance of France and America without his consent wounded his pride and endangered his possessions. His confessor held it a want of probity and an evil example to fight for heretics in revolt against lawful authority. On the other hand his need of protection, his respect for the elder branch of his family, and some remnants of rancor against England, concurred to bind him to the compact between the two crowns. Moreover, Florida Blanca, who from the drudgery of a provincial attorney had risen to be the chief minister of a world-wide empire, had a passion to be spoken of in his time, and to gain a place in history: he, therefore, kept open the negotiations with France, designing to consent to a junction only after stipulations for extraordinary and most unequal advantages. For the recovery of Gibraltar he did not rely exclusively on a siege,7 yet before the end of March he had collected battering cannon at Seville, and held at anchor in the bay of Cadiz a greater fleet than Spain had launched since the days of the armada.

Avoiding an immediate choice between peace and war, Florida Blanca disdained the proposal of an alliance with the United States, and he demanded the postponement of active hostilities in European waters, that he might gain free scope for offering mediation. The establishments of Britain in all parts of the world were weakly garrisoned; its homeward-bound commerce was inadequately protected; its navy was unprepared. The ships of the French, on the contrary, were ready for immediate action; yet they [162] consented to wait indefinitely for the co-operation of

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Spain. After being swept into war for the independence of America, they subjected the conduct of that war to the power in Europe which was the most inveterate enemy to that independence. Their favorable chances at the beginning of the war were thrown away; their channel fleet lay idle in the harbor of Brest; British ships, laden with rich cargoes from all parts of the world, returned home unmolested; and the dilatory British admiralty gained unexpected time for preparation.

All this while British armed vessels preyed upon the commerce of France. To ascertain the strength of the fleet at Brest, a British fleet of twenty ships of the line put to sea under Admiral Keppel, so well known to posterity by the pencil of Reynolds and the prose of Burke. On the seventeenth of June,

June 17.
meeting two French frigates near the island of Ouessant, Keppel gave orders that they should bring to. They refused. One of them, being fired into, discharged its broadside and then lowered its flag; the other, the ‘Belle Poule,’ repelled the pursuit of the ‘Arethusa,’ and escaped.

The French government, no longer able to remain inactive, authorized the capture of British merchantmen; and early in July its great fleet sailed out of

Brest. After returning to Portsmouth, Keppel put to sea once more. On the twenty-seventh, the two
admirals, each having thirty men-of-war in three divisions, and each professing the determination to fight a decisive battle, met off Ouessant. D'Orvilliers was better fitted for a monastery than the quarterdeck; and the British admiral wanted ability for so [163] great a command. After an insignificant action, in
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which neither party lost a ship, the French returned to Brest, the British to Portsmouth. The French admiral ascribed his failure to the disobedience of the young Duke de Chartres, who had absurdly been placed over one of his divisions; Keppel, but only upon an after-thought, censured both Palliser, his second in command, and the admiralty; and he declined employment unless the ministry should be changed. That he was not punished for mutiny, but that he, Burgoyne, and Howe, all three members of the house of commons, were suffered to screen their own incapacity by fighting vigorous battles in parliament against the administration, shows how faction had corrupted discipline in the service. Meantime the French people were justly proud that, so soon after the total ruin of their navy in the seven years war, their fleet equalled that of their great rival, and had won the admiration even of its enemies by its skilful evolutions.

The deeds of the French army for the year consisted in seeming to menace England with an invasion, by forming a camp in Normandy under the Count de Broglie, and wasting the season in cabals, indiscipline, and ruinous luxury. In India, Chandernagor on the Hoogley surrendered to the English without a blow; the governor of Pondicherry, with a feeble garrison and weak defences, maintained a siege of seventy days in the vain hope of relief. The flag of the Bourbons was suffered to disappear from the gulf and sea of Bengal, and from the coast of Malabar. To meet the extraordinary expenses of this frivolous campaign, the kingdom was brought nearer to bankruptcy [164] by straining the public credit without corre-

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sponding taxation.

The diplomacy of Spain during the year proved still less effective. Florida Blanca began with the British minister at Madrid, by affecting ignorance of the measures of the French cabinet, and assuring him ‘that his Catholic Majesty neither condemned nor justified the steps taken by France; but that, as they had been entered upon without the least concert with him, he thought himself perfectly free from all engagements concerning them.’8 After these assertions, which were made so directly and so solemnly that they were believed, he explained that the independence of the United States would overturn the balance of power on the continent of America; and he proposed, through the mediation of his court,9 to obtain a cessation of hostilities in order to establish and perpetuate an equilibrium. The offer of mediation was an offer of the influence of the Bourbon family to secure to England the basin of the St. Lawrence, with the territory north-west of the Ohio, and to bound the United States by the Alleghanies. But Lord Weymouth held it ignoble to purchase from the wreckers of British colonial power the part that they might be willing to restore; and he answered, ‘that while France supported the colonies in rebellion no negotiation could be entered into.’10 But, as both Great Britain and Spain were interested in preserving colonial dependency, he invited a closer union between them, and even proposed an alliance. [165]

At this point in the negotiation, Florida Blanca,

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who was devoured by the ambition of making the world ring with his name, turned to Vergennes; yet, like his king, fearing lest at the peace France might take good care of itself and neglect the interests of Spain,11 he was determined, before concluding an irrevocable engagement, to ascertain the objects which its ally would expect to gain. Spain was really unprepared for war; her ships were poorly armed; her arsenals ill supplied; and few of her naval officers entitled to confidence in their skill: yet he threw out hints that he would in October be ready for action, if France would undertake a descent into England.12

Vergennes, while now more sure than ever of the co-operation of Spain, replied: ‘The idea of making a war on England, like that of the Romans on the Carthaginians, does honor to the minister's elevation of soul; but the attempt would require at least seventy ships of the line, and at least seventy thousand effective troops, of which ten thousand should be cavalry, beside transport ships and proportionate artillery, provisions, and ammunition.’13

To the British proposal of an alliance, Florida Blanca returned a still more formal offer of mediation between the two belligerents; excusing his wish to take part in the settlement of England with its insurgent colonies by his desire that their ambition should be checked and tied down to fixed limits through the union of the three nations. Then, under [166] pretence of seeking guidance in framing the plan

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of pacification, he craftily invited the two courts to remit to his king the points on which they intended to insist; at the same time he avowed to the British minister that the king of Spain would be forced to choose his part, if the war should be continued.14

Indifferent to threats, Weymouth in October gave warning of the fatal consequence to the Spanish monarchy of American independence; and from a well-considered policy refused in any event to concert with other governments the relations of his country to its colonies.15 Meantime Florida Blanca continued to fill the courts of Europe with declarations that Spain would never precede England in recognising the separate existence of her colonies.

During this confused state of the relations between the three great powers, the United States fell upon a wise measure. Franklin, from the first, had advised his country against wooing Spain: but the confidence reposed in him by the French cabinet was not impaired by his caution; and they transacted all American business with him alone. Tired of the dissensions of rival commissioners, congress, on the fourteenth of September, abolished the joint commission of which he had been a member, and appointed him their minister plenipotentiary at the court of France. It illustrates the patriotism of John Adams, that, though he was one of those to be removed from office, he approved alike the terminating of the commission [167] and the selection of Franklin as sole envoy. In him

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the interests of the United States obtained a serene and wakeful guardian, who penetrated the wiles of the Spanish government, and knew how to unite fidelity to the French alliance with timely vindication of the rights of his own native land.

1 Luzerne to Vergennes, 17 Dec., 1779.

2 Gerard to Vergennes, 16 and 29 July, 1778.

3 Count Florida Blanca to Count de Aranda, 13 Jan., 1778. Communicated with other documents from the Spanish archives by Don Pascual de Gayangos.

4 Count de Montmorin to Count de Vergennes, 28 Jan., 1778.

5 Montmorin to Vergennes, 10 April, 1778.

6 Vergennes to Montmorin, 3 April, 1778. Ms.

7 Montmorin to Vergennes, 31 Aug., 1778.

8 Grantham to Weymouth, 19 Feb., 1778. Ibid., 24 Mar., 1778.

9 Ibid., 19 April, 1778.

10 Weymouth to Grantham, 20 May, 1778.

11 Private letter of Montmorin to Vergennes, 1 Sept., 1778.

12 Montmorin to Vergennes, 7 Sept., 1778.

13 Vergennes to Montmorin, 21 Sept., 1778.

14 Paper delivered to Lord Grantham by M. de Florida Blanca, and transmitted in Lord Grantham's No. 56, 28 Sept., 1778.

15 Weymouth to Grantham, 27 Oct., 1778.

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