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BORDERLINES IN BORDERLANDS JAMES MADISON AND THE SPANISH-AMERICAN FRONTIER, 1776-1821
By J. C. A. Stagg
Yale University Press Copyright © 2009 Yale University
All right reserved.
Chapter One A TROUBLESOME NEIGHBOR
In various ways, therefore, may Spain promote or oppose our political interests with several other Countries; and we shall, I think, either find her in America a very convenient Neighbour, or a very troublesome one. -John Jay to the Continental Congress, 3 August 1786
The pursuit of the Spanish borderlands of East Florida, West Florida, and Texas was a dominating, if not obsessive, concern for three presidents of the Virginia Dynasty: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. Their quest extended from the early days of Jefferson's first administration to the eve of Monroe's second, and on that account historians have usually regarded it as an inevitable consequence of the ascendancy of Virginia and southern interests in national politics after 1801. So sectional a perspective on how the United States came to acquire the Spanish territories it had by 1821 is not entirely misplaced, but it has imposed some distortions on our understanding of why this territory was sought at all. Among them is the belief that American interest in the borderlands developed largely after 1795, after the boundaries between American and Spanishclaims east of the Mississippi River were adjusted in the Pinckney Treaty of that year and after reports began to circulate that France would recover its former colony of Louisiana from Spain. In 1800, France regained Louisiana "with the same extent that it now has in the hands of Spain and that it had when France possessed it" before 1763. Three years later, France sold Louisiana to the United States, in a treaty containing the same definition of its extent that had been established in 1800. The Virginian presidents then devoted nearly two decades of effort to determine how much of the Spanish borderlands might have been included in the territory purchased in 1803. Of necessity, their diplomacy was conducted as a series of disputes over the limits of Louisiana, but behind the diplomacy were American concerns about, and interests in, the Spanish borderlands that had long predated the treaties of 1795, 1800, and 1803.
The deep background to the borderland disputes between Spain and the United States can be traced in the history of European rivalries in the New World that began after the first voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492 and culminated in the expulsion by Great Britain of the French and Spanish empires from the eastern half of the North American mainland in 1763. The more immediate origins of the story are to be found in the deliberations of the Second Continental Congress after May 1775, when the delegates of the thirteen mainland colonies began to consider what sort of political arrangements would replace British rule in the event of the colonies turning independent. In these matters, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams often took the lead. As early as July 1775, Franklin's first proposal for articles of confederation assumed that all British colonies in North America would seek "the Advantages of our Union," and Adams seconded him by demonstrating that questions about declaring independence, forming a confederation, and future diplomatic strategies were so integrally related that they "ought to go hand in hand." As Adams pointed out, Great Britain would neither redress colonial grievances nor recognize America as "a distinct state" until Americans themselves had "set up a Republican government, something like that of Holland," and foreign states would hardly acknowledge such a confederation before "we had acknowledged ourselves and taken our station among them as a sovereign power, and independent Nation."
That Adams sought to supplement the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation with a "Plan of Treaties" that assumed Congress could avoid political and military alliances in favor of commercial agreements is well known. Far less remarked upon, however, has been his concern, also shared by Franklin, that the basis of the emerging union should be enlarged by providing for the inclusion of not only the thirteen mainland colonies but also the remaining British possessions of Canada, East and West Florida, and Bermuda. For that reason, both the first draft and the final text of his Model Treaty stated that "its true intent and Meaning" was that the United States "shall have the sole, exclusive, undivided, and perpetual Possession of all the Countries, Cities, and Towns, on the said Continent [of North America], and of all the Islands near to it, which are now, or lately were, under the Jurisdiction of or subject to the King or Crown of Great Britain, whenever the same can be invaded and conquered by the said united States, or shall in any manner submit to or shall be united or confederated with the said united States." Or, to put it more succinctly, the original concept of the Union as it was discussed in 1775-76 was that it should be the successor state to Great Britain in North America and include all the American territories of its empire as defined in the 1763 Peace of Paris.
To achieve that goal Congress attempted to create a federal union, or more precisely a confederated republic, that right from the outset envisaged and required future expansion, both to consolidate the nation and to reinforce an emergent sense of American identity. Realizing the vision, however, was problematic. It was not clear in 1776 whether Canada, which had long been regarded as a dangerous threat to the American colonies, could become the fourteenth state or whether it would remain a base for British military operations. The matter was eventually finessed by the stipulation that "Canada acceding to this confederation, and adjoining in the measures of the United States, shall be admitted into, and be entitled to all the advantages of this Union." The future of East and West Florida, whose possession before 1763 had been disputed by France and Spain, raised other issues. These provinces posed a less immediate military threat than Canada, but they remained under the control of their British governors and never sent delegates to Philadelphia. And in light of reports received after July 1776 that France and Spain might soon be at war with Great Britain, it became questionable whether Congress should attempt to claim or to occupy these Gulf Coast colonies, should it need financial or military assistance from Paris and Madrid. Their fate, therefore, was left to depend on circumstances, yet they too could be admitted to the Union if nine states so decided. Regardless of its actual size, though, the new confederation believed that the power of its commerce would compel international diplomatic recognition and thereby permit Congress to commence dealings with the European state system, or the "sort of republic" of European nations that Emmerich de Vattel had described in his widely read and influential 1758 treatise, The Law of Nations; or, The Principles of the Law of Nature, Applied to the Conduct and Affairs of Nations and of Sovereigns.
These hopes barely survived the summer of 1776 and the need for greater and greater amounts of foreign aid to win the War for Independence, but Congress would always return to them whenever possible. Insofar as their goals involved Florida, the delegates tacitly reasserted their claims when they drafted instructions in September 1776 for their commissioners in Europe, directing them to seek recognition from France and Spain. In anticipation that Charles III of Spain might be "disinclined" to the American cause by an "apprehension of danger" to his South American dominions, Congress offered "the strongest Assurances" that these dominions would not suffer "molestation" from the United States. It made no comparable statement with respect to the king's interests and territories in North America. Realizing three months later this bid needed improving, Congress promised, in return for an alliance and a treaty of commerce, "to assist in reducing to the possession of Spain the town and harbour of Pensacola, provided the citizens and inhabitants of the United States shall have the free and uninterrupted navigation of the Mississippi and use of the harbour of Pensacola." This was a concession, but a limited one. It assumed that both West Florida and the navigation of the Mississippi belonged to the United States as a matter of right, derived from the peace of 1763, and that if Spain received Pensacola with American aid, it should offer an equivalent in return. And it did not necessarily preclude the possibility that Spain might return Pensacola to the United States after the establishment of American independence.
The signing of the Franco-American alliance in February 1778 began developments that would further undermine the notion that the Union should include Florida. In the articles of the treaty, the Bourbon monarchy of France did not openly challenge the territorial pretensions of the United States, but with due regard to the terms of its Family Compact with the Spanish Bourbons as well as the need to persuade them either to mediate the conflict with Great Britain or, failing that, to join to the alliance, Louis XVI reserved the right of Spain to prescribe the conditions on which it might act. Consequently, when France pressed Congress after February 1779 to define its goals in a peace settlement with Great Britain, its minister, Conrad-Alexandre Gérard, made it clear to the delegates that the goals should be acceptable to Spain. That meant Congress would have to abandon its claims not only to East and West Florida and to the right to navigate the Mississippi but also to the territory between the Appalachian Mountains and the east bank of the Mississippi. The states, individually and collectively, claimed this last region by virtue of both their colonial charters and the settlement of 1763, but Spain intended to reclaim it as Luisiana Oriental, part of a vast territory between the Appalachian and Rocky mountains where Madrid refused to acknowledge the pretensions of other nations.
Congress balked at such concessions. To the extent it was prepared to contemplate a settlement excluding Florida, it insisted on the retention of both the territory extending to the Mississippi and the right to navigate the river. It also demanded "adequate compensation" for Florida in the form of a subsidy and a guarantee of its other territorial claims. Even that was too much of a compromise for some to accept, and delegates from the Southern states wished to compel Spain to accept American claims to both Florida and the Mississippi. The matter was precariously resolved by August 1779 when Congress agreed to negotiate with Spain on the basis that the United States might obtain Canada, Nova Scotia, Bermuda, Florida, and the Mississippi at the end of the war, but that if Spain should demand Florida and the exclusive navigation of the Mississippi south of the 1763 boundary line on the 31st parallel, the United States, in return, would receive a free port, or ports, in West Florida, a subsidy for the duration of the war, and a guarantee of its territory. John Jay was then selected as minister to Madrid to see if Spain would accept these terms.
As Jay arrived in Madrid, James Madison, in March 1780, took up a seat in Congress as a delegate from Virginia. He was not yet thirty years of age, but he quickly mastered congressional business by becoming well informed on all issues before him. How much he knew about Spain and its American empire, though, is difficult to tell. As a young boy compiling his commonplace book, he had transcribed from Francis Bacon the observation that "Spaniards had been noted to be of very small dispatch" and that if the French were wiser than they seemed, "Spaniards seem wiser than they are." Later in his life Madison doubtless experienced many occasions on which he must have savored the pungency of such witticisms, but in 1780 it is unlikely he gave them very much thought. There is no evidence at this time, or at any other stage of his public career, that he ever really mastered Spanish, but it is quite probable he had read accounts in both English and French of the Spanish voyages of exploration and settlement in the New World. More certainly, he would have been familiar with the treatment of these subjects by the celebrated Edinburgh historian William Robertson, whose approach to them, informed by a combination of providential Calvinism and the progressive social theories of the Scottish Enlightenment, Madison had absorbed at the College of New Jersey at Princeton after 1769.
From Robertson, Madison would have acquired a historically grounded perspective on the role of Spain and its empire in the rise of the early modern European state system, and he may well have absorbed Robertson's view that the decline of Spain under its later Habsburg rulers reflected a lack of resources to manage its vast American territories, which in turn had led to its overreliance on American gold and silver as opposed to a more diversified commercial economy. And while Robertson subscribed, to some extent, to widely held notions about Spain and Spanish America suffering from problems of "priestcraft," and had also expressed doubts about how far the New World could be regarded as an environment that nurtured human progress, he was by no means a severely unrelenting critic of all things Spanish. He carefully cultivated relationships with prominent Spanish officials for research purposes, and he often tempered his reservations about Spanish America with praise for the reforms and "wise regulations" of the Spanish Bourbons, particularly those of Charles III, which had done much to restore the international standing of Spain after the defeats it had sustained during the Seven Years' War. Madison, too, regarded Charles III as an enlightened ruler with a significant ability to influence both American and European affairs, and neither he nor anyone else could have predicted the extent of the collapse and the misfortunes Spain would experience under his successors, Charles IV and Ferdinand VII.
By 1780 Madison had also gained some experience with the practical issues likely to arise from Spain's participation in the War for Independence. In January 1778 he had joined the Virginia Council of State as an advisor to Governor Patrick Henry, and on his first day in office he found himself reading correspondence between Henry and the governor of Spanish Louisiana about how the latter might assist America. Henry wanted supplies-wool, linen, and money-which were lacking in Virginia and which he hoped might come from New Orleans through trade on the Mississippi. Henry took this plea one step further by suggesting that Spain consider "whether by uniting West Florida to the Confederation of the States of America, the English settlements [in the West Indies] will not be reduced to an extremity, and whether the progress of their rivalry with Spain would not cease." Governor Bernardo de Gálvez was not opposed to the possibility that West Florida might at least be detached from Great Britain if not handed over to the United States, but neither Virginia nor Congress authorized any military activities on the Mississippi in 1778 that would have allowed him to act on it. Later that year, though, Congress did ask Virginia to provide galleys for an attack on East Florida. Two vessels were located, but Henry reported that one of them could not "without great danger of Sinking be sent to Sea."
After Spain declared war on Great Britain in June 1779, Madison's reactions to suggestions that the United States assist Spain in seizing Florida were mixed. He was aware Congress had its own claims in the region, but of more importance by 1780 was the view that the Spanish occupation of Pensacola and St. Augustine would do little immediately to advance the independence of the American states. "It would be much more for the credit" of Spain, Madison noted, "as well as for the common good, if instead of wasting their time & resources in these separate and unimportant enterprises, they would join heartily with the French in attacking the enemy where success could produce the desired effect," namely by defeating the Royal Navy squadron in the Caribbean under the command of Admiral George B. Rodney before it could furnish reinforcements to British garrisons in New York and elsewhere. But when it came to American and Virginian interests in West Florida and on the Mississippi, Madison was soon to learn he could not afford to be so dismissive of such seemingly "separate and unimportant" matters.
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