Bernardo De Gálvez

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The dynamic young captain general stunned family and friends and filled the kingdom of New Spain with mourning when he died unexpectedly in 1786. He had succeeded his father as viceroy of Mexico in 1785 and won the same kind of popularity there he had enjoyed in Louisiana. He personally supervised the distribution of grain to the poor, pardoned prisoners condemned to death, enrolled his son as an honorary private in a local regiment, and otherwise abandoned the aloof style of previous viceroys. There was a rumor, never substantiated, that Gálvez had been poisoned by conservatives in the imperial bureaucracy because they feared that he was planning to lead a revolution against Spain and set himself up as an irresistibly popular president or king. Medical evidence suggests he was more likely a victim of malaria, which he first contracted in Louisiana.

On the continent of North America, where he won his fame, Bernardo de Gálvez left the same legacy of affection and admiration. But his superiors in Madrid never capitalized on it. They remained rigidly hostile to the United States’ republican ideology. Before and during the peace conference, Spain’s diplomats tried to block American claims to the Mississippi valley and refused to concede the right to navigate the Father of Waters below the northern boundary of West Florida. Having added East Florida to Gálvez’s conquests at the bargaining table, they wanted to keep the Gulf of Mexico a Spanish lake. America’s negotiators stressed George Rogers Clark’s conquests to win the upper Mississippi valley. In 1795 Spain, far more threatened by a new revolution in France, yielded the right of navigation on the lower Mississippi to a now thoroughly hostile United States. In 1802 a Spain humbled by Napoleon surrendered Louisiana and in 1819 sold the Floridas to an America now convinced of its right to rule the continent.

This dolorous aftermath should not—and cannot—overshadow the achievement of Don Bernardo de Gálvez. His place in American history rests not only on his military conquests but on the man himself—what today’s pundits would call his style. There was something quintessentially American about him. The emergence of such a man from Spain’s rigid empire stirs thoughts about such historic imponderables as chance, destiny, and luck. Unquestionably Bernardo de Gálvez was the right man in the right place at the right time—for the United States of America.