The Jay Papers I: Mission To Spain

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… I am here in a disagreable Situation. Congress have made me no Remittances—the small Credit I had on Doctr. [Benjamin] Franklin [then in Paris] is expended. The Idea of being maintained by the Court of Spain is humiliating, and therefore not for the public Good. The Salary allowed me is greatly inadequate—no part of Europe is so expensive—nor did I ever live so oeconomically. The Court is never stationary—moving from Madrid to the Pardo, then to Aranjues—thence to St. El Defonso—thence to the Escurial—in perpetual Rotation. To keep a House at each place is not within the Limits of my Finances—to take ready furnished Lodgings and keep my own Table at each, is beyond Belief expensive. I live at Aranjues, in a Posada [inn], in one single Room, with but one Servant, and without a Carriage. When I left Philadelphia every thing was cheaper there than here. Spain does not cloath its Inhabitants—their Butter Cheese fine Linnen, fine Silks, and fine Cloths, come from France Holland etc. They have imposed an exorbitant Duty on all foreign Commodities, and a heavy Tax is laid on Eatables sold in the Market. The Sum allowed me will let me live, but not as I ought to do—a paltry post Chaise drawn by three Mules costs me every Time I go to or from here to Aranjues (7 Leagues) ten Dollars—all things in that Proportion. To Day I am to try a pair of Mules for which I am asked 480 Dollars—they tell me they are very cheap. Yesterday I refused a pair, the Price of which was 640 Dollars. I cannot get a plain decent Carriage and Harness under 870 Dollars. Judge of my Situation—so circumstanced I cannot employ Couriers to carry my Dispatches to the Sea Side or to France. My Letters by the Post are all opened. Fortunately on this occasion Mr. [Richard] Harrison [American agent at Cadiz, whom Jay often used as an unofficial courier] now going to Cadiz will take my Letters. With whatever Allowance Congress may make, I shall be content. I know how and am determined to live agréable to my Circumstances. If Inconveniences result from their being too narrow, they will be public ones. They therefore merit the Consideration of Congress…

I am your Friend John Jay∗

∗This letter is published by permission of the New-York Historical Society.

Jay did not come face to face with Floridablanca until May 11, 1780, almost four months after arriving at Cadiz, but a considerable correspondence preceded the confrontation. From the Par do, Floridablanca had informed Jay at the end of February that until the bases for an alliance with Spain were disclosed, his Majesty felt that it would not be “proper” for Jay “to assume a formal character, which must depend on a public acknowledgment and future treaty.” “Divested of the gloss which its politeness spreads over it,” Jay informed the president of Congress, Floridablanca’s pronouncement meant that the United States would be recognized only when and if it agreed to certain terms. Gérard had warned Jay that Congress’s insistence on America’s sharing the navigation of the Mississippi might well prove a stumbling block, but Jay was not willing to drop this demand. “As affairs are now circumstanced,” he wrote Congress, “it would, in my opinion, be better for America to have no treaty with Spain than to purchase one on such servile terms. There was a time when it might have been proper to have given that country something for their making common cause with us, but that day is now past. Spain is at war with Britain.”

Floridablanca, preliminary to a meeting, asked Jay for a lengthy report on “the civil and military state of the American provinces”—he could not bring himself to say “states”—and their resources. Jay labored over his reply for several weeks until he had amassed and organized an impressive body of data.

Then, late in April, Jay learned that some months before, Congress, jumping the gun in anticipation of a loan from Spain, had drawn bills of exchange upon Jay for 100,000 pounds sterling payable at sight in six months; only a month now remained before the bills would fall due, and Jay was reduced to the humilia- tion of informing Floridablanca of their existence and asking for immediate payment. In his letter Jay conceded that Congress’s action might appear “indelicate,” but offered as an excuse the impossibility of notifying the King earlier because of his own protracted voyage to Spain.

Accordingly, it was a wary foreign minister who confronted John Jay in person at Aranjuez, where the court was staying, on May 11, 1780. The Conde de Floridablanca was, like his American visitor, a man of middle-class background bred to the law. Fifteen years Jay’s senior, he was as vain as the New Yorker and had already won a reputation both for ruthlessness to political rivals and for a temper that could not brook contradiction.

Jay spoke no Spanish, Floridablanca no English. In this and future conferences between the two, Carmichael acted as translator; immediately afterward he would sit down and commit what had been said to paper. In this way Jay kept a running account of his meetings with the Foreign Minister, which he sent to Congress along with comments of his own. Those that have hitherto appeared in print have been inaccurately reproduced, and significant cipher portions, herein decoded, have in the past been omitted.

As the two diplomats spoke, Jay soon realized that the Spaniards expected a quid for the quo he sought.

Aranjuez 11th May 1780