The Jay Papers I: Mission To Spain

PrintPrintEmailEmail

… [Floridablanca] observed that he intended to speak on two Points. The first related to the Letter Mr. Jay had written to him, on the Subject of Bills of Exchange drawn on him by Congress. … He said that the last Year he should have found no Difficulty on that Head, but that at present, although Spain had Money, she was in the Situation of Tantalus, who with Water in View could not make use of it—alluding to the Revenue arising from their Possessions in America, which they were not able to draw from thence [because of the British blockade]. That their Expenses in the year 1779 had been so great, particularly for the Marine, as to oblige them to make large Loans, which they were negotiating at present. He entered into a Summary of those Expenses, and particularized the enormous Expense of supporting thirty five Ships of the Line and Frigates in French Ports.

Floridablanca was referring to an ill-fated Franco-Spanish naval armada assembled in the summer of 1779 to spearhead an invasion of England. Plagued by a smallpox epidemic and by mismanagement for which both allies shared the blame, the joint fleet maneuvered ineffectively in the Channel waters until good sailing weather was gone, and the invasion fizzled out.

This joined to the other Expenses… rendered it difficult for the King to do for America what he could have done easily in the last Year. … yet that it was his Majesty’s Intentions to give America all the Assistance in his Power. …

In order to facilitate this, he said it was necessary to make some overtures for a Contract … and then he pointed out the object most essential to the Interests of Spain at the present Conjuncture. He said that for their Marine they wanted light Frigates, Cutters, or swift sailing Vessels of that Size. … He also mentioned Timber for Vessels, but said that was an Article, which was not so immediately necessary, though it might be an Object of Consequence in future.…

With respect to the Bills of Exchange which might be presented, he said that at the End of the present Year or in the Beginning of the next, he would have it in his Power to advance 25,000, 30,000 or 40,000 Pounds Sterling, and in the mean Time, should these Bills be presented for Payment, he would take such measures as would satisfy the owners of them Vizt., By engaging in the Name of his Majesty to pay them, observing that the Kings good Faith and Credit, was so well known, that he did not imagine this would be a difficult matter.…

The Count then proceeded to the second Point Vizt., with Respect to the Treaty in Contemplation between Spain and America.… He … [observed] That there was but one obstacle, from which he apprehended any great Difficulty in forming a Treaty with America, and plainly intimated that this arose from the Pretensions of America to the Navigation of the Mississippi. He repeated the Information which the Court had received from Monsieur Miralles [Juan de Miralles, Spanish agent to the Continental Congress at Philadelphia], that Congress had at one Time relinquished that Object; That he also knew from the same Source that afterwards they had made it an essential Point of the Treaty. He expressed his uneasiness on this Subject, and entered largely into the Views of Spain with respect to the Boundaries (He … expressed their Resolution if possible of excluding the English entirely from the Gulf of Mexico.) they wished to fix by a Treaty which he hoped would be perpetual between the two Countries. He spoke amply of the King’s anxiety, Resolution and Firmness on this Point, and insinuated a wish that some method might be fallen upon to remove this Obstacle.…

Mr. Jay here took an Opportunity to mention that many of the States were bounded by that River, and were highly interested in its Navigation, but observed that they were equally inclined to enter into any amicable Regulations, which might prevent any Inconveniences with Respect to Contraband or other Objects which might excite the Uneasiness of Spain.

The Count still however appeared to be fully of Opinion that this was an Object that the King had so much at Heart, that he would never relinquish it; adding however that he hoped some middle Way might be hit on which would pave the way to get over this Difficulty and desired Mr. Jay to turn his thoughts and attention to the Subject.…

From that initial conference at Aranjuez on May 11, it was apparent to Jay that he was in for a series of fencing matches with a master of thrust, parry, and deception. It was also clear to him that Spain had financial troubles of her own, and furthermore that Congress’s insistence on obtaining for America the free navigation of the Mississippi would prove the major stumbling block to a treaty.

Meanwhile, Jay was becoming suspicious of the presence at the Spanish court of Father Thomas Hussey, an Irish priest, and of an English playwright named Richard Cumberland. Cumberland was particularly conspicuous; with his wife and two flirtatious daughters he had taken a large house in Madrid and was openly received at court and presented with gifts by the King. For a nation at war with England to be so ostentatiously cordial to an Englishman, Jay reflected, was very odd indeed; the contrast with his own poor-relation status was painful. Evidently Jay’s suspicions reached Floridablanca, possibly through the French ambassador, the Comte de Montmorin. The result was that the Foreign Minister asked Jay and Carmichael to confer with him in his office on the evening of June 2.

Aranjues, 2d June 1780