The Jay Papers I: Mission To Spain

PrintPrintEmailEmail

… [Floridablanca said] that his reason for desiring to see [Jay] at present, proceeded from something mentioned to him by the French Ambassador, of which he supposed he was Informed. He recapitulated what he had before mentioned of the Kings good Faith, and favorable disposition towards America.… After these reflections and assurances, He told Mr. Jay that the Person lately from England by the way of Portugal [Father Hussey] was the Chaplain of their Former Embassy at London, that he had been there for some time on his private Affairs, and had at the same Time Instructions concerning an exchange of Prisoners, which their sufferings rendered expedient, that the Death of an Uncle, a Chaplain of the Court had obliged him to return. That an English Gentleman and his Family [Cumberland] had come to Lisbon with him under the pretext or really on Account of the Ill Health of a Daughter, to whom the Duke of Dorset was much attached; That the opposition made by his friends to the marriage had affected her Health, and that this Family was desirous of passing through Spain to Italy. He added that this Gentleman was one of Lord George Germaine’s [the British Colonial Secretary] Secretaries, and would perhaps have some proposals to make for an exchange of Prisoners, and possibly others of a different Nature, which he assured Mr. Jay should be communicated to him … candidly.… He desired Mr. Jay, therefore to make himself easy on this Subject giving new assurances of the King’s strict regard to Justice and good Faith and of his disposition to assist America.

Mr. Jay begged him to be persuaded of the perfect confidence of America, and his own, and of their reliance on the good Faith, Justice, and Honor of his Catholic Majesty; that he had no other apprehension from the circumstance of English mens resorting to this Court, than that the enemy would on this, as on former occasions avail themselves of it, by endeavoring to alarm and deceive our People.…

Floridablanca was disingenuous in his remarks to Jay about Hussey and Cumberland. The facts seem to show that the intriguing Irish priest was a double agent working for both Spain and England. He and the time-serving English playwright had been authorized by the British Foreign Office to enter into secret talks with Spain to win that nation away from her alliance with France and thus scotch any chance of Spain’s recognition of the rebellious Thirteen Colonies. The Cumberland-Hussey negotiations finally bogged down over the issue of Gibraltar, which England had seized in 1704. Spain demanded its return; England refused to allow Cumberland to offer it. Jay, however, was unable to capitalize on that eventuality.

In the ensuing days, Floridablanca seemed evasive. Jay, now reconciled to protracted negotiations, reported to John Adams: “This Court seems to have great respect for the old adage festina lente, at least as applied to our independence.” Much as he would like to see “perfect amity and cordial affection” between America and her Spanish neighbors, he could not take such an eventuality for granted. “I shall in all my letters advise Congress to rely principally on themselves; to fight out their own cause at any hazard, with spirit, and not to rely too much on the expectation of events which may never happen.”

A few days later Floridablanca alluded once more to the proposal, made in the opening conference, that America supply warships in return for Spanish funds. Jay promptly rejoined that timber, masts, and naval stores as well as labor cost money, the last being one commodity in short supply with Congress. Should the United States put the money advanced by Spain into building frigates for her, the net gain to America would be nil. Should, in the meantime, Congress’s bills be protested, would it not deal a blow to the credit of the United States? Would it not be calculated to allow the enemy to draw conclusions as to “the inability of Spain to advance the sum in question?” In a follow-up note to Floridablanca, Jay was completely frank. “Believe me, sir” he wrote, “the United States will not be able to pay their debts during the war, and therefore any plan whatever calculated on a contrary position must be fruitless.” He was prepared to pledge the faith of the United States for repayment with “a reasonable interest,” after the war, of such sums as might be loaned by Spain. “What more can I offer? What more can they do?” he pleaded. Once more Floridablanca made it clear that there was one thing the United States could do: renounce its claims to the navigation of the Mississippi.

In a niggardly gesture Floridablanca informed Jay that the King was prepared to pay a bill of $333 which Jay had presented, but, as Jay observed to Congress, the Minister’s note “looked dry, and indicated a degree of irritation.” Jay felt that this was no time to press for the treaty, and he found himself reduced to the role of a humble supplicant for funds to pay bills Congress had recklessly drawn against him for supplies from abroad. A conference with Floridablanca on July 5 followed hard on the heels of the news reaching Madrid that Charleston had fallen to the British. “The effect of it,” Jay remarked in a letter to the president of Congress, “was as visible the next day as that of a hard night’s frost on young leaves.”

Madrid, July the 5th, 1780