Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite: The American Revolution & the European Response

By Charles W. Toth | Go to book overview

The sea voyage of America's special envoy to Spain was in itself, perhaps, a harbinger of what was ultimately to be one of the most frustrating chapters in the entire history of revolutionary diplomacy. Trying to make a northern crossing, John Jay's ship was so crippled by a November storm that it was forced to limp into the French West Indian island of Martinique. Traveling the medieval road from Cadiz to Madrid an excited Jay savored the special role which the United States was now playing in the Atlantic world. Perhaps with the words of Franklin in mind that "tis a common observation here that our cause is the cause of all mankind," Jay felt that his arrival in Spain would elicit the same effect. In the first flush of his new assignment Jay would write that "America exhibits a new spectacle to the political world, and is rising in a manner so singular as to render her steps interesting to all mankind, and especially to the people of [ Spain]."

Actually for Spanish officialdom America was a spectacle indeed, but not one to be emulated or supported, although aid was finally proffered. Besides fearing the danger to her colonial position in America of a strong and independent nation pressing toward the Mississippi, the revolutionary fervor emanating from the War of Independence represented a threat to the political stability of the Spanish empire in the western Atlantic. As Vergennes, the able foreign minister of France would warn Franklin: "Never lose sight of the fact that Spain is devoted to her own interests before all else . . . she will interest herself very little in the Americans, whose independence she would see with grief."

Not surprisingly (except for Jay) Spain never recognized the American envoy formally in the more than two years he was to spend in Madrid, and only informally discussed the possibility of negotiations toward a treaty. Soon Jay would complain that "pains were taken to prevent any conduct towards me that might savour of an admission or knowledge of American independence." And before Havana was opened to American shipping, Jay was badgered to give at least vague assurances that it would be generations before the American people would have any specific interest in the region of the Mississippi.

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