The Spanish Conspiracy involved a plot to open the Mississippi River by a Kentuckian angry at the economic impact caused by Spain's closing of the waterway to American trade. The conspiracy began with James Wilkinson (1757–1825). A brevet brigadier general during the Revolutionary War until he participated in a plot to replace George Washington, Wilkinson moved with his family to Kentucky in 1784. During the same year, Spain closed the Mississippi River to American commerce. The United States made no effort to restore the right of navigation, much to the anger of settlers in Kentucky and Tennessee. The lack of a good road system left settlers on the frontier dependent upon waterways. Without access to the Mississippi, settlers had difficulty getting goods to market and acquiring necessary supplies. Wilkinson suffered a severe financial setback and soon amassed huge debts.
In July 1787 a desperate Wilkinson sent a cargo of tobacco and other Kentucky products down the Mississippi River to the Spanish port of New Orleans. Typically, the Spanish would confiscate American goods. When Esteban Rodríguez Miró, the Spanish governor of Louisiana, attempted to do just that, Wilkinson made a number of questionable claims. He declared that Kentucky was near separation from the United States and that he could determine what course his fellow settlers pursued. He insisted that he could prevent an invasion of westerners set on opening the Mississippi by force and bring Kentucky into the Spanish orbit if only Spain would open the river. Failure by the Spanish to cooperate would force Kentucky to turn to Britain for protection. With its weak defenses, Louisiana would undoubtedly fall to the British.
Wilkinson persuaded Miró to change the policy of confiscation to give him a monopoly of American trade on the Mississippi. He also obtained the promise of a royal pension and a suitable position when Kentucky became part of Spain. For his fellow Kentuckians, Wilkinson requested that they be granted religious liberty and their own English-speaking government. When the Spanish agreed, Wilkinson signed a declaration of allegiance to Spain and began to supply Miró with information. However, considerable doubt exists as to whether Wilkinson ever planned to do more than enrich himself.
As the only outlet in New Orleans for Kentucky produce, Wilkinson reaped enormous profits and spent vast amounts on a lavish lifestyle. Questions about his activities were raised in Kentucky, but he commanded enough respect to participate in its politics. During debates over the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1787, Wilkinson proposed independence for Kentucky under the protection of Spain. But other Kentuckians failed to support separation and Wilkinson quickly stopped advocating it, except to the Spanish. For the next ten years, Wilkinson continued to write to the Spanish in Louisiana, hinting that Kentucky might abandon the United States for Spain. The Spanish assigned Wilkinson the title of Secret Agent No. 13 and promised him a pension for his efforts. In 1795 Pinckney's Treaty opened the Mississippi to free navigation and the need for Kentucky independence evaporated. Wilkinson was acquitted of treason in 1811.
Green, Thomas Marshall. The Spanish Conspiracy. Cincinnati, Ohio: R. Clarke, 1891. Reprint, Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1967.
Watlington, Patricia. The Partisan Spirit: Kentucky Politics, 1779–1792. New York: Atheneum, 1972.
Caryn E. Neumann