Spanish Empire

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When the United States entered the community of independent nations in 1783, its neighbors to both the south and west were territories of the Spanish Empire. Spain claimed sovereignty over the North American continent west of the Mississippi River and the Florida territory. These holdings, though vast, were not as significant—or wealth producing—for Spain as were its colonies in Central and South America, particularly the viceroyalties of New Spain (Mexico) and Peru. By 1783, though, Spain's presence in the New World had become tenuous. A significant reason was the influence and ambitions of its colonies' newly independent neighbor. Through both its ideology and its expansionist agenda, the United States would play a significant role in the ultimate fate of Spain's American domain. As had been the case with Great Britain and its North American colonies, Spain would eventually see its American possessions drift into independence, but the process by which it occurred would be markedly different.

treaty of paris, 1763

Compared to the other European colonial powers in the Americas—especially Britain and France—Spain had assumed second-tier status by 1754, when the French and Indian War, the North American phase of the Seven Years' War, broke out. Allied with France in a losing cause, Spain lost Florida to the victorious British in the Treaty of Paris (1763) at war's end. The treaty also granted Spain the Louisiana Territory (the western portion of the Mississippi River valley) to compensate for the loss of Florida (seen as more valuable), but the British motivation here was not so much to placate Spain as to expel the French from America entirely. When the thirteen British North American colonies rebelled and declared independence in 1776, the Spanish government saw an opportunity possibly to undo some of the damage done in 1763 to its colonial holdings. Certainly France saw things this way, and the French government was able to convince the more hesitant Spanish to enter the American Revolution (1775–1783) on the side of the pro-independence Patriots. While France provided the lion's share of assistance to the war effort in America, Spain engaged Britain in Europe. First on the Spanish agenda was reclaiming Gibraltar; that promontory, situated strategically at the mouth of the Mediterranean, had gone to the British along with Florida in 1763. After the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781, peace negotiations began at Paris. The Spanish, however, had yet to recover Gibraltar, and only through French pressure did Spain reluctantly abandon its Mediterranean project and agree to the Treaty of Paris of 1783. The treaty did, however, return Florida to the Spanish.

policy toward the united states

The Americans' successful anticolonial revolution concerned the Spanish Crown. By the 1770s, the Bourbon monarchs of Spain were well into the process of reforming and restructuring the management of their colonial empire. Beginning in the reign of the first Bourbon king, Philip V (r. 1724–1746), and continuing with his successors Ferdinand VI (r. 1746–1759) and Charles III (r. 1759–1788), the Bourbon Reforms significantly altered the administration of Spain's colonies, as well as their relationship to the metropolis. Influenced primarily by the principles of mercantilism, the Spanish Crown sought to tighten the lines of authority over what had become a dangerously autonomous colonial elite and to extract what it saw as the proper amount of revenue from its American possessions. The reforms unsettled the many Spanish colonists who were concerned about the increased presence of direct royal authority where previously a wide latitude had existed. Many in the colonial elite were influenced to a degree by elements of the Enlightenment-based thought that so pervaded this revolutionary era. The writings of Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution—these and similar writings had some impact upon the changing political culture of the Spanish colonies. Yet many of the revolutionary currents in the larger Atlantic world alarmed these colonial elites. In particular, the French Revolution's increasingly radical nature alienated most of this traditionally conservative group. The violent revolution in France's colony of St. Domingue, led largely by the island's black population, alarmed the elites even more. Certainly, then, the potential for radical upheaval was far less in Spain's colonies than in other areas of the Americas. Nevertheless, the monarchy was concerned about these stirrings of colonial discontent—as well as the perceived threat from the first independent republic in the hemisphere, the United States.

Spanish policy toward the United States reflected this wariness. As soon as Spain recognized the independence of the United States, it proclaimed the Mississippi River, and the port of New Orleans at its mouth, closed to Americans. This peremptory action was at best of questionable legitimacy in terms of international law, as Spain claimed ownership of the whole Mississippi by virtue of possessing land only on its western half. Protests from the U.S. government centered around this issue. In 1784 negotiations between John Jay, foreign secretary under the Articles of Confederation, and Diego de Gardoqui, the Spanish foreign minister, proved fruitless; it would take another decade until the issue would be resolved.

Western settlers suffered most from the closing of the Mississippi River and New Orleans to Americans. Deprived of the easiest and least costly outlet for the transportation of their produce (downriver to the Mississippi and New Orleans, as opposed to overland across the Appalachian Mountains), westerners began to doubt whether the federal government truly valued their needs and concerns as the prohibition dragged into the 1790s. Indeed, some westerners, particularly those in western Tennessee and northern Alabama, contemplated shifting their allegiance to the Spanish if that would make their lives and commerce easier. For much of the 1790s General James Wilkinson, commander of the southwestern department of the U.S. Army, was also in the pay of the Spanish, who sought to exploit any unrest that they could on the edge of American settlement. Wilkinson personified what one historian has called "the problem of neighborhood" faced by the United States in its frontier regions; shifting allegiances, prompted by distinctly western concerns, meant that loyalty and union could be problematic notions west of the Appalachians. Coupled with its failure to address the Native American "menace" on the frontier, the U.S. government's inability to budge the Spanish on the Mississippi question was a primary element in the East-West sectional tensions that so plagued the Republic in its early years.

spain and france

The vicissitudes of the French Revolution dramatically altered the course of colonial and diplomatic events for the nations of both the American and European continents by the mid-1790s. When the French revolutionary regime began to wage war on the other European powers in 1793, Spain allied itself with the antirevolutionary monarchies, led by Great Britain. By this point, however, Spain's leadership had declined in both vigor and ability. Charles III had proven the most effective of Spain's Bourbon monarchs, but his successor Charles IV (1788–1808) was closer to the other end of the spectrum. Additionally, he found himself in the unenviable position, along with his controversial and unpopular foreign minister, Manuel de Godoy, of suborning Spain under Napoleon Bonaparte and his French Empire. Fearing that its alliance with Britain might bring repercussions should France gain the upper hand in the conflict, Spain reversed diplomatic course and began to take measures to placate France, its expansionist neighbor. This was the immediate context for the conclusion of a treaty with the United States in 1795. Believing that the previous year's treaty between the United States and Great Britain (Jay's Treaty) had drawn those two nations into an alliance, Spain sought to smooth any rough edges that remained in its relationship with America. Pinckney's Treaty, also called the Treaty of San Lorenzo, allowed for American access to the Mississippi and the right of deposit for American goods at New Orleans. Thus, from Spain's diplomatic and military distress came a coup for the United States, as one of the most significant festering issues faced by the Republic was finally resolved.

But Spain's best efforts to make things right with an ever-more-menacing France proved unsuccessful. In 1801 Napoleon forced the Spanish Crown into the Treaty of San Ildefonso, which retroceded the Louisiana territory to the French. This action had ominous ramifications for the United States. The French began to limit American access to the Mississippi and New Orleans in violation of the terms of Pinckney's Treaty. Realizing that the United States would have to move well into the British orbit to counter the French hold on New Orleans, President Thomas Jefferson (who was certainly no Anglophile) sent Robert R. Livingston to Paris to purchase Florida and New Orleans. Napoleon, reconsidering his American ambitions in the wake of the revolution in St. Domingue and needing money to finance renewed warfare in Europe, offered the entire territory to the United States for $15 million. Thus, while it can be said that the Louisiana Purchase was made possible by the peculiarities of France's situation, ultimately the chain of events that led to it started from the circumstances of France's weaker neighbor, Spain.

Spain was not yet through with Napoleon Bonaparte, either. In 1804 Napoleon had forced Charles IV into a treaty under which Spain was responsible for yearly subsidies to France. The burden of these payments quickly proved to be untenable, and Spain's economy—already experiencing serious difficulties—further suffered. The next year, a combined Spanish and French fleet engaged and lost to the British, under Admiral Horatio Nelson, at Trafalgar. This defeat severed Spain's maritime link to its American colonies. When Charles IV abdicated in 1808, Napoleon mediated between claimants to the Spanish throne, including Ferdinand VII, whom most Spaniards regarded as the legitimate successor. Napoleon, however, put his brother Joseph at the head of the Spanish Empire, which set off the chain of events that led to that empire's disintegration over the next two decades. Loyalists of Ferdinand VII established juntas throughout Spain, and the same step was undertaken in the colonies. But in the Americas, these movements often only wore the "mask of Ferdinand"—they professed loyalty to a "legitimate" Spanish monarch but in fact worked for colonial autonomy and even independence. By 1810 Spain's colonies were moving into rebellion, with insurgencies having erupted in Mexico, Venezuela, and Argentina. The Wars of Independence in Spain's American dominions would last for over a decade, but at their end, what was once a far-reaching colonial dominion had become a collection of independent republics. Even after the restoration of Ferdinand VII to the Spanish throne in 1814 and the final defeat and exile of Napoleon the following year, Spain's empire continued to unravel.

the united states and florida

Much of this imperial collapse originated within internal dynamics of the empire itself, but in the case of Florida, Spain's weakness and declining power were underscored by the actions of the United States. That nation had long been interested in the territory; southern slaveholders resented the presence of Florida as a haven beyond American jurisdiction for fugitive slaves, and many in the region also feared various Indian groups like the Creeks and Seminoles, whom they believed were urged by Spanish authorities to attack American settlements. In 1806 Jefferson attempted to get funds appropriated for secret negotiations with Spain in an attempt to purchase Florida. Congress approved the funds, but the negotiations in Paris (1806–1807) failed.

The issue was brought forth again in 1818–1819 by General Andrew Jackson of Tennessee. Charged by President James Monroe and Secretary of War John C. Calhoun with suppressing the raids on American settlements in the Southeast carried out by the Seminole nation, Jackson—who had advanced his military career fighting Indian allies of the British in the War of 1812—carried his mission into Spanish Florida itself, where the Seminoles' raids had originated. Quickly seizing the fortress at Pensacola, Jackson forced the Spanish governor to lower the Spanish colors, which in effect meant acknowledging American sovereignty in the area, even if temporarily. Jackson also arrested and subsequently executed two British citizens whom he accused of providing the Seminoles with both the arms and the encouragement to attack American settlements. While Jackson accomplished his goal of halting Seminole incursions into American territory, he also provoked an international incident; Britain was outraged at the executions of its citizens, and Spain protested vigorously at the general's actions, which could be interpreted as waging war on Spain. For his part, Jackson believed that he had acted with Monroe's implicit approval; he himself had long been an advocate of taking Florida as a means of ending Indian "hostilities" on the southern frontier.

While most of Monroe's cabinet demanded disavowal of Jackson's actions and a formal censure of the general, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams realized that in this imbroglio lay an opportunity for the acquisition of Florida. Declaring to the Spanish ambassador Luis de Onís that Spain had demonstrated a singular inability to control its colonial possessions, Adams insinuated that the United States reserved the right to engage in similar incursions in the future, should Spanish authorities be unable to control the native populations of Florida. Forced to concede the point, Onís and the Spanish agreed to an 1819 treaty that ceded Florida to the United States in return for an assumption of $5 million in American claims against the Spanish government. The treaty also established a distinct line between the Louisiana Territory and Spanish territories in the west, which would hold great portent for U.S.-Mexican relations in subsequent years.

u.s. hemispheric dominance

The Adams-Onís Treaty, also known as the Transcontinental Treaty, dramatically illustrated the contrasting arcs of the United States, the ascendant power in the Western Hemisphere, and Spain, the hemisphere's first preeminent power but now a shell of its former potency. By 1819 much of Spain's colonial dominion had already escaped its grasp in all but the formal sense. In 1821 Mexico won its independence. By 1825 South America (except for Portuguese Brazil) was a collection of independent states as well. Save for a few Caribbean colonies, including Cuba, Spain's New World Empire was no more. The United States moved quickly to foster its role as the "mother republic" in the hemisphere. Part of the reason for this was a sense of obligation, variously articulated, to support those nations that sought to emulate the republican forms successfully launched by the United States. There was a very real sense for many Americans that the Western Hemisphere represented the new republican era, as opposed to the declining and superseded monarchical age of the other side of the Atlantic.

Additionally, there was an element of marked self-interest; the roots of what would become the ideology of Manifest Destiny were already evident in such actions as the acquisition of Florida. American (mostly southern and slaveholding) migration into the Mexican province of Texas, beginning in the early 1820s, was another such manifestation of American expansionism. Though these migrants entered Texas by the invitation and sanction of a Mexican government eager to populate its northern frontier, within fifteen years the province would be lost to Mexico; another five years after that, Texas was part of the United States and Mexico had lost the rest of its northern territories in a humiliating and one-sided war with the growing Republic to the north.

Perhaps the most famous—at least in retrospect—articulation of what Americans perceived their role in the Western Hemisphere to be was the Monroe Doctrine. Articulated in President Monroe's December 1823 annual message to Congress, the policy statement—actually formulated by Secretary of State Adams—declared that the Americas were no longer to be seen as areas of colonization for European powers. Instead, the Western Hemisphere was a hemisphere of republics, with the United States playing the role of defender and guarantor of this state of affairs—the first among equals, as it were. While the European response to this proclamation was mostly bemused condescension, the Monroe Doctrine was an important assessment of America's opinion as to where it stood in the hemispheric and in the international community, and it would continue to be the backbone of U.S. foreign policy into the modern era.

It is this persistence of the ideology inherent in the Monroe Doctrine that is the most significant factor in assessing the relationship between the United States and the areas that were formerly the colonial empire of Spain. Many Americans (most notably Henry Clay) were warm advocates of the "sister republics" of Latin America, seeing these nations as attempting to travel the same admirable republican road traveled by the American Revolutionary generation. But others, while professing similar ideals, saw Latin American nations as something else—perhaps inferior nations, destined to be conquered and absorbed; perhaps seedbeds of dangerous radicalism; perhaps, later, as areas in which to expand the institution of chattel slavery. Ultimately, the United States forged a relationship with the Latin American republics that in many ways was remarkably similar to that between the United States and Spain in an earlier era: sometimes as an ally, sometimes as an adversary, but consistently acting in self-interest. Latin Americans would thus exist in the same ambivalent, and often unequal, hemispheric partnership as had their former colonial masters.

See alsoAdams, John Quincy; Florida; Jackson, Andrew; Latin American Revolutions, American Response to; Louisiana Purchase; Mexico; Monroe Doctrine; Presidency, The: John Quincy Adams; Spain; Spanish Borderlands; Spanish Conspiracy; Texas; Transcontinental Treaty .


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Kevin M. Gannon

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Spanish Empire

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