America’s Long Journey: Pinckney’s Treaty

Pinckney’s Treaty

Sometimes a bad treaty can pave the way for a good treaty. That seems to be what happened when Pinckney’s Treaty with Spain got an assist from news of Jay’s Treaty with England.

Before the French revolution changed everything, Spanish policy was to restrict American trade and settlement as best it could. But by 1794, Spanish forces had experienced defeats both in the Caribbean and in Europe. The Spanish prime minister, Manuel de Godoy, wanted to restore peace with France, which meant extricating Spain from its alliance with Great Britain, but this risked antagonizing the British, which would put Spanish colonies in the Americas at the mercy of the Royal Navy.

When Godoy learned that John Jay was in London to negotiate a treaty, he worried about an Anglo-American alliance. That had to be prevented if possible. He requested that the United States send someone to negotiate a treaty. President Washington selected Thomas Pinckney, former governor of South Carolina, who had been serving as United States minister to Great Britain since 1792.

There were three major issues to be addressed: the Florida boundary, the right of deposit in the city of New Orleans (that is, free use of the port by American settlers using the Mississippi) and – on the Spanish side – the question of an alliance.

Pinckney arrived in Spain in June of 1795, and made swift progress. Godoy offered the right to free navigation of the Mississippi, and acceptance of the 31st parallel as the Florida border, in return for an American alliance with Spain. Pinckney said, no alliance. Godoy came back with the same offer without the alliance, but with Spanish insistence on the right to require duties for goods passing through New Orleans. Pinckney threatened to leave. The next day, Godoy agreed to Pinckney’s demands. The final treaty also voided Spanish guarantees of military support to Indians in the disputed regions, which of course greatly weakening their ability to resist encroachment.

The Treaty of San Lorenzo, also known as the Treaty of Madrid, was signed in October, 1795, ratified by the Senate in March, 1796 and came into effect in August. Its official title is the Treaty of Friendship, Limits, and Navigation Between Spain and the United States. Whether it established a friendship is debatable, but it did give the United States a definite southern boundary to the south, and it did guarantee the right to navigate the Mississippi.

It is forgotten today, but Florida was not always in the hands of the Spanish. The end of the French and Indian War, in 1763, had caused major territorial shakeups. France had ceded what we know as the Louisiana Purchase territory to Spain, and Louisiana east of the Mississippi, except the city of New Orleans, to Great Britain. At the same time, Spain had ceded Spanish Florida to Great Britain. Thus, for 20 years, from 1763 to 1783, Britain ruled Florida, dividing it along the Apalachicola River for administrative convenience into West Florida, governed from Pensacola, and East Florida, governed from St. Augustine. During the Revolutionary War, Spain, as France’s ally, had captured Pensacola. In the Treaty of Paris that ended the war, the Floridas went from British to Spanish ownership.

But what good were they to Spain? Spain’s colonizing days were over. It sent a garrison for the new territory, but no settlers. As with Texas, as with the vast Louisiana territory, as with much of what became the American southwest, there were no settlers nor any plans for settlers. There were only lines on a map, and soldiers serving to garrison a useless territory. Useless, and potentially dangerous, because the boundary lines with the United States were in dispute. During the years of British possession, they had moved the boundary north, claiming a border at the latitude of present-day Vicksburg, and Spain claimed that the British border applied. The United States insisted on the old boundary at the 31st parallel.

The treaty accepted the American claim, and Florida receded as an issue. (This wasn’t quite the end of boundary controversies, however. In October, 1800, in a secret treaty, Spain transferred Louisiana and part of West Florida back to France. When France sold Louisiana in 1803, a new dispute arose over which parts of West Florida Spain had ceded to France, and therefore which parts of West Florida belonged to whom. Ultimately this would be sorted out by Andrew Jackson.)

As to the Mississippi, again good sense prevailed over theoretical discussions of sovereignty. The fact of the matter was that there were already more than 100,000 Americans in Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee, and they needed access to New Orleans as a port of deposit. They didn’t need it to be American territory, necessarily, but they did need to know that they could ship their produce down the river and get it transshipped to foreign markets. A few years earlier, in 1784, the Spanish had closed New Orleans to American goods coming down the river. There was just no way the Americans were going to live with that uncertainty. The treaty guaranteed navigation rights to both countries for the entire length of the river.

Now the border was settled, the two countries had a trade agreement, and the city of New Orleans was reopened to American goods. Those were important gains, and they came about because of the confluence of an able ambassador, a venal but gifted Spanish minister (Don Manuel de Godoy, the queen’s lover), and the implied threat of closer U.S.-British relations as reflected in Jay’s Treaty, which we will discuss soon. As one result of Pinckney’s diplomatic success, the Federalists ran him with John Adams in 1796, with unexpected results that we have already seen.


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