Sunday, September 12, 2021

ARP217 Spain Enters the War

In April 1779, France and Spain signed the Treaty of Aranjuez, which effectively drew Spain into the war with Britain.  For the past couple of centuries, Spain had been France’s traditional ally and Britain’s traditional enemy.  While Spain did not share France’s enthusiasm for American liberty, it did harbor grudges against Britain and welcomed an opportunity to settle some of them by entering the war.

Spanish Background

In the late 1700’s Spain was near the height of its worldwide empire.  Spain, of course, had been the first European power to colonize the Americas following Christopher Columbus’ revelation that an entire western hemisphere existed and was available to be conquered.

Spanish Flag - Overseas Territories
After Columbus returned from his first voyage, Spain claimed sovereignty over the entire western hemisphere.  It did so, even though Columbus only had limited information about a few islands in the Caribbean.

About a year after Columbus’ return, Spain and Portugal signed the treaty of Tordesillas, which essentially recognized Spain’s claims to all lands west of a vertical line drawn through the Atlantic Ocean.  This treaty was designed to recognize Portugal’s claims to some islands in the Atlantic, while ceding to Spain all the unknown lands further west. In fact, unknown to both of the parties at the time, the line ceded what is today eastern Brazil to the Portuguese, which is why Brazil became a Portuguese colony.

In truth though, when the vast size of North and South America came to be understood, there was no way that Spain would be able to occupy or defend its vast claims to the hemisphere.  Britain, France, the Netherlands, and other European powers were not parties to the treaty and did not recognize Spanish claims.

But Spain was the first to establish a colonial empire.  For more than a century, Spain conquered most of South and Central America, as well as many Caribbean islands.  It was not until the early 17th century that other European powers seriously began to consider American colonies of their own.  

By that time, Spain had enslaved much of the native populations and was hauling gold and silver by the shipload back to Spain.  The age of conquest and colonization could be an entire podcast by itself. Suffice it to say that Britain, France, the Netherlands, and a few other European powers, got into the game late, and had to settle for leftovers, mostly in North America, where Spain had not really established a presence yet.

Part of Spain’s problem during this era was that it was not really a well-organized nation-state.  Rather, it was still a collection of kingdoms.  A modern army and navy were not its top priorities.  King Carlos III was beginning to change all of that, but it would take time.

Spain at this time was considered an enlightened absolute monarchy.  That meant the country was open to some social and economic reforms such as encouraging more scientific learning and allowing the ownership of private property.  But ceding political power was out of the question.  The king controlled the government.  Ideas about shared sovereignty, inalienable rights, or rule by consent of the governed were just not welcome in Spain.

When Britain saw the tons of gold and silver that Spanish mines in America were producing, it knew it had to establish its own colonies.  Britain and France both invested in powerful navies in order to challenge Spanish claims in America.  For the most part, Spain was having enough trouble controlling all the colonies it had already established by that time, and tolerated the colonization of North America by other European powers. 

King Carlos III
There were, of course, disputes that sometimes resulted in war.  For most of the 17th and 18th centuries, European powers tried to take colonies from each other.  Since Spain had originally claimed everything, it had nowhere to go but down.  British naval power created problems for the Spanish Empire.  Over time, it not only impacted their colonies in America, but elsewhere as well.  At the end of the War of Spanish Succession in 1714, Spain not only had to cede the Mediterranean island of Menorca to the British, but also Gibraltar, which was on the Spanish mainland.  Gibraltar was a key piece of land at the very southern tip of Spain, which controlled entry and exit to the Mediterranean Ocean.  Spain also gave Florida to Britain after the Seven Years War, in exchange for getting back Cuba, which Britain had captured during the war.

Spain was eager to reclaim some of its lost territories from Britain, particularly Gibraltar.  But as it had found over the years, wars were very costly, and could result in losing more territory than they won.  Spain had proven effective conquering natives in America, but things seemed not to go as well when the Spanish tussled with other European powers.  Spain had almost gone to war with Britain over the Falkland islands in 1770, but then conceded British control of the islands rather than risk another costly war.

As France moved toward war with Britain, it tried to drag along its traditional Spanish ally.  With Britain relatively isolated and none of its European allies joining in the fight, and with Britain’s resources sapped putting down the rebellion in the North American colonies, this was a perfect time for France and Spain to gang up and take back some territory.

Spain, however, was not as enthusiastic as France. In 1776 and 1777, Spain was fighting a war with Portugal, primarily over the border in South America between the Portuguese colony of Brazil and the rest of Spanish-controlled South America.  The main outcome of this war was to confirm that Uruguay would be under Spanish authority.

Spain had hoped that Britain would recognize its weakened position and would agree to return Gibraltar, Menorca, and the Floridas to Spain, and also give up its illegal colonies in Central America.  Spain had provided some of the funds early in the war to provide covert military aid to America via Rodriguez Hortalez & Co. run by Silas Deane and Pierre Beaumarchais.  Spain had also given cover to a few American privateers early in the war.  

But even after France went to war in early 1778, Spain did not want to go to war until it gave Britain a chance to buy them off by ceding back the territories they wanted.  It probably would have been happy just to regain Gibraltar.  If Britain had ceded Gibraltar back to Spain, then Spain almost certainly would have stayed out of the war.  Spain attempted these negotiations as the war progressed.

Treaty of Aranjuez

By 1779, it was clear that Britain was in trouble. It still had no interest in ceding territory back to Spain. It rejected the Spanish overtures over Gibraltar. France and Spain were traditional allies.  The two Catholic countries were ruled by Bourbon kings whose families had closely intermarried.

French Foreign Minister, the Comte de Vergennes, had been working with Spanish Foreign Minister José Moñino y Redondo, Conde de Floridablanca to agree to terms that would entice Spain into joining the war.  

Conde de Floridablanca
King Carlos III saw a real danger in supporting an American rebellion against a European king.  All of Spanish America could use that precedent to overthrow Spanish rule throughout the Americas.  Revolution is always a dangerous game for monarchs to play.  

Beyond the concern of Spanish Revolutions, Spain feared that an independent America might soon threaten its Louisiana Territory.  Spain had acquired Louisiana from France after the Seven Years War.  Unrestricted Americans pushing westward might threaten those claims, and could lead to future wars.  For Spanish interests, that cautioned against American independence.   Like France, Spain was happy with an ongoing rebellion that would sap British resources and occupy its rival.  But it really wasn’t looking forward to dealing with either party as the winner after the war concluded.

For a time, Spain held out the offer to Britain to mediate an end to the war.  The price, of course, being Gibraltar.  Spain really had no leverage over the American colonies.  It’s main value to Britain probably would have been to take France back out of the war.  But since there was not much realistic chance of that either, Britain did not accept the Spanish offer of mediation.  With the lack of British interest, Spain could either remain neutral, or join the war with France.

Spain was in no hurry to join the war, while France really wanted the extra support in its war with Britain. The British Navy was still larger than the French Navy.  But it was not larger than Spain and France combined.  This meant that a Spanish alliance would help to protect French island colonies, and put British island colonies at risk.  In short, France was desperate to bring Spain into the war in order to tip the balance of power.  

The result was that France had to agree to Spanish demands in order to entice it into joining the war.  The big issue was Gibraltar.  France had to agree that it would continue the war until they had recovered Gibraltar for Spain.  Since the Franco-American treaty committed the US to continue fighting until France concluded its peace, this treaty between France and Spain effectively committed the US to the recovery of Gibraltar as well.  Spain also hoped to recover Menorca and the Floridas.  

Spain had also pushed for some sort of joint French-Spanish control of the North American colonies once Britain ceded authority.  Like France, Spain did not believe that the Americans could govern themselves and that they would eventually have to become part of a protectorate.  France, however, realized that the Americans would not agree to this. While the Americans might someday appreciate the need for some royal authority to govern them, it was not possible to make such a proposal at this time.  Therefore, the idea of a joint protectorate did not make its way into the treaty.

The treaty made clear that Spain did not recognize American Independence.  This was a treaty with France only, to cooperate in the recovery of colonies.  If the American rebellion aided in that process, great.  But Spain was not committed to the establishment of an independent United States.  Spanish forces would not assist in the ongoing struggle of the newly self-proclaimed United States.  Rather, Spanish efforts in America would focus on shoring up control of Louisiana and reclaiming East and West Florida.

France, which had already been at war with Britain for over a year, asked for relatively little in the treaty, mostly support for its claim of a return of fishing rights from Britain off the coast of Newfoundland.

With the terms of the treaty resolved, France and Spain signed the treaty on April 12, 1779. The terms of the treaty were not made public. Spain declared war on Britain in June.  Word reached America about Spain’s entry into the war.  That news, of course, was met with great celebration.  Regardless of Spain’s motives or interests, forcing Britain to spread its military resources even more thinly to deal with another enemy would only benefit the American cause.

The news, however, was slow to arrive.  Even months after Spain’s declaration of war, the Americans were still unsure of Spain’s status.  By late August, 1779, Washington was only writing that he had reason to believe Spain had entered the war, but could not say for certain, and, if they did, on what terms.

It was only in October that Washington and Congress received definitive word that Spain had entered the war.

Don Juan de Miralles

Because Spain still did not recognize the United States as an independent nation, it did not send an ambassador.  However, Spain had sent an “observer” to Congress some time earlier.

Juan de Miralles

Don Juan de Miralles came from a relatively well-off family, but not aristocracy.  His father was a Spanish officer and his mother was French.  He was born in Spain, but moved to Havana, Cuba as a young man.  

There, married the daughter of a successful Havana merchant and ran his own trading company.  In search of markets, he began trading with the British colonies in North America. He spoke English and had made a number of contacts in St. Augustine, Charleston, and Philadelphia.

Of course, in the pre-war era, most trade between Spanish and British colonies at the time was illegal.  But neither government was enforcing those rules very much, and trade flourished.  Miralles established himself as a wealthy Havana merchant.

When the Revolution began, Spain remained officially neutral, but often did what it could to encourage the rebellion against British authorities.  When American privateers began arriving in Havana with British prize vessels, Miralles made money buying the prizes, then reflagging them and selling the ships and cargo.

By 1777, Spanish officials in Madrid sent word to the Governor General of Cuba to send agents to various British colonies. Miralles’ brother-in-law was sent to Florida to stir up the natives against British rule.  Another agent went to Jamaica.  Miralles took the assignment to go to Philadelphia and maintain relations with the Continental Congress.

Getting to Philadelphia from Cuba was not easy.  British naval traffic in the area was focused on keeping military supplies from the West Indies from reaching the rebels in North America.  Miralles left aboard a Spanish ship purportedly bound for Cadiz, Spain.  The captain of the ship had orders to put into Charleston, South Carolina, purportedly for emergency repairs.  Miralles left the ship at Charleston in January, 1778.

While in Charleston, Miralles wrote to Spanish officials hoping to get some sort of commission for his new role.  He did not know it, but about this same time, officials in Spain had appointed him as a commissioner.  Since Spain did not have formal relations with the US, his role was more of an observer.  There is some debate, both then and now, about his official status as a representative of the Spanish government.  However, it was clear that he was effectively Spain’s representative to the Continental Congress.  

Miralles took his time getting to Philadelphia.  After arriving in Charleston in January, he met with Governor Edward Rutledge about plans to invade East Florida.  He also purchased and outfitted a ship that would run trade between Charleston and Havana.  Over the next few months, Miralles moved north, slowly, meeting with North Carolina Governor Abner Nash and Virginia Governor Patrick Henry.  A topic of discussion was Spain’s interest in cooperating in the recovery of the Floridas.

This was the same winter that the British occupied Philadelphia.  Washington was in Valley Forge, and the Congress was meeting in the small town of York.  Miralles did not seem in any hurry to get there.  However, shortly after the British evacuated Philadelphia in the spring of 1778, and Congress returned to the city, Miralles made his way to the American capital and began making contacts.

It was about this time that word of France’s entry into the war had arrived in America.  Everyone expected Spain to follow soon, but Miralles could not give any assurances.  Even so, Congress gave him the respect as the representative of a potential ally.

Robert Morris
Miralles also used this time to forge a partnership with Pennsylvania merchant, and delegate Robert Morris.  The men acquired a small fleet of ships to begin trade between Philadelphia and Havana.  When Washington returned to Philadelphia for an extended visit in late 1778 and early 1779, he and Miralles had a chance to get to know one another, and seemed to strike up a friendship of sorts.  So Miralles was mixing politics and business, and his personal interests, as well of those of Spain, all together.

Morallis' planned trade in cooperation with Morris would have assisted the American cause.  It also would have been extremely profitable to both men.  It was also extremely risky.  Running merchant ships past the British blockade of the North American coast created a high risk of loss.  Miralles was putting his personal fortune at risk, in large part to win the good will of the American leadership, but also to make a lot of money. In addition to making money, the smuggling would bring in much-needed military supplies from Havana  

As part of his political efforts, Miralles tried to establish an understanding with Congress.  His pitch was pretty simple: Spain would enter the war, but would want assurance that the US would support its claims to East and West Florida.  Of course, Miralles had no real authority to commit Spain to war.  Congress was not prepared to cast off the Floridas based on some general promise that Spain might someday enter the war.

At the same time that Miralles was encouraging the Americans to concede Florida, he was also writing to leaders in Spain and Cuba to establish a formal alliance.  His letters home make clear that the Americans had capable leaders and could be reliable allies.  He strongly encouraged Spanish officials to enter the war and form an alliance with the Americans.

In May 1779, Miralles, along with French Minister Gerard, visited the Continental Army in northern New Jersey.  They attended parades and feasts in their honor, and met extensively with General Washington.  By this time, France and Spain had already signed the treaty committing Spain to war with Britain, but it was still a secret.  Miralles himself did not know the state of negotiations, and could only say that he was hopeful of Spain’s entry at some time soon.

News of War

By August, word had arrived that Britain and Spain had both recalled their ambassadors and that Spain had deployed a fleet.  There were also unofficial reports that King George had made an announcement to Parliament of hostilities with Spain.

In September, the Continental Congress finally took up the Spanish concern over the Floridas.  In a divisive vote, Congress agreed to support Spanish claims over the Floridas, provided the Americans retained free travel up and down the Mississippi River. Many members of Congress were reluctant to cede their southern border to Spain.  John Jay, who would soon be appointed ambassador to Spain, voted against it. It is likely due to the lobbying of Miralles, who convinced Washington to support the resolution, that it passed Congress at all.

By this time British and Spanish fighting had already broken out between the British in West Florida and the Spanish in New Orleans.  A series of battles and skirmishes along the Gulf coast would tie up British forces and, as Congress hoped, force the British to focus their attention elsewhere.

Before the end of 1779, word arrived confirming that Spain was at war with Britain.  The result was celebration that the American position was growing stronger and that Britain’s difficulties were only growing.

Next week, The Americans begin serious efforts against the Iroquois with the attack at Onondaga Creek.

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Next  Episode 218 Onondaga Creek 

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Further Reading


Treaty of Aranjuez

Spanish Participation in the American Revolution

McCadden, Helen Matzke. “Juan De Miralles and the American Revolution.” The Americas, vol. 29, no. 3, 1973, pp. 359–375. JSTOR,

“DON JUAN DE MIRALLES, THE SPANISH AGENT. HIS REQUIEM.” The American Catholic Historical Researches, vol. 3, no. 4, 1907, pp. 297–310. JSTOR,

A Forgotten Hero of the American Revolution: Juan de Miralles and the Relationship between Spain and the United States

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Moses, Bernard Spain's Declining Power in South America, 1730-1806, Berkeley, Univ. of Cal. Press, 1919. 

Paulin, Charles O. European Treaties Bearing on the History of the United States and its Dependencies, Vol 4, Washington: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1937 (Treaty of Aranjuez, p. 145). 

Spain in the American Revolution (PDF) 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Chávez, Thomas E. Spain and the Independence of the United States: An Intrinsic Gift, Univ. of N.M. Press, 2002. 

Paquette, Gabriel (ed) & Gonzalo M. Quintero Saravia (ed) Spain and the American Revolution: New Approaches and Perspectives, Routledge, 2019. 

Stein, Stanley J. & Barbara H. Apogee of Empire: Spain and New Spain in the Age of Charles III, 1759–1789, Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2003. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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