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May 20, 2024

Spain and the American Revolution

By Van Lee

Spain and the American Revolution

Much is made of the French aid towards the colonists in the American Revolution. Certainly their help was decidedly helpful and their navy allowed for Washington to win the day at Yorktown, a battle that ultimately led to peace and an independent United States of America. Marquis de Lafayette was indeed a vital figure in the war, assigned to the staff of General George Washington and leading colonial forces to several victories. He persuaded the French government to help the cause of American independence and even after the war was over he maintained close, personal and political ties with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, the new nation's ambassadors to France.

But France wasn't the only nation to give aid to the colonies. The Dutch offered some aid as did Spain. Though their actions were not as open and direct as French actions, they were certainly important. In fact, after the war, George Washington wrote a personal letter to Spanish King Carlos III acknowledging and thanking him for the aid given. The rebels had requested certain amounts of supplies and monetary aid and for five years, Spain gave above what was requested.

In fact, Spanish settlers from all around North America contributed. The obvious contributors would be the Spanish in Florida, which contained a large number of Spanish settlers, but beyond that, Spanish settlers from the areas of Texas, New Mexico, Nevada, and even California helped and sent supplies. And a significant amount of monetary aid came from New Spain, now known as Mexico. In some of these territories, Spanish forces engaged British forces.

But why would Spain care about the colonists? Well, to some degree, like the French, they simply didn't care for the British and it was an opportunity to dig at the British. But beyond that, there was also imperialistic desire. In the Americas, the British, French, and Spanish had been the big players when it came to colonial ventures. French power had already begun to wane and the British were gaining more and more territory. Both French and Spanish aid in some degree had to be because of the desire to stem the spread of the British Empire for their own personal and financial gains. In fact, throughout the Spanish war effort, their negotiations with France for aiding them against the British revolved around the removal of British influence from Honduras and the Compeche coasts, the removal of the British from Central America, and for Gibraltar, Minorca, Jamaica, and the American Floridas to be conceded completely to Spain. When the war was over, Spain had gained all of those stated goals except for Jamaica and Gibraltar, making their gains second only to the colonies in what they gained.

Spanish aid was originally planned out and initiated by the Marquis de Grimaldi, but was then continued by Count Floridablanca, the minister of state hand-picked by Grimaldi. The future state of Florida would be named in honor of Floridablanca. At the beginning of the Revolution, Spain maintained a somewhat distanced stance, refusing to initially acknowledge the legitimacy of the rebelling colonists and maintaining a stance that their only dealings with the colonies was as trade to be handled by Spain's Minister to France, the Count of Aranda, Pedro Pablo y Bolea. This was an attempt to keep from alienating Great Britain because for a while, there was no assurance that Spain would openly come to the aid of the colonies.

In time, Aranda replaced Floridablanca and Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, and Arthur Lee met with him on the behest of the Continental Congress to appeal for more Spanish aid. Where Floridiblanca had taken a more cautious approach in an effort not to alienate the British to much, Aranda openly support the colonial cause. However, his superiors quickly over-ruled him, so the overt aid would continue for the time being.

But not all Spanish aid was overt and diplomatic. In the Mississippi Valley Bernardo de Gálvez gave diplomatic and financial aid and also followed up with military action against the British in the area, encountering British forces from Florida to Louisiana and in the Gulf of Mexico. Gálvez aided the colonist from 1776 to the end of the war. He had initially been sent to Louisiana to press economic reforms, restructure local governments, and help rebuild Spanish prestige in Spain's colonial endeavors. His orders were clearly anti-British and pro-colonial, a design that would all but ensure his assisting the colonists in their rebellion against Britain.

But just because Spain was offering support to the colonists does not mean that they supported the republican and democratic ideals of the colonies (not to be confused with the modern political Republican and Democratic parties). Rather, their main goals were to recoup losses from the Seven Years War, which Great Britain had won. On a related note, part of the problem the colonists had with the British is that the British enacted several taxes on the colonists in order to help recoup their costs for the French and Indian Wars, a theater of the Seven Years War. In that respect, the American Revolution was a direct result of the Seven Years War. The American Revolution provided an opportunity for the Spanish in that it opened the way to gain more territory and open a potential trade partner in the future.

Even before the Spanish openly began to support the colonists, their actions had helped them. For instance, a Spanish fleet had sailed to South America to engage British smugglers and forcefully took Uruguay from Portugal, who was an open ally of the British. In addition to that, Gálvez had operated secretly from New Orleans, supplying the colonists for their actions against the British in the trans-Allegheny regions (the regions to the far west of the colonies). And he also more or less closed the Mississippi River off to the British. These actions greatly helped the colonists in the southern territories, keeping them from begin defeated and keeping the British tied down enough that they were never able to totally concentrate on the Continental Army in the northern colonies. Without Spanish help in the southern colonies and territories, the British likely would have been able to easily defeat those areas and concentrate more on defeating General Washington and the rest of the colonial soldiers.

In the course of American history, the Spanish are well known in their discovery and explorations of the America, especially in South America and the western U.S. The Gulf of Mexico was their stomping grounds to a large degree. Even today Spanish culture permeates our society. They are recognized for all this, but ironically enough, their role in our independence, our nation's very existence, is all but ignored. George Washington recognized that when he wrote his letter to King Carlos III.

Chronology of Spanish Involvement with the American Revolution

  • 1588 —British Lord Nelson and Admiral Sir Robert Cross sinks the Spanish Armada, setting off a deep resentment of the British by the Spanish. The next year the remainder of the fleet was destroyed.
  • 1761 — The Bourbon Family Compact stated that if a nation attacked either France or Spain, then that nation would also be attacking the other. Both the King of France and Spain were members of the Bourbon family. 1763 — When the Seven Years War ended, Spain had lost Havana and Manila to the British. Spain had to trade the Floridas to Great Britain in order to regain their lost territories.
  • 1776 — Both France and Spain had secretly pledged aid to the colonists even before the Declaration of Independence was signed. Over the next three years, Spain would extend credit to the colonies in the amount of 8 million reales. In September of that year, Spain send 9000 pounds of gunpowder up the Mississippi River to the colonies and an additional 1000 pounds by ship to Philadelphia. In November Gálvez was ordered to gather intelligence on the British and in December he was ordered to begin assisting the colonies in their efforts against the British.
  • 1777 — In the first half of the year, another 2000 pounds of gunpowder was sent up the Mississippi River along with clothing. Roger Clark's positions along the Mississippi River were reinforced with arms and supplies from the Spanish. Supplies were also sent to George Washington's Continental Army. Benjamin Franklin traveled to France to seek an audience with the Spanish Ambassador to France. It was agreed that 217 cannons, 30,000 muskets, and 300,000 pounds of gunpowder among other supplies would be sent to the colonies. Patrick Henry wrote two different letters to Gálvez later on in the year thanking him for their support and suggesting that the Floridas should officially be ceded back to Spain after the war was over.
  • 1778 — France signs the Treaty of Alliance with the colonies. Under the Bourban Family Compact, Spain was obligated to assist France in their efforts against the Spanish, more or less openly giving support to the colonial cause. Gálvez begins to build up an army under the guise of defending New Orleans. Throughout the year General George Rogers Clark engaged the British with Spanish supplies, winning victories at Kaskaskia, Cahokia, and Vicennes.
  • 1779 — In April Spain officially declared war on Great Britain and King Carlos III called on Spanish people around the world to engage the British wherever they could. Gálvez led his army in August and September to victory against the British at Fort Bute. Gálvez later captured Baton Rouge and a British fort at Natchez. This effectively opened the Mississippi River for colonial shipping without any British resistance. Thomas Jefferson writes a letter to Gálvez thanking him for Spanish help. From 1779 to 1782 up to 15,000 head of cattle and many work animals to Gálvez who in turn gives many to Washington to help the war effort.
  • 1780 — From January to March, Gálvez laid siege to Mobile until the British surrendered. He was promoted from General to Field Marshal and was made commander of all Spanish forces in America. In October Gálvez led a force of 15 Spanish warships to attack Pensacola, embarking nearly 4000 mean for the operation but a hurricane forced them to turn back.
  • 1781 — In February a second fleets sails for Pensacola. By early May Pensacola fell, effectively removing the British from the entire Gulf Coast region. Four French ships had participated in the siege and after Pensacola surrendered, they sailed to Yorktown to help with the French blockade there. In August General Washington visits the Philadelphia home of Robert Morris where he gives a toast to the Kings of France and Spain. In October, British General Cornwallis surrenders a Yorktown. Though the war would not end officially for another two years, this surrender effectively signals an end to the war.
  • 1782 — Gálvez attacks and captures the Bahamas.
  • 1783 — The Treaty of Paris officially ends the war.
  • 1784 — The U.S. Congress gives official recognition to the efforts of Gálvez during the war.

Article © Van Lee. All rights reserved.
Published on 2005-07-04
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