A Forgotten Hero of the American Revolution (Part 5 – His Legacy, In Which I Argue His Death Caused Over A Century of Tension Between the U.S. and Spain)

This is Part 5 of a 5 part series. We suggest reading Part 1, Part 2, Part 3  and Part 4 if you have not already done so.

Shortly before his death, Miralles had informed Washington of the Spanish successes against the British.  Congressman Oliver Ellsworth wrote to Connecticut governor Jonathan Trumbull that Miralles had been “zealously attentive to the political interests and views of this country, as well as his own, and waited with impatience to see the ties between the two countries indissolubly formed.”[1]

Upon the death of Miralles, Francisco Rendón, his former secretary, assumed his post.  It was said that Rendón lacked the enthusiasm for America’s cause that drove Miralles, and with the fall of Charleston to the British in May 1780, plans for a joint Spanish-American offensive were dashed.  The Spanish attacked the British on their own, however, capturing forts in West Florida and attacking Pensacola and other British possessions in the Caribbean and Central America.  These Spanish attacks tied up British soldiers which could have been used as reinforcements against the Americans.

When the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, the Americans stayed true to their agreement with Miralles and the Floridas were returned to Spain.  Through the web of treaties that made up the peace of 1783, Spain was awarded East and West Florida, and the United States was given free navigation on the Mississippi River, though the two nations did not sign a treaty together.  Immediately following the peace, a dispute arose between the United States and Spain over the southern borders and the Mississippi River.  Rendón, a temporary appointment as replacement for Miralles, was superseded by Diego de Gardoqui, who became the first official Spanish Ambassador to the United States.  Gardoqui and the Spanish government believed that if they did not contain the United States, the latter’s territorial ambitions would threaten the Spanish empire in North America.  Although Miralles had maintained a close relationship with many of the founding fathers, his efforts were quickly forgotten as the two nations contested the terms of the peace agreements.

The border of the United States extended to the Mississippi River after the Revolutionary War, though the outlet to the sea, at New Orleans, lay in Spanish territory.  The Spanish government, anxious over the possibility of the new nation gaining too much power and influence on the frontier, closed the lower part of the river to American shipping.  The two nations continued to struggle for position, but did not reach an agreement for over a decade.  It is easy to imagine Miralles and Washington discussing the issue in friendly terms, easing the tensions that were quickly building in his absence.

When the French Revolution spread into a European-wide conflict in the 1790s, the United States was also drawn into the dispute.  While Americans argued whether over they should support France or Great Britain in the conflict, physical battles were being fought in Europe.  With the hope of remaining neutral, President George Washington sent Chief Justice John Jay to negotiate with the British government to work out unresolved issues still lingering from the Treaty of Paris signed in 1783.  Jay’s Treaty, signed in November 1794, was unpopular in the United States, and did little except maintain peace between the two nations.

The treaty was enough, however, to cause panic in the Spanish government.  Without a minister in the United States who connected with the government like Miralles had, King Carlos IV panicked.  Fearing an alliance between the British and Americans, which might result in the loss of Spain’s North American possessions, the king sought to settle the differences between his country and the United States.  To that end, Washington sent Thomas Pinckney to Spain to discuss a treaty.  Pinckney’s performance in his negotiation with the Spanish Prime Minister, Manuel de Godoy, was remarkable in that the American won all of the concessions he requested.  The Treaty of San Lorenzo, also known as Pinckney’s Treaty, was signed in October 1785. The border disputes were settled in favor of the Americans, and duty-free navigation was granted along the entirety of the Mississippi River, including at New Orleans. In a final concession, Spain stopped military support for the Indian tribes fighting against the Americans.[2]

It is unlikely that Miralles would have lived long enough to see Napoleon Bonaparte’s ascension to power in France in November 1799, which led to yet more fighting between the nations of Europe.  Even if he had, it would be a stretch to assume that a man in his nineties would have much influence over events.  It is not a stretch, however, to believe that had he lived long enough to build strong ties with the United States during the Washington Presidency that the two countries would have worked together against Napoleon’s designs in North America.  Instead, Napoleon’s war worked in favor of the Americans.

Napoleon’s ascension led to France’s acquisition of the Louisiana Territory from Spain. Napoleon wiped away years of laborious efforts by the Spanish when he sold the territory to the United States in 1803.  Seven years later, when American settlers in West Florida rebelled against Spanish rule, the American government claimed the land, arguing that it was part of the Louisiana Purchase.  Luis de Onís, the Spanish minister to the United States at the time, attempted negotiations with U.S. Secretary of State James Monroe in 1815 without much success.  Finally in 1819, the two nations reached an agreement, signing the Adams-Onís Treaty.  As with the Pinckney Treaty, the Americans again wound up with the better end of the deal.  Spain ceded East Florida to the United States and renounced all claim to West Florida.[3]

It is worthwhile to note that earlier negotiations with the United States, begun by Miralles, led to Spain’s possession of the Mississippi Valley and Florida.  His hard work and dedication, along with his personal sacrifices and close relationships with the founding fathers led to his nation’s territorial acquisitions at the end of the war.  The oversights of his successors, and their lack of interest in the American cause, combined with events in Europe, led to the unraveling of the exceptional rapport Miralles had built between the Spanish and Americans. Spanish mismanagement after the death of Miralles favored the Americans, as it led to a great acquisition of territory by the United States less than four decades after the American Revolutionary War ended.

Spanish and American animosity continued on and off for over 120 years, culminating in the Spanish-American War in 1898.  The result of the war was the loss of nearly all of Spain’s colonies to the United States.  Quite possibly the low point of Spanish-American relations, the war was the result of a century of suspicion that arose after the death of Juan de Miralles.

The course of history would have been altered significantly if Miralles had lived to continue friendly relations between the two nations after the American Revolution.  His untimely death, and the inability of his successors to connect in the same ways as he had to the leaders of the United States, led to over a century of strained relations and hostility between the two nations.  Miralles deserves to be listed among the heroes of the early republic for his work in building friendly relations between the new United States and Spain, and bringing together the two nations to successfully fight against a common enemy.


[1] McCadden, Helen Matzke. “Juan de Miralles and the American Revolution .” The American (Academy of American Franciscan History) 29, no. 3 (January 1973): 359-375, 372.
[2] U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian. Treaty of San Lorenzo/ Pinckney’s Treaty, 1795. n.d. http://history.state.gov/milestones/1784-1800/PickneyTreaty (accessed April 1, 2012).
[3] U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian. Acquisition of Florida: Treaty of Adams-Onis (1819) and Transcontinental Treaty (1821). n.d. http://history.state.gov/milestones/1801-1829/Florida (accessed April 1, 2012).  In signing the treaty, Spain gave up all claims to the Pacific northwest.  The U.S. recognized Spanish sovereignty over Texas and assumed liability for $5 million in damage done by Americans in Florida.  The treaty also defined the western boundaries of the Louisiana Purchase.
Image credit: New York Public Library


  1. Hi,

    I find your 5-part article quite interesting. I will certainly use it as background in an article I am writing on Spain’s involvement in the American Revolution. Miralles will probably be a minor player in my article, but I am intrigued but your assessment on the impact of his death on future U.S. Spanish relations. If I do cite your article, do you want me to simply reference you as DSilva?




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