History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson/First/I:13

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Chapter 13: The Spanish Court[edit]

Most picturesque of all figures in modern history, Napoleon Bonaparte, like Milton's Satan on his throne of state, although surrounded by a group of figures little less striking than himself, sat unapproachable on his bad eminence; or, when he moved, the dusky air felt an unusual weight. His conduct was often mysterious, and sometimes so arbitrary as to seem insane; but later years have thrown on it a lurid illumination. Without the mass of correspondence and of fragmentary writings collected under the Second Empire in not less than thirty-two volumes of printed works, the greatness of Napoleon's energies or the quality of his mind would be impossible to comprehend. Ambition that ground its heel into every obstacle; restlessness that often defied commonsense; selfishness that eat like a cancer into his reasoning faculties; energy such as had never before been combined with equal genius and resources; ignorance that would have amused a school-boy; and a moral sense which regarded truth and falsehood as equally useful modes of expression,—an unprovoked war or secret assassination as equally natural forms of activity,—such a combination of qualities as Europe had forgotten since the Middle Ages, and could realize only by reviving the Eccelinos and Alberics of the thirteenth century, had to be faced and overawed by the gentle optimism of President Jefferson and his Secretary of State.

As if one such character were not riddle enough for any single epoch, a figure even more sinister and almost as enigmatical stood at its side. On the famous 18th Brumaire, the 9th November, 1799, when Bonaparte turned pale before the Five Hundred, and retired in terror from the hall at St. Cloud, not so much his brother Lucien, or the facile Sieyès, or Barras, pushed him forward to destroy the republic, but rather Talleyrand, the ex-Bishop of Autun, the Foreign Secretary of the Directory. Talleyrand was most active in directing the coup d'état, and was chiefly responsible for the ruin of France.[1] Had he profited by his exile in America, he would have turned to Moreau rather than to Bonaparte; and some millions of men would have gone more quietly to their graves. Certainly he did not foresee the effects of his act; he had not meant to set a mere soldier on the throne of Saint Louis. He betrayed the republic only because he believed the republic to be an absurdity and a nuisance, not because he wanted a military despotism. He wished to stop the reign of violence and scandal, restore the glories of Louis XIV., and maintain France in her place at the head of civilization. To carry out these views was the work of a lifetime. Every successive government was created or accepted by him as an instrument for his purposes; and all were thrown aside or broke in his hands. Superior to Bonaparte in the breadth and steadiness of his purpose, Talleyrand was a theorist in his political principles; his statecraft was that of the old régime, and he never forgave himself for having once believed in a popular revolution.

This was the man with whom Madison must deal, in order to reach the ear of the First Consul. In diplomacy, a more perplexing task could scarcely be presented that to fathom the policy which might result from the contact of a mind like Talleyrand's with a mind like Bonaparte's. If Talleyrand was an enigma to be understood only by those who lived in his confidence, Bonaparte was a freak of nature such as the world had seen too rarely to comprehend. His character was misconceived even by Talleyrand at this early period; and where the keenest of observers failed to see through a mind he had helped to form, how were men like Jefferson and Madison, three thousand miles away, and receiving at best only such information as Chancellor Livingston could collect and send them every month or six weeks,—how were they, in their isolation and ignorance, to solve a riddle that depended on the influence which Talleyrand could maintain over Bonaparte, and the despotism which Bonaparte could establish over Talleyrand?

Difficult as this riddle was, it made but a part of the problem. France had no direct means of controlling American policy. Within the last four years she had tried to dictate, and received severe discipline. If France was a political factor of the first class in Jefferson's mind, it was not because of her armies or fleets, or her almost extinguished republican character, or her supposed friendship for Jefferson's party in its struggle with Anglican federalism. The 18th Brumaire severed most of these sentimental ties. The power which France wielded over American destinies sprang not from any direct French interest or fear of French arms, but from the control which Napoleon exercised over the Spanish government at Madrid. France alone could not greatly disturb the repose of Jefferson; but France, acting through Spain on the hopes and fears of the Southern States, exercised prodigious influence on the Union.

Don Carlos IV. reigned at Madrid,—a Bourbon, but an ally of the French republic, and since the 18th Brumaire a devoted admirer of the young Corsican who had betrayed the republic. So far as Don Carlos was king of Spain only, his name meant little to Americans; but as an American ruler his empire dwarfed that of the United States. From the sources of the Missouri and Mississippi to the borders of Patagonia, two American continents acknowledged his rule. From the mouth of the St. Mary's, southward and westward, the shores of Florida, Louisiana, Texas, and Mexico were Spanish; Pensacola, Mobile, and New Orleans closed all the rivers by which the United States could reach the gulf. The valley of the Ohio itself, as far as Pittsburg, was at the mercy of the King of Spain; the flour and tobacco that floated down the Mississippi, or any of the rivers that fell into the Gulf, passed under the Spanish flag, and could reach a market only by permission of Don Carlos IV. Along an imaginary line from Fernandina to Natchez, some six hundred miles, and thence northward on the western bank of the Mississippi River to the Lake of the Woods, some fourteen hundred miles farther, Spanish authority barred the path of American ambition. Of all foreign Powers Spain alone stood in such a position as to make violence seem sooner or later inevitable even to the pacific Jefferson; and every Southern or Western State looked to the military occupation of Mobile, Pensacola, and New Orleans as a future political necessity.

By a sort of tacit agreement, the ordinary rules of American politics were admitted not to apply to this case. To obtain Pensacola, Mobile, and New Orleans, the warmest States-rights champions in the South, even John Taylor of Caroline and John Randolph of Roanoke, were ready to employ every instrument of centralization. On the Southern and Western States this eagerness to expel Spain from their neighborhood acted like a magnet, affecting all, without regard to theories or parties. The people of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia could not easily admit restrictions of any sort; they were the freest of the free; they felt keenly their subjection to the arbitrary authority of a king,—and a king of Spain. They could not endure that their wheat, tobacco, and timber should have value only by sufferance of a Spanish official and a corporal's guard of Spanish soldiers at New Orleans and Mobile. Hatred of a Spaniard was to the Tennesseean as natural as hatred of an Indian, and contempt for the rights of the Spanish government was no more singular than for those of an Indian tribe. Against Indians and Spaniards the Western settler held loose notions of law; his settled purpose was to drive both races from the country, and to take their land.

Between the Americans and the Spaniards no permanent friendship could exist. Their systems were at war, even when the nations were at peace. Spain, France, and England combined in maintaining the old colonial system; and Spain, as the greatest owner of American territory, was more deeply interested than any other Power in upholding the rule that colonies belonged exclusively to the mother country, and might trade only with her. Against this exclusive system, although it was one with which no Foreign Power had the legal right to meddle, Americans always rebelled. Their interests required them to maintain the principles of free-trade; and they persuaded themselves that they had a natural right to sell their produce and buy their home cargoes in the best market, without regard to protective principles. Americans were the professional smugglers of an age when smuggling was tolerated by custom. Occasionally the laws were suddenly enforced, and the American trader was ruined; but in war times the business was comparatively safe and the profits were large. Naturally Americans wanted the right to do always what they did by sufferance as neutrals; and they were bent not only upon gaining foothold on the Gulf of Mexico, but on forcing Spain and England to admit them freely to their colonial ports. To do these two things they needed to do more. That the vast and inert mass of Spanish possessions in America must ultimately be broken up, became the cardinal point of their foreign policy. If the Southern and Western people, who saw the Spanish flag flaunted every day in their faces, learned to hate the Spaniard as their natural enemy, the Government at Washington, which saw a wider field, never missed an opportunity to thrust its knife into the joints of its unwieldy prey. In the end, far more than half the territory of the United States was the spoil of Spanish empire, rarely acquired with perfect propriety. To sum up the story in a single word, Spain had immense influence over the United States; but it was the influence of the whale over its captors,—the charm of a huge, helpless, and profitable victim.

Throughout the period of Spain's slow decomposition, Americans took toward her the tone of high morality. They were ostensibly struggling for liberty of commerce; and they avowed more or less openly their wish to establish political independence and popular rights throughout both continents. To them Spain represented despotism, bigotry, and corruption; and they were apt to let this impression appear openly in their language and acts. They were persistent aggressors, while Spain, even when striking back, as she sometimes timidly did, invariably acted in self-defence. That the Spaniards should dread and hate the Americans was natural; for the American character was one which no Spaniard could like, as the Spanish character had qualities which few Americans could understand. Each party accused the other of insincerity and falsehood; but the Spaniards also charged the Americans with rapacity and shamelessness. In their eyes, United States citizens proclaimed ideas of free-trade and self-government with no other object than to create confusion, in order that they might profit by it.

With the characters of English and French rulers—of George III. and Bonaparte, Pitt, Canning, Castlereagh, and Talleyrand—Americans were more or less familiar. The face and mind of King George III. were almost as well known to them as those of George Washington. Of Spaniards and Spanish rulers Americans knew almost nothing; yet Spanish weaknesses were to enrich the Union with more than half a continent from the ruin of an empire which would hardly have felt the privation had it been the chief loss the Spanish Crown was forced to suffer.

Europe could show no two men more virtuous in their private lives than King George III. of England and King Charles IV. of Spain. If personal purity was a test of political merit, these two rulers were the best of kings. Had George III. been born a Spanish prince, he might perhaps have grown into another Charles IV.; and Don Carlos was a kind of Spanish George. Every morning throughout the whole year King Charles rose at precisely five o'clock and heard Mass. Occasionally he read a few minutes in some book of devotion, then breakfasted and went to his workrooms, where the most skilful gunsmiths in his kingdom were always busy on his hunting weapons. His armory was a part of his court; the gunsmiths, joiners, turners, and cabinet-makers went with him from Madrid to Aranjuez, and from Aranjuez to La Granja. Among them he was at his ease; taking off his coat, and rolling his shirt-sleeves up to the shoulder, he worked at a dozen different trades within the hour, in manner and speech as simple and easy as the workmen themselves. He was skilful with his tools, and withal a dilettante in his way, capable of enjoying not only the workmanship of a gunlock, but the beauties of his glorious picture-gallery,—the "Feconditá" of Titian, and the "Hilanderas" of Velasquez.

From his workshops he went to his stables, chatted familiarly with the grooms, and sometimes roughly found fault with them. After this daily duty was done, he received the Queen and the rest of his family, who came to kiss his hand,—a ceremony which took some ten minutes; after which, precisely at noon, he sat down to dinner. He dined alone, ate enormously, and drank only water. "Find if you can," said the Spaniards, "another king who never got out of bed later than five o'clock; never drank wine, coffee, or liqueur; and in his whole life never so much as looked at any woman but his wife!" After dinner, every day at one o'clock, except when court etiquette interfered, King Charles set out, no matter what might be the weather, and drove post with guards and six coaches of companions to the ground where he was to shoot. Three hundred men drove the game toward him; seven hundred men and five hundred horses were daily occupied in this task of amusing him. The expenses were enormous; but the King was one of the best shots in Europe, and his subjects had reason to be grateful that his ambition took so harmless a path as the destruction of vast swarms of game.

From this sport he returned toward evening, and always found the Queen and the Court waiting his arrival. For some fifteen minutes he chatted with them; then his ministers were admitted, each separately presenting his business, while the Queen was present; and about half an hour was thus devoted to the welfare of many million subjects scattered in several continents. Cabinet councils were rare at this court, and no other council of assembly for legislative or executive purposes was imagined. Business disposed of, Don Carlos took his violin, which was as dear to him as his gun,—although in playing he gave himself no trouble to keep time with the other musicians, but played faster or slower, without apparent consciousness. After music he sat down to cards, and played ombre with two old courtiers, who for fifteen years had been required to perform this daily service; and he regularly went to sleep with the cards in his hand. Almost as regularly the other players, as well as the lookers-on, went to sleep also, and aroused themselves only when the major-domo came to announce supper. This meal at an end, the King gave his orders for the next day, and at eleven o'clock went to bed.

Such, word for word, was the official account of the Spanish court given by the French minister at Madrid to his Government in the year 1800; but it told only half the story. Charles was a religious man, and strictly observed all the fasts of the Church. To rouse in his mind an invincible repugnance against any individual, one had only to say that such a person had no religion. He held the priesthood in deep respect; his own character was open and frank; he possessed the rare quality of being true at any cost to his given word; he was even shrewd in his way, with a certain amount of common-sense; but with all this he was a nullity, and his career was that of a victim. Far above all distinctions of rank or class, the King was alone in Spain, as isolated as an Eastern idol; even the great nobles who in the feudal theory stood next him, and should have been his confidential advisers, appeared to have no more influence than ploughboys. So extreme was this isolation, even for the traditions of Spanish etiquette, that the Court believed it to be intentionally encouraged by the Queen, Doña Maria Luisa de Parma, who was supposed to have many reasons for keeping her husband under watch. The society of Madrid was never delicate in such matters, nor was there a court in Europe which claimed to be free from scandal; but hardened as Europe was to royal license, Queen Luisa became notorious from Madrid to Petersburg. Her conduct was the mere blindness of a weak mind. Charles's religion, honor, personal purity, and the self-respect of a king of Spain made it impossible for him to believe ill of one who stood toward him in such a relation. Never for a moment was he known to swerve in his loyalty.

Of all supposed facts in history, scandal about women was the commonest and least to be trusted. Queen Luisa's character may have been good, notwithstanding the gossip of diplomats and courtiers; but her real or supposed vices, and her influence over the King had much to do with the fate of Louisiana. Sooner or later, no doubt, Louisiana must have become a part of the American Union; but if court intrigues had little to do with actual results, they had, at least in Spain, everything to do with the way in which results were reached. At the court of Madrid the Queen was, in some respects, more influential than the King, and a man who was supposed to be one of the Queen's old lovers exercised the real authority of both.

In the year 1792 King Charles, then in his forty-fifth year, suddenly raised to the post of his prime minister a simple gentleman of his guard, Don Manuel Godoy, barely twenty-five years old. The scandalous chronicle of the court averred that two of the Queen's children bore on their faces incontrovertible evidence of their relation to Godoy. From 1792 until 1798 he was prime minister; he conducted a war with France, and made a treaty which procured for him the remarkable title of the Principe de la Paz,—the Prince of Peace. In 1798 he retired from office, but retained his personal favor. In 1800 he was not a minister, nor did even the scandal-mongers then charge him improper relations with the Queen, for all were agreed that the Queen had found another lover. The stories of the palace were worthy of Saint-Simon. The King himself was far from refined in manners or conversation, and gave even to his favors some of the roughness of insults. If a servant suffered from any personal infirmity, he was forced to hear cruel derision from the King's lips; while the commonest of royal jokes was to slap courtiers and grooms on the back with a violence that brought tears into their eyes, followed by shouts of royal laughter and by forced smiles from the victim. This roughness of manner was not confined to the King. Most of the stories told about the Queen would not bear repeating, and, whether true or false, reflected the rottenness of a society which could invent or believe them; but among the many tales echoed by the gentlemen and ladies who were nearest her chamber was one worthy of Gil Blas, and as such was officially reported to Talleyrand and Bonaparte. The Queen's favorite in the year 1800 was a certain Mallo, whom she was said to have enriched, and who, according to the women of the bed-chamber, beat her Majesty in return as though she were any common Maritornes. One day in that year, when the Prince of Peace had come to San Ildefonso to pay his respects to the King, and as usual was having his interview in the Queen's presence, Charles asked him a question: "Manuel," said the King, "what is this Mallo? I see him with new horses and carriages every day. Where does he get so much money?" "Sire," replied Godoy, "Mallo has nothing in the world; but he is kept by an ugly old woman who robs her husband to pay her lover." The King shouted with laughter, and turning to his wife, said: "Luisa, what think you of that?" "Ah, Charles!" she replied; "do you not know that Manuel is always joking?"

Europe rang with such stories, which were probably as old as the tales of folk-lore, but none the less characterized the moral condition of Spain. Whatever had been Godoy's relations with the Queen they had long ceased, yet the honors, the wealth, and the semi-royal position of the Prince of Peace still scandalized the world. According to the common talk of Madrid, his riches and profligacy had no limits; his name was a by-word for everything that was shameless and corrupt. A young man, barely thirty-three years old, on whose head fortune rained favors, in an atmosphere of corruption, was certainly no saint; yet this creature, Manuel Godoy, reeking with vice, epitome of the decrepitude and incompetence of Spanish royalty, was a mild, enlightened, and intelligent minister so far as the United States were concerned, capable of generosity and of courage, quite the equal of Pitt or Talleyrand in diplomacy, and their superior in resource. In the eyes of Spain, Godoy may have been the most contemptible of mortals; but American history cannot estimate his character so low.

Godoy negotiated the treaty of 1795 with the United States, and did it in order to redress the balance which Jay's treaty with England disturbed. The Spanish treaty of 1795 never received the credit it deserved; its large concessions were taken as a matter of course by the American people, who assumed that Spain could not afford to refuse anything that America asked, and who resented the idea that America asked more than she had a right to expect. Fearing that the effect of Jay's treaty would throw the United States into the arms of England at a moment when Spain was about to declare war, Godoy conceded everything the Americans wanted. His treaty provided for a settlement of the boundary between Natchez and New Orleans; accepted the principle of "free ships, free goods," so obnoxious to England; gave a liberal definition of contraband such as Jay had in vain attempted to get from Lord Grenville; created a commission to settle the claims of American citizens against Spain on account of illegal captures in the late war; granted to citizens of the United States for three years the right to deposit their merchandise at New Orleans without paying duty; and pledged the King of Spain to continue this so-called entrepôt, or "right of deposit," at the same place if he found it not injurious to his interests, or if it were so, to assign some similar place of deposit on another part of the banks of the Mississippi

This treaty came before the Senate at the same time with that which Jay negotiated with Lord Grenville; and in the midst of the bitter attacks made upon the British instrument, not a voice was raised against the Spanish. Every one knew that it was the most satisfactory treaty the United States had yet negotiated with any foreign Power; and if Frederick the Great of Prussia deserved praise for the liberality of his treaty of 1785,—a liberality which implied no concessions and led to no consequences,—King Charles IV. had right to tenfold credit for the settlement of 1795.

If the Americans said but little on the subject, they felt the full value of their gain. Doubtless they grumbled because the Spanish authorities were slow to carry out the provisions of the treaty; but they had reason to know that this was not the fault of Godoy. Had France been as wisely directed as Spain, no delay would have occurred; but the French Directory resented the course taken by the United States in accepting Jay's treaty, and being angry with America, they turned a part of their wrath against Godoy. Before his American treaty was known to the world, Spain was driven to declare war against England, and thenceforth became an almost helpless appendage to France. The French government not only tried to prevent the delivery of the Spanish forts on the Mississippi, but, in defiance of law, French privateers made use of Spanish ports to carry on their depredations against American commerce; and scores of American vessels were brought into these ports and condemned by French consuls without right to exercise such a jurisdiction, while the Spanish government was powerless to interfere. In the end, Godoy's want of devotion to the interests of France became so evident that he could no longer remain prime minister. In March, 1798, he announced to King Charles that one of two measures must be chosen,—either Spain must prepare for a rupture with France, or must be guided by a new ministry. His resignation was accepted, and he retired from office. Fortunately for the United States, the last days of his power were marked by an act of friendship toward them which greatly irritated Talleyrand. March 29, 1798, the Spanish posts on the eastern bank of the Mississippi were at last delivered to the United States government; and thus Godoy's treaty of 1795 was faithfully carried out.

  1. M. de Talleyrand, par Sainte-Beuve, p. 70.