A Donkey, A Suit, and a Quixote for George Washington

Politics During the War (1775-1783)

September 9, 2021
by Elisa Vargas Also by this Author


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At the beginning of March 1777, Arthur Lee, a delegate to the United States Congress, urgently requested to meet with the Marquis de Grimaldi, who until just a few weeks before had been the Secretary of State of Foreign Affairs of King Carlos III of Spain, and who was now on his way to take charge of the Spanish embassy in Rome. Coming from Paris, Lee was part of the American delegation in charge of obtaining financial and logistical support for the independence cause of the thirteen colonies. Although the meeting between Grimaldi and Lee in Burgos did not result in the expected official Spanish support for the American cause, it did open the doors to important secret aid that would be channeled through the mercantile company of the man who had organized and acted as translator of this meeting: Don Diego María de Gardoqui y Arriquibar.[1]

According to Lee’s information to the American Commissioners in Paris, Spain agreed to send clothes, blankets, and tents from the city of Bilbao, leaving the operation in charge of Diego de Gardoqui, who would personally hire the ships and crew, and monitor the shipment of supplies to Havana and the port of New Orleans.[2]  Louisiana’s Governor, Bernardo de Gálvez, would add ammunition and other supplies to the rebel army’s cache. Once in American waters, the rebel ships would be authorized to pick up the cargo in Spanish ports in America. A secret line of credit of four million reales de vellón (equivalent to half a million Continental dollars)[3] was established with the Spanish treasury for the purchase of medicines, muskets, tents, blankets, buttons, shoes, socks, blue woolen cloths, and white fabrics to make uniforms for the continental army, as well as anchors, ropes, and sails among other naval objects.

Born in 1735, Diego de Gardoqui, was heir to Gardoqui e Hijos (Gardoqui and Sons Co.), one of the most renowned codfish trading companies between Bilbao and North American ports. From a young age, his father entrusted him with the task of expanding the family business to other ports and commodities, and for this reason he was sent to London to study finance and learn the language, which made Diego one of the few Spaniards at the time to be fluent in English. True to the wishes of his father, Diego’s brothers continued to support him after the death of the patriarch, buying him a post at the Bilbao consulate, launching a professional career that would include positions in the Bilbao City Council (from 1771 to 1776) and as advisor at the Court in Madrid (from 1777).[4] From the latter, he would launch the daring undertaking of channeling the secret Spanish aid to the United States using his family’s business as cover. In fact, the Gardoqui e Hijos company had long been involved in supplying arms and supplies to the American revolutionaries.[5] In February 1775, a year and a half prior to the Declaration of Independence of the United States and long before the courts of France or Spain used the adventurer and writer Caron de Beaumarchais as a cover for the same purpose, the Basque company already had sent “three hundred muskets and bayonets, and almost double that number of pairs of pistols” to the American Revolutionaries.[6]

For two decades, Gardoqui and Sons Co. had established trade routes between Bilbao and the American ports of Salem, Newburyport, Beverly, Boston, and Gloucester in Massachusetts. Its American partners included prominent merchants closely linked to the cause of the American Revolution such as the Cabot brothers—one of the region’s leading merchant families—and Elbridge and Samuel Russel Gerry, pioneers of independence commissioned by the Second Continental Congress to supply the rebel army.

“The British lion engaging four powers,” published in London in 1782. The print shows the British lion confronting its four enemies: “You shall al have an old English drubbing to make you quiet.” Spain as a cocker spaniel: “I will have Gibraltar, that I may be King of all Spain;” France as a fighting cock: “I will have my Title from you and be call’d King of France;” America as a rattlesnake (first used as a satire by British cartoonists but soon embraced by Benjamin Franklin in his famous engraving entitled “Join or Die” published in the Pennsylvania Gazette on May 9, 1754): “I will have America and be Independent;” and Holland as a pug dog: “I will be Jack of all sides as I have always been.” (Library of Congress)

The Gardoqui family knew how to take advantage of this extraordinary opportunity by identifying Spain’s interests with their own. In little more than a decade, the clan increased its capital exponentially. Between 1765 and 1778, the company imported codfish, rice, tobacco, and indigo from the thirteen colonies, exporting in turn wool, naval articles and iron. By 1791, the annual earnings of Gardoqui and his sons would exceed six hundred thousand reales, and there are even those who claim that they had an estimated capital of ten million reales.[7] In the first years of the American War of Independence, the role of the Gardoqui would be essential in keeping the Continental army armed and supplied, at a time when the Spanish Government’s official policy regarding the conflict was, in the words of the Count of Floridablanca in 1777, to “prepare for the war, as it is inevitable, but do everything to prevent it.”[8] When the British Navy closed American ports on the East Coast, Spanish aid to the American revolutionaries had to be sent through Havana and New Orleans, from where US agents would make it reach its destination by going up the Mississippi. With the entry of Spain into the war against Great Britain in June 1779, the need for secret intermediaries to send aid to the American revolutionaries would disappear; nonetheless Gardoqui continued trading with his American partners, clients, and contacts.

Monument to John Adams in Bilbao, Spain. (Zarateman/Wikimedia Commons)

His special relationship with John Adams, who would later become the second President of the United States and one of the most renowned ideologues within the circle of American patriots responsible for drafting the Constitution of 1787, should be noted here. Their first meeting took place by chance in 1780, in the course of Adams’ travel to Paris to join the United States embassy in that capital. Adams’ ship was forced to dock at El Ferrol, in the north-west coast of Spain. In the rush to reach his destination and replace Silas Deane, Adams decided to continue his journey by road in the middle of winter. According to his personal diary and his correspondence with his wife Abigail, shortly after Adams arrived in Bilbao, Diego Gardoqui knocked on his door to invite him to dinner at his house.[9] From that night on, Gardoqui became his personal guide to Spain.

Once the British army was defeated at the Battle of Yorktown in October 1781, the American Congress began to consider entering into negotiations with Spain to discuss two main points: the navigation on the Mississippi River and the definition of the borders south and west of the new nation.[10] During the peace negotiations that took place in Paris in late 1782 and early 1783, the enormous distance that separated the Spanish, French and American proposals became evident. Spain wanted its borders to start from the Gulf of Mexico, following the Apalachicola River to the Flint River and continuing through the Appalachians to Lake Erie. The United States was in a position to recognize the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico as Spanish territory as long as Spain recognized that the American borders began with the Mississippi River. France for its part proposed that the southern limit of its border with Spain should be set on the Ohio River to the east.

As Spain had not been a formal ally of the American Revolutionaries and was unwilling to recognize the Unites States as a country, the American negotiators in Paris felt no need to inform the Spanish government about their territorial agreements with the British, which established that if, at the time of the cessation of hostilities, Florida remained in the hands of the British, the southern border of the United States would be fixed at the 31st parallel. This provision directly contradicted the surrender capitulations signed by Gen. Bernardo de Gálvez and Gen. John Campbell after the British were defeated at Pensacola in May 1781. If the border was set from the 31st parallel, north of the city of New Orleans, Spain would lose a fundamental containment zone that afforded protected from constant incursions of outlaws and American militiamen.

When, in 1784, the Spanish government decided it needed to send an official envoy to the United States it was no surprise that Gardoqui was selected for such a crucial posting, with instructions to settle the pending negotiations with the new Republic.[11] Spain’s position of controlling navigation along the Mississippi was not easy to maintain as it contravened the practice of international law of the time, which established that a river’s navigation rights could be transferred from one state to another—first from France to Great Britain, and after this to the United States—without the need for the consent of the third affected state, in this case, Spain.[12]

At forty-nine years of age, Gardoqui presented himself as the ideal candidate to unblock negotiations with the United States, since he not only knew George Washington personally but also had an extensive network of contacts among the delegates to Congress where he was known for the role that Gardoqui e Hijos company had played in delivering secret Spanish aid to the American revolutionaries.[13] Richard Henry Lee, president of Congress in 1785, Arthur Lee and James Monroe demonstrated in favor of the Spanish thesis in exchange for commercial rights. These circles were keenly aware that the exports of codfish to Spain produced between four and five million dollars annually, a business that northern states were keen to protect.

Gardoqui presented his credentials as “plenipotentiary minister” (equivalent to what is currently an ambassador, but that was at the time the highest diplomatic representative appointed to a country where there was no tradition of bilateral relations) of the Kingdom of Spain before the United States of America on June 22, 1785. From its independence in 1777 until adoption of the constitution in 1789, the young American republic was a confederation in which the central state had very little power or resources. In the absence of a president or prime minister, the most prominent figure in the executive was the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, John Jay. Between 1779 and 1782, Jay had been sent to Spain, where in the words of one historian, he spent “thirty murderous months on the periphery of the Spanish court.”[14]

Although he did not succeed in attaining an alliance between the two nations nor Spanish recognition of the independence of the United States, Gardoqui did obtain important financial aid in arms and supplies. The fact is that John Jay returned from Spain very frustrated. Without speaking a word of Spanish, he responded to his isolation with a resentment reaffirmed by the already-old Anglo-Saxon Protestant prejudices against Catholic Spain. Despite his personal views, Jay was realistic and a diplomat, aware of the weakness of his young nation that needed a long period of peace and tranquility to, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, “assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.” Even in this context, the negotiations between Jay and Gardoqui lasted for almost a year. In August 1786 Jay submitted to the American Congress a principle of agreement in which, although Spain granted certain commercial privileges to North American ships in ports of Spanish America, it denied their access to the Mississippi.

Although it obtained seven votes to five, it was not approved, as a majority of nine was required. After many negotiations with the government of Madrid, still reluctant to renounce its sovereignty over the “father of the waters,” Gardoqui proposed to Jay that American merchants could navigate through the river in exchange for payment of a rate of fifteen percent of the value of the cargo in an effort to overcome the blockade. When it seemed that an agreement was feasible, a scandal broke out in Congress promoted by some delegates from the South. Jay was accused of contravening his instructions and hiding key aspects of his negotiations with Spain from that legislative body. According to a letter written to Washington by James Madison in September 1788, it was evident that John Jay was willing to relinquish navigation rights in exchange for substantial commercial concessions from Spain.[15]

Faced with this setback, Gardoqui sought the support of Washington, who despite having retired from politics and living in his Mount Vernon estate at that time, continued to enjoy enormous prestige and influence. To ingratiate himself with him, Gardoqui personally entrusted the delivery of a precious gift that King Carlos III had sent to General Washington: a donkey—politely referred to as “royal gift”—which was to become the father of a new generation of American mules. Gardoqui took advantage of the donkey’s delivery to try to obtain Washington’s support for the Spanish positions, but the astute Virginian gentleman limited himself to thanking him for the gift, avoiding being involved in any political or diplomatic dispute.[16]

Just a few months later, Gardoqui insisted again asking Washington for help, this time sending him a vicuña cloth, “his majesties true manufactured cloth,” that he said had been specially made for the general  “of the wool of an animal of that name produced only in Buenos Aires.”[17] The general, as revealed in his correspondence with the ambassador in August 1786, was especially grateful for the cloth.[18] A vicuña remnant remains in the Mount Vernon Museum awaiting identification; like the rest of Washington’s clothing, it was fragmented and distributed among his extensive relatives as if it were a relic. But once again, the exquisitely educated Washington declined to intervene, referring to what Congress decided.

Despite the limited success in his previous efforts, Gardoqui would not give up in his efforts to win the support of Washington. By the end of 1787, perhaps hoping that the third time would be the charm, he again insisted with a new gift: an edition of Don Quixote. The idea dated back to a meeting or dinner at Benjamin Franklin’s house in Philadelphia, at which Washington heard about Cervantes’s character for the first time. His curiosity was awakened, and the next day he bought an English edition translated by Tobias Smollett, who had participated in the failed British attack on Cartagena de Indias in 1741 in which George Washington’s half-brother Lawrence also fought. On his return to Virginia, Lawrence named his estate in honor of the English Vice Admiral under whom he served then: Edward Vernon. Gardoqui was either present or learned of Washington’s interest in Don Quixote and did not miss the opportunity to give him what is still today considered one of the best and most luxurious editions of the work: the one commissioned by the Royal Spanish Academy in 1780.[19]

In his letter of appreciation for the four volumes of the Don Quixote edition, dated November 28, 1787,[20] Washington could not be more courteous but firm in reminding Gardoqui that his person had nothing to do with government affairs of the United States since he resigned his command of the Continental Army. After receiving the letter, Gardoqui would not insist anymore and the correspondence between the two would be interrupted, as if it foreshadowed the beginning of a new era in the relations between Spain and the United States of America. In 1788, the United States ratified its new Constitution establishing a system of government in which the retired general would occupy its presidency, while at the end of that same year, King Charles III died leaving the Spanish throne to his incompetent son, Charles IV.[21]

As a diplomat, Gardoqui displayed a style unusual in a traditional ambassador, whom some authors have described as direct and pragmatic—businesslike—that produced mixed results. While Gardoqui’s “gift diplomacy” stumbled against Washington’s gentlemanly propriety it was much more successful when applied to less morally picky politicians who had no problems in accepting Cuban cigars (like Richard Henry Lee), or even an Arabian stallion (presented to John Jay).[22] The little success of his intentional gifts to George Washington differed greatly from the results obtained while negotiating the treaty with Jay.[23] Gardoqui’s business contacts served him and his company well at a time when his main purpose should have been vested in negotiating the interests of his country. It was clear that his private and official priorities were far from clearly separated.

In addition to his diplomatic duties, during his time as envoy of the Spanish Crown to the United States of America, Gardoqui became involved in the task of attracting settlers to the then still very underpopulated Spanish province of Louisiana. Perhaps with the best of intentions, but in a disorderly way, he supported without too much verification several dubious initiatives that were presented to him to bring Catholic settlers from Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, New York or even from Germany to that Spanish territory, in some cases advancing official funds to organizers. The very few times when Anglo-American or German settlers did arrive in Louisiana, they completely lacked any type of experience as peasants or farmers, generating serious problems for the governor of Louisiana, Esteban Miró.

Diego de Gardoqui returned to Bilbao on July 24, 1789 aboard San Nicolás, possibly one of Gardoqui e Hijos’ ships. In October 1791 he was appointed Secretary of the Treasury Office, Minister of Finance in its current name, first as ad interim and later as permanent, under the government of Prime Minister Manuel Godoy. His Anglo-Saxon education, rare for a time when most of the ruling classes looked more toward Paris than London, was essential to the introduction in Spain of Adam Smith’s economic theories. In his five years as minister, he faced the expenses generated by the war against revolutionary France (1793-1795); tried to apply important reforms to increase state income (eliminating exemptions and privileges); improved the treasury administration; controlled public debt; and promoted national industry.

From his position as a member of the government of the Prince of the Peace (one of Godoy’s peerages),[24] Gardoqui would observe with a mixture of despair and rage how the negotiations between Spain and the United States progressed, which would end in the signing, on October 27, 1795, of the Spanish-American Treaty of friendship, limits and navigation, known in Spain as the Treaty of San Lorenzo, and in the United States as Pinckney’s treaty.

In this treaty, Spain acceded to each and every one of the United States’ aspirations. The border was established at the 31st parallel and, under the guise of mutual freedom of navigation, which served Spanish interests little or nothing, the Mississippi was completely open to American merchants. This was exactly what Gardoqui had endeavored to avoid during his four years as “minister plenipotentiary” to the United States. Just three months after the signing of the Treaty of San Lorenzo, Diego de Gardoqui was appointed ambassador to the Kingdom of Sardinia, with its capital in Turin. In fact, it was an honorable way out for someone who had long since fallen from grace. In his diaries, The Spanish politician and writer Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos wrote that Gardoqui received “his belated justice and goes as ambassador to Turin, where he will no longer be able to prevaricate or to . . . .”[25]

In his two years in Turin, Gardoqui had the opportunity to see first-hand how the order of the old regime was beginning to collapse at the hands of the young general Napoléon Bonaparte, who in northern Italy was leading revolutionary France from victory to victory. On the very day of his sixty-third birthday, November 12, 1798, Diego de Gardoqui died in Turin.  He is today remembered in both Spain and the United States as a statesman and diplomat who helped found the relationship between the two nations.


[1]María Jesús Cava and Begoña Cava, Diego María de Gardoqui: Un Bilbaíno en la diplomacia del siglo XVIII (Bilbao: BBK, 1992), 10.

[2]American Commissioners to the Committee of Secret Correspondence, Paris, March 12, 1777,  founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-23-02-0305.Also see Alfonso Carlos Saiz Valdivieso, Diego María Gardoqui. Esplendor y Penumbra (Madrid: Muelle Uritarte Editores, 2014), 80.

[3]For the Spanish financial aid to the American Revolution see José Antonio Armillas Vicente, “Ayuda secreta y deuda oculta. España y la independencia de los Estados Unidos,” in Eduardo Garrigues, Emma Sánchez Montañés, Sylvia L. Hilton, Almudena Hernández Ruigómez and Isabel García-Montón Garrigues, eds, Norteamérica a finales del siglo XVIII: España y los Estados Unidos (Madrid: Fundación Consejo España-Estados Unidos y Marcial Pons, 2008), 171-196.

[4]Cava and Cava, Diego María de Gardoqui, 12.

[5]Reyes Calderón Cuadrado, “Alianzas comerciales hispano-norteamericanas en la financiación del proceso de independencia de los Estados Unidos de América: La Casa Gardoqui e hijos,” in Norteamérica a finales del siglo XVIII: España y los Estados Unidos, 197-218; Natividad Rueda, La Compañía Comercial Gardoqui e hijos: 1760 – 1800 (Vitoria-Gasteiz: Gobierno Vasco, 1992).

[6]José Gardoqui to Jeremiah Lee, Bilbao, February 15, 1775, in Naval Documents of the American Revolution (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1964-2014), 1:401.

[7]Andoni Artola Renedo, “El cardenal Francisco Antonio Gardoqui (1747 -1820): las claves de una carrera en la Iglesia Católica,” Bidebarriera: Revista de humanidades y Ciencias Sociales de Bilbao21 (2010), 47-66, 2. Álvaro Chaparro Sainz, “Diego María de Gardoqui y los Estados Unidos: Actuaciones, influencias y relaciones de un vasco en el nacimiento de una nación,” Vasconia39 (2013), 101-140; 120.

[8]María Pilar Ruigómez de Hernández, El gobierno español del despotismo ilustrado ante la independencia de los Estados Unidos de América: Una nueva estructura de la política internacional (1773–1783) (Madrid: Ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores, 1978), 225. Juan Hernández Franco, La gestión política y el pensamiento reformista del Conde de Floridablanca (Murcia: Universidad de Murcia, 1984), 334.

[9]John Adams to Abigail Adams, January 16, 1780, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-03-02-0201. Adams to Michel Lagoanere, January 16, 1780, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-08-02-0193.

[10]Alfonso Carlos Saiz Valdivieso, Diego María Gardoqui. Esplendor y Penumbra (Madrid: Muelle Uritarte Editores, 2014), 108.

[11]Cava and Cava, Diego María de Gardoqui, 28-29.

[12]On the question about navigation of the Mississippi see Gonzalo M. Quintero Saravia, Bernardo de Gálvez: Spanish Hero of the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 263-265.

[13]Cava and Cava, Diego María de Gardoqui, 33-34.

[14]Stacy Schiff, A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America (New York: Henry Holt, 2005), 254.

[15]James Madison to George Washington, New York, September 26, 1788, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-01-02-0005

[16]Washington to Diego Gardoqui, January 20, 1786, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-03-02-0439

[17]Gardoqui to Washington,June 12, 1786, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-04-02-0107

[18]Washington to Gardoqui, August 30, 1786, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-04-02-0222

[19]This edition of Don Quixote was commissioned by the Real Academia Española to the printer Joaquín de Ibarra and is considered to be one of the finest ever produced. Miguel de Cervantes, El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha (Madrid: Joaquín de Ibarra, 1780).

[20]Washington to Gardoqui, November 28, 1787, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-05-02-0417

[21]Jon Kukla, A Wilderness so Immense. The Louisiana Purchase and the Destiny of America(New York: Anchor Books, 2003), 106-107.

[22]Richard Henry Lee to Thomas Lee Shippen, June 4, 1785, in Paul H. Smith, et al., eds. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789, 25 volumes (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1976-2000), 22:432, memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?hlaw:3:./temp/~ammem_VUlX. John Jay to Gardoqui, March 1, 1786, founders.archives.gov/documents/Jay/01-04-02-0140. Initially Gardoqui committed a faux pas with Jay’s wife, Sarah, when in October 1785 left his card at their home with a “valuable present” for her. Too valuable for them to accept it, they decided to return it.  Jay to Gardoqui, October 4, 1785, founders.archives.gov/documents/Jay/01-04-02-0088.

[23]Cava and Cava, Diego María de Gardoqui, 34.

[24]Manuel Godoy was rewarded with various titles during his political career. He was made Prince of the Peace after the Peace of Basel (July 1795) that ended the war with France.

[25]In the first published version of Jovellanos’ Diaries the editor inserted here three dots while in the original manuscript was written “steal.”Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, Obras de Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, Diarios (Memorias íntimas) 1790-1801 (Madrid: Sucesores de Hernando, 1915), entry of October 27, 1776, 322.

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