Don Diego de Gardoqui: Hero of the Revolution, Schemer Against the Republic

Postwar Politics (>1783)

December 14, 2023
by Tyson Reeder Also by this Author


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When Don Diego Gardoqui stepped onto Philadelphia’s docks in May 1785, he was a hero of the American Revolution. A merchant from Bilbao, Spain, Gardoqui, forty-nine, had early on in the war transformed his trade connections with Massachusetts into a pipeline for delivering the arms and supplies desperately needed by American troops. Following the war, Spanish King Carlos III named Gardoqui charges de affairs to the new nation. With diplomatic experience representing Spain to the Court of St. James, excellent English, and the esteem of US leaders, Gardoqui was the natural choice.

Learning that Congress had relocated to New York City, Gardoqui headed for the new capital with a mission to exploit weaknesses in the American union of states and advance his sovereign’s interests. By the time Gardoqui departed New York City four years later, Americans no longer thought of him as a savior of the Revolution. Thanks to his scheming, he had become a scoundrel of the early republic.[1]

The 1783 Peace of Paris ended the war, but it left over one hundred thousand square miles in dispute between the United States, Spain, Georgia and Indigenous nations. Spain held New Orleans, which meant that it controlled the mouth of the Mississippi River. In 1784, to bolster its position in North America, Spain closed the river to navigation by Americans.[2]

Westerners, who depended on access to the Gulf of Mexico to export their products, were alarmed. If a distant Congress could not secure access for them, maybe a foreign power could. As George Washington put it, Westerners stood “upon a pivot — the touch of a feather, would turn them any way.”[3]

Gardoqui arrived with a four-part mission: negotiate the disputed boundaries between the two nations, increase US commerce to Spain, prevent US commerce to Spain’s American dominions, and halt US demands for access to the lower Mississippi.[4]

Ever cagey, Gardoqui launched a two-pronged strategy to convince Americans to fold on the Mississippi question. First, he flattered and bribed influential leaders to his side. “There are many needy in the government body,” he smirked. Some fancy dinners, “good wines,” and effective bribes masquerading as loans, he hoped, would cajole influential leaders to his side. John Jay, Congress’s secretary of foreign affairs in the Confederation government, and his wife, Sarah, were the main targets. Eventually John received a fine horse as a gift with Congress’s permission. Virginia delegate to Congress Henry Lee received at least two loans of 5,000 pesos. “He is very much mine,” bragged Gardoqui.[5]

For the second part of his strategy, Gardoqui depended on the northern commercial community. He knew Northerners cared more about Atlantic trade than access to the Mississippi. He offered Jay the chance to reassert North American trade in Spain (though not in Spain’s American colonies) if he would abandon the Mississippi for some three decades. If Jay refused, Gardoqui threatened to close the valuable markets to Americans.[6]

The treaty Gardoqui proposed outraged Southerners and Westerners, who complained that Jay was abandoning them to the whims of a foreign power.[7]

Gardoqui was intrigued by the discontent of Westerners. They clamored for statehood for their new settlements in the Tennessee River Valley, such as the future state of Kentucky and the would-be states of Franklin and Cumberland. Congress had ignored their pleas, making them an inviting target for Spain. As a North Carolina Congressman told Gardoqui, if Spain granted independent Westerners access to the Mississippi, the empire could “win them forever.”[8]

On March 13, 1787, Congressmen James Madison of Virginia and William Bingham of Pennsylvania met Gardoqui in his home, in hopes of negotiating United States access to the lower Mississippi. “Spain never would give up” its exclusive control of river, Gardoqui told his visitors. But, he added, “the people of Kentucky would make good Spanish subjects.” He said it as a lighthearted gibe, but it caught Madison’s attention.[9]

Just over two weeks later, on March 29, Madison again called on Gardoqui, this time with others of Virginia’s congressional delegation by his side.[10]

Toward the end of the conversation, Gardoqui returned to his joke from a week earlier that Westerners might become Spanish subjects. This time, however, Gardoqui sobered his tone and told the Virginians that “some person connected with the Western Country” had suggested such a plan. Carlos III’s “dignity & Character” would never allow him to adopt such a scheme, Gardoqui reassured the delegates. Maybe not, but they wanted more assurance than the “dignity & Character” of a monarch.[11]

In the quarrel over the Mississippi, Madison thought he spied the elements that had destroyed confederations throughout history. A year earlier, he had undertaken an arduous study of past confederations, and he noticed a common pattern. Internal discord divided members of the confederation. The quarrelling regions allied or colluded with stronger foreign powers. Foreign powers asserted gradual power over the confederation until they stole its sovereignty or the confederation dissolved.[12]

As the Constitutional Convention approached, Madison labored to devise a system that could accommodate America’s political diversity while withstanding foreign meddling and foreign collusion. When William Paterson presented his so-called “New Jersey Plan” to counter the “Virginia Plan,” Madison questioned whether the proposal could “secure the Union agst. the influence of foreign powers.” Madison pushed hard for a Constitution capable of uniting the young states with each other — and against the machinations of foreign intriguers.

Ultimately, Madison’s constitution thwarted Gardoqui’s plotting. When New Hampshire ratified the Constitution in June 1788, it became operative and dampened disunionist spirits. The United States won back the loyalty of Westerners. That December, Gardoqui learned that Kentuckians would gamble on the United States rather than on Spain. Likewise, Spanish support for the breakaway territory of Franklin collapsed.[13] In February 1789, Franklin’s leadership swore allegiance to North Carolina.[14]

Faced with the inevitable, Gardoqui publicly celebrated the new government in April 1789. He put on a fireworks show for George Washington’s inauguration, with the explosions illuminating a brilliant display of transparent paintings on the façade of Gardoqui’s house. The Castile and León coat of arms ornamented the doorway just above the crossed flags of the United States and Spain emblazoning the motto “Natural Union.”[15]

The display belied the tension that had prevailed for years between the two powers. The festivities accompanied the new Constitution, which meant that the two-thirds Senate approval requirement for treaties became active. Gardoqui might find a few supportive states, but he knew he would never get to nine. He would not get his treaty.[16]

His mission a failure, in fall 1789, Gardoqui boarded the San Nicolás and departed the United States, having become the face of an acrimonious struggle for continental power that was only beginning.


(This essay is drawn from the author’s contribution to A Republic of Scoundrels: The Schemers, Intriguers, and Adventurers Who Created a New American Nation (Pegasus Books, 2023), ed. by David Head and Timothy Hemmis.)


[1]Alfonso Carlos Saiz Valdivielso, Diego de Gardoqui: Esplendor y Penumbra (Bilbao, Spain: Muelle de Uribitarte, 2014), 113–116, 119; Relaciones Diplomaticas Entre España y los Estados UnidosSegun los Documentos del Archivo Historico Nacional, ed. Miguel Gómez del Campillo (2 vols., Madrid, Spain: Instituto Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo, 1944),1: xli–xlii; Michael A. Otero, “The American Mission of Diego de Gardoqui” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1948), 64–65.

[2]Larrie D. Ferreiro, Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It (New York: Knopf, 2016), 161–162, 253–254, 288–290; Jonathan R. Dull, “Diplomacy and Independence,” in The Routledge History of U.S. Foreign Relations, ed. Tyson Reeder (New York: Routledge, 2022), 117; David J. Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America(New Haven: Yale University Press 2009), 204–206; Otero, “American Mission,” 60–61; David Narrett, Adventurism and Empire: The Struggle for Mastery in the Louisiana–Florida Borderlands, 1762–1803(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 126–127, 210–211; Providence(RI)Gazette, August 14, 1784; Arthur Preston Whitaker, The Spanish–American Frontier, 1783–1795: The Westward Movement and the Spanish Retreat in the Mississippi Valley(New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1927), 65.

[3]Drew R. McCoy, The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980), 123–124; George William Van Cleve, We Have Not a Government: The Articles of Confederation and the Road to the Constitution(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 142.

[4]Campillo, Relaciones Diplomaticas, 1: xxxvi–xxxvii; James G. Lydon, Fish and Flour for Gold, 1600–1800: Southern Europe in the Colonial Balance of Payments(Philadelphia: Library Company of Philadelphia, 2008), 239; Otero, “American Mission,” 187.

[5]Van Cleve, We Have Not a Government, 165; Gardoqui to Floridablanca, August 27, 1784, and May 12, 1787, both in Campillo, Relaciones Diplomaticas, 1: xxxv, 518 ; John Jay to Gardoqui, October 4, 1785, and March 1, 1786 and Jay to Charles Thomson, March 3, 1786, all in The Selected Papers of John Jay Digital Edition, ed. Elizabeth M. Nuxoll (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–); Garoqui to Floridablanca, December 6, 1787, Estado, Legajo 3893, Archivo Historico Nacional–Madrid.

[6]Lydon, Fish and Flour, 238–240; Gardoqui to Floridablanca, June 30, 1785, Estado, Legajo 3884bis, Archivo Historico Nacional; Campillo, Relaciones Diplomaticas, 1: xlv–xlvi; Lydon, Fish and Flour, 240.

[7]James Monroe to Madison, May 31, 1786,; Campillo, Relaciones Diplomaticas, 1:li–liii, esp. liii; Lydon, Fish and Flour, 240.

[8]Kevin T. Barksdale, The Lost State of Franklin: America’s First Secession (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2008), 3–4, 146–148, esp. 147; Solano, José Navarro Latorre y Fernando Solano Costa, Conspiración Española? 17871789: Contribución al Estudio de las Primeras Relaciones Históricas Entre España y los Estados Unidos de Norteamérica (Zaragoza, Spain, 1949),45, 57; Kathleen DuVal, Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution (New York: Random House, 2015), 310–311, 315–316;Gardoqui to Floridablanca, May 12, 1787, in Campillo, Relaciones Diplomaticas, 376.

[9]Madison, “Notes on Debates,” March 13, 1787,

[10]Madison, “Notes on Debates,” March 29, 1787,

[11]Madison, “Notes on Debates,” March 13 and 29, 1787,

[12]Madison, “Notes on Ancient and Modern Confederacies,” April–June 1786,

[13]Narrett, Adventurism, 165–166; Gardoqui to Floridablanca, July 25, 1787, in John Mason Brown, The Political Beginnings of Kentucky, (Louisville, 1889), 146–148; Brown to Gardoqui, September 15, 1788, Dec. 17, 1788 [misdated by Gardoqui in his translation as 1789], and January 15, 1789, all in Estado, Legajo 3894, Archivo Historico Nacional—Madrid; Gardoqui to Floridablanca, November 22, 1788, Estado, Legajo 3894, Archivo Historico Nacional—Madrid.

[14]Barksdale, Lost State, 153–161;Narrett,Adventurism, 167, 169; Solano, Conspiración Española, 79, 144n28, 323–325; DuVal, Independence Lost, 320.

[15]“Relación de las ceremonias y funciones que se celebraron el día de la proclamación del President General de lost Estados Unidos, Ilustre Jorge Wáshington,” May 1, 1789, in Campillo, Relaciones Diplomaticas, 1: 546–547.

[16]Otero, “American Mission,” 279–280.

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