Notes on Observations of Barbé-Marbois on
Western Boundary of the United States
MS (LC: Madison Papers). On 6 October 1780, having agreed two days before upon its instructions to John Jay, United States minister to Spain, Congress named a committee comprising JM as chairman, John Sullivan, and James Duane to draft a letter to Jay “explaining the reasons and principles” underlying the instructions (Journals of the Continental Congress, XVIII, 908). At some time between 6 and 16 October, when the committee made its report, JM took the following notes on Barbé-Marbois’s “Observations sur les points contestes de la négociation entre l’Espagne et les États-Unis.”
[6–16 October 1780]
Sketch of ye Observations on the boundary between the
Spanish Settlements & the United States.
The King of France though anxious to effect the Triple alliance, yet thinkg. the pretensions on both sides3 exorbitant, did not chuse to interfere in support of either. But directed his Ministers at Phila. & Madrid to press the importance of mutual concessions[.] With this view the former represents to Congress the ne[ce]ssity of [c]oncent[ra]ting the force agst. the common enemy, for want of which the events of the present campaign4 have proved inadequate to the exertions. The advantages of an alliance are obvious, in case of a negociation for peace. it will be conducted with perfect harmony between the 3 allied powers—The Spaniards will be as much disposed as the french to support the just claims of U. States. They will not threaten to make a peace excluding them if the others shall be satisfied—on pretence that they are tied to France only, and had no motives to exhaust their resources for a people whose ambition prevented a treaty with a power on whom their safety depended.5 a continental war to be dreaded by France, as it depends on the death of 2 crowned heads old & sickly and it is 18 years since she was engaged in one6—Hence the necessity of seeking a present peace by united efforts. another advantage of an Alliance arises from the impression an acknowledgmt. of independence7 would make on other Powers of Europe, and on England herself.
The necessity of the Alliance being shew[n] the mea[ns] of brin[g]ing it about are next to be considered, the observations on which are to be taken not as ministerial communications, but the private sentiments of one more impartially attached to the good of both parties, than acquainted with the pretensions of either.
Spain claims the exclusive navigation of the Mississippi; and as much I can guess that part of the continent which lies eastward of the Mississippi & formerly called the Orientalis Louisiana. On this head the following objections were suggested by the Committee to the french minister in Jany. last, when urging the necessity of satisfying Spain8—
Obj: 1. The Charters of the Southern States forbid such a cession.9
answer. The transactions of a power with its own subjects [is] not binding on another power unless communicated[,] acknowledged, and in a case like the present, unless actual possession can be pleaded. were it otherwise perpetual contests wd. prevail among the Southern powers of Europe, as they have most of them granted such [charters at sundry times] to [their subjects.] The charters of the Colonies [interfere with each other,] most of them having disputes not only with their neigh[bours, but with those] at a distance how then can they be a rule for another [power? How will it ap]pear for the states at the time they are requesting of Spain [an acknowledgment of their] independence to apply to the very record which is the proof [of their subjection? Is it] not plain that in such a case, there is no other solid [plea but actual occupation,] or at least a former public manifest possession?10 The King of Spain however will not recur to these arguments: he will only say—those lands have been ceded 18 years ago by france to G.B. (treaty of Paris 63. art. 7) not to the Colonies. If they become the property of any common enemy, I have a full right to make the conquest of and so I do.
Obj: 2. The lands in question [are] necessary to the safety & prosperity of the States.
Ans: This is not certain. The case of Vermont, Kentucke & some Counties in Massachusets, show the danger of such ext[ensiv]e territories. It is in vain to attempt to convince eithe[r] party that their claims are agst. thei[r] interests, as they are the best judges of it—It rests therefore on the respective possibility of making the conquest, and it may be left even to a partial judge to decide on this point.
Obj: 3. Spain would take advantage of the present situation of the United States to treat with them on unequal principles.
Ans: This is the case in 99 treaties of a 100—no such inequality—rather on the side of America—Spain will acknowledge her independence and does not need hers to be so11—Spain will grant commercial and very likely other advantages and can not expect the same from America. The benefits she is to reap are not of such a positive nature.
Obj: 4. If these demands were granted Spain might think herself entitled to the demand or conquest of Georgia Penobscot N. York &c.12
Ans: This objection is extravagant & cannot be seriously made. the most explicit assurances on this point might at any time be obtained.
Obj: 5. Such conduct in Spain neithe[r generous] nor liberal.
Ans: The Spanish Ministry have probably on this said to the French Ambassador that the conduct of the Americans is neither13 liberal nor generous
Obj: 6. A war even a long war preferable to such conditions
Ans: A Patient extremely ill might as well say to his Phycician death is better than not to drink spirituous liquors & other things not to be found on the island where he was.
Obj: 7. The Spaniards would not suffer by the sacrifices of their own ambition. No unequal treaty can last long—the injured party will soon or later break it.
Ans: The cautiousness of Spain may be trusted to provide agst. this evil. She may perhaps upon better ground suggest the same danger to the States. They will chuse rather however to confine themselves to their right of conquest upon a country possessed14 by their Enemy.
Obj: 8. The teritory cannot be given up with out the previous consent of the interested states.
Ans: As this argmt. is founded on the charters, if it be valid, it would prove that no treaty would be valid, unless it secured to the States [territory?] as far as the South Sea.
In this manner would reason a Minister of the [Court of Spain, and it would seem] no solid objection could be made to it. If any restricti[ons ought to be laid on these principles,] they ought to be taken from the actual settlement [of Americans on the territories] claimed by the Spaniards. By settlement is mea[nt, not temporary incursions] of a few troops, but actual occupancy supported [by the exercise of jurisdiction, and] by building of houses, clearing & inhabiting the [land, &c., without contradiction. Here an] impartial mediator might find the line to be drawn be[tween the contending parties. But I shall] Confine myself to represent to the friends of this case that[, in missing the present fair opportunity of ob]taining solid & lasting advantages to run after a shadow & a chimerical object, they expose themselves to the everlasting reproaches of their Country.15
1. François, Marquis de Barbé-Marbois (1745–1837), secretary of the French legation, was chargé d’affaires for some weeks in the autumn of 1780 during La Luzerne’s absence from Philadelphia (Wharton, Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence description begins Francis Wharton, ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (6 vols.; Washington, D.C., 1889). description ends , IV, 59; Journals of the Continental Congress, XVIII, 836–37). The uncompromising stand in regard to the western boundary of the United States asserted by Congress in its instructions to Jay of 4 October, and their probable effect of preventing Spain from allying with the United States, as France desired, led Marbois to prepare his statement. He may have been assisted in drafting it by Francisco Rendón, agent of Spain, and by Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer, a Maryland delegate in Congress, who wished to restrict the western limits of the “landed states,” and especially of Virginia, to the Appalachian watershed (Kathryn Sullivan, Maryland and France, 1774–1789 [Philadelphia, 1936], pp. 88–90). On the strength of a dispatch from Marbois to Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes, 21 October 1780, in the archives of the French Minister of Foreign Affairs in Paris, Elijah Wilson Lyon writes that Marbois, by showing his “Observations” to Madison, persuaded him to make his draft of the letter to Jay “less in the tone of the ambitious principles adopted by Virginia” in relation to its western boundary and the right of Americans to a free use of the Mississippi (The Man Who Sold Louisiana: The Career of François Barbé-Marbois [Norman, Okla., 1942], p. 25; see also William Emmett O’Donnell, The Chevalier de La Luzerne, French Minister to the United States, 1779–1784 [Bruges, 1938], p. 110). Although Henri Doniol (Histoire, IV, 593–94) states that Marbois sent a copy of his statement to the president of Congress as well as to Vergennes, no copy of it has been found in the Papers of the Continental Congress in the National Archives.
2. This date was probably inserted by someone other than JM long after he made these notes.
3. Spain and the United States.
4. This can refer only to the campaign of 1780 and hence helps to fix the time when Marbois drafted his memoir.
5. The antecedent of the two “theys” and of the first “their” in this sentence is Spain; that of “them,” “a people,” and the second “their” is the United States.
6. The meaning here is not clear. Apparently the sense is that France had not fought in Europe since the Seven Years’ War (its preliminary Treaty of Paris was signed on 3 November 1762) and feared to become involved in another such conflict because its outcome might hinge upon Empress Maria Theresa of Austria (d. 28 November 1780), whose death would endanger the alliance between Austria and France, and upon King Frederick the Great, whose neutrality could not be depended upon even though Prussia was a member of the League of Armed Neutrality which was aimed mainly against England. Furthermore, if France’s ally, the able but ailing Charles III (1716–1788) of Spain, should die, his weakling son would be his successor.
7. Of the United States.
8. Journals of the Continental Congress, XVI, 114–15.
9. Above, Motion regarding the Western Lands, 6 September 1780, editorial note.
10. When Henry D. Gilpin published a three-volume collection of Madison’s papers in Washington in 1840, he included these notes (Vol. I, Appendix, pp. iii–v). The manuscript was not as greatly mutilated then as now. The words or parts of words inclosed in brackets between “granted such” and “possession” are taken from Gilpin’s edition.
11. That is, the advantage was really on the side of the United States for her independence would be acknowledged by Spain, whose sovereignty did not depend upon its recognition by the United States or any other nation.
12. Areas occupied in whole or in part by the British in 1780.
13. JM unintentionally wrote “nor” after “neither.”
14. JM inadvertently spelled it “possessessed.”
15. The comment in n. 10 applies also to this paragraph.