Spain and the Netherlands Join the War

The Franco-American Alliance of 1778 changed the nature of the war. Britain now had to fight on many fronts, and its resources were stretched. This encouraged other powers to strike against it. Britain paid the price for imperial hubris. In its moment of need, it found that it had few friends and many enemies. The French foreign minister Vergennes became the impresario of a coalition determined to inflict a salutary defeat on the British empire.

Spain Declares War

The Spanish had as much reason as the French to revenge themselves upon the British. Britain's control of Gibraltar and the gateway to the Mediterranean was an ever-present reminder of past military humiliations. Once France entered the war, Vergennes worked hard to persuade Spain to join the alliance against Britain. The Spanish hesitated out of prudence and disdain for the American revolutionaries.

Vergennes dangled the prospect of rich territorial acquisitions before the Spanish. He promised Florida, Minorca, and other colonial tidbits as the rewards for victory. Spanish foreign minister Floridablanca drove a hard bargain for Spanish belligerency. In the Treaty of Aranjuez, signed with France in April 1779, Spain agreed to go to war against Britain if the British government rejected Spanish terms for mediating the conflict with the Americans. In return, France promised to remain at war until Spain reconquered Gibraltar. Both sides would help each other expand their possessions and privileges overseas. Neither signatory could make a separate peace.

The rulers of France and Spain were members of the same Bourbon family. The Bourbons had ruled France since 1589. Louis XIV's grandson became King of Spain in 1700. Throughout the eighteenth century the family connection led the French and Spanish to cooperate in international affairs.

The United States was not a party to the Treaty of Aranjuez. The Spanish government did not recognize the United States, nor did it consider itself an ally of the Americans. Spain was fighting its own war in conjunction with the French. The colonial clauses of the Treaty of Aranjuez even potentially conflicted with France's treaty with the United States because Spain's interests were not congruent with the Americans'. Vergennes was running the risk of getting entangled in the threads of the web he was spinning.

The Americans tried to establish a relationship with Spain once it went to war with Britain. Congress sent John Jay to Madrid. He was not warmly received. Congress was willing to recognize Spanish claims to Florida and even to abandon support of the claims of western settlers to enjoy free navigation on the Mississippi if Spain would agree to an alliance. Spain would not. The Spanish gave the Americans some money, a fraction of what the United States received from France, but refused to go further. The United States and Spain did not establish formal diplomatic relations with each other until the end of the war.

The Netherlands Is Drawn In

The Dutch had been a major naval power in the seventeenth century. A string of colonies around the world was a tribute to the energy and enterprise of the maritime republic in its heyday. By the late eighteenth century, the Netherlands had long since lost the contest for naval supremacy to the British. The Netherlands no longer figured as a major power in Europe, but the Dutch still traded vigorously — and they carried on a lively business selling munitions to the Americans.

The Dutch island of St. Eustatius in the West Indies became a major entrepôt for this arms trade. The wide-open market of St. Eustatius became a magnet for American, French, Spanish, and even renegade British merchants. The British lodged protests with the Dutch government. The island's governor was recalled for questioning, then sent back.

The Dutch traders on St. Eustatius thrived by disregarding colonial trade regulations. The island made history on November 16, 1776, when the governor responded to a salute from an American ship. This was the first time the independence of the United States was formally recognized.

The Dutch government might have been able to get away with the thinly disguised black market on St. Eustatius for some time. The British took much more seriously the readiness of the Dutch to sell masts and other naval stores to the French and Spanish once they entered the war. The British protested this trade, and once again the Dutch government did nothing. The Dutch trusted to their neutrality and began a modest rearmament program. The British responded with an ultimatum in November 1780 and a declaration of war the following month. The Dutch were too weak to play a significant part in the war. St. Eustatius became a prize in what was now a world war, captured first by the British, then by the French.

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