Monday, January 16, 2017

The Spanish Imperial Crisis

The occupation of Spain by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1808 and his enthroning of his brother Joseph in Madrid created a crisis throughout Spain’s vast empire in America that deepened over the ensuing years. In many Spanish provinces, local juntas asserted power in the name of the king, but as the chaos dragged on, these began to assume a more revolutionary character. Many of their leaders saw the United States as an inspiration and, they hoped, as a source of money, arms, and diplomatic muscle to further their rebellions. Agents were soon dispatched to the United States to seek support, including José Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara, a Mexican revolutionary, and, separately, José Álvarez de Toledo y Dubois, a Cuban rebel who would in time redirect his efforts to Texas.[1] On the American side, President James Madison was convinced by 1810 that the Spanish regime and its empire would collapse entirely and therefore dispatched a number of agents of his own to the various centers of revolt to observe and report.[2] In the case of Mexico, Secretary of State Robert Smith tapped Connecticut merchant William Shaler for the job, and ordered him to Mexico via Cuba. Meanwhile, in Washington, Gutiérrez met with Secretary of State James Monroe and received encouragement but only vague and conditional offers of support.
Sec. of State Robert Smith's instructions to William Shaler, special agent.
(Courtesy of the Historical Society of Philadelphia)
What weighed on the minds of the administration – and many Americans – was the danger that the Spanish borderlands were a fruit ripe for the plucking in the ongoing struggle between European powers. Texas, a coastal frontier province of hundreds of thousands of square miles with a Spanish population of approximately 3,000 facing five times that number of autonomous Indians, was one of the weakest links in the Spanish chain. And no one knew just how weak it was better than the thousands of Americans who had poured into the Western territories in the previous twenty years.

[1] Gordon S. Brown, Latin American Rebels and the United States, 1806-1822 (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 2015), 45.
[2] J.C.A. Stagg, Borderlines in Borderlands: James Madison and the Spanish-American Frontier, 1776-1821 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 79.

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