Of all the foreign treaties involving the United States in its early years, Pinckney’s Treaty arguably has the greatest historical significance.
Negotiated with Spain in 1795, the treaty addressed the critical issue of navigational rights along the Mississippi River as well as determining the southern boundary with Spain. The agreement also marked a notable turning point in Spanish-American relations.
Spain had long rebuffed American treatises to acquire free navigation along the Mississippi River and through the key Spanish port city of New Orleans.
In fact, up until 1795 Spanish policy had focused on limiting American expansion and trade along the frontier so as to better maintain its own influence in the region. Pinckney’s Treaty marked a reversal of this policy much to the Americans’ delight.
The treaty had a profound impact on American society helping to further shape the nation in its early years.
The Significance of Pinckney’s Treaty
The ultimate significance of Pinckney’s Treaty lies in how it secured navigation along the Mississippi River, defined the border between the United States and Spanish Florida, averted conflict with Spain, and helped contribute to the concept of manifest destiny.
Perhaps most remarkably, in return for these concessions the United States did not have to give up anything, just grant Spain a promise of friendship.1
The treaty came at a critical time for the United States, particularly as the nation was still reeling from internal division in the aftermath of Washington’s Proclamation of Neutrality. It also distinguished the career of Thomas Pinckney who nearly won the presidency in the election of 1796.
How Pinckney’s Treaty suddenly emerged can be appropriately summed up by the phrase “America’s advantage from European distress”2
Secured Navigation Along the Mississippi River
Securing navigation along the Mississippi River arguably held the greatest significance to the United States in Pinckney’s Treaty.
The United States had been eager to secure these rights ever since the Treaty of Paris ending the American Revolution. Leaders knew that in order for the nation to successfully grow and expand, passage along the Mississippi was critical.
Before the treaty, settlers in frontier territories as well as the states of Kentucky and Tennessee had two options to transport their agricultural and other goods to market.
The first was to travel along the Mississippi and send the goods to market through New Orleans. However, as Spain owned the port city, they required duties to travel along the river and bring goods through New Orleans.
With the added Spanish duties, western agricultural goods were too expensive to compete in global markets.
The second option was to utilize overland travel to transport goods back east to American ports. Unfortunately, this method was expensive, dangerous, and took far too long to complete.3
Critical infrastructure such as roads and canals (like the critical Erie Canal) that were later championed by Henry Clay’s American System did not exist yet, leaving frontier settlers in a difficult situation.
In order for the United States to realize its full potential, duty-free navigation along the Mississippi was critical.
Given the gravity of the situation it is no wonder that Thomas Jefferson regarded the possessor of New Orleans as our “natural and habitual enemy.”3
Pinckney’s Treaty culminated a decades-long battle to receive unfettered access to navigation along the Mississippi River as well as duty-free transport through the port of New Orleans. In doing so, the treaty allowed the western frontier to realize its full potential.
Defined Border Between the US and Spanish Florida
The question over the border delineation between the United States and Spanish Florida had been a contentious issue for a number of years. The border dispute arose from the prior history of the Florida territories and how the British administered them.
When Britain occupied the Florida territories between 1763 and 1783, Parliament changed West Florida’s northern border from 31° N to 32° 22’.
However, when Spain regained control over the Floridas in the 1783 Treaty of Paris, the United States insisted that the change was not valid and the true border belonged at 31° N. Anything north of that parallel was United States territory.
Spain refused to recognize such a claim and maintained that West Florida’s northern boundary remained at 32° 22’. Although the disputed area was sparsely populated, Spain utilized it as a buffer state to combat American expansion.
The disputed lands provided an effective barrier to land-hungry American settlers. In order to further settlement, Spain armed Native Americans in the region to fight off the Americans with violence.
With negotiations at a standstill for years, Pinckney’s Treaty marked a turning point over the contentious issue. Despite previously remarking that a boundary at 31° N was “extravagant and unwarrantable,” Spain finally conceded to American demands.3
To make the line official, the United States and Spain appointed a joint team to survey the boundary line. The Spanish also agreed to stop arming Native Americans in the region and to evacuate all forts in the formerly disputed land.
The United States went on to organize the land as the Mississippi territory with Natchez as the capital. Congress later admitted both the states of Mississippi and Alabama into the Union whose lands included the previously disputed area.
Averted Conflict with Spain
To answer the question: “Why did Spain suddenly reverse its long-standing policies and agree to Pinckney’s Treaty?,” one must understand the background of ongoing European and American affairs.
By the mid 1790s the ongoing French Revolution had thrown the European continent into chaos. Seemingly all of the European powers including Britain, Spain, and Prussia aligned to fight against the French threat.
By 1795 the coalition began to crumble and even Spain agreed to the “Peace of Basilia” in July 1795. While the Spanish cheered the end of war, their leaders greatly feared British vengeance for their treachery in signing a separate peace agreement.1
In an even worse case scenario, Spain feared a general British-US alliance that would attack Spanish colonies in the Americas. Spanish leaders believed the secretive Jay’s Treaty between the two nations signaled closer relations and coordination.
It was no secret that the United States desired access to the Mississippi River and land from Spanish Florida. Should the British aid the US with their powerful navy, Spain could easily lose its prized colonial possessions.1
A warning from the Spanish ambassador in London over supposed British plans of an invasion of Spanish America only added to the desperation. With this background, Spain now found it extremely beneficial to maintain peaceful and cordial relations with the United States.1
Whereas access to the Mississippi River was previously off limits, Spanish leaders now saw it as a lever to maintain peace with the United States.
American diplomat Thomas Pickney was no fool. He knew of the Spanish desperation to maintain peaceful relations and thus the powerful cards he held in negotiations.
After Spain rebuffed American demands over duty-free transport, Pinckney threatened to leave without a treaty. Just two days later Spain dropped its opposition, signing Pinckney’s Treaty.
The United States scored a massive diplomatic victory in the process and averted conflict with Spain over the territory.
Contributed to Manifest Destiny
A final reason for the significance of Pinckney’s Treaty was how it contributed to Manifest Destiny in the United States.
Manifest Destiny was the ultimate belief that it was the destiny of the United States to stretch from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west. In the early years of the United States the belief was a far-flung fantasy, but Pinckney’s Treaty greatly helped to eventually make it more of a reality.
Without access to the Mississippi River, there were serious doubts that the United States could even keep its westernmost states and territories. Western states and territories often threatened secession if no agreement could be reached.
In fact, some particularly influential American citizens at the time were already attempting to influence the west to secede. Army commander James Wilkinson who gained notoriety at the Battle of Fallen Timbers was the most noteworthy, though later even Aaron Burr became involved in a similar plot.4
Instead, Pinckney’s Treaty strengthened the bonds of east and west, as both relied on the other for prosperity. The interconnectedness of the regions was featured prominently in Washington’s Farewell Address as he reminded the American people.
In the aftermath of the treaty a flood of settlers entered the region, much to the dismay of the Native Americans already living there such as the Five Civilized Tribes. With unencumbered access to the Mississippi, the United States could now expand westward so long as it owned the territory.
Combined with Jay’s Treaty and the significant Treaty of Greenville in 1795 where the British evacuated their frontier forts and the Native Americans ceded vast tracts of land, American domination east of the Mississippi was complete.
To recap, the historical significance of Pinckney’s Treaty lies in how it:
- Secured navigation along the Mississippi River
- Defined the border between the United States and Spanish Florida
- Averted conflict with Spain
- Contributed to Manifest Destiny
The treaty also helped the political prospects of diplomat Thomas Pinckney, after whom the treaty was named.
Pinckney’s success helped him to gain notoriety across the United States. Despite running in the election of 1796 as a Federalist, he even garnered significant support amongst Democratic-Republicans.
If not for political maneuvering by New England Federalists that nearly cost them the election, Pinckney would have become the president over both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
Regardless of the political ramifications, Pinckney’s Treaty is primarily remembered for its contributions towards the further development of the United States. Without this monumental achievement, the United States surely never would have reached its full potential.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Young, Raymond A. “Pinckney’s Treaty-A New Perspective.” The Hispanic American Historical Review, vol. 43, no. 4, 1963, pp. 526–35. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/2509900.
2) Adams, Randolph G. Political Science Quarterly, vol. 42, no. 3, 1927, pp. 479–81. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/2143146.
3) Rives, G. L. “Spain and the United States in 1795.” The American Historical Review, vol. 4, no. 1, 1898, pp. 62–79. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1832325.
4) Conover, Milton. The American Journal of International Law, vol. 21, no. 4, 1927, pp. 820–22. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/2188503.