Beginning in the summer of 1785, and lasting for a year, John Jay, secretary of foreign affairs for the United States, and Don Diego Gardoqui, representing Spain, strove to come to an agreement on trade and the issue of navigation on the Mississippi River. Congress had intended to send Jay to Spain for the negotiations, but before Jay left, Gardoqui arrived in the United States. The negotiations, therefore, took place in New York, which was then the seat of the government.
Throughout the discussions Gardoqui was adamant that Spain would not allow free navigation of the Mississippi. Spain had conquered Florida from Great Britain during the Revolutionary War (1775-83)—Spain was not an official ally of the United States but entered the war as an ally of France on April 12, 1779—gaining control of both sides of the Mississippi River for several hundred miles to the Gulf of Mexico. The Spanish were not about to give up the benefits of such a hard-fought victory. Spain also feared the stream of settlers from the United States arriving in the Mississippi Valley. Similarly, many people on the eastern side of the Appalachians feared that if too many people moved west the nation would become too large and too spread out to remain united. Spain offered not only to open its ports but also to help the United States with dealing with the Barbary States and argued that since the Spanish king was “one of the first sovereigns of Europe,” an agreement would “give consistency to the Confederacy” of the United States. In 1786 Jay proposed to Congress that the United States accept the restrictions on navigation on the Mississippi for 25 to 30 years in exchange for the immediate benefit of the trade agreement. Seven states voted to do so, but under the Articles of Confederation, nine states were needed to make the treaty official. Without congressional approval, and with the opposition of the major state of Virginia, the negotiations ended in failure. However, the results left all parties upset. Spain refused both trade and navigation of the Mississippi, allowing room for future conflict. Those in the United States willing to go along with the treaty were distraught that the majority had not been able to pass it, while those who opposed the treaty deeply resented the fact that several eastern states had been willing to sell out on westward expansion to gain profits from Spanish trade for themselves. It would be another decade before Spain and the United States settled their differences in the Pinckney Treaty (1795).
See also foreign affairs.
Further reading: Walter Stahr, John Jay: Founding Father (New York: Hambledon & London, 2005).