Borderland Diplomacy: Western Elites and the “Spanish Conspiracy”
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Borderland Diplomacy:
Western Elites and the “Spanish Conspiracy”

On July 7, 1806, the Western World, a newspaper in Frankfort, Kentucky, reported that, “In the history of conspiracy and secret combination . . . there are none of so extraordinary a nature” as the conspiracies that occurred in the trans-Appalachian West from 1786 until 1795. According to the paper, beginning in 1786 there had been a concerted movement, on the part of several members of the Kentucky elite, to separate Kentucky “and the Western Territory from the United States, and to add them to the Spanish monarchy,” which had been shrouded in secrecy for two decades. The movement began under the auspices of General James Wilkinson, “an intriguing and ambitious adventurer,” editors John Wood and Joseph Street reported to their scandalized audience. The accusation was all the more titillating because Wilkinson was then serving as the federally appointed governor of the newly formed territory of Upper Louisiana. According to the paper, Wilkinson had even gone so far as to flirt with convincing Kentuckians to separate from the union and ally with Britain. As Wood reported to his fascinated audience with great disdain, “we suppose it mattered little with Wilkinson to what European power the state of Kentucky became subjected, provided he himself received a handsome provision.” “Traitorous schemes,” “guilt and the blackest treason,” committed by men who had “prostituted [their] days,” and by extension, their good names, characterized the members of what [End Page 371] Wood termed “the Kentucky Spanish Association” and which later historians have termed the Spanish Conspiracy. “The idea of a set of men conspiring together, with the intention of transferring a portion of that country of which they are citizens, to a foreign power,” Wood asserted, “carries with it . . . an appearance of the grossest treason.”1

Historians have offered numerous explanations to justify the actions of individual western leaders involved in the Spanish Conspiracy. In 1891, historian Thomas Green accused Kentuckian James Wilkinson of being “wholly mercenary, selfish, and perfidious.”2 In 1926, historian Samuel Flagg Bemis also attributed these western conspiracies to the desire for personal gain. “Many a Wilkinson, Morgan, Steuben, Lee, Brown, White,” Bemis noted—a list including a mixture of westerners and non-westerners who became involved with the Spanish Empire—“was willing to travel outside the orbit of patriotic loyalty to the United States, provided the path led toward personal emolument and fame.”3 Half a century later, in discussing the actions of John Brown, Kentucky’s first congressional representative and later its first senator, Patricia Watlington attributed Brown’s involvement to his “weak” character and his unwillingness to go [End Page 372] against the wishes of his friend James Wilkinson.4 More recently, in a 2007 article, Kevin Barksdale contended that, for John Sevier, a leader in the movement to create the state of Franklin out of North Carolina’s western lands, the primary impetus behind his interest in a possible alliance with Spain was “to preserve the shattered remains of Franklin and advance the political and financial fortunes of a cabal of influential businessmen.”5 While few historians have gone as far as Theodore Roosevelt, who once described these western conspirators as “enemies of America and of mankind, whose success would have plunged their country into an abyss of shame and misery,” many have attributed the various conspiracies and intrigues of the trans-Appalachian West to the moral failings of their perpetrators, arguing that these conspirators’ desires for personal gain outweighed their moral obligations to the American nation.6

Indeed, taken individually, it is easy to assume that character flaws—venality, greed, the quest for glory—underlay each of these “conspiratorial” incidents, especially in the case of James Wilkinson, whose intrigues, shady dealings, flatteries, and betrayals were vast. But taken collectively, this view falters. From 1786 until 1795, no fewer than fourteen prominent western elites became involved in negotiations with Spain or with other European powers. In other words, those western elites who, in the 1780s and 1790s, conspired with one another and with European officials to separate the loyalties of the trans-Appalachian West from the rest of the union were in excellent company. Indeed, this roster...