Interestingly, Spain’s influence is woven into the very fibers of our nation’s record. While that may sound odd given our country’s traditional attachment to England, it does show that Spanish roots also run deep in U.S. history. Indeed, many interesting aspects have been omitted from the conventional storyline.
Unfortunately, starting with elementary classroom instruction, teachers must follow carefully scripted lesson plans that in some cases conceal actual events. For example, students learn that beginning with the original thirteen states, admission to the union was an ordinary procedure, with each new state waiting its turn. For example, we were told in the classroom that Vermont became the fourteenth state in 1791; followed very orderly by Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio. Though, that non-controversial process wasn’t always the case.
Take the state of Frankland (or Franklin), for example, it came very close to replacing Vermont as the fourteenth state. Never heard of it? Hopefully, the following summary will briefly cover just one tantalizing tale hidden within U.S. history.
Frankland was a farming region generally straddling North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia. It was initially Spanish-claimed territory and populated mostly by indigenous Native American tribes who resented U.S. encroachment. However, shortly after U.S. independence, the white settler population rapidly grew.
It’s believed that some of the newcomers crossing into the territory were dissatisfied with the U.S. independence movement itself. Kentucky settlers, for example, made overtures to Spain requesting they become a Spanish state.
As one settler leader put it in his letter to the Spanish Louisiana Governor, “…I conceive highly of the advantages of your government”. Also seeking active links to Spain were Anglo settlers in Cumberland (Tennessee).
Sufficient to say, their friendship toward the Spanish shows how intimately Spain was involved during the formative years of the U.S. Plus, we all need to remember the reason we celebrate July 4th. That is, for over eight years, the U.S. and England were enemies engaged in mortal combat until peace was achieved in 1783.
As to the Frankland settlers, they felt betrayed when the central government opened large territorial grants to east coast investors, including land parcels that Frankland farmers occupied and had improved themselves. Realizing a need to unite, they had no option but to incorporate. Thus began their rite of passage.
A petition for statehood was prepared in 1784 and submitted accordingly. Taking the correct steps, they set up town councils, a court system, and other symbols of organization. As governor, they elected John Sevier, a statesman and hero of the U.S. War of Independence. Also, to appease skeptics, they changed the state’s name to Franklin (honoring Benjamin Franklin).
It appeared that Frankland settlers were well on their way. Seven states accepted the request, but approval fell short of the two-thirds majority needed for admission. Progress suddenly stopped, and hope turned into disappointment. Per the Articles of Confederation, statehood was disapproved. Notably, North Carolina officials declared victory, since they had convinced the other states not to support admission.
Left with no other choice, Governor Sevier sought help from Spain, hoping to become part of its jurisdiction. Please note that seeking Spain’s support would have been considered a natural alternative. Why? Because U.S. citizens still perceived Spain as a dependable next door neighbor, not as their enemy.
Likewise, Spain was a steadfast bulwark of support and ally who had largely enabled the colonists’ own independence from England. Moreover, the idea made sense. The State of Franklin would benefit from Spain’s control of the Gulf of Mexico region, including the entire span of the Mississippi River, thus assuring unlimited commercial trade potential.
In truth, Spain, its people, and culture enjoyed dignity and respect throughout the young nation during the late 1700s. For example, the most successful Washington, D.C. official events, ceremonies, and galas were hosted in private residences of the Spanish delegation. Also, George Washington was a frequent guest at the home of Diego de Gardoqui, the Spanish Ambassador.
Boston was considered a bilingual city, with its busy docks filled with Spanish naval crews contributing to the local economy. One of the most successful merchants in New England was Aaron López, a Sephardi Jewish resident of Newport. Shop keepers’ sales staff spoke the language. Bostonians read works by Spanish literary masters and supplies were often sold out. Bookstores carried nearly as many Spanish language books as they did in English.
For instance, Thomas Jefferson owned several of them and he spoke Spanish. He successfully recommended that Spanish be taught at the University of Virginia. Spanish plays and operas were well attended and Spanish artists (singers, writers, painters, sculptors, architects, etc.) were held in high esteem.
Thus, Spanish culture was greatly admired in post-colonial U.S.A. The question is, why did the amicable relationship between the young U.S. and Spain end?
Simply stated, the strong bond couldn’t withstand the constant pressure put upon it by the craving of more land by the U.S. That is, its leaders opted for expansion at Spain’s expense.
Historian Carlos M. Fernández-Shaw puts it this way: “For about 20 years, relations between the U.S. and Spain were marked by growth and cooperation. … Inevitably, a period of friction ensued owing to the great expansionism of the Anglo-Saxon settlers.”
How much land did the U.S. take from its former ally Spain? U.S. appetite for Florida (to present-day Alabama) was satisfied with 1821’s Adams-Onis Treaty, a document Spain signed under stress. Thirty years later, the U.S. reprised its Manifest Destiny goal with the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that the sovereign Republic of Mexico also signed under duress, thereby ceding to the U.S. its northern territories (from Texas to California).
What happened to Franklin? Four events derailed Governor Sevier’s noble plans for autonomy. First, the most senior Spanish official in America, General Bernardo de Gálvez, offered sincere sympathy to Franklin promoters, but declined to be part of a perceived seditious act within the U.S., a country with whom Spain was at peace.
Second, animosity due to North Carolina’s claim to Franklin led to armed conflict and bloodshed between the two state militias. Third, and the most significant, the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1788, granting federal government authority over the disputed land.
Finally, the fourth blow quickly followed. It was then that federal officials redistributed the contested area, bringing an end to Franklin (Frankland), a U.S. state that could have been.
As to Spain’s vital impact in the country that became the United States, the words of historian Charles F. Loomis come to mind, “The honor of giving America (the U.S.) to the world belongs to Spain”.