Benjamin Franklin and Spain: A Synopsis

Taken from the author’s larger, limited edition essay titled Doctor Franklin & Spain: The Unknown History and a forthcoming footnoted book tentatively titled, “Benjamin Franklin and Spain: A History.”

In an oversized book of minutes for Board of directors´ meetings held in 1784 sits on a shelf behind the desk of the Secretario Perpetuo of the Spanish Royal Academy of History. The minutes for July 9, 1784, note that Benjamin Franklin was nominated and unanimously elected an honorary member of the Spanish Royal Academy of History. Board member Don Ramón de Guerra informed his colleagues that William Carmichael, the recently appointed United States commercial agent to Spain had presented to the Royal Academy a collection of Franklin’s books. In an accompanying letter that was read to the board, Carmichael noted “that [the] Academy of Sciences established in Philadelphia under the title of Philosophical Society” had named Pedro Rodríguez, the count of Campomanes, director of the Spanish Royal Academy, an honorary member. Señor de Guerra concluded with a proposal: “In attention…to the expressed and justified acquired fame of Dr. Franklin as a celebrated politician and intellectual, and for being a member of the major academies of Europe, and to correspond to the example that he has created the philosophical Society, I propose to the Academy that he be admitted as an Honorary Individual.” This occurred at a Madrid meeting of the academy’s Board of Directors, while Franklin was residing in France waiting for his call to return to the United States.

This little-known event culminated a decade during which Franklin corresponded and negotiated with Spanish officials and intellectuals. The success of Franklin’s behind-the-scenes encounters with Spain led directly to the establishment of the United States and effectively hid the record of his efforts from common knowledge and historical consideration. Franklin was not a stranger to Spain. As early as September in 1767 Franklin’s name appeared in Madrid’s newspapers. The Gaceta de Madrid reported that Doctor Franklin clearly declared that his fellow Americans would not agree to the acts of England’s parliament without representation. A few months later both the Gaceta and El Mercurio reported on the movement for independence and the Boston Tea Party. From that beginning in the Spanish press, Franklin was primarily associated with the revolution that resulted in the birth of the United States. As Spanish historian Miguel Ángel Ochoa Brun writes, in Spanish eyes Franklin was the “principle actor” in the movement toward independence.

Franklin’s relationship with Spain began in 1774, and not in his role as a diplomat. Instead, it was his fame as an inventor and philosopher that led to his being contacted by the Spanish embassy about the possibility of acquiring a glass “armonica” for the Spanish infante, Don Gabriel de Borbón, the youngest son of Spain’s King Carlos III. Franklin, at the time in London, was given credit for inventing or, at least, popularizing the instrument. The prince, only twenty-two years old was a musician and historian. Franklin acquiesced and with his help the embassy sent one of his glass armonicas to Spain.

Don Gabriel reciprocated by sending Franklin a copy of his privately printed Spanish translation of Cayo Salustio Crispo’s two Latin language books made into one titled, La conjación de Calatina y la Guerra de Jugurta. Salutio or “Salust” in English was a first century B. C. Roman historian. Franklin received the book after his return to Philadelphia and was very pleased. It was printed in newly devised Bodoni Old Face type. At the time, Giambattista Bodoni was the royal typographer for the Spanish court. An admiring Franklin wrote that the book was “beautifully and magnificently” done and typographically superior to the best printing in Paris. Late in life he wrote in praise of Bodoni’s essay on type as “one of the most beautiful that art has hitherto produced.”

Franklin wrote a letter of thanks to the prince and took the opportunity to send the prince a copy of “the late Proceedings of our American Congress” suggesting that Spain’s “wise Politicians may contemplate the first efforts of a rising state” the will likely “soon…act a Part of some Importance on the Stage of Human Affairs, and furnish materials for a future Salust.” He proposed that Spain and the United States could become close allies and that “a good foundation” already existed in the colonies because of a “well-informed popular opinion entertained here of Spanish Integrity and Honor.”

The letter sent to Don Gabriel is preserved in the Archivo General del Palacio, the Royal Palace in Madrid. Franklin kept a copy that can be found in Yale University’s Library and a letterpress edition is in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. There are some minor differences between the copies. Unfortunately, the glass armonica has been lost. However, the Prince’s gift to Franklin has survived. It is in the Beinicke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University.

Within months after writing to Don Gabriel, Franklin departed for France where, joined with Arthur Lee and Silas Deane he was to solicit the aid and alliances of the European countries in the colonial struggle for independence. The new commission with its senior member, whom the Spanish always referred to as “Doctor Franklin,” entered into a favorable environment for their business. Deane already had been in contact with Spain’s ambassador in Paris. He was aware of the Spanish aid being shipped through New Orleans. At a minimum he was aware that both Spain and France had an interest in the American’s cause.

A few days after arriving in Paris Franklin sent a letter to Spain’s ambassador Pedro Pablo Albarca de Bolea, the Count of Aranda. On behalf of the American commission he sought a meeting with Aranda “to cultivate the good will of Spain and France.” Aranda, a proponent of the American cause, invited the commission to meet with him at his residence after 7 p. m. to avoid suspicion. He anxiously waited to see what proposals from Congress Franklin would bring with him. Thus, on Sunday evening, December 29, 1777, Franklin with his two colleagues and Aranda met.

The first meeting lasted a couple of hours and Aranda sent a detailed report to Madrid, stating that he never received a direct answer to his questions. Perhaps the meeting was handicapped by language, for he reported that none of the three Americans spoke French fluently. “With some hesitation” he told Franklin that he was “surprised they did not ask for anything more than good correspondence.” It seemed to him that given the circumstance of their rebellion “that his coming was directed foremost at seeking aid and soliciting such aid with other proposals” … when… ”thus far the Colonies were not peaceable possessors of their freedom.” Franklin, no doubt surprised by Aranda’s directness, promised that he had more to propose in a memorial that he would present on a future date. Franklin assured him that the rebellion was serious and that Aranda did not have to worry about the Americans’ determination.

Nevertheless, Franklin thanked Aranda for Spanish aid already given and for the asylum Spain had granted American ships in their ports. Aranda gave a positive reply when Franklin expressed his hope that the policy would continue. With this knowledge Franklin would go on to direct American captains, including John Paul Jones to seek refuge and sell off their captured prizes in the Spanish ports of San Sebastian and La Coruna, among others. From his point-of-view Franklin correctly observed that the Count of Aranda “appears to have a good disposition toward us.”

After receiving assurances from Franklin that his powers as granted by Congress were ample enough to deal with everything “that might be treated,” Aranda invited the commissioners for a second meeting and six days later, on January 4, 1777, Franklin and Lee again went to Aranda’s residence after dark. Deane was indisposed with malaria. Upon hearing this Aranda provided the two commissioners with quinine from his personal stock.

This time Aranda took the liberty of arranging for a translator, the conde de Lacy, a native of Ireland and Spain’s ambassador to the “Court of St. Petersburg” who was lodging at Aranda’s house. A long discussion followed in which Aranda was told that the United States sought a treaty with both Spain and France, “each according to their interest.” Aranda was surprised to see that Franklin did not seem to be fully aware of the scale of aid being sent by Spain. Despite his expressed gratitude of the previous meeting Franklin acted as if he were not aware that the colonies had received dry good, arms, and munitions from the dummy company, Roderique Hortalez et Cie set up by Spain and France.

In an attempt to placate the Spanish ambassador, Franklin offered to reveal his plans by sending a commissioner directly to Madrid. Aranda replied that Spain wished to avoid any appearance of duplicity. Spain wanted to help, but in coordination with France, so diplomatic discussions would be better held in Paris. However, he would inquire of Madrid about the possibility of having an American representative there. Both Franklin and Lee agreed to follow Aranda’s lead.

Aranda then invited the two commissioners to ask him whatever else might be on their minds. Surprisingly, they avoided a request whether Spain would be willing to help with aid, the feasibility of securing a treaty, or even information about Britain. Sensing Aranda’s reaction, the two commissioners again agreed to present something in writing. Aranda pointed out that a country that had not yet won its independence should put its priority with aid rather than treaties. The two commissioners promised to deliver specifics in writing.

Four days later, Franklin and Lee personally delivered papers that detailed their positions. The papers included Franklin’s promised report, which disappointedly to Aranda, only proposed goodwill and reciprocal commerce. Nevertheless, Aranda noted in his report to Madrid that Congress “did not wish to come humbly begging” and “want nothing for free.” Franklin caught Aranda’s attention when he told the ambassador that almost a third of the British naval manpower had been lost because these men had become American sailors, thus impacting Great Britain’s merchant marine as the government had to replace the losses. This, along with a decrease of shipbuilding materials from the colonies led Aranda to conclude that the British naval resources were in their worse situation “since she took upon herself the domination of the seas.”

Aranda wrote two long detailed and opinionated reports as a result of these first meetings. He described the meetings, gave his reactions, and enthusiastically recommended that Spain should strike immediately to “produce the desired fruit from war with the British crown.” He reported that Franklin and Lee made “many demonstrations of respect toward the Catholic King” claiming that their principal purpose was that “they earnestly hoped for his protection.”

However, the king and his ministers expressed more caution. None of them had received or read the Franklin’s report and that was excuse enough not to declare war or enter a treaty. They concluded that Spain and France could be patient while continuing to covertly aid the colonies and prepare their own forces, while Great Britain “continues making enormous expenses.” Aranda’s reports provided a new and official perspective from the rebelling colonies. Franklin and his colleagues had opened new discussions within Spanish officialdom.

Perhaps, misunderstanding Spain’s position, the American commission decided to follow up its meetings with Aranda by sending Arthur Lee to Madrid. He left on February 7 and Aranda, inexplicably provided Lee with a letter of introduction and passport, and then, sent word of his trip in advance. This move had Franklin’s approval even though the act was presumptuous and risked the creation of a crises. Aranda received word that Lee’s appearance in Madrid will “be a grave inconvenience to the King.” Lee was intercepted at Burgos in northern Spain where he was informed that his presence in Madrid would be detected and do irreparable harm to his country and its relationship to Spain. After meeting with Spanish officials for two days in nearby Victoria, Lee was returned to Paris with the information of Spain’s ongoing aid, that the firm of Gardoqui and Sons was smuggling supplies to the colonies, and that Spain had stockpiled munitions for the colonies in New Orleans. He also heard that Spain, through Aranda in Paris, would approach Holland about extending credit for the colonial cause. As the senior member of the American delegation, Franklin seriously miscalculated Spain’s reaction to Lee’s trip. Nevertheless, this error paid dividends.

Within a few weeks of Lee’s return Franklin and his colleagues received instructions that resulted in two similar, but not exact letters signed by Franklin. One went to the French minister of state and the other to Aranda. Franklin wrote that the United States understood that dealing with one or the other of the two countries was as if dealing with both and that Congress was willing to tie its goal of independence, even subvert it to the goals of Spain and France. He listed a number of particulars, including that if Spain declared war, the Congress would declare war on Portugal an ally of Great Britain. He also suggested that East and West Florida would become part of the Spanish empire, “provided… the United States have free navigation of the Mississippi.” And, if Spain desired help in the West Indies, the United States would provide two million “of dollars” and six frigates of not less than twenty-four guns. Franklin added that the stipulations of any treaty were subject to modification by the Spanish government and that Congress would not “take a step” to negotiate a peace “without consulting His Majesty’s Ministers.” Copies of both letters ended up in the archives of Spain thus indicating that the two governments did indeed work together.

The letters showed complete ignorance of current actions going on in Europe and South America that had some impact on the colonial rebellion as well as Spain or France’s positions. Moreover, the Americans were in no position to offer help when they obviously needed help.

At the same April 5th meeting Franklin officially presented Aranda with his credentials as minister to Spain. In an oversized, official document with an official red wax seal, and signed by John Hancock, the President of the Congress, Franklin was named minister to Spain “to communicate, treat and conclude with his most Catholic Majesty, the King of Spain…a treaty…for the just purpose for assistance in carrying on the present war between Great Britain and these United States.” Aranda initially refused to receive the document suggesting that a copy would suffice. Franklin insisted that Aranda receive the original “in proper form.” Aranda acquiesced while making clear that neither Franklin nor any other American representative should go to Madrid. Franklin bowed and agreed with Aranda provided that the latter would receive the document and his accompanying letter stating that he had been named “minister plenipotentiary” to Spain. The two documents were sent to Aranda in a sealed packet the following evening. In effect, Franklin had been named the United States first ambassador to Spain.

Franklin agreed Aranda’s position, for his letter noted that he understood that his official presence in Madrid “is not at present thought convenient.” Neither he nor Congress would do anything to “incommode” a country “they so much respect.” He concluded that he, “shall therefore postpone” his journey to Madrid “till circumstance may make it more suitable.”

In July, Franklin sent a memorandum to the French government that made its way to Aranda. Aranda then sent a Spanish translation to Madrid. Franklin audaciously proposed that France declare war before Great Britain made peace with the colonies and turned-on France because France was giving secret aid to the colonies. Franklin reasoned that France could come up with a reason for war. After all, he noted, “Nations are always skilled at imagining special pretexts for the war that they want to engage.”

Aside from one telling statement, Aranda let the French answer Franklin’s audacious position. Aranda received a copy of the reply and forwarded it to Madrid with a comment that it was done “to counter pretexts that had apparently been underhandedly spread by him” (Franklin). Despite Franklin’s July missive Aranda continued to recommend that Spain consider declaring war. He became a little perplexed when Franklin and his fellow commissioners complained that the colonies had not received what Spain had promised even though they acknowledged some shipments had been sent from Spanish ports, “the value not yet known to us.”

Perhaps understanding that the time had come to quit trying to force a treaty, in September of 1777 Franklin sent a nine-page request to Aranda that included a detailed attachment listing exactly what the Americans wanted. The list gave details of the types of supplies and equipment the colonies needed to pursue their revolution. Each item on the list included a price. The document reflects the Americans’ confidence in what they could expect and that a new system of credit was in place.

By December of 1777 several events took place that gave Franklin an impetus to press Spain and France to enter the war. In October the Americans won their first major military victory at Saratoga and soon after Spain’s military gambits in South America and at Lisbon won a peace agreement with Portugal, thus eliminating Great Britain’s only European ally. On December 4, Aranda discussed the result of Saratoga with Franklin and stated that he believed that “the moment had come” for Spain to act. The very thought must have thrilled Franklin.

However, neither Aranda’s king nor his ministers shared his enthusiasm. The Spanish government chose to wait while continuing to send covert aid. But France, with Spain’s cautious acquiescence entered into treaties with the colonies and then war. Their plan to surprise the British fleet at New York and win a quick peace failed.

The Spanish government, led by its minister of state, the count of Floridablanca, chose a different, more considered course. Rather than follow France’s lead, Spain felt that now was the time to press for a negotiated peace. The specter of Spain’s declaring war gave London pause for thought. And, Spain would not consider a peace without American independence.

Franklin and his fellow commissioners kept at work with their Spanish counterparts. Spanish aid to the colonies continued. Two additions to the effort were Major General Marquis de Lafayette and Baron Friederick von Steuben, both of whom traveled to the colonies on Franklin’s recommendation and with Spanish assistance. Spanish blankets were shipped to Valley Forge through New Orleans and Fort Pitt. In 1778 the Spanish company of Gardoqui e Hijos sent 18,000 blankets, 11,000 pairs of shoes, stockings, shirts, and medical supplies.

In early 1779, Franklin wrote that Spain had been negotiating with England, insisting on American independence “in fact, if not in appearance.” He added that Spain’s attempts had been rejected and that Spain was preparing for war. In a letter to Patrick Henry, he wrote, “Spain is now near declaring against our enemies.”

He was right. In April Spain agreed to an alliance with France and on June 21, 1779, declared war on Great Britain. As a result, Congress felt it necessary to send an emissary to Madrid, this time deciding to keep Franklin in Paris and replacing him in Spain with John Jay.

After Jay’s appointment the record of Franklin’s involvement with Spain is sparse. To date, the record of official correspondence has been fairly silent and private letters and diaries have not surfaced to shed information about Franklin’s activities relative to Spain. However, a few items have hinted at his continued connections. Franklin had a small but perplexing problem when he received a request for an American merchant doing business in Spain. The man wanted Franklin to vouch for him but the man had continued problems and Franklin became suspicious. He scolded the man. “With all the good will Spain has manifested in many Instances” he had trouble understanding why the man’s problems continued “unless you had given some Offence or some Cause for Suspicion.” Franklin spoke to Aranda on behalf of the man but would not do so again.

Franklin’s involvement with American corsairs was a more import matter. He had encouraged American captains to raid British shipping but some of them had trouble delineating between friend and foe. Franklin fielded the complaints from the Spanish government when Spanish ships were taken by mistake or otherwise. When necessary Franklin advised that the responsible captains should be punished and reparations made. On the other hand, he expressed caution to Aranda. He believed that the British tried to create havoc by flying “American Colours” when attacking Spanish ships. On at least one occasion, Franklin had two meetings, including dinner at his residence with a Spanish merchant and his wife whose family business was based in the Canary Islands. One of their ships had been taken as a prize to the colonies and sold.

Jay’s financial situation in Madrid became problematic. Jay had borrowed on the Spanish government for his living expenses and asked Franklin to secure money in Paris to pay off his debts. Finally Franklin wrote to Jay that his situation “mortified” him and the “Storm of Bills … “has terrified and vexed” him such that he was losing sleep. He then warned Jay not to let the Spanish take advantage of “our problem.” “Forbear the practice of asking Spain for your expenses.” Franklin then suggested the Jay move to Paris, where he arrived in June or 1782 carrying with him $174,000 cash in Spanish aid.

Upon Jay’s arrival in Paris, Franklin introduced his younger colleague to all the key personages. Aranda reported that Franklin brought Jay to his home for dinner so they could get to know each other. In late July 1783, just weeks before the signing of the final peace treaty, Franklin sent Aranda “two exemplary samples of the constitution of the 13 United States.” He asked that one copy be given to the king and that Aranda keep the other. Although Jay took the lead, we know that Aranda and Franklin had to meet during the final negotiations for peace. Jay’s duplicity was an embarrassment for Franklin. He claimed that Jay’s activities pained him and should be “impeached” by all decent people. He believed that he and his colleagues had created “seeds of Enmity to the Court of Spain.”

After the treaty was signed on September 3, 1783, the historical record notes a dinner that Franklin hosted. Aranda accepted Franklin invitation and attended the dinner with John Adams, Jay, and various French officials. At roughly the same time Aranda invited Franklin or a representative to Madrid to negotiate a treaty of commerce and amity. Franklin declined stating that his instructions required that he and the commissioners remain in Paris and carry on talks there.

Perhaps it was Aranda, himself an enlightened man, who informed Franklin about Spain’s Royal Academy of History and the count of Campomanes. The record is silent as to how Campomanes and Franklin met. However, the few letters, one of which is a draft in Campomanes hand indicate that they did correspond and exchange publications and ideas as late as May 1787. No doubt other Spanish intellectuals admired Franklin. Francisco Saavedra, a noted scholar and leader had numerous Franklin manuscripts in his private library. Ironically, Saavedra who was key in establishing the strategy and raising the money that resulted in the British defeat at Yorktown was in in Paris working with Aranda for a short period at the same time as Franklin. Yet the record is silent whether these two intelligent men met.

Not surprisingly a Spanish author Pantaleón Aznar published what may be the first biography of Franklin. The book was published in Madrid in 1898 under the title Vida del Dr. Franklin sacada de documentos auténticos (The Life of Dr. Franklin taken for authentic documents.)

As Francisco Escarano, the secretary of the Spanish embassy in London wrote upon meeting Franklin that he is “the Philosophe, who is the best person in the world.” Franklin was known and respected in Spain and, in his own way he felt the same about Spain. His history in some ways is the beginning of a history the relationship of which mirrors that early contact. It was the beginning of the diplomatic relationships between the United States and the Hispanic world.

Bibliography **Archivo Privado de la Familia Gasset, Papeles del conde de Campomanes, Fundación Universitaria, Madrid, Spain. Archivo General de Indias, Sections Santo Domingo and Indiferente General, Seville, Spain. Archivo Histórico Nacional (de España), Section Estado, Madrid, Spain. Archivo General del Palacio Real, Infante de Don Gabriel, Madrid, Spain. Archivo Histórico Provincial de Santa Cruz /Archivo Zárate-Cólogan, Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain. Archivo de las Simancas, Sections Estado and secretaria de Estado: Inglaterra, Valladolid, Spain. Biblioteca de Francisco Saavedra, Fondo Saavedra, Facultad de Teología, Universidad de Granada, Granada, Spain. Archivo de la Real Academia de la Historia, Madrid, Spain.

Published Material Aznar, Pantaleón. Vida del Dr. Franklin sacada de documentos auténticos. Madrid: 1798. Chavez, Thomas E. Doctor Franklin and Spain: The Unknown History. Santa Fe: The Press of the Palace of the Governors, 2016.

  • La Diplomacia de la independencia: Documentos de Benjamín Franklin en España. Henares de Alcalá, Spain: Instituto Franklin-Universidad de Alcalá, 2019.
  • Spain and the Independence of the United States: An Intrinsic Gift. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002. Cólogan Soriano, Carlos. Un Corsario al Servicio de Benjamín Franklin. Islas Canarias: Gaviño de Franchy Editores, 2013. Farías, Luis M. La América de Aranda. Mexico City, D.F.: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2003. Fitzpatrick, John C., editor. The Writings of George Washington From the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799. Washington, D. C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1904. Larabee, Leonard W. and William B Wilcox, editors. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin. 24 Volumes. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1959-. López-Chávez, Celia. “Benjamín Franklin, España y la diplomacia de una Armónica,” Espacio, Tiempo y Forma: Revista de la Facultad de Geografía e Historia, serie IV, no. 13 (2000), 319-327. Morales Padrón, Francisco, Translator and Editor, The Journal of Don Francisco Saavedra de Sangronis, 1780-1783. Gainville, Florida: University of Florida Press, 1989. Morris, Richard B. The Peacemakers: The Great Powers and American Independence. New York and London: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1965. Ochoa Brun, Miguel-Ángel. “La misión diplomática de Benjamín Franklin a Europa y las relaciones internacionales,” La Ilustración española en la Independencia de los Estados Unidos: Benjamín Franklin. Madrid and Barcelona: Real Academia de la Historia, Fundación Rafael del Pino, Marcial Pons, 2007: 67-123. Oltra, Joaquín and María Ángeles Pérez Samper. El Conde de Aranda y los Estados Unidos. Barcelona: Promociones y Publicaciones Universitarias, 1987. Saavedra, Francisco de. Los Decenios (Autobiografía de un Sevillano de la Ilustración.) Francisco Morales Padrón, edit. Sevilla: Ayuntamiento de Sevilla, 1995. Van Doren, Carl. Benjamín Franklin. New York: Garden City Publishing Co., 1941. Yela Utrilla, Juan Francisco. España ante la Independencia de los Estados Unidos. Madrid: Ediciones Istmo, S. A., 1988. (Originally published in 1925.)
Thomas E. Chávez
La Habana George Washington Arthur Lee Fernando de Leyba Marblehead John Jay Bilbao Oliver Pollock El Conde de Aranda José Solano y Bote El Conde de Floridablanca México Francisco de Miranda Nueva Orleans José Antonio George Farragut Pensacola Bernardo de Gálvez Mobile Juan Miralles San Luis Bárbara de Arias Macharaviaya Diego Gardoqui Nueva York