Pinckney’s Treaty Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Wars in Europe prompted Spain to sign Pinckney’s Treaty, recognizing the United States’ western boundary claims and ensuring free navigation of the Mississippi River.

Summary of Event

The negotiation of Pinckney’s Treaty clearly demonstrates how European conflicts contributed to American diplomatic success and facilitated the nation’s territorial growth and expansion during its formative years. With Spain, France, and Great Britain involved in yet another series of wars during the French Revolution (1789-1796);Pinckney’s Treaty[Pinckneys Treaty] French Revolution, the European powers found it extremely difficult to maintain control over their empires in North America. Further complicated by the expanding westward moving population of the United States, Spain quickly realized that it needed to settle its dispute with the United States in the West in order to sufficiently mobilize all of its resources for the European war. Once again, as the historian Samuel Flagg Bemis concluded, the United States benefited from European distress. [kw]Pinckney’s Treaty (Oct. 27, 1795) [kw]Treaty, Pinckney’s (Oct. 27, 1795) Pinckney’s Treaty (1795)[Pinckneys Treaty] Treaties;United States and Spain Treaties;North America Frontier;American [g]United States;Oct. 27, 1795: Pinckney’s Treaty[3230] [g]Spain;Oct. 27, 1795: Pinckney’s Treaty[3230] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Oct. 27, 1795: Pinckney’s Treaty[3230] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;Oct. 27, 1795: Pinckney’s Treaty[3230] [c]Trade and commerce;Oct. 27, 1795: Pinckney’s Treaty[3230] Godoy, Manuel de Jay, John Pinckney, Thomas Washington, George Washington, George;Pinckney’s Treaty [p]Wilkinson, James

One of the most pressing diplomatic problems facing the United States after 1783 was Spanish occupation of, and claims to, a large portion of the southern and southwestern United States. The Spanish had enjoyed undisputed possession since 1763 of the territory that had been French Louisiana Territory Louisiana. They had also regained Spanish Florida Florida in 1783, after Great Britain had temporarily obtained control over this region between 1763 and 1783. Spanish power rested solidly along the entire Gulf Coast of North and Central America, both banks of the Mississippi River from its mouth to a point midway between present-day Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Natchez, Mississippi, and the west bank of the river north to the Missouri River and west to the Pacific Ocean. In addition to these vast holdings, the Spanish claimed by right of conquest during the American Revolution a large portion of the present-day states of Alabama, Mississippi River;navigation rights Mississippi, and Tennessee. In other words, Spain held or claimed both banks of the Mississippi from its mouth to the mouth of the Ohio River and east to the western slopes of the Appalachian Mountains. Yet with American settlers and commerce expanding rapidly into this disputed territory, a potentially volatile diplomatic dispute erupted between the Washington administration and Spain.

The United States had received the right to navigate the Mississippi from Great Britain in the Paris, Treaty of (1783) Treaty of Paris in 1783. Since Spain, however, had not been a party to this treaty, it refused to accept this settlement and closed the Mississippi to all but Spanish commerce. This action directly threatened both the commercial and political success of the American settlers crossing the Appalachians.

In an attempt to thwart American Westward migration (North America) westward expansion, the Spanish, as did the English in the north, manipulated Native American antagonism toward the settlers and encouraged Indian raids in this region. At the same time, the Spanish intermittently schemed with dissident western Americans who were dissatisfied with the lackluster western policies of the federal government. Looking to strengthen its position within the southeastern region of North America, Madrid tried to convince the settlers to abandon their ties with the United States and form a new republic aligned with Spain. The Spanish were desperately seeking a face-saving solution to its problem in America because of its inability to control and manage its affairs in the region. Aggressive and lawless in nature, the frontiersmen threatened the Spanish with an invasion because of the closure of the Mississippi River and Spanish-sponsored Indian raids on American settlements.

Military conflicts, separatist sentiments, and navigation rights posed grave problems for the United States. The administration of George Washington, fearful over the potential establishment of an independent republic on its southern border, recognized that the right to free navigation of the river was an absolute necessity to the West, since the river was the only economically feasible route to the market. The federal government was also under pressure by western speculative interests whose landholdings suffered in value as a result of Spanish-supported Indian attacks. Washington realized that failure to mollify western interests could significantly undermine American territorial growth.

Little progress was made in solving the disputes until 1794. Until that time western intrigues, Spanish fears of a French-American invasion, and Indian wars were recurrent themes along the southern border. The Spanish attempted, with the aid of the American major-general James Wilkinson and others, to stimulate disunion in the West. The Spanish, in an attempt to generate momentum for the separatist movement, opened up trade on the Mississippi to Americans on payment of a 15 percent duty. This somewhat mollified the West but failed to produce any meaningful support for separation. Then, in 1794-1795, the French revolutionary wars brought relations to a crisis. In this instance, as has often been the case throughout American history, European wars provided the United States with the opportunity to achieve a striking diplomatic victory without surrendering any of its initial demands.

Spain had joined with Great Britain in the war against the French First Republic. In 1794-1795, when the war turned against Spain, the Spanish began to look for a way out. In 1794, even before Spain made its decision relative to the war, it indicated willingness to negotiate with the United States. As a result of this offer, President Washington dispatched Thomas Pinckney, minister to Great Britain, as envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to Madrid. Pinckney arrived in 1795, and since Spain’s military position had so deteriorated that it had decided to make a separate peace with France, the delay worked to America’s advantage. Spain was also apprehensive concerning John Jay’s diplomatic mission to Great Britain. These negotiations convinced the Spanish prime minister, Manuel de Godoy, that a possible British-American rapprochement was about to take place and that a joint attack on Spain’s overseas empire might coincide with the signing of Jay’s Treaty. Jay’s Treaty (1794)[Jays Treaty] Furthermore, Spain was about to abrogate its alliance with Great Britain and reenter the war allied with France. Thus, de Godoy feared British retaliation.

Pinckney was able to capitalize on Spain’s anxieties in negotiating the Treaty of San Lorenzo, or Pinckney’s Treaty, signed on October 27, 1795. The Spanish conceded point after point, while the United States gave up virtually nothing in return. Spain recognized American sovereignty to the east bank of the Mississippi north of the 31st parallel; granted permission to Americans to navigate the river; established a place to deposit American goods for transfer to oceangoing vessels; and recognized the American definition of neutral rights. Both powers promised to restrain the Native Americans. This was a tacit admission by Spain that it had incited them in the past. In addition, the treaty did not affect the drive of westward expansion.


The Spanish implementation of the treaty came slowly. However, because of Spain’s unfavorable situation in Europe, de Godoy’s government had little choice but to acquiesce to Washington’s demands. Spain pulled out of the disastrous war with the French First Republic in the secret Basel, Treaty of (1795) Treaty of Basel in 1795. The following year, in the secret San Ildefonso, Treaty of (1796) Treaty of San Ildefonso, Spain plunged into an equally disastrous war as an ally of the French against Great Britain. With Spain preoccupied with the war in Europe, the United States emerged from Pinckney’s negotiations completely victorious. Thus, as historian Samuel Flagg Bemis concluded, this treaty represents an excellent example of how “America’s advantage” resulted from “Europe’s distress.”

For the second time the possibility of an British-American alliance against Spain compelled Spain to placate the United States. The Treaty of San Lorenzo was executed in full by 1798. In negotiating the Greenville, Treaty of (1795) Treaty of Greenville (1795) with Native Americans, Jay’s Treaty, and Pinckney’s Treaty, the Washington administration had achieved much in the field of diplomacy. The separatist movement was dead, and the West was secured to the Union.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bemis, Samuel Flagg. Pinckney’s Treaty: A Study of America’s Advantage from Europe’s Distress. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1926. This classic work in American diplomacy reveals how the United States was able to secure favorable concessions from Spain because of Spanish fears over a British-American alliance and a potential French invasion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clarke, Thomas D., and John D. W. Guice. Frontiers in Conflict: The Old Southwest, 1795-1830. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989. Reprint. The Old Southwest, 1795-1830: Frontiers in Conflict. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996. Examines the almost unending conflict in the states between present-day South Carolina and Louisiana during the early years of the American republic. Includes information about the Pinckney Treaty.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Darling, Arthur B. Our Rising Empire, 1763-1803. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1940. A readable synthesis of American diplomatic history from the French Alliance of 1778 to the Louisiana Purchase.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">DeConde, Alexander. Entangling Alliances: Politics and Diplomacy Under George Washington. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1958. This source outlines how foreign trade issues and the American relationship with Great Britain shaped American diplomacy during the Washington administration.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, James E., Jr. The American Union and the Problem of Neighborhood: The United States and the Collapse of the Spanish Empire, 1783-1829. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998. Describes how leaders of the new American nation sought to preserve the union against challenges from foreign nations or from divisions among states within the union. Focuses on the United States’ relations with Spain, providing some information on the Pinckney Treaty.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tucker, Robert W., and David C. Hendrickson. Empire of Liberty: The Statecraft of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Places Pinckney’s Treaty in the context of the Hamiltonian-Jeffersonian debate over the direction of American foreign policy during the early national period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Young, Raymond A. “Pinckney’s Treaty: A New Perspective.” Hispanic American Historical Review 43, no. 4 (1963): 526-535. This article highlights Pinckney’s decisive role during the negotiations.

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