For Bernardo de Gálvez y Madrid, 2014 was a good year, arguably better than the previous two centuries.
Among the flurry of bills President Barack Obama signed into law before heading to Hawaii for the holidays was a resolution granting Gálvez honorary U.S. citizenship, something that's only happened eight times in U.S. history and is a distinction bestowed only on non-U.S. citizens of "exceptional merit."
Gálvez has been dead for more than 200 years, but he was granted the honor, joining the ranks of Mother Teresa and Winston Churchill, posthumously for his pivotal role in the Revolutionary War. The then-governor of Spanish Louisiana led the Spanish forces that joined America's fight against the British. His successes in battle and unwavering support of American troops in the war earned him the rare recognition.
“Bernardo de Gálvez's story is an important part of our community’s history, but his role in our nation’s history is truly remarkable," the resolution's sponsor, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said in a statement. "He played an integral role in securing our Nation’s independence."
Miller represents Pensacola, where Gálvez was victorious in one of the longest battles of the Revolutionary War. In the two-month struggle, Gálvez captured the capital of British West Florida and eliminated the British naval presence in the Gulf of Mexico. According to the Texas State Historical Association, Gálvez also ensured that supplies reached American troops via the Mississippi River. He even played a role in ending the war, helping to draft the Treaty of Paris 1783.
His name might not sound familiar, but it could ring a bell for those who have visited Galveston, Texas, which was named in his honor. His name might also ring a bell for those who have admired his statue near the State Department or spotted his portrait in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee room.
Though the portrait is a recent addition to the committee room, its journey there took more than 200 years. In 1783, the Continental Congress resolved to hang a portrait of Gálvez in its meeting place to honor the hero. When Teresa Valcarce discovered that Congress never followed through on its promise, she worked to have the Spaniard's portrait hung in the Capitol, succeeding on that endeavor this past summer.
Successfully recognizing Gálvez in a Capitol portrait also bolstered the effort to grant him honorary citizenship by increasing his name recognition among lawmakers.
Gálvez's legacy is well-known in the South, and especially in Pensacola, which celebrates Gálvez Day on the anniversary of the fateful battle. Those advocating for honorary citizenship over the past five years are also hoping that this honor will help educate Americans about his role in the war and Spain's contribution to early U.S. history.
“I hope that it makes people understand the importance of Spain in this country early on in our settlement periods," Pensacola public historian Nancy Fetterman said in a phone interview. "They were strong and they were prescient; they knew this country was going to be important. I love that Gálvez is finally being recognized."
Fetterman began conducting extensive research on Gálvez in 2009, after she received a call from Molly Long, a U.S. citizen living in Spain, who contacted Fetterman on behalf of the Daughters of the American Revolution in Madrid. Long wrote in an email to CQ Roll Call that the idea for honorary citizenship originally came from Federico Souviron, a lawmaker from Malaga, the Spanish province where Gálvez was born. When the lawmaker contacted Long about the honorary citizenship effort, Long knew Fetterman would be well-suited to advocate for the effort in the United States.
"Quite frankly, at the time I said I can’t even imagine how to do this,” Fetterman explained. According to the State Department, granting honorary citizenship requires an act of Congress, so she first went to Miller's office, whose staff told her that it was not likely to happen considering it is an extremely rare honor.
“I kept talking to Jeff Miller and Jeff Miller finally said, 'You know, this is worth a try,'” said Fetterman. The historian said Miller and his staff "got so involved in this and took it personally that it was the right thing to do.”
Those advocating for Gálvez's citizenship took solace in the fact that two Revolutionary War participants had already been granted honorary citizenship, including Frenchman Marquis de Lafayette. Fetterman worked to demonstrate the Spaniard's role in the war and developed a written argument, which was vetted by local, Spanish and American scholars.
Miller's staff was tasked with rallying support behind the effort, and they appealed to Gulf Coast officials who knew of Gálvez's legacy. Federal and state lawmakers signed onto the effort, which culminated in a joint resolution granting honorary citizenship. The 30 co-sponsors, 13 Democrats and 17 Republicans, almost all hailed from the South, and included representatives from Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Texas and Puerto Rico.
The joint resolution was introduced in January 2014, passed the House in July and was approved by the Senate in early December. With the president's signature on the resolution on Dec. 16, Gálvez became the eighth person to be granted honorary citizenship.
The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.