Period of Imperial Crisis (revised)
© 2001 Donald J. Mabry
The affairs of the Spanish Empire were tremendously complicated by
international wars and revolutions. The French Revolutionary-Napoleonic wars lasted from
1792 until 1815, an extremely long time. Spain foolishly joined these wars on different
sides at different times but primarily as an ally of the French. The wars were
costly and destroyed communications. Spain had a difficult time paying for them and lost
territory because of its participation. French Revolution and its wars turned things
topsy turvy. One consequence was the Haitian revolt, which scared the hell out of other
slave owners. During the Napoleonic phase of these wars, Spain suffered badly.
The British conquered South Africa. Admiral Homes Popham and
Colonel William Carr Beresford sailed from South Africa and attacked the
viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata (Montevideo and Buenos Aries) in 1806. After initial
victories in Buenos Aries, they were driven out by porteños, as the inhabitants of the
city were called. The next year Lieutenant-General John Whitelocke invaded but withdrew
after fierce resistance by the porteños. That the viceregal government did little to
defend the city of Buenos Aires created dissension among the porteños, for they, not the
Spanish, had protected the city from the British. Effectively, Buenos Aires was
independent from this time onwards. In fact, the cabildo deposed Viceroy Sobremonte and
chose Santiago Liniers, a Frenchman, to take his place. It was Liniers who persuaded
Whitelocke to surrender before his troops were slaughtered.
In spite of these difficulties, the colonies were still loyal to the
Spanish crown. That was soon to change.
Imperial Crisis, 1808-1814
Napoleonic troops passed through Spain in 1807 during their invasion
of Portugal, Britain's ally, and narrowly missed capturing the Portuguese royal family. It
and its retainers had escaped on British ships to Brazil. Charles IV and Godoy considered
fleeing but didn't.
By a secret convention reached at Fontainebleau in October 1807,
Spain agreed to support France against Portugal. A palace revolution on March 19th
deposed King Charles IV and his favorite, Godoy, and placed his son, Ferdinand VII, the
instigator, on the throne. Taking advantage of the ensuing machinations and bitterness
between the two factions, Napoleon got the two kings to come to Bayonne, France, and
had them agree that Joseph Bonaparte would be king. This produced a constitutional crisis.
Who should the Spanish obey? Meanwhile, the Spanish common people refused to accept
Napoleon's puppet and fought guerrillas (little wars) to drive the French imperial army
out of Spain. These guerrilleros tied down hundreds of thousands of French troops and were
soon supported by British troops.
The constitutional crisis interrupted communications and connections
between Spain and America. Some colonials began using the independent realms argument,
that they had a common king with Spain but weren't colonies, per se. They said they were
reynos, kingdoms, just as Castille and Aragón were. For example, in 1810, the Buenos
Aires junta voted that Rio de la Plata "kingdom" was equal to the other
kingdoms. A few accepted Joseph Bonaparte but there wasn't much sympathy
for the French and their advanced ways in Spanish territories. Most argued that the
government had to be preserved for the legitimate king, Ferdinand but some of those really
wanted more autonomy and, even, independence.
In Spain, 1808-10 were the most important years. The constitutional
connection was interrupted and the Americans had not yet begun to act on independence.
Period of crisis was over at different times in different places. Don't know what would
have happened if the Spanish Crown had been more liberal. Charles IV was stupid and
stolid; Ferdinand VII was stupid and active. Manuel de Godoy, Charles IV's chief minister,
ran the government under Charles. Godoy was the lover of the queen. His running of
the government caused some dissatisfaction in both Spain and Spanish America. Created some
contempt for the government and was one of the reasons Ferdinand garnered support for the
overthrow of his father.
Napoleon created the Statute of Bayonne on 8 July 1808. It equalized
taxation, abolished torture, reduced church and feudal rights; and instituted other
liberal measures. It gave representation to America and the Philippines.
Napoleon was a great believer in constitutions. The Bonaparte constitution had over one
hundred Spanish collaborators but essentially was the work of Napoleon. Contained moderate
liberal ideas of law and equality of taxation. The privileged didn't like it, of course.
People of Spain were uninterested in the Bayonne document. It was an imposed French
In Spain, juntas were formed, the most important of which was the
Junta Suprema Centrativa Gubernativa de España e Indias (Central and Governing Junta of
Spain and the Indies) in Sevilla. An 1809 decree granted 9 members of the
Ultramarine (the colonials) the right to be members of the Central Junta. Spain had 39.
Some dissatisfaction on the part of the colonials because, in an earlier decree, the
Americans had equal representation with Spain. Its consistency was questioned. Other
juntas were created around the monarchy.
The Spanish juntas asked the colonies to join them but the New World
colonies argued for criollo equality. The Spanish didn't mean that! The colonies created
their own juntas which then assumed governing authority in the name of Ferdinand
VII. When the Junta Centrativa tried to assert authority over the colonials, the
latter refused. In 1810, the central junta was replaced by the Cortés, the Spanish
parliament, which it had called. The Cortés began meeting in September in Cádiz.
The Cortés, unrepresentative of all political opinions in Spain, was radical and called
for equal treatment for the Americans, the end of Indian tribute, a free press, and such.
The central Junta was pushed by the French to Cádiz on the coast. It created the Council
of Regency and dissolved itself. The Council was conservative.
Elite Spaniards disagreed as to what the government should do and
who could participate. The Junta, Cortés, and the Council of Regency all three had
American representatives. Who they should be and how much power they should have was never
solved to satisfaction of the Americans, for the Spanish always wanted control.
Floridablanca, a man of Enlightenment as far as economics, was scared silly of the
French Revolution and led the conservatives in the Central Junta. The liberals
were led by Jovellanos, who was an upper class partisan of monarchic government. The
liberal faction was a small minority but became more influential as time went on. Got more
and more radical and, therefore, out of touch with Spanish reality. There was real fear of
undercutting the monarchy. Permitted the Jesuits to return. Stopped the change in church
land. Restricted press. More conservative than the Regency.
Cortés and Constitution
A number of places in America drew up instructions for their
delegates. Socorro, Colombia issued decrees to emancipate slaves and to allow unrestricted
commerce (indicative). One of the clear results of independence was the liberation of
slaves. Indicates that somebody had been reading the writings of the Enlightenment.
Advocated the extension of education (conservatives opposed this). Spoke of the
"ideas of humanity." New Granada, among others, sent no representatives.
The big problem was that America only had 9 representatives. The Central Junta was the
most recognized in America, then the Council of Regency, and then the Cortés.
Council of Regency had only 5 American members. 1) freed labor more
(2) sent out warnings against Frenchmen. Historically, the Spanish upper class and many
other Spaniards were xenophobic.
In May, 1809, the Junta Central approved the meeting of the Cortés but the Council of
Regency delayed calling it. Lots of discussions within the Council. What was the legality
of calling one and its possible powers were important topics. It called by estates
(roughly, social classes) which were going to meet separately (the clergy and the nobility
saw themselves as superior to everyone else), but, after an argument, the upper
classes decided to meet with the others. The meeting of the Cortés stirred up beliefs
that created a lot of debate and the passage of many laws. Election by each town council
of partidos. Americans selected from residents in Spain. Americans wanted equal
representation with Spain. Three hundred deputies in all. Began meeting in September,
1810. Eleven propositions made. End of restrictions; equality of the colonials, abolition
of the Inquisition were among those passed. This was radical legislation for Spain.
Constitution of 1812
Constitutional Committee met in December, 1810. Consisted of 6 liberals, 1 independent,
and 7 absolutists. In August, 1811 made its first proposal. Constitution was published in
March, 1812. Signed by 134 peninsular members and 51 Americans and Filipinos. Created a
unicameral legislative (Cortés) body which would meet annually. Indirect elections were
held to become a member. It had broad powers. Gave the king a suspensive veto.
King's orders had to be counter-signed by a Spanish minister. Declared that sovereignty
eissentia11y resided in the nation. Constitution was aborted, however.
Napoleon lost and Ferdinand VII came back to rule. Although he
promised to be bound by it, he soon repudiated the Constitution of 1812. Begins to
backtrack in an effort to restore the absolute monarchy. Repudiation came with a dull thud
Because of the 1820 revolt in Spain, Ferdinand agreed to restore the
Constitution but sought French help to quash the rebellion. The conservative Concert of
Europe agreed to French military invention to restore Ferdinand's full powers. restored,
Ferdinand adopted absolutism again. he made a concerted effort to regain the American
colonies but it was too late. Too many were too accustomed to running their own affairs by
1823. even Mexico, a conservative nation, had successfully revolted in 1821 rather than be
part of a liberal Spain. Had they waited, Spain would have been conservative again in a
few years but that wasn't the point. Neither conservatives nor liberals wanted to take
orders from Spain. Moreover, Spain couldn't have done much. The British used their control
of the high seas to prevent other European nations from interfering.
You can read about other topics in colonial Latin American history by buying and reading
Colonial Latin America by Don Mabry.
Click on the book cover or the title to go to Llumina Press.