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This Week In History

The Spanish Constitution, La Pepa. March 19, 1812.

The Political Constitution of the Spanish Monarchy (Constitución Política de la Monarquía Española), also known as the Constitution of Cádiz and as La Pepa (for it was signed on March 19, San José´s day, commonly Pepe in Spain), was the first Constitution of Spain and one of the earliest constitutions in world history. It was established on 19 March 1812 by the Cortes of Cádiz, the first Spanish legislature. With the notable exception of proclaiming Roman Catholicism as the official and sole legal religion in Spain, the constitution was one of the most liberal of its time: it affirmed national sovereignty, separation of powers, freedom of the press, free enterprise, abolished feudalism, and established a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary system. It was one of the first constitutions that allowed universal male suffrage, through a complex indirect electoral system. It was repealed by King Ferdinand VII in 1814 in Valencia, who re-established absolute monarchy.

However, the Constitution had many difficulties becoming fully effective: much of Spain was ruled by the French, while the rest of the country was in the hands of interim Junta governments focused on resistance to the Bonapartes rather than on the immediate establishment of a constitutional regime. Many of the overseas territories did not recognize the legitimacy of these interim metropolitan governments, leading to a power vacuum and the establishment of separate juntas on the American continent. On 24 March 1814, six weeks after returning to Spain, Ferdinand VII abolished the constitution. The constitution was reinstated during the Trienio Liberal (1820–1823), and again briefly 1836—1837 while the Progressives prepared the Constitution of 1837.

The Cortes drafted and adopted the Constitution while besieged by French troops, first on Isla de León (now San Fernando), then an island separated from the mainland by a shallow waterway on the Atlantic side of the Bay of Cádiz, and within the small, strategically located city of Cádiz itself.

From a Spanish point of view, the Peninsular War was a war of independence against the French Empire and the king installed by Napoleon, his brother Joseph Bonaparte. In 1808, both King Ferdinand VII and his predecessor and father, Charles IV, had resigned their claims to the throne in favor of Napoleon Bonaparte, who in turn passed the crown to his brother Joseph. While many in elite circles in Madrid were willing to accept Joseph’s rule, the Spanish people were not.

From the outbreak of the Spanish revolt against the Bonapartist regime in 1808, Napoleon’s forces faced both Spanish armies and partisans, joined later by British and Portuguese armies under Arthur Wellesley. The Spanish organized an interim Spanish government, the Supreme Central Junta and called for a Cortes to convene with representatives from all the Spanish provinces throughout the worldwide empire, in order to establish a government with a firm claim to legitimacy. The Junta first met on 25 September 1808 in Aranjuez and later in Seville, before retreating to Cádiz.

The Supreme Central Junta, originally under the leadership of the elderly Count of Floridablanca, initially tried to consolidate southern and eastern Spain to maintain continuity for a restoration of the Bourbons. However, almost from the outset they were in physical retreat from Napoleon’s forces, and the comparative liberalism offered by the Napoleonic regime made Floridablanca’s enlightened absolutism an unlikely basis to rally the country. In any event, Floridablanca’s strength failed him and he died on 30 December 1808.

The Cortes of Cádiz worked feverishly and the first written Spanish constitution was promulgated in Cádiz on 19 March 1812. The Constitution of 1812 is regarded as the founding document of liberalism in Spain and one of the first examples of classical liberalism or conservative liberalism worldwide. It came to be called the “sacred code” of the branch of liberalism that rejected a part of the French Revolution, and during the early nineteenth century it served as a model for liberal constitutions of several Mediterranean and Latin American nations. It served as the model for the Norwegian Constitution of 1814, the Portuguese Constitution of 1822 and the Mexican one of 1824, and was implemented with minor modifications in various Italian states by the Carbonari during their revolt of 1820 and 1821.

As the principal aim of the new constitution was the prevention of arbitrary and corrupt royal rule, it provided for a limited monarchy which governed through ministers subject to parliamentary control. Suffrage, which was not determined by property qualifications, favored the position of the commercial class in the new parliament, since there was no special provision for the Church or the nobility. The constitution set up a rational and efficient centralized administrative system for the whole monarchy based on newly reformed and uniform provincial governments and municipalities, rather than maintaining some form of the varied, historical local governmental structures. Repeal of traditional property restrictions gave liberals the freer economy they wanted.

When Ferdinand VII was restored in March 1814 by the Allied Powers, it is not clear whether he immediately made up his mind as to whether to accept or reject this new charter of Spanish government. He first promised to uphold the constitution, but was repeatedly met in numerous towns by crowds who welcomed him as an absolute monarch, often smashing the markers that had renamed their central plazas as Plaza of the Constitution. Sixty-nine deputies of the Cortes signed the so-called Manifiesto de los Persas (“Manifesto of the Persians“) encouraging him to restore absolutism. Within a matter of weeks, encouraged by conservatives and backed by the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy, he abolished the constitution on 4 May and arrested many liberal leaders on 10 May, justifying his actions as the repudiation of an unlawful constitution made by a Cortes assembled in his absence and without his consent. Thus he came back to assert the Bourbon doctrine that the sovereign authority resided in his person only.

Ferdinand’s absolutist rule rewarded the traditional holders of power—prelates, nobles and those who held office before 1808—but not liberals, who wished to see a constitutional monarchy in Spain, or many who led the war effort against the French but had not been part of the pre-war government. This discontent resulted in several unsuccessful attempts to restore the Constitution in the five years after Ferdinand’s restoration. Finally on 1 January 1820 Rafael del Riego, Antonio Quiroga and other officers initiated a mutiny of army officers in Andalusia demanding the implementation of the Constitution. The movement found support among the northern cities and provinces of Spain, and by 7 March the king had restored the Constitution.

Over the next two years, the other European monarchies became alarmed at the liberals’ success and at the Congress of Verona in 1822 approved the intervention of royalist French forces in Spain to support Ferdinand VII. After the Battle of Trocadero liberated Ferdinand from control by the Cortes in August 1823, he turned on the liberals and constitutionalists with fury. After Ferdinand’s death in 1833, the Constitution was in force again briefly in 1836 and 1837, while the Constitution of 1837 was being drafted. Since 1812, Spain has had a total of seven constitutions; the current one has been in force since 1978.

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