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Monument in Cádiz to the Cortes and the 1812 constitution

The Cádiz Cortes were sessions of the national legislative body (traditionally known in Spain as the Cortes) which met in the safe haven of Cádiz during the French occupation of Spain during the Napoleonic Wars. The Cádiz Cortes were seen then, and by historians today, as a major step towards liberalism and democracy in the history of Spain.



Historical Background

From the first days of the Peninsular War, juntas, established by army commanders, guerrilla leaders, or local civilian groups, appeared in areas outside French control. They also existed underground as alternatives to the French-imposed government. Realizing that unity was needed to coordinate efforts against the French and to deal with British aid, several provincial juntas—Murcia, Valencia, Seville and Castile and León—called for the formation of a central one. After a series of negotiations which included the discredited Council of Castile, a Supreme Central Junta met in Aranjuez on 25 September 1808.[1] Serving as surrogate for the absent royal government, it succeeded in calling for representatives from local provinces and the overseas possessions to meet in an "Extraordinary and General Cortes of the Spanish Nation," so called because it would be both the single legislative body for the whole empire and the body which would write a constitution for it. By the beginning of 1810, the forces under the Junta's command had suffered serious military reverses—the Battle of Ocaña, the Battle of Alba de Tormes—in which the French not only inflicted large losses on the Spanish, but also took control of southern Spain and forced the government to retreat to Cádiz, the last redoubt available to it on Spanish soil. (See the Siege of Cádiz.) In light of this the Central Junta dissolved itself on 29 January 1810 and set up a five-person regency, charged with convening the Cortes. By the time the delegates were to be chosen, some of the American provinces had successfully established their own juntas, which did not recognize the authority of either the central one or the regency, and therefore, did not send representatives, although many other regions did. (See the Hispanic American wars of independence.)

Reforms and Constitution

The delegates from the Peninsula, America and the Philippines began holding regular sessions on 24 September 1810. Given the contingencies of war, the regency had authorized the delegates' request to take the unprecedented step of meeting as a unicameral body. Once deliberations started the delegates split into two main currents: liberal and conservative. Conservative Spaniards saw the Cortes at Cádiz at best as an interim government until "the Desired One"—as Ferdinand VII was called by all his supporters, both liberal and conservative—could return to the throne. Most regalists, however, could not admit that a parliamentary body could legislate in the absence of a king. The liberals carried on the reformist philosophy of Charles III of Spain and added to it many of the new ideals of the French Revolution. They wanted equality before the law, a centralized government, an efficient modern civil service, a reform of the tax system, the replacement of feudal privileges by freedom of contract, and the recognition of the property owner's right to use his property as he saw fit. As the liberals were the majority, they were able to transform the assembly from interim government to a constitutional convention. The product of the Cortes' deliberations reflected the liberals dominance, for Spanish Constitution of 1812 came to be the "sacred code" of liberalism, and during the nineteenth century it served as a model for liberal constitutions of Latin nations.

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.[2] The constitution set up a rational and efficient centralized administrative system based on newly formed provinces and municipalities rather than on the historic provinces. Repeal of traditional property restrictions gave the liberals the freer economy they wanted.


A revolutionary document, the 1812 Constitution marked the initiation of the Spanish tradition of liberalism, and when Ferdinand VII was restored to the throne in 1814, he refused to recognize it. He dismissed the Cortes Generales on 4 May and was determined to rule as an absolute monarch. These events forshadowed the long conflict between liberals and traditionalists that marked Spanish history in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Spain's American colonies took advantage of the postwar chaos to proclaim their independence, and most established republican governments. When Ferdinand was restored to the throne in Madrid, he expended wealth and manpower in a vain effort to reassert control over the colonies. The move was unpopular among liberal officers assigned to the American wars. By 1825 only Cuba and Puerto Rico remained under the Spanish flag in the New World.


  • Benson, Nettie Lee, ed. Mexico and the Spanish Cortes. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1966.
  • Lovett, Gabriel. Napoleon and the Birth of Modern Spain. New York: New York University Press, 1965.
  • Rieu-Millan, Marie Laure. Los diputados americanos en las Cortes de Cádiz: Igualdad o independencia. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 1990. ISBN 978-8400070915
  • Rodríguez O., Jaime E. The Independence of Spanish America. Cambridge University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-521-62673-0
  • Rodríguez, Mario. The Cádiz Experiment in Central America, 1808 to 1826. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978. ISBN 978-0520033948


  1. ^ Documents of the Junta Era at the Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes. In Spanish.
  2. ^ Articles 18-26 of the Constitution. Spain, The Political Constitution of the Spanish Monarchy. Alicante: Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes, 2003.


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