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Plaza de España in Cadiz, commemorating the Spanish Constitution of 1812.

The Spanish Constitution of 1812 was promulgated 19 March 1812 by the Cádiz Cortes, the national legislative assembly (Cortes Generales "General Courts") of Spain acting while in refuge from the Peninsular War. This constitution was effectively Spain's first (see Constitutions of Spain), given that the Bonapartist Bayonne Statute of 1808 never went into effect.

The constitution, one of the most liberal of its time, was abolished by Ferdinand VII upon his return to Spain 24 March 1814, but was reinstated during the Trienio Liberal of 1820–1823, and again briefly in 1836–1837 while the Progressives prepared the Constitution of 1837. In 1812–1814, this constitution was never really fully in effect: much of Spain was ruled by Joseph Bonaparte, while the rest was in the hands of interim governments focused on resistance to Bonaparte rather than on the immediate establishment of a constitutional regime, and the overseas possessions experienced the chaos of a power vacuum.

The constitution established the principals of universal suffrage, national sovereignty, constitutional monarchy, freedom of the press, and supported land reform and free enterprise.

The Spaniards baptised the constitution "La Pepa" because it was adopted on Saint Joseph's Day,[1] (Pepe in Spanish is the standard nickname for José, comparable to Joe for Joseph. Pepa is the female equivalent, a nickname for Josefa, used because la constitución is a feminine noun).



An original edition of the Constitution of 1812.

At the time the Cortes drafted and adopted the Constitution, it was taking refuge from the Peninsular War on Spain's Atlantic Coast, first in Isla del León (now San Fernando) and then in Cádiz. From a Spanish point of view, the Peninsular war was a war of independence against the French Empire and the king installed by the French, Joseph Bonaparte. That war began on the night of 2 May 1808 immortalized by Francisco Goya's painting The Second of May 1808, also known as The Charge of the Mamelukes. Both Ferdinand VII and his father, Charles IV resigned their own claims to the throne, making way for Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, who in turn passed the crown to his brother Joseph. While many in elite circles in Madrid were willing to accept Joseph Bonaparte's rule, the Spanish people were not.

Napoleon's forces faced both Spanish partisans and the British under the Duke of Wellington. The Spanish partisans 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 25 September 1808 in Aranjuez (province of Madrid) and later in Seville before being forced yet farther from the center of Spain.

The 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 House of Bourbon. However, almost from the outset they were in physical retreat from Napoleon's forces, and the comparative liberalism offered by the Napoleonic regime hardly made Floridablanca's enlightened absolutist[2] views a likely basis to rally the country. In any event, Floridablanca's strength failed him and he died on 30 December 1808.

When a Cortes convened in Seville in 1809, there appeared to be two possibilities for Spain's political future if the French could be driven out. The first, represented especially by Gaspar Melchor de Jovellano, was the restoration of the absolutist Antiguo Régimen ("Old Regime"); the second was to adopt some sort of constitution.

Deliberations and Reforms

The Cortes meets, 24 September 1810. Oil painting by José María Casado del Alisal, 1863.

Retreating before the advancing French, the Cortes moved to Isla del León. The opening session of the new Cortes was held on 24 September 1810 in the building now known as the Real Teatro de las Cortes. It certainly did not begin with any revolutionary intentions: the Junta saw itself as the continuation of the legitimate government of Spain, and the opening session began with a civic procession, a mass, and a call by the president of the Regency, Pedro Quevedo y Quintana, bishop of Ourense for those present to fulfill their task loyally and efficiently. Still, the very act of resistance to the French involved a certain degree of deviation from the doctrine of royal sovereignty: if sovereignty resided entirely in the monarch, then Charles and Ferdinand's abdications in favor of Napoleon would make Joseph Bonaparte the legitimate ruler of Spain.[3]

Several basic principles were soon ratified: that sovereignty resides in the nation (see national sovereignty), the legitimacy of Ferdinand VII as King of Spain, and the inviolability of the deputies. With this, the first steps towards a political revolution had been taken, since prior to the Napoleonic intervention, Spain had been ruled as an absolute monarchy by the Bourbons and their Habsburg predecessors.

An outbreak of yellow fever and a further French advance drove the Cortes to Cádiz, at the end of a peninsula and with protection provided by the British Royal Navy. Liberal deputies were in the majority, and 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.

Allegory of the Constitution of 1812, Francisco de Goya, Stockholm Museum.

The Cortes was not unanimous in its liberalism: the new constitution would reduce the power of the Crown, the Catholic Church (although Catholicism remained the state religion), and the nobility; representatives of the church and nobility constituted a minority of the Cortes, and some supporters of royal absolutism were also present. The liberals, however, had both the majority and the implicit support of the British who were protecting the city. Still, the representatives at Cádiz were far more liberal than the elite of Spain taken as a whole, and produced a document far more liberal than might have been produced in Spain were it not for the war. Few of the most conservative voices were at Cádiz, and there was no effective communication with King Ferdinand, who was a virtual prisoner in France.

The promulgation of the Constitution of 1812, oil painting by Salvador Viniegra (Museo de las Cortes de Cádiz).

The Cortes of Cádiz worked feverishly, and the first written Spanish constitution was promulgated in the city of 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 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.[4]

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.[5]

Anguita, where the act was signed to establish the first diputación provincial under the 1812 Constitution.

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 the liberals the freer economy they wanted.

The first provincial government created under this constitution was for the province of Guadalajara con Molina. The deputation was declared in the village of Anguita, in April 1813; the capital Guadalajara was the site of ongoing fighting.


The problem of the Americas

Among the more difficult questions to be grappled with in drafting a constitution was the status and governance of Spain's possessions in the Americas. Some, but not all, of these were represented: the Viceroyalty of New Spain (based at Mexico City), the Caribbean, Florida, and the Viceroyalty of Peru had representatives present; the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata (based at Buenos Aires) and Venezuela did not. Those present to represent the Americas were virtually all criollos: people of Spanish ancestry born in the Americas. On the one hand the criollo elite wished to maintain their dominance over the indigenous population; on the other, the peninsular Spanish wished to limit the weight of these "Americans" in any future Spanish Cortes. Nor were the peninsular Spanish inclined toward federalism: most shared the absolutists' inclination toward centralized government.

The importance of the Americas was amply reflected in Article 1 of the Constitution: "The Spanish nation is the collectivity of the Spaniards of both hemispheres."[6] The Constitution defined the Spanish Monarchy as the union of all the Spanish possessions around the world and defined as Spaniards all persons born or naturalized in these.[7] This had the effect of changing the legal status of the people not only in peninsular Spain but in Spanish possessions in the Americas, and in the latter case not only of Spanish ancestry but the indigenous peoples of the Americas as well, from that of subjects of an absolute monarch to the citizens of a nation rooted in the doctrine of national, rather than royal, sovereignty.[8]

At the same time, the postponement of any new provincial division of Spain pushed off into the indefinite future any opportunity for these American citizens to have a political structures proportional to their numbers. For the present, entire viceroyalties in the Americas would be treated as single provinces.

Furthermore, the New World raised issues of race far beyond those of peninsular Spain. While Spanish liberals on the peninsula were far less concerned than traditionalists with Limpieza de sangre ("purity of blood," initially an issue of Jewish or Muslim ancestry), the indigenous peoples and numerous African slaves of the Americas, and the various people, free or slave, of mixed ancestry, raised another set of issues. Article 22 explicitly recognized the civil rights of mulattoes, but Article 29 deprived them of political rights. In part, this was a strategy by the peninsulars to reduce the number of American deputies under a system of universal suffrage proportional to population, but it also served the interest of the criollo elite and kept power within a more limited class. In any event, the effect of Article 29 was to deprive some six million people of political rights.

Another aspect of the treatment of the overseas territories in the constitution—one of the many that would prove not to be to the taste of Ferdinand VII—that by converting these territories to provinces, the king was deprived of a great economic resource. Under the Antiguo Régimen, the taxes from Spain's overseas possessions went directly to the royal treasury; under the Constitution of 1812, it would go to the state administrative apparatus.

The influence on the 1812 constitution of the emerging states of Latin America was quite direct. Miguel Ramos Arizpe of Mexico, Joaquín Fernández de Leiva of Chile, Vicente Morales Duárez of Peru and José Mejía Lequerica of Ecuador, among other significant figures in founding American republics, were active participants at Cádiz. One provision of the Constitution that also was to significantly affect the Americas came from a proposal by Ramos Arizpe: every settlement of over 1,000 people was to elect a local government (an ayuntamiento), using a form of indirect election that favored the wealthy and powerful. This was to the benefit of the bourgeoisie at the expense of the hereditary aristocracy both on the Peninsula and in the Americas; in the Americas, it was particularly to the advantage of the criollos. It also brought in a certain measure of federalism through the back door, both on the peninsula and overseas: elected bodies at the local and provincial level might not always be in lockstep with the central government.

Repeal and Restoration

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 to the Cortes signed the so-called Manifiesto de los Persas ("Manifesto of the Persians") encouraging a return to absolutism. Within a matter of weeks, encouraged by conservatives and backed by the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy, he repudiated the constitution (4 May) and arrested numerous liberal leaders (10 May), justifying his actions as repudiating a constitution made by a Cortes assembled in his absence and without his consent. Thus he had come back to assert the Bourbon doctrine that the sovereign authority resided in his person only.[9]

When Ferdinand's harsh rule resulted in a mutiny of army officers in 1820, the Constitution of 1812 was the unifying document of the liberals, who wished to see a constitutional monarchy in Spain. The other European monarchies became alarmed at the liberals' success and at the Congress of Verona in 1822 approved intervention of French forces in Spain to support Ferdinand VII. After the Battle of Trocadero liberated Ferdinand from control of the Cortes in August 1823, he turned on the liberals and constitutionalists with fury. After Ferdinand's death, 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, including the one of 1978, currently in force.


  • The Political Constitution of the Spanish Monarchy. Biblioteca Virtual "Miguel de Cervantes" on-line version of a partial translation originally published in Cobbett's Political Register, Vol. 16 (July-December 1814).
  • Artola, Miguel. La España de Fernando VII. Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1999. ISBN 8423997421
  • Benson, Nettie Lee, ed. Mexico and the Spanish Cortes. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1966.
  • Harris, Jonathan, "An English utilitarian looks at Spanish American independence: Jeremy Bentham's Rid Yourselves of Ultramaria," The Americas 53 (1996), 217-233
  • 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


This article incorporates information from the revision as of 2010-03-08 of the equivalent article on the Spanish Wikipedia.
  1. ^ Otras constituciones on the official Spanish government site about the Spanish constitution. Accessed 16 April 2006.
  2. ^ Charles J. Esdaile, Spain in the Liberal Age, Blackwell, 2000. ISBN 0631149880. p. 22.
  3. ^ Charles J. Esdaile, Spain in the Liberal Age, Blackwell, 2000. ISBN 0631149880. p. 19–20.
  4. ^ Payne, Stanley G. (1973). A History of Spain and Portugal: Eighteenth Century to Franco. 2. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. pp. 432–433. ISBN 9780299062705. "The Spanish pattern of conspiracy and revolt by liberal army officers ... was emulated in both Portugal and Italy. In the wake of Riego's successful rebellion, the first and only pronunciamiento in Italian history was carried out by liberal officers in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The Spanish-style military conspiracy also helped to inspire the beginning of the Russian revolutionary movement with the revolt of the Decembrist army officers in 1825. Italian liberalism in 1820-1821 relied on junior officers and the provincial middle classes, essentially the same social base as in Spain. It even used a Hispanized political vocabulary, for it was led by giunte (juntas), appointed local capi politici (jefes políticos), used the terms of liberali and servili (emulating the Spanish word serviles applied to supporters of absolutism), and in the end talked of resisting by means of a guerrilla. For both Portuguese and Italian liberals of these years, the Spanish constitution of 1812 remained the standard document of reference." 
  5. ^ Articles 18-26 of the Constitution. Spain, The Political Constitution of the Spanish Monarchy. Alicante: Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes, 2003.
  6. ^ "La nación española es la reunión de los españoles de ambos hemisferios."
  7. ^ Articles 1, 5 and 10 of the Constitution.
  8. ^ Valentin Paniagua, Los orígenes del gobierno representativo en el Perú: las elecciones (1809-1826), Fondo Editorial PUCP, 2003, ISBN 9972426076. p. 116. Available on Google Books.
  9. ^ Alfonso Bullon de Mendoza y Gomez de Valugera, "Revolución y contrarrevolución en España y América (1808–1840)" in Javier Parades Alonso (ed.), España Siglo XIX, ACTAS, 1991. ISBN 8487863035, p. 81–82.


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