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War and Nation: identity and the process of state-building in South America (1800-1840)

1810 A Cortes and a Regency is Established in Cádiz

Following Napoleon’s usurpation of the Spanish king and royal family, the existing institutions of central and provincial government in Spain also fell. Governance then moved decentralized juntas, which did not seek to challenge the monarchical system, but rather presented themselves as temporarily acting on behalf of the king. Nonetheless this new structure opened up a space where new possibilities of governance could be discussed.

The provincial juntas formed a central junta composed of deputies from the different regions in Spain. These deputies met first in 1808 and committed to establishing a system or institution (known as the Cortes, meaning the General Courts), which would represent both peninsular and american Spaniards.

Although the central junta sought to co-ordinate resistance to Napoleon, it proved ineffective at this. As Napoleon’s troops took more and more of Spain, the central junta was pushed increasingly Southward. In 1809 it was based in Seville, but eventually it fled from Seville to Cádiz, a strip of land that is surrounded mostly by sea and extends from the Iberian Peninsular in such a way that it is practically an island. The central junta, had lost the remainder of the Spanish Peninsular, but held onto the enclave of Cádiz, where it was protected by British gunships.

In Cádiz power was transferred from the central junta to a Council of Regents which called itself the Cortes, the term traditionally used to describe such assemblies in Spain.

The Cortes included America in their conception of the Spanish nation and the Cortes was made up of delegates representing Spain and delegates representing America, though the latter were underrepresented. The delegates representing America sought to have participation in the Cortes organised according to the population of the various regions. As there were more people in the Americas, this would have essentially meant that delegates from the Americas would have had more control. The Spanish delegates refused this concept of equality, preferring for America to remain subordinate to Spain. This was justified racially by the Spaniards. They maintained that Indians and people of African descent should not be represented in a Spanish Cortes. The Quiteño José Mejía Lequerica had led the call for equal representation in the Cortés and declared the discriminatory system as unjust. When his calls for equal representation were rejected, he offered a compromise: equality for indians, americanos and mestizos only. This position excluded people of African descent. Up until the Napoleonic invasion, the term ‘americano’ had referred to whites. However over the next couple of decades its usage would be extended to include people of African, mixed and indigenous origin. In 1812 the Cortes finally drew up a constitution which was to become Spain’s first constitution.

Natalia Sobrevilla discusses this constitution, known as the Cádiz Constitution, in the podcast above.

Further Reading

Eastman, Scott and Natalia Sobrevilla eds. 2015. The Rise of Constitutional Government in the Iberian Atlantic World and the Impact of the Cádiz Constitution of 1812, Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University of Alabama Press.