Colonial Administration, Spanish

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COLONIAL ADMINISTRATION, SPANISH. Spanish colonial institutions in the Americas evolved over decades and in various locales. In contrast to the English colonies, where religious, royal, and proprietary colonies existed concurrently, under Spanish colonial administration, proprietary, missionary, and royal colonies existed in consecutive stages. Many aspects of the colonial administration were derived from experience in the Reconquest of Spain, but even more of its workings stemmed from the experience of conquest and colonization in the New World itself.

The initial model for colonization was similar to that for the English proprietary colonies. Hernán Cortes was the first adelantado in the New World; Juan de Oñate was the first to hold that office in what became the United States. Oñate negotiated a contract with the king for certain rights and offices. The monarchy realized the disadvantages of this type of colony. With in less than a generation the model was changed to a civil government, consisting of appointed and elected officials and ideally supplemented by the mission and presidio (fort).

Levels of Government

The highest body of the civil government in the Americas was the Council of the Indies. Although this body ideally included men with experience in the Americas, it never went there. Officially formed in 1524, the council was an outgrowth of the Council of Castile. The Council of the Indies drafted and issued American laws, served as the appellate court for civil cases arising in the American colonies, and exercised the power of royal nomination for American religious and secular offices. The Crown appointed the members of the council, who served at royal discretion.

In the New World, the highest-ranking royal representatives were the viceroys (assistant kings), deputies of the Crown who ruled in the monarch's name. Both the Crown and the Council of the Indies appointed these officials, all of whom were peninsulares, or Spaniards born in Spain. Although the law specified the term of a viceroy, these officials served at the discretion of the Crown and answered to the Council of the Indies. The viceroys governed large areas of land and were responsible for preserving Spanish control of their colonies, implementing royal orders and polices, maintaining and fostering the Catholic faith, and defending the population. Although the viceroy did not directly approve further exploration, his opinion carried great weight and his nominees were usually given preference.

Initially, there were two viceroyalties and several subordinate audiencias. The first viceroyalty was in Mexico (New Spain), created in 1535 with its capital at Mexico City. The second was Peru (New Castile), established in 1542 with its capital at Lima. The first viceroy of New Spain—constituting what later became the nation of Mexico and the western United States—was Antonio de Mendoza.

Judicial and advisory bodies known as audiencias assisted the viceroys. Audiencias were the appellate courts of their area, being subordinate judicially to the Council of the Indies. They also assumed full viceregal powers when the viceroy was absent or incapacitated. Audiencias differed from one another both in size and in power and their operation at any given time depended on local circumstances. Their members ordinarily served longer terms than viceroys and as corporate entities the audiencias provided administrative continuity.

Local government varied according to time and place. In seventeenth-century New Mexico, for example, the model was relatively simple. The gobernador (governor) ruled the northern province of New Mexico—the Rio Arriba, with its seat in Santa Fe—while the lieutenant governor administered the southern portion, the Rio Abajo. Except for Santa Fe and its environs, there were in later times subordinate jurisdicciones (districts) where an alcalde mayor governed.

Ideally, the alcalde mayor headed a cabildo (town council), which served an important and broad role in the political life of the community. Four regidores (councilmen), who initially were elected by the citizens of the villa (town), made up the cabildo; the alcalde mayor presided over the cabildo. The cabildo members appointed two alcaldes ordinarios (municipal magistrates) as well as an alguacil (bailiff), notary, and alférez real (royal standard bearer). In addition to executive and military roles, the alcalde mayor exercised judicial powers. Community governments, however, became weaker as the Spanish Empire itself declined. Regidores secured their posts through appointment, and as a result, town councils became self-perpetuating. The Crown reduced the powers of the cabildo. A strong cabildo and popular political participation survived only in marginal areas, at a distance from the capital, and through neglect. By 1700 very little remained of the municipal autonomy that was traditional in the earlier Hispanic world. In smaller towns without an alcalde mayor, the cabildo performed administrative functions on its own. In New Mexico during most of the colonial period, only the cabildo in Santa Fe operated. Even this body ceased to function from the 1740s at the latest until the first decade of the nineteenth century. During this time local government was almost exclusively the domain of the alcalde mayor and his assistants.

Law and the New World

Spain had an extensive body of laws dealing with the administration of the New World. They originally were issued as the New Laws (1573) but then were recompiled in 1681 as the New Laws of the Indies. The Instrucciones of 1786 not only recompiled some of the laws but also instituted a major reorganization of New World government into intendencias, or military administrative units. The reorganization occurred because of an increased need for defense against both Native Americans and European invaders. Some offices, such as the regidores and alcalde mayors, ceased to exist at this time.

Although there was a law for almost every situation, Spanish colonies were often known for their noncompliance with the laws of the empire. In fact, the principle of obedzago pero no cumplo (I obey, but I do not comply) embodied this ambiguity that led over the decades to conflicting regulations, local discretion in enforcing the laws, and ultimately to paralysis of action and proliferation of paperwork. This paralysis, followed by the chaos of the Mexican period (1821–1846), made the U.S. military takeover of what would become the southern United States easier.


Bourne, Edward Gaylord. Spain in America, 1450–1580. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1962.

Gibson, Charles. Spain in America. New York: Harper and Row, 1966.

Simmons, Marc. Spanish Government in New Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990.


See alsoSpanish Borderlands .