Legal Principles in Spanish America

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Legal Principles in Spanish America

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Overlapping Authority. More so than the early English colonies, Spanish colonies were tied closely to the military, an imperial bureaucracy, and the church. The imperial bureaucracy had three components: the office of the viceroy, responsible for civil and military matters and the local governors; the audiencias, or appeals courts; and the episcopate, or church. Their powers overlapped, and in theory they worked to complement one another. In practice, however, disputes arose frequently over authority.

Underlying Theory. In part the jurisdictional confusion was intentional. The Spanish government knew that if the authority of these groups overlapped they would check each other and none would get too powerful. But another reason was that the agencies reflected the Spanish monarchy itself. The monarch was seen as both king and vicar of Christ, with secular and spiritual authority. In that sense both the church and the secular authorities could claim to be the emissaries of the king. The Spanish possession of New Mexico (present-day southwestern United States) exemplified this pattern. Franciscan friars first moved into New Mexico in 1581. Their positive reports prompted the king to award a capitulación (charter) to Don juán de Oñate in 1595 to conquer the region for Spanish settlement, which he did in 1598. In the years that followed, the Franciscans had the upper hand, but they admittedly relied on military power as a backup to their spiritual influence with the people. The result was nearly a theocratic state until the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 temporarily ended both Spanish civil and religious authority in the region. Even after Spanish rule was reasserted in the 1690s, the lines of authority frequently were crossed.

Encomiendas. Another distinctive feature of Spanish colonization was the encomienda. An encomienda entitled its recipient not only to the use of the land but also to tribute (payments) from the inhabitants, much as might be received on a feudal estate in medieval Europe. The first encomiendas had been unregulated, but the Laws of Burgos (1504) had placed restrictions, including a prohibition against enslaving the Indians. In the 1540s, under the influence of Bartolomeo de las Casas, King Charles V attempted to sharply curtail and even to end encomiendas through the New Laws. These were repealed only a few years later, but many restrictions survived. Don Juan de Oñates 1595 charter entitled him to award encomiendas to those who conquered New Mexico. Encomiendas could be inherited for up to two generations, but the ranches that their encomenderos (owners) created could be inherited indefinitely and became the basis of many large estates in the American Southwest. Governors and their regional subordinates, the alcaldes, often had little incentive to enforce Spanish law. As a result it was not uncommon for encomenderos to force the Indians, such as the Pueblos, into labor as well.

Roman Law. A third distinctive aspect of Spanish colonization was the influence of Roman law. Like other Continental nations, Spain had incorporated many Roman statutes during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which in turn influenced Spanish colonial law. Some scholars believe the influence of Roman laws made slavery less harsh in Spanish America than in English America. Likewise, others note that Spanish women in the colonies enjoyed greater legal autonomy.

Sources

Charles Gibson, Spain in America (New York: Harper &. Row, 1966);

Ramón Gutiérrez, When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1991);

David J. Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).

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Legal Principles in Spanish America

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