Spain, Constitution of 1812

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Spain, Constitution of 1812

The Political Constitution of the Spanish Monarchy, promulgated on 18 March 1812 by the Cortes of Cádiz, defined Spanish and Spanish-American liberalism for the early nineteenth century. It was a response to the constitutional crisis caused by the forced abdication and exile of Spain's legitimate monarch, Ferdinand VII, in 1808. Spanish liberals hoped to regenerate Spain through the adoption of a modern constitution influenced by Enlightenment principles and concepts stemming from the French and American revolutions. Although liberals dominated the Cortes, the resulting constitution was a blend of modern and traditional elements. Its controversial restriction of aristocratic and clerical privileges encouraged and strengthened liberal political arguments and emphasized the function and rights of local and provincial governments in making decisions for themselves, opposing traditional elites. The central idea behind the constitution was that sovereignty resided in the nation, which alone had the right to establish fundamental laws. Its makers hoped to correct the abuses of absolute monarchy without rejecting traditional features of Spanish law. Five American delegates sat on the committee in charge of drafting the document for debate.

The Constitution of 1812 essentially established a constitutional monarchy. Although it retained Roman Catholicism as the established church, it abolished the Inquisition, aristocratic privileges, feudal obligations, and seignorial levies. It provided for elections of deputies to future Cortes, representation without class distinctions, and the abolition of entailed estates. The Cortes were to convene on 1 March each year, for three months. Deputies were chosen every two years and sat for two consecutive sessions. Although not rejecting the monarchy, the constitution did moderate the power of the crown to ensure constitutional government. The crown retained only those functions that the Cortes could not exert, royal control over the administration was subjugated to an elected, unicameral assembly that met annually. A council of state watched over the crown's actions, although its members were chosen by the crown from a list compiled by the Cortes. Such restrictions on the monarch's powers, not surprisingly, caused great friction when Ferdinand VII returned to the Spanish throne in 1814.

The Constitution of 1812 extended universal suffrage to all free males under a deliberately indirect representative electoral system. Colonial representation in the Cortes provided political definition and substance to the demands of the creole liberal delegates. Although the American colonies gained full political rights within a unified Spanish empire, the Constitution did not allow the American dominions full self-rule. On the issue of free trade, for which the colonial delegates pressed, the constitution encouraged freer trade, but not to the full extent the colonies wished.

The document also provided for elected city councils and for representative provincial bodies (diputaciones provinciales). It proclaimed freedom of the press and threatened traditional fueros and monopolies. To encourage agrarian production, the constitution established clear and absolute property rights. True to liberal principles, individual property rights took precedence over corporate or collective rights. The constitution assured the individual's right to enclose, sell, or rent his land, paving the way for alienation of indigenous communal lands in some areas of Spanish America.

Although the conservatives tried to present the constitution of 1812 as the work of a radical minority—"a criminal conspiracy of a handful of facciosos [agitators]"—in reality the constitution had widespread support. Even the most radical of the clauses passed without effective opposition in the Cortes. What opposition to the constitution did exist was presented by the ecclesiastical orders and institutions whose petitions and privileges had been curtailed by the liberal clauses. The attack on church privilege, however, excited greater disapproval of the document outside the Cortes. In general, the Constitution of 1812 provided for a division of governmental powers, consolidated and updated the Spanish legal system, ensured civil equality, and curtailed corporate privilege.

Its restriction of monarchical power, however, led to open conflict upon Ferdinand VII's return to power. The king dissolved the Cortes and abrogated the constitution on 4 May 1814, restoring the unrestricted monarchy that had existed prior to 1808. Liberal opposition to Ferdinand's repressive power and to the war in the colonies led to the Riego Revolt of 1 January 1820, which reestablished the Constitution of 1812. In 1823, however, with the assistance of Bourbon troops from France, Ferdinand recovered his full authority and once more suppressed the constitution. The Constitution of 1812, however, both in Spain and in Spanish America, served as the initial model for the early nineteenth-century liberals. It is reflected strongly, for example, in the Mexican constitutions of 1814 (Apatzingán) and 1824, the Central American Constitution of 1824, and several early South American Republican constitutions.

See alsoFerdinand VII of Spain; Mexico, Constitutions: Constitutions Prior to 1917.


The Constitution of 1812 was published as Constitución política de la monarquía española, promulgada en Cádiz a 19 de marzo de 1812 (1820). Secondary works dealing with the constitution and its influence include Luis Alayza Paz Soldán, La Constitución de Cádiz, 1812: El egregio limeño Morales y Duárez (1946); Rafael De Alba and Manuel Puga y Acal, eds., La Constitución de 1812 en la Nueva España (1912); Cesareo De Armellada, La causa indígena americana en las Cortes de Cádiz (1959); Nettie Lee Benson, ed., Mexico and the Spanish Cortes, 1810–1822 (1966); Raymond Carr, Spain 1808–1978 (1982); María Teresa Berruezo, La participación americana en las Cortes de Cádiz, 1810–1814 (1986); Jorge Mario García La Guardia, La Constitución de Cádiz y su influencia en América: Años 1812–1987 (1987); Daniel A. Moreno, Las Cortes de Cádiz y la Constitución de 1812 (1964); and Mario Rodríguez, The Cádiz Experiment in Central America, 1808 to 1826 (1978).

Additional Bibliography

Chust Calero, Manuel. La cuestión nacional americana en las Cortes de Cádiz (1810–1814). Valencia: Centro Francisco Tomás y Valiente UNED Alzira-Valencia, Fundación Instituto Historia Social, 1999.

                                         Heather Thiessen