19th Century Brief Overview: Politics
A cursory glance at the political picture of Spain in the 19th century shows a bewildering period of instability and conflict. In short, it was a century of trauma. As a generalisation, the period reflected a clash between systems. On the one hand we have the old, the so-called “Ancien régime” or absolute monarchy, propped up by a conservative Church and other entrenched interests (e.g. the privileged aristocracy), and on the other hand a new, unstable and ill-defined system in search of an identity, but loosely called liberalism. Among the radical changes called for by the liberals was a constitutional monarchy, with political power invested in the Nation (Constitution of 1812, art. 3), and the right to express political opinions freely (Constitution of 1812, art. 371).
our everyday vocabulary in these early
years of the 19th century in Spain. Another
common expression taken from the conflicts
in Spain at this time is “guerrilla” warfare.
From this clash, it is not a long step to the concept of “two Spains,” a useful generalisation as long as we remember that the distinction is not absolute. For example, muddying the political waters is the active role of a new “player” on the scene, the army (Article 356 of the Constitution of 1812 advocated the establishment of a permanent army and navy to maintain order and defend the nation). In addition, we have popular resistance and guerrilla warfare, unleashed by the invasion of the French in 1808. What is ironic about this war of liberation (called the War of Independence, or Peninsular War outside Spain) is that it was fought to safeguard tradition (of the kind advocated by the Church) but by employing the power of the people, and by demonstrating what they could do in the absence of strong national leadership, it also sowed the destabilising seeds of political dissatisfaction on a wide scale. In addition, it cast a romantic aura over revolution, insubordination, and violent action that complicated political life in 19th-century Spain.
The intent of the popular uprising was conservative –the defense of Spain and its traditions– but the result was potentially subversive if unrestrained. As long as the French were the target, the country was united and the danger was contained. But once the French were gone…. The subsequent instability of the 19th century shows how difficult it was to keep the subversive genie bottled once let loose.
The Century in a Nutshell:
The century opened inauspiciously with three abdications in the same year, 1808 (Charles IV twice, and Ferdinand VII once), the beginning of a vicious war against an invader (Napoleon and his troops 1808-14), in which Spanish, French and Anglo-Portuguese troops criss-crossed the country, and a French king imposed by Napoleon to replace Ferdinand! The new king was Joseph, Napoleon’s older brother!
In 1814, Ferdinand returned, ruling despotically until his death in 1833. He was succeeded by his three-year old daughter, Isabella (II), whose personal behaviour later was so erratic that she was eventually deposed in 1868, following a revolution. For the next three years Spain was a monarchy in search of monarch. A European-wide search finally came up the Italian, Amadeo of Savoy. He reigned for just over two years (1870-73) before abdicating and escaping from what he called the “lunatic asylum” of Spanish politics. Disillusioned with the monarchy, Spain became a republic, which lasted one year (1873-74), ran through four presidents, and was plagued by urban rebellions! The monarchy was restored in 1875, with Isabella’s oldest son, Alfonso (XII), succeeding to the throne. Having survived an assassination attempt, he died in 1885, before the birth of his son and heir, Alfonso XIII. The monarchy remained under the regency of Alfonso XIII’s mother until 1902 when Alfonso came of age.
Apart from monarchical instability (which included two regencies: 1833-43, and 1885-1902), Spain also suffered from numerous military interventions and coups (pronunciamientos) during Isabella’s reign, street rioting, and two civil wars (the Carlist Wars of 1833-39 and 1873-76). In the space of 64 years (1812 to 1876), five constitutions were proclaimed (eight if we include the brief Statute of 1834, the addenda of 1856-57, and the proposed Republican Constitution of 1873).
In the second half of the century particularly, there were growing voices of worker discontent, the establishment of unions, anarchism, political assassinations, and strong nationalist sentiments in Catalonia and the Basque Provinces.
As if all this were not enough, by 1825 Spain had also suffered the devastating loss of all its overseas possessions, except Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines; in 1898 these too were lost following Spain’s humiliating defeat by the United States. Compared with its traditional rivals Britain and France, which were still acquiring overseas possessions, Spain went through a political and social wringer in the 19th century. It didn’t promise well for the 2oth century.
Carr, Raymond Spain 1808-1939 Oxford 1966
Esdaile, Charles J Spain in the Liberal Age: From Constitution to Civil War, 1808-1939 Oxford 2000
Lynch, John Bourbon Spain 1700-1808 Oxford 1989
Vincent, Mary & Stradling R.A. Cultural Atlas of Spain and Portugal Oxford 1994