Spain. Restoration 1875-1902

The Restoration in Spain, Part I: 1875-1902.
Compared to the political chaos of the first 75 years of the 19th century in Spain, the last 25 years were relatively stable.  The Bourbon royal dynasty was restored, with Alfonso (XII) taking the throne in 1875. The Bourbon family remained until early 1931, when Alfonso XIII was forced to abdicate and a Second Republic proclaimed. Several factors help explain this relative political stability.

The Monarchy: A virtue of Alfonso XII (r. 1874-85) was that he stayed politically neutral, keeping strictly to his role as constitutional monarch, a welcome change from his mother and grandfather, Fernando VII. He was something of a dandy (noted for his sideburns) but endeared himself to his people by public appearances in moments of need: he visited areas hit by cholera in 1881, and comforted victims of a large earthquake in the Málaga-Granada region in 1885.

Alfonso XII.

Alfonso was called informally majo, an allusion to his love of the bulls and the Madrid dish, the cocido. He fell deeply in love with his cousin Mercedes de Orleans, whom he married despite strong opposition. When she died a few months later of typhus, the king was devastated.

Out of duty he married María Cristina of Austria in 1879, but in his personal life became a notorious womaniser with several lovers drawn from the theatre.

María Cristina –popularly called “Doña Virtudes”– made sure at least that there would be no palace scandals; she surrounded herself with elderly ladies-in-waiting, a move that elicited a comment from the Moroccan ambassador that the Spanish court was magnificent, but that the harem was weak!

After Alfonso’s untimely death of tuberculosis in 1885, Queen María Cristina, served as regent until 1902. Like her husband, she refrained from political interference. She was much more concerned with ensuring the position of her son, the future Alfonso XIII, and took care not to create political enemies.

The Political System.
Underpinning the whole political system was an extraordinary arrangement between the two most important political figures of this period, the conservative, Antonio Cánovas, and the liberal, Práxedes Sagasta. This curious political arrangement was initiated by Cánovas, a historian and monarchist whose objective was to give Spain political stability, which would allow it to build up its industries. Through this, he hoped that Spaniards –especially the ruling class– would become more European and acquire a greater sense of their responsibilities.

In order to achieve stability and economic welfare, Cánovas considered two requirements to be fundamental: 1) the army keep out of politics and limit itself to the defence of the country, and 2) elections should be held to elect members to Cortes (Parliament), although the election results would be prearranged (i.e. they weren’t really free).

Keeping the Army out of Politics.
Most of the generals who had intervened in politics during Isabel’s reign were either dead –O’Donnell, Narvaez, Prim– or quite old –Espartero (died 1879)–. Younger military men, generally horrified by the anarchy of the Republican experiment (1873-74), supported the political arrangement.

Cánovas also ensured Army support by allowing it a degree of internal autonomy and granting members a few honorary seats in the Senate. At the same time, the Army was also occupied in Cuba where calls for local autonomy had been ignored or frustrated by the Spanish government.

A savage guerrilla war, begun in 1868 dragged on until a peace settlement 10 years later, with a promise by Spain to grant autonomy. Continued Spanish disregard for Cuban autonomy, however, led to a further outbreak in 1895, with calls now for independence. In 1898 this was achieved after Spain suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the USA which came to “help” Cuba, the Philippines and Puerto Rico throw off the yoke of Spanish imperialism!

Cánovas was an admirer of the British two-party political system which represented the right and the left, and he set about imitating it –but only superficially! With Sagasta’s agreement, he instituted a system of alternating governments (known as the gobierno de turno pacífico), according to which he and Sagasta alternated as government leaders.

This arrangement meant, of course, that there were no such things as true, democratically elected governments … it was all fixed. And yet this was, basically, the system that continued –admittedly with increasing difficulty– until 1923, when a military coup led by General Miguel Primo de Rivera ended it all.

How did the election system work? When elections were called, the necessary parliamentary majorities were worked out beforehand so that the results were known even before the elections. In the case of the 1886 general election which brought Sagasta to power, the results appeared in an official newspaper the day before the elections took place!!

It was really a perversion of parliamentary democracy, but it worked. How were these majorities ensured? By rigging the electoral list. Orders would go out from the Ministry of the Interior to the provincial governors and from these, via a network, to the whole country, from large towns to smallest villages.

Spain was still overwhelmingly rural, and a crucial figure in controlling the votes in these country areas was the cacique. The cacique was an important individual who, at the local level, could ensure that those in his area would vote according to the orders he received.

In the south and west (Andalusia and Extremadura, Northern Castile), he could be a latifundista (owner of a large estate) who controlled local caciques in the surrounding villages.

In the north where there were no latifundios, the cacique might be a lawyer, priest or the local mayor. Often a village might have two caciques, one liberal and one conservative who, far from keeping the gentleman’s agreement of the politicians in Madrid, would be bitter enemies,. This meant that the elections were at times violent. Still, the corruption “worked”, and the system limped increasingly along until its overthrow by a military coup in 1923.

The gobierno de turno pacífico was a band aid temporarily covering serious cracks in Spanish society in the last quarter of the 19th century.  True, the Cánovas/Sagasta understanding lent political stability which allowed modest economic and commercial progress. But this occurred mainly in the growing urban centres of the coast: Barcelona, Bilbao, the mining region of Asturias and the sherry region of Andalusia. Little economic or commercial improvement occurred in the interior.

In the 1880s, the Liberals –under Sagasta– introduced measures allowing freedom of association, which legitimized the socialist political party (PSOE: Partido Socialista Obrero Español), founded by Pablo Iglesias in 1879, and paved the way for its union affiliate (the UGT: Unión General de Trabajadores), established in 1888. At the same time, freedom of the press, religious liberty and trial by jury were guaranteed. These were followed, in the 1890s, by universal male suffrage.

However, despite these advances, other forces put pressures on Spain’s delicate social fabric:

1. The Cuban War was a disaster, leaving more than 60,000 dead through fighting or disease. Beginning in the 1860s, the war concluded in 1898 with the humiliating defeat of Spanish forces by the United States (which supported Cuban independence for its own purposes), and the subsequent loss not only of Cuba but of all the rest of Spain’s transoceanic territories: the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico.

2. The appearance of working class movements and a socialist political party gave voice to those who lived in slums and worked in deplorable conditions in industrial urban centres, especially in Catalonia and particularly in Barcelona.

At the same time, anarchism –which had found fertile ground among the landless peasants of Andalusia in the 1870s– spread quickly into Catalonia. Faced with the intransigence and hostility of employers (who opposed any form of labour organisations), anarchists resorted to violence. The first anarchist bomb exploded in the offices of a powerful business group in Barcelona in 1891.

It didn’t do much damage but set the tone and fulfilled the revolutionary maxim “propaganda by deed.” In particular, two anarchist bombings –in 1893 and 1896– rocked Barcelona. In the first, 21 people died in the Liceu Opera House, in the second, a bomb was lobbed at a religious procession during the Feast of Corpus Christi.

The bishop of Barcelona, who headed the procession, was lucky; not so 10 workers towards the end who paid with their lives. Subsequent brutal police suppression resulted in the assassination of Prime Minister Cánovas himself in 1897, not by an anarchist bomb but by an anarchist revolver!

3. There was a surge of regional nationalism in Catalonia and to a lesser extent in Euskadi (the Basque Provinces). The source of this nationalism was dissatisfaction with the central government of Madrid and a growing sense of the historical differences between these regions and the rest of Spain. Although the Basques could not claim a strong cultural heritage anchored by their language, the Catalans certainly could.

Catalans now talk proudly of the Renaixença (Renaissance), a 19th-century cultural flowering influenced by European Romanticism’s love of local colour and historical accomplishments. This cultural awakening was a significant impetus for the drafting of an important petition of grievances (Memorial dels Greuges) sent to Alfonso XII in 1885, the first document to outline Catalan aspirations as well as complaints.

The petition criticised Madrid for its centralising policies and its politicians for the decadence of the country. It argued vigorously against trade agreements with Britain and France and called for regeneration through regional vitality and competition. The Memorial did not advocate separation, but rather regional recognition.

4. Education, which had been the monopoly of the Catholic Church, became a divisive social issue when the 1876 Constitution declared that Spaniards were free to establish schools. There was no requirement for religious instruction in these schools although the state did reserve the right to determine the qualifications of the teachers. The new law did not produce a proliferation of secular schools, but it did spur debates on the kind of education desirable for Spain.

The Catholic Church was particularly sensitive to anything that touched on its monopoly. Its interests were also bolstered by the arrival of numerous French monastic clergy who, having been compelled to leave France by the Jules Ferry laws secularizing education, were determined that their new country would not fall to “liberal atheism.”  Within the Spanish church, the Jesuits led the way in educational reform, although this did not divert them from their long-held policy of cultivating the support of the rich and powerful.

The secular counterpart to church-controlled education was the Institución Libre de Enseñanza (Institute of Free Education), founded in 1876 by Fernando Giner de los Ríos, a university professor much influenced by the ideas of a German philosopher, Karl Krause.  The Institute’s aim was to offer an all-round secular education in arts and science and encourage independent thought and tolerance, ideas contrary to what was taught under the Catholic system in those days.

Spaniards were probably happy to see the 19th century end given the Cuban disaster, working-class unrest, anarchist turbulence, regional disquiet and educational confrontations. In 1902, María Cristina’s regency ended and her son, Alfonso XIII, succeeded to the throne. A new century, a new king … and there was talk of regeneration in the air … How did Spain fare at the beginning of the 20th century? See Restoration 1902-23.

Barton, Simon  A History of Spain Basingstoke, Hampshire 2nd ed. 2009
Carr, Raymond ed.  Spain: A History  Oxford 2000
Phillips, William D & Phillips Carla R A Concise History of Spain Cambridge 2010
Image of Alfonso XII: