Spain 1820s

Posted: Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The execution of Torrijos, by Antonio Gisbert Perez. Ferdinand VII, after his restoration as absolute monarch in 1823, took repressive measures against the liberal forces in his country.

The instruments of liberal revolution in Spain and Portugal were the secret societies (whose successful activities from 1815 to 1820 account for the obsessive concern of Iberian clericals with freemasonry) and the pronunciamiento, an officers' revolt based on the crude political theory that the general will of the nation, when vitiated by a monarch's evil counsellors or corrupt parliamentary institutions, was to be sought in the officer corps. The pronunciamiento was to develop a rigid form, with a consistent weakness: fear of discovery of elaborate negotiations meant that most pronunciamientos went off at half cock. This was balanced by the inefficiency of government detection and detention: Quiroga, the chosen leader in 1820, was allowed complete freedom to conspire from prison. A ramshackle despotism encouraged revolutionary irresponsibility. The early pronunciamientos in Spain and Portugal merely produced martyrs, Gomes Freire d'Andrade in Portugal and Lacy, the symbol of Catalan liberalism. Civilian support was limited though increasing, and the rank and file were indifferent to their officers' liberalism. If there was a vast masonic, civil conspiracy in 1817, it came to nothing. Why did the Cadiz revolution of 1820 succeed, led, as it was, by young officers and inexperienced civil hotheads after the higher officers and the notables of Cadiz masonry had been frightened by O'Donnell's betrayal of the 'respectable' conspiracy of 1819? What gave the revolution its strength was 'the repugnance of the rank and file against embarking for America', which, for the first time, gave sergeants and soldiers a direct interest in revolution. The British consul believed that revolt 'would die a natural death'; it triumphed through the feebleness of a government which could not collect a force to fight it. In March the revolution spread to the great towns of Saragossa, Corufia and Barcelona. General Ballesteros and O'Donnell deserted to the revolution; the king was forced to accept the constitution of 1812 (which Riego had adopted on the spur of the moment), not by the force of public opinion expressed in demonstrations in Madrid but because he had lost control of the army.

The revolution of 1820-3 set the programme and procedures of Iberian liberalism and that of its enemies. In Spain, 1812 had been a dress rehearsal in exceptional circumstances; in Portugal, the revolution of 1808 had failed to materialise. The new party groupings of the 1820 revolution were permanent. Liberalism both in Spain and Portugal was divided into moderate and exalted wings.

The strength of the Exaltados lay in the provincial extremism of the Juntas, which ruled Spain until June-July, and in the revolutionary army of Riego. Thus emerged the mechanism of revolution: on its military side the army coup; on its civilian side, the take-over by local Juntas whose extreme claims, particularly in Galicia and the south, constituted a federal structure where sovereign Juntas, controlling the new Urban Militia, communicated directly with each other. Though these enthusiasts had made the revolution, they did not share the definitive distribution of higher patronage. The government, composed of men of 1812, regarded the new revolutionaries as 'poor folk'. In the capital the Exaltados could produce mob pressure which may be seen less as the emergence of an underworld terror depicted by Galdos than as the ebullience of the fiesta. From the ministry's endeavour to regain control of the army and from the use of the Madrid mob by the Exaltados in defence of Riego's army dates the split in patriot unity that was to paralyse the revolution (September 1821). The Exaltados were weak in a capital of satisfied job-seekers: the government impotent in the provinces. This dualism was to define revolutionary politics until 1874.

The exiles of the ministry of 'gaol birds' (March 1820) sought to control the committee stage of the revolution, enshrined in the Juntas and the clubs, and to satisfy the king by a conservative revision of the constitution of 1812. In exile, men like Martinez de la Rosa had been converted to a belief in a limited franchise, a second chamber and a strong executive. The amnestied Afrancesados, the ablest single group in politics, would have been their natural allies but for the doubtfully patriotic past which cut them off from office, leaving them the professional critics of the regime. The moderate programme could only succeed with the loyal support of the king: instead the court plotted against any constitution to the point of allying itself with the Exaltados. The great weakness of the revolution was that the constitution could not do without a king whose sole aim was to destroy it.


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