On 19 March 1812, representatives from across the Hispanic Monarchy put forward a constitution in the Spanish port city of Cádiz. This foundational document was a response to their king’s abdication in favor of Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte, obtained under pressure from invading French troops. The constitution aimed to address what they viewed as a lack of legitimacy because the monarch was captive, as the drafters expected it would be the basis of government in all the corners of the empire, from Madrid to Mexico and Manila. Written under the protection of the British fleet in the last bastion of the Peninsula that remained unoccupied, the constitution instituted a very extensive male suffrage, freedom of the press, national sovereignty, and the abolition of privileges for citizens from all parts of the vast empire. These measures were the reason why the men who debated the constitution were the first ones to be called liberal. The liberalism of the drafters at Cádiz must be considered in the context of the early nineteenth century. When in 1814 Ferdinand VII returned to Spain, he abolished the constitution. But in 1820 a mutiny of troops forced the king to accept it grudgingly. A constitutional monarchy was established lasting until 1823, when the so-called 100,000 sons of Saint Louis crossed from France to reinstate absolutism. This period came to be known as the Liberal Triennium. In 1836 the Progressives reinstated the Cádiz Constitution, albeit briefly when they passed a new charter in 1837.
Until quite recently there was very limited scholarship on the Cádiz Constitution in English, and, as Roberto Breña shows, even the literature in Spanish had been mostly limited to the study of the text itself and its impact in the peninsula. In the past decade, Atlantic history and studies on the Enlightenment’s influence on revolution in general have led to renewed interest in the Spanish constitutional experience. The reevaluation of Spanish American independence movements in light of the Cádiz Constitution have also sparked debate among historians. François-Xavier Guerra (1992) and Jaime Rodriguez O. (1998)1 consider that it is impossible to understand the process of independence if attention is not paid to Cádiz and the enacting of the constitution. Guerra goes as far as to state that the election of deputies to Cortes was the revolution2 (1993) Bicentennial celebrations have led to a dramatic increase of publications on the constitution. Its importance, especially in influencing subsequent constitutions, is increasingly acknowledged today in academic circles.
In this article I will discuss the calling of the Cortes, the elections that brought representatives from all over the empire to Cádiz, the demands made from far-away provinces, and major issues discussed in the constitutional debates. I conclude by assessing the constitution’s reception, as well as the way in which it influenced the advent of modernity in the Hispanic world and beyond. I begin by discussing the development of constitutional thinking in the late eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century. A revision of the events that led to the Peninsular War and the context in which the constitution was put forward follows. The article then analyzes the process through which the constitution was passed, the intellectual debates that surrounded it, the impact the charter had in the wider Atlantic world, as well as the role it played in the process of independence in Spanish America. Finally, it ends with a review of how liberalism developed in the Hispanic Monarchy and the long-lasting legacy of the Cádiz Constitution.