World History 2 115 - 8.1.3 The Peninsular War and the American Question

When Napoléon occupied Spain in 1807 and made its ruling royalty captive, he inadvertently sparked a crisis in Spain’s American empire. As insurgents in Spain established regional governing and deliberative councils called juntas to deal with the crisis, so too did creole elites. In key economic and political centers such as Mexico City, Caracas, Buenos Aires, Santiago, and Bogotá, the Spanish authorities surrendered control to these local juntas. For the first time in Spanish America, local government bodies enjoyed self-rule, and each of the juntas considered how it might turn this dramatic turn of events to its own advantage. That is, the solution to the political crisis in Spain breathed new life into a desire for independence throughout the main four colonial divisions.

The idea of self-rule animated both those who were waiting for the Spanish king to return—the royalists—and those who craved total independence—the patriots. The royalists justified their actions by following the example of the Spanish regional juntas, but for the patriots, the formation of juntas turned the idea of complete independence into a viable goal. They organized popular demonstrations and called the loyalty of royal officials into question. From this point on, the conflict between patriots and royalists grew quickly.

In Spain, the central revolutionary junta yielded its power to a national parliament, the Cortes, which met in the city of Cádiz. In 1812, the Cádiz Cortes approved a liberal charter known as the Cádiz Constitution or the Constitution of 1812, which provided for limited monarchy, promised freedom of speech and assembly, and abolished the Inquisition (Figure 8.9). The writing of the document also provoked heated debates about Spanish American autonomy. It gave the franchise to American Indian and mestizo men but excluded men of African ancestry from the political process. In terms of political rights, the document legally grouped all Spanish Americans of African ancestry with felons, debtors, and domestic servants, as people denied the right to govern themselves. Such categorization reinforced the link between African ancestry and slavery.

A tall tower, inscribed with “1812,” stands at the center of the monument. Several stone statues of people on foot and on horseback appear nearby.
Figure 8.9 This monument in Cádiz, Spain, was commissioned in 1912 to commemorate the Cortes and the centennial of the Constitution of 1812. (credit: “Cortes von Cadiz Monument” by Hajotthu/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0)

Though creole delegates joined in the constituent deliberations, the Spanish delegates to the Cortes ensured that they retained control of the body. Denying automatic Spanish citizenship and voting rights to men born in the Americas and refusing to count them for purposes of determining the number of delegates to the Cortes guaranteed that power remained in the hands of the European Spaniards and not the Spanish American colonists. Furthermore, the European Spaniards who dominated the Cortes refused to grant colonial demands to abolish the Spanish sales tax and eliminate monopolies, because the income earned from these measures was needed to fight the French.

White European Spaniards thus retained their political and commercial control over the colonies. However, the experience of forming juntas and sending delegates to the Cortes had broken the colonists’ obedience to Spain, and the refusal to accede to colonial demands could not be enforced. By then, the colonists had already realized that they were completely able to govern themselves. Spain’s politico-economic grip on its colonies continued to weaken as its militarized response proved ineffective.

With the fall of Napoléon in 1814, Fernando VII was finally restored to the Spanish throne. Rather than negotiating once he returned to power, however, he made it clear that the six-year interlude of self-rule in the Americas was over. Fernando dissolved the Cortes, rejected the Constitution of 1812, persecuted liberals, and dispatched Spanish troops to the colonies to enforce his absolutist policies. This return to colonial order was a relief to royalists, but it enraged the patriots. The creole juntas in Spanish America simply could not accept the high costs of returning to the previous colonial administration. Now more than ever, they wanted an equal voice in government and consent to the free trade policy already in place.

The disruption of Spanish sovereignty had brought all colonial grievances to the forefront and sparked immediate reactions in the colonies. The creole elites’ resentment over the reinstatement of pre-Napoleonic policy allowed the search for independence to spark.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax