In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cortes of Cádiz

  • Introduction
  • Historical Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Political, Ideological, and Juridical Aspects of the Cádiz Constitution
  • The Spanish Empire in the Age of Revolutions
  • The Spanish World on the Eve of Constitutionalism
  • The Cortes of Cádiz
  • Hispanic Constitutional Culture
  • The Government of an Atlantic Nation
  • Historiographic Issues (with emphasis on the Trienio Liberal)

Atlantic History Cortes of Cádiz
Roberto Breña, José María Portillo
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 February 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0400


The Constitution of Cádiz, also known as the 1812 Constitution, may be considered the most Atlantic among the great variety of constitutions that saw the light in the Western hemisphere during the Age of Revolutions. Mainly because the congress or parliament that drafted and sanctioned it (the Cortes of Cádiz) gathered representatives from Peninsular Spain, of course, but also from Spanish America. Equally important was the fact that the constitution itself, in its first article, defined the Spanish nation as an Atlantic nation: “The Spanish nation is the reunion of all Spaniards of both hemispheres.” As such, the 1812 text was applied in a very small fraction of the Spanish Peninsular territory (the one not controlled by the French army). In the Spanish American territories, it came into effect, with limitations due to the state of war that prevailed in many of them, from Florida to Peru, and also in the Philippines. It should be noted that the work, importance, and influence of the Cádiz Cortes go far beyond the 384 articles of the Constitution, for they were also responsible for 326 decrees that dealt with all kinds of issues (political, social, economic, etc.). Along with other Hispanic constitutional documents (as Cundinamarca 1811 or Santiago de Chile 1812), the Cádiz Constitution envisaged an Atlantic constitutional monarchy, but it was the only one, of the dozens drafted in the Hispanic world between 1810 and 1824, that projected a common sovereign nation extended all over the former empire (that is, in its European, American, and Asian territories). At the time, there was a juridical, historical, and religious culture that was shared by the educated elites of the whole Spanish monarchy, so it can be said that in the Cortes of Cádiz there were different legal accents (including especially those from the United States and France), but a common national legal culture, which came to the fore in various ways when Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808 and sparked the biggest political crisis in the history of the Spanish monarchy. This common background becomes evident by taking a cursory look at the dozens of constitutional texts that saw the light in Spanish America during those years, especially between 1811 and 1816. This period of the political history of the Hispanic world (mundo hispánico) could be defined as a “constitutional explosion.” Around thirty-five constitutional documents were drafted in Spanish America during that period and several others saw the light in the oncoming years. In the Cortes of Cádiz, which were gathered in that port between 1810 and 1814, there was a Peninsular majority of around 200 deputies (the number varies depending on the date considered and on the question under discussion) and there were also about sixty representatives from Spanish America (again, the number may vary). This partido americano demanded equality and autonomy for the American part of the Spanish nation. The debates on these issues showed the limits of the Atlantic experiment of the Cádiz Constitution, for the Peninsular majority never accepted losing political and economic control of the American territories. If the American deputies gained important rights and liberties that were unthinkable before the Cortes gathered, they always lost in those issues where the aforementioned control was at stake. It may be added that a couple of representatives from the Philippines were also present in the deliberations of the Cortes. This first constitutional and liberal experience in the Hispanic world did not last for long. In 1814, Fernando VII returned to Spain from his French “captivity” and slashed all the ideas, the efforts, and the laws that emanated from the group of liberales, Peninsular and Spanish Americans that decided the main contents of the Cádiz Constitution. This was the abrupt end to the first constitutional and liberal experiment in the history of Spain and of the Spanish empire.

Historical Overviews

Notwithstanding the obvious Atlantic character of the 1812 Constitution, historiography did not pay much attention to it until late in the twentieth century. General overviews of its drafting and significance traditionally focused on the Peninsular context and on its connection with the revolutionary French constitution of 1793. This was the perspective of Artola 1959, the most influential book to study the period until the 1990s. Some studies in the 1980s and 1990s started to delve into the complexity of the Spanish nation that Cádiz tried to put in place, as the pioneer texts Varela Suanzes-Carpegna 2011 and Clavero 1984 did. Regarding the Spanish American deputies, Rieu-Millan 1990 is an excellent study on the subject, and at the end of the twentieth century, Chust 1999 reviewed some of the most important contributions of those representatives to the Cortes. It was at the beginning of the present century that the Atlantic started to be considered as the appropriate laboratory for the understanding of the constitutional experiment of Cádiz. Portillo 2006 considered the whole critical period of 1808 to 1814 as an Atlantic crisis of the Spanish monarchy, and Fontana 2007, by one of the most relevant Spanish scholars in the second half of the twentieth century, integrated the Atlantic into a general overview of the origins of liberalism in Spain. Breña 2006 made a contribution to this Atlantic perspective, underlining the centrality of liberalism to understand this period in bi-continental terms, from both a political and an intellectual perspective. From this point onwards, it has been relatively common to offer what can be considered an Atlantic vision of the constitution and of the period in general. Among the general overviews that deal with the transcontinental character of the Cádiz Constitution, the following can be mentioned: Escudero 2011, a three-volume collection of essays; Canal and Chust 2010, a project of modern histories of Spain and Spanish America; and, finally, Álvarez Junco and Shubert 2018, a recent history of Spain.

  • Álvarez Junco, José, and Adrian Shubert, eds. The History of Modern Spain: Chronology, Themes, Individuals. London: Bloomsbury, 2018.

    A manual for students and scholars interested in contemporary Spain. The chapter by Gregorio Alonso on the end of the Antiguo Régimen in Spain is another good example of the integration of an Atlantic perspective to the study of the period.

  • Andrien, Kenneth J. “The Spanish Atlantic System.” In Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal. Edited by Jack P. Greene and Philip D. Morgan, 55–80. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    Not very recent, but still a useful overview of how the Spanish Atlantic worked from 1492 to 1825 and of the historiographic status of its study at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century. However, it falls into the all-too-common practice of many anglophone historians of using (almost) no bibliography in Spanish.

  • Artola, Miguel. Los orígenes de la España contemporánea. 2 vols. Madrid: IEP, 1959.

    This book is the first step to approach the 1808–1814 period for anyone interested in the historiographic origins of the present study of the revolución liberal española. The first volume may be considered the book itself; the introduction (100 pages) is a socioeconomic overview of the Antiguo Régimen in Spain. The second volume is a selection of documents received by the authorities as responses to the “Consulta al país” carried out by the Junta Central in 1809.

  • Breña, Roberto. El primer liberalismo español y los procesos de emancipación de América, 1808–1824: Una revisión historiográfica del liberalismo hispánico. México, DF: El Colegio de México, 2006.

    A historiographic overview of the whole period that critically considers many of the most important studies that have been written on the topic since the 1970s. The author centers his attention on liberalism to study this period of the mundo hispánico from the perspective of political and intellectual history.

  • Canal, Jordi, and Manuel Chust, eds. España: Crisis imperial e independencia. América Latina en la Historia Contemporánea, 1808–1830. Madrid: Taurus, 2010.

    Part of a bigger project of several volumes, this book can be taken as a good example of what could be considered the “normalization” of the Atlantic perspective in the study of the Spanish crisis of 1808, early Hispanic constitutionalism, and the development of liberalism.

  • Chust, Manuel. La cuestión nacional americana en las Cortes de Cádiz. Valencia, Spain: Biblioteca de Historia Social, 1999.

    With this book, Chust contributed to the reconstruction of the congressional debates about how to make effective the national integration of the colonial American and metropolitan European parts of the early Spanish nation.

  • Clavero, Bartolomé. Evolución histórica del constitucionalismo español. Madrid: Tecnos, 1984.

    The first contribution by Clavero to the study of the constitutional history of the period. He developed some of the ideas presented here in later works, mostly on juridical and social aspects of the American territories of the Spanish empire.

  • Escudero, José Antonio, ed. Cortes y constitución de Cádiz: 200 años. Madrid: Espasa, 2011.

    This three-volume collection of essays is what could be considered a state of the art in the study of the Cádiz Constitution almost 200 years after being enacted. Legal historians, constitutional historians, and historians in general were convoked for this commemorative publication of the bicentennial of Cádiz.

  • Fontana, Josep. La época del liberalismo. Barcelona: Crítica, 2007.

    This book is volume 6 of one of the most recent histories of Spain; it covers Spanish history from 1808 to 1874. Only chapter 2 is devoted to Cádiz. The project in general is directed to the educated reader and this volume in particular fulfills its objective.

  • Portillo, José M. Crisis atlántica: Autonomía e independencia en la crisis de la monarquía hispánica. Madrid: Marcial Pons, 2006.

    This book is devoted to some aspects that the author considers essential to understand the first phases of the emancipation processes in Spanish America: federalism, autonomy, the “pueblos,” congresses, the nation, and the native Indians. The author analyzes the beginnings of what became an irreversible path toward the independence of the whole continental Spanish empire in America.

  • Rieu-Millan, Marie-Laure. Los diputados americanos en las Cortes de Cádiz: Igualdad o independencia. Madrid: CSIC, 1990.

    The best book, by far, on the Spanish American deputies in the Cortes de Cádiz.

  • Varela Suanzes-Carpegna, Joaquín. La teoría del Estado en las Cortes de Cádiz: Orígenes del constitucionalismo hispánico. Madrid: CEPC, 2011.

    This is a revised and updated edition of a classic book on the period: La teoría del Estado en los orígenes del constitucionalismo hispánico: Las Cortes de Cádiz (Madrid: CEC, 1983). The book reviews the main constitutional issues of the period in a series of chapters; some of them were deeply innovative when the book first appeared. In certain parts, the Spanish American deputies receive an attention that no one had given them before.

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