In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Bourbon Reforms

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Published Primary Sources and Translations
  • Impact in Spain
  • The Early Bourbon Reforms
  • Regional Studies
  • Challenges

Latin American Studies The Bourbon Reforms
Kenneth J. Andrien
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 May 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0043


After the Spanish Bourbon King Philip V (b. 1700–d. 1746) acceded to the throne, he and his successors, Ferdinand VI (r. 1746–1759), Charles III (r. 1759–1788), and Charles IV (r. 1788–1807), sponsored a century-long effort to reform and renovate the Spanish Empire. These policy changes, known collectively as the Bourbon Reforms, attempted to curb contraband commerce, regain control over transatlantic trade, curtail the church’s power, modernize state finances to fill depleted royal coffers, and establish tighter political and administrative control within the empire. For decades historians of the reform era have debated the coherence and effectiveness of crown policies, focusing largely on the reign of Charles III. According to an important early synthesis, Caroline reformers framed policies that curtailed colonial political and economic freedoms, leading to a “second conquest” of America (see Lynch 1973, cited under General Overviews). Other scholars, however, have argued that Bourbon reform policies lacked such ideological coherence, emphasizing the diverse and often contradictory aims of Madrid policy makers, who struggled haltingly to balance the crown’s various fiscal, commercial, administrative, and military objectives. More recently, specialists on the 18th century have broadened and deepened discussions about reform by dealing with topics such as the intellectual origins of reform, the spread of scientific knowledge, efforts to curtail church power, Bourbon social engineering, and the Atlantic context for reform. Scholars are even questioning the traditional emphasis on the reign of Charles III by considering the efforts of reformers to reverse unequal trade treaties with Spain’s traditional rivals in the first half of the century. Historians are also examining the very different impact of reform in the diverse Spanish American empire, noting the profound consequences of colonial policy innovations in areas such as Mexico, while in other regions, such as Chile and New Granada, the reforms had a much more limited impact. As a result, despite all the innovative new research on the 18th-century colonial policy changes, historians still remain quite divided about the overall timing, impact, and effectiveness of the Bourbon Reforms.

General Overviews

Historians of the Bourbon Reforms have debated the coherence and effectiveness of crown policies, focusing particularly on the reign of Charles III. An important early synthesis proposed that Bourbon reformers framed policies aimed at curtailing colonial political and economic freedoms, arguing that the reforms represented nothing less than a “second conquest of America” (Lynch 1973). An influential overview of the reforms in the Cambridge History of Latin America even contended that such policies led to colonial opposition and “the permanent alienation of the creole elite” (Brading 1984, p. 438). Other scholars, however, have argued that Bourbon policies lacked such ideological coherence, emphasizing instead the diverse and often contradictory aims of Madrid policy makers (Fisher 1982, p. 217). Scholars also have examined the complexity of the reform process, demonstrating that Spanish reformers sometimes promoted markedly different kinds of policies for provinces in its diverse Atlantic empire (Kuethe 1991). Some writers have also studied how European conflicts forced Charles IV to go from one policy to another by the mid-1790s to meet the necessities of financing Spain’s wars (Barbier 1977). Recent contributions to scholarly discussions about the Bourbon Reforms examine a complex and tangled web of interest groups who struggled to shape crown policies over the course of the 18th and early 19th centuries (Stein and Stein 2000, Stein and Stein 2003, Stein and Stein 2009).

  • Barbier, Jacques. “The Culmination of the Bourbon Reforms, 1787–1792.” Hispanic American Historical Review 57 (February 1977): 51–68.

    DOI: 10.2307/2513542

    A revisionist article arguing that Charles IV attempted to follow the reformist traditions established by Charles III until Spain’s engagement in European conflicts forced the king and his ministers to vacillate among very different policies by the late 1790s in a desperate search for the fiscal resources needed to meet the exigencies of war.

  • Brading, David A. “Bourbon Spain and Its American Empire.” In The Cambridge History of Latin America. Vol. 1, Colonial Latin America. Edited by Leslie Bethell, 389–439. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

    This chapter presents the Bourbon Reforms under Charles III as an attempt to subjugate the empire to crown political, social, and economic authority, leading to the permanent alienation of the colonial creole elites.

  • Fisher, John. “Soldiers, Societies, and Politics in Spanish America.” Latin American Research Review 17.1 (1982): 217–222.

    A review essay covering books published on military reform in the Bourbon period, but it asserts that the Bourbon Reforms have “bewitched” both contemporaries and later historians into seeing a master plan for imperial reform, when the reforms should be viewed as representing a halting, inconsistent, and even contradictory desire to modernize the empire.

  • Kuethe, Allan J. “La desregulación commercial y la reforma imperial en la época de Carlos III: Los casos de Nueva España y Cuba.” Historia Mexicana 41.2 (1991): 265–292.

    This article argues that in reforming Cuba, the crown loosened trade regulations for Cuban tropical produce while keeping monopoly controls over Mexican trade, even redirecting large sums from the Mexican treasuries to support Cuba as a strategic military outpost following the Seven Years’ War.

  • Lynch, John. The Spanish American Revolutions, 1808–1826. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1973.

    In the introduction (pp. 1–37) to this synthesis of the wars of independence in Spanish America, Lynch presents the Bourbon Reforms as a set of policies producing a “second conquest of America,” subjugating creole elites to the crown, which promoted discontent against the reforms, and set the stage for independence after the French invasion in 1807.

  • Stein, Stanley J., and Barbara H. Stein. Silver, Trade, and War: Spain, America, and the Making of Early Modern Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

    The first volume of a trilogy argues that Spain’s economic weaknesses allowed French, Dutch, and British merchants to gain access to American silver through contraband and supplying merchandise and capital to Spanish monopolists in Seville and later Cádiz. Spanish reformers tried to regain control over the American trade, but their efforts failed as corrupt officials, Spanish monopoly traders, and foreign merchants combined to thwart the reform process.

  • Stein, Stanley J., and Barbara H. Stein. Apogee of Empire: Spain and New Spain in the Age of Charles III, 1759–1789. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

    The second volume argues that Charles III and his ministers imposed wide-ranging fiscal, administrative, and commercial reforms for Spain’s wealthiest colony, New Spain, after the loss of Havana in 1762. These innovators never intended any large-scale, structural reforms, only adjustments designed to shore up the “gothic edifice” of the empire.

  • Stein, Barbara H., and Stanley J. Stein. Edge of Crisis: War and Trade in the Spanish Atlantic, 1789–1808. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

    The third volume examines efforts of Spanish politicians to preserve commercial linkages between the metropolis and New Spain, as the empire became swept up in international conflicts resulting from the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon. The failure of this effort led to the loss of the empire, leaving Spain an underdeveloped nation, incapable of maintaining control over its colonies.

  • Stein, Barbara H., and Stanley J. Stein. Crisis in an Atlantic Empire: Spain and New Spain, 1808–1810. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.

    This fourth volume explores the complex machinations of merchant guild members in Cádiz, Mexico City, and Veracruz to control the lucrative trade between Spain and its most prosperous New World possession, New Spain. It covers a two-year period of serious imperial crisis provoked by Napoleon’s invasion of the Iberian peninsula, when peninsular-born merchants resisted all efforts to loosen the trading system by allowing commerce with neutral powers during this turbulent era.

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