In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Legal History of the State and Church in 18th-Century New Spain

  • Introduction
  • The Bourbon Reforms
  • Legislation
  • The Intendente System
  • The Royal Treasury
  • Tax Reforms
  • Estancos and Monopolies
  • The Consolidation of Vales Reales (Government Debt)
  • Commerce, Free Trade, and the Consulados de Comerciantes
  • Agriculture
  • Haciendas and Communal Property
  • Indigenous Markets and the Repartimiento de Bienes
  • Labor
  • Cabildos and City Councils
  • The Church
  • Real Patronato (Royal Patronage)
  • The Fourth Provincial Council of Mexico
  • The Reform of the Cofradias
  • Crime and Judicial Practice
  • Judicial Institutions
  • Family and Law

Latin American Studies Legal History of the State and Church in 18th-Century New Spain
Margarita Bornemann Menegus
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 November 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 November 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0174


The existing literature on the legal history of 18th-century New Spain focuses mainly on the Bourbon Reforms carried out by Carlos III. Two aspects of the reforms have attracted most of the attention; the intendant system, discussed by Pietschamann 1996 (cited under Bourbon Reforms), and the reforms to the Royal Treasury. In virtue of the fact that the reforms were designed to retake control of the Indies, and to increase the centralization of government, there was an increase in the number of protests carried out and, in effect, united all the different sectors of New Spain’s society. Given that the reforms directly affected the colonial economy, the literature covering the reforms has also tended to concentrate on the economic impacts of the changes. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, there was a proliferation of studies relating to the colonial economy. Thereafter, there was debate on whether or not the colonial economy grew as a result of Carlos III’s reforms or whether the Bourbon Reforms simply resulted in increased tax revenue through increased efficiency. Also of interest in these discussions was the impact of the sustained increase in the population throughout the 18th century and its relationship to the increase in production, the conclusion being that there was no real increase in agricultural production, but rather a proportional increase in line with the population growth. With respect to the church, there is ample literature on both the secular church and the regular church, as both churches were affected by the Bourbon Reforms. In fact, a Fourth Mexican Provincial Council was held, though not approved by the Holy See, as a result of the excessive intervention on the part of the Crown. There is also an ample body of literature on the foundation of new academic institutions; in particular, on the Academy of San Carlos, the Botanical Gardens, and the Colegio de Minería. The institutional and social history of the Royal University of Mexico has also been the subject of a large amount of literature since the mid-1990s. Many other institutions were created that have not yet been properly studied. For example, the Supremo Consejo de Indias was disrupted by the founding of the Secretaría de Estado y de Despacho Universal de Indias, in 1717, thus absorbing many of the functions of the former. In the economic sphere, the founding of the Contaduría General de Propios y Arbitrios, in 1766, was designed to reorganize the municipal finances of both the Indian towns and the villas and cities of the Spanish.

The Bourbon Reforms

The Bourbon Reforms were basically political-administrative reforms that introduced a new form of government for America. These reforms were, to a large extent, as Pietschamann 1996 shows, carried out in line with suggestions made by José de Gálvez on New Spain between 1765 and 1771. Priestly 1980 offers a complete survey of the visita of Galvez in New Spain. There is a large body of literature on this theme. On the one hand, there are general works, such as Arcila Farías 1976 and Burkholder and Chandler 1984; on the other hand, there are works that analyze the introduction of the said reforms in the different regions of New Spain, such as Hamnett 1971 (cited under Commerce, Free Trade, and the Consulados de Comerciantes), on Oaxaca.

  • Arcila Farías, Eduardo. Reformas Económicas del siglo XVIII Nueva España. 2 vols. Mexico City: Sep Setentas, 1976.

    This is a pioneering work that provides a consistent vision on the collection of the reforms that were introduced. The first volume focuses on the ideas of the 18th century that led to the introduction of the “free trade” system. The second volume is dedicated to an analysis of the application of these ideas in America.

  • Borah, Woodrow, ed. El gobierno provincial en la Nueva España, 1570–1787. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2002.

    This publication contains several articles on the history of the government of New Spain, looking at the functions and attributes of the provincial governor, and covering the administration of justice through the magistrates and mayors; the relationship between the priests and the mayors; and, in particular, the government of the Marqués del Valle.

  • Burkholder, Mark A., and D. S. Chandler. De la impotencia a la autoridad: La Corona española y las audiencias en América, 1687–1808. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1984.

    This book quantifies the changes undergone in the American audiencias as a result of the rise of the Bourbons to the Spanish Crown. It shows how preference was given for peninsular officials, who were given priority over the local Creoles, to the detriment of the latter.

  • Calderón Quijano, José Antonio. Los virreyes de Nueva España en el Reinado de Carlos III. 2 vols. Seville, Spain: Escuela de Estudios Hispanoamericanos, 1967–1968.

    This work provides an account of the management of all the viceroys covering the period 1759–1787, offering detailed accounts of the administrative attributes of the government of the viceroys.

  • Pietschamann, Horst. Las reformas borbónicas y el sistema de intendencias en Nueva España: Un estudio político administrativo. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1996.

    This work examines the introduction of the intendente system in New Spain, proposing that it was not the result of a simple transference of an institution from the French tradition, but rather that documentation has been found in Castile which served as the basis for the introduction of this administrative-territorial reform.

  • Priestly, Herbert Ingram. José de Gálvez, Visitor-General of New Spain 1765–1771. Philadelphia: Porcupine, 1980.

    This is a study on the institution of the visita and the visit made by Gálvez. There is a special emphasis on the proposals for the reform of the Royal Treasury, tobacco monopoly, the reforms made to the Customs House (Aduana) of the Port of Veracruz, as well as the expedition to the north of the kingdom, which passed through Sonora to the Californias. First published in 1916.

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