La Pepa – Spain´s First Constitution

As Spain celebrates its annual Constitution Day – which pays homage to the 1978 document, we look at her first recognised constitution, passed during the tumultuous period of the Napoleonic Wars, some 166 years previously.

The Cadiz Constitution, named after where it was signed, was in fact one of the earliest written constitutions of the modern era and influenced by other liberal constitutions such as that of the United States in 1781 and Polish-Lithunian Commonwealth of 1791.

In fact the English word liberal originates from the Spanish liberales who wrote it.

In turn, it too became a model for 19th century constitutions in Europe as well as South America.

The Constitution was ratified on 19 March 1812 by the Cortes or Parliament that had met Cádiz and became known as La Pepa as the date falls on the Dia de San Jose, and which Pepe is a nickname.

The Cortes had met there following Napoleon´s occupation of much of Spain, including Madrid, which had risen up against the French during the Dos De Mayo Uprising of May 1808.

Indeed a French army was besieging the city when the Cortes was in session.

The constitution aimed to replace the absolute monarchy that had existed and codify the legitimacy of government with a constitutional monarchy with three branches of power being the executive, legislative, and judicial.

Though liberal in character the Cortes was not a revolutionary body but saw itself as a continuation of the legitimate government of Spain – especially so as Napoleon had placed the Spanish crown on the head of his brother, Joseph Bonaparte after the forced abdication of Charles Xand Ferdinand VII. 

The parliament or Cortes was one of the first in the world to be elected by universal male suffrage, albeit by a complex electoral system designed to keep the illiterate masses out.

It affirmed national sovereignty, separation of powers, freedom of the press, free enterprise and abolished many privileges including those of the medieval fueros.

For the first time, it established the rights of all Spaniards, whether they be born in Spain or in the overseas empire of the Americas and the Philippines.

The constitution acknowledged the aspirations of the Spanish colonies for greater equality and autonomy in the hope that they would stay loyal to the empire.

Article 1 of the Constitution gives Spanish nationality to all citizens ( though not slaves) of the empire, stating: “The Spanish nation is the collectivity of the Spaniards of both hemispheres.”

Although the constitution expressly included the monarchy and recognised the legitimacy of  King Ferdinand VII, he was aghast at its attempts to undermine his absolute authority and abolished it and dissolved the Cortes when he returned to power in 1814.

Ferdinand´s restoration was thanks to the victorious allied powers which included the absolutist monarchies of Russia, Prussia and Austria – all of whom wished to see Europe ( including France) return to its pre 1789 autocratic state.

Although Ferdinand promised to uphold the constitution, within months he had abolished it and arrested many liberal leaders on the grounds that they had sought to make an unlawful constitution, in his absence and without his consent.

Ferdinand’s absolutist rule was resisted including by liberals and many in the army and which eventually required the intervention of French forces, which crushed them at the Battle of Trocadero in 1823.

After his death, a new constitution was instituted in 1837, drawing on many of the liberal themes of 1812.

That wasnt to last however, and Spain has subsequently had five constitutions more, including the one celebrated today.










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