Spanish Revolutions of the 19th Century

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Spanish Revolutions of the 19th Century


bourgeois revolutions that took place in Spain from 1808 to 1874. Their purpose was to clear the way for the development of capitalist relations in Spain, eliminate the vestiges of feudalism, and weaken the influence of the Catholic Church, which was a pillar of feudalism in Spain. The weakness of the Spanish bourgeoisie and its inconsistency in solving the agrarian problem, its lack of a firm link with the people, and the frequent occurrence of conflicts among its various groupings, on the one hand, and the support given to Spanish feudal circles in a number of instances by international reaction, on the other, had an adverse effect on the outcome of the revolutions. Neither the first revolution nor the four that followed were completed.

Revolution of 1808-14.The first Spanish revolution began with the occupation of Spain by Napoleon I during his expansionist wars in Europe. A specific feature of this revolution was the combination of an antifeudal struggle with the struggle of the masses against the French occupation. On the night of Mar. 17–18, 1808, a revolt broke out in Aranjuez against the main culprit of the French invasion, M. Godoy, the prime minister of Charles IV. The uprising was a protest against the corrupt regime of the Spanish Bourbons. Charles IV was overthrown, and Ferdinand VII acceded to the throne. On Mar. 20, 1808, French troops entered Madrid, causing a wave of popular indignation. On May 2, 1808, a revolt flared in Madrid and was brutally crushed by French troops; on May 10, Napoleon forced Ferdinand to abdicate. News of these events caused new popular revolts in Asturias, Andalusia, Valencia, Galicia, and other regions. The driving forces of the liberation struggle were the urban poor, the peasantry, the bourgeoisie, the provincial gentry, and the lower clergy. While the masses struggled selflessly against the French occupiers, a segment of the higher nobility and clergy accepted the Constitution of Bayonne of 1808, offered by Napoleon, and recognized Joséph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, as king of Spain.

In the first months of the liberation war, in which operations by remnants of the regular army were combined with an armed struggle by the entire Spanish people, the Spaniards achieved major successes. In July 1808, French troops were routed in a battle at Bailén. Much of Spain, including Madrid, was liberated. In the summer of 1808 new local bodies of authority called juntas were created throughout the liberated territory; most of their members were representatives of the provincial gentry, and some juntas included representatives of the bourgeoisie. The Central Junta (September 1808), headed by Count Floridablanca, was created for overall guidance of the struggle and government of the country. The Central Junta opposed the reforms being carried out by some local juntas (for instance, the sale of church lands). In October 1809 it was forced to summon a constituent cortes.

In the autumn of 1808 the military situation of the Spaniards deteriorated sharply. Napoleon I took charge of military operations in Spain, entered Spain in November 1808 with an enormous army, and succeeded in defeating the liberation forces. On December 4, Madrid was reoccupied. The Spanish people put up heroic resistance against the French occupiers. A partisan movement (guerrillas) of extraordinary power developed. In addition to partisan detachments, a British expeditionary corps under General Wellesley (the future duke of Wellington), which had landed in 1808 on the Iberian Peninsula and which included remnants of the Spanish Army, was operating in Portugal and adjacent regions of Spain.

On Sept. 24, 1810, the Constituent Cortes met on the small island of León, moving on Feb. 20, 1811, to Cádiz; it included mostly representatives of the liberal gentry and bourgeoisie (the Central Junta had dissolved itself in February 1810). The Cortes proclaimed a series of important reforms—among them, the abolition of feudal obligations and privileges, the division of wasteland and common lands, and the abolition of the Inquisition. On Mar. 19, 1812, the Constitution of Cádiz of 1812 was published; it declared the nation the bearer of supreme power. The weak tie between the Cortes and the mass movement in the country meant that the declared reforms, for the most part, remained on paper.

Meanwhile, the popular struggle against the French occupation continued. On July 22, 1812, British troops under Wellington and Spanish partisans under El Empecinado overwhelmingly defeated the French in a battle at Arapiles (near Salamanca). On August 12, Wellington and El Empecinado entered Madrid (in November 1812 the French reoccupied the Spanish capital for a short time). The defeat of Napoleon’s armies in Russia made withdrawal of the French troops from Spain inevitable. On June 21, 1813, the combined Anglo-Spanish forces routed the enemy at Vitoria. In December 1813 the main units of the French army were driven out of Spain. By this time a counterrevolution, supported by Wellington, was intensifying in the country. On Mar. 22, 1814, Ferdinand VII, who was released in December 1813 from French captivity, entered Spain; on May 4, Ferdinand declared that he did not recognize the Constitution of 1812. On May 10–11 arrests of liberals were carried out in Madrid, marking a new triumph for absolutism in Spain.

Revolution of 1820-23.The main driving force of the second Spanish revolution was the army, which had become revolutionized during the anti-French national-liberation war of 1808–13. The revolution began with a mutiny under the leadership of Riego y Néñez in Cádiz in January 1820, which caused a revolt throughout the country. On Mar. 9, 1820, King Ferdinand VII was forced to restore the Constitution of 1812. In March and April a constitutional government was formed that included former leaders of the Revolution of 1808–14, who represented the party of moderados.

In 1820 decrees were issued abolishing entailed lands, closing some monasteries with the nationalization of their lands, reducing by one-half the church tithe, introducing a direct land income tax and a single customs tariff, lowering duties on imported machines, banishing the Jesuits, freeing 13,000 communities from seignorial jurisdiction, establishing a national militia, and restoring the administrative reforms of the Spanish Revolution of 1808–14.

Representatives of the party of the exaltados demanded that a series of measures be taken in the interest of the broad strata of the peasantry. In 1821, 1822, and 1823 the Cortes discussed and enacted a draft law, proposed by the exaltados, that provided for the turnover of the greater part of seignorial land to the peasants. Twice it was rescinded by royal veto. In May 1823 the law came into force, but it was too late: a substantial part of Spain had already been occupied by French interventionists, backed by the Holy Alliance. The reform was never implemented. The peasantry, which had first actively supported the revolution, was now repelled because of its failure to solve the agrarian problem.

In the autumn and winter of 1821, in an atmosphere of intensified class struggle, the revival of the counterrevolution (based on the Holy Alliance), and provocations against revolutionary leaders by the Féliu government (March 1821 to the end of 1821), actions by the masses took on an overtly antigovernment orientation. In August 1822 the right-wing exaltados, who were Masons, took power (E. San Miguel government). They failed to take decisive measures against the counterrevolution, thereby causing a sharp intensification of the struggle of the comuneros against the government, starting in the autumn of 1822. The government responded with repressions against the comuneros, concurrently conducting hostilities against the ultraroyalists, who had risen up in revolt in various parts of the country.

In these conditions the Holy Alliance launched open intervention. On Apr. 7, 1823, the French Army invaded Spain. The government failed to organize a defense, and most of the peasantry did not actively oppose the intervention. The interventionists advanced rapidly, meeting resistance only from individual military units and partisan detachments and in the cities with the most revolutionary-minded population. On Sept. 30, 1823, the constitutional government, which had been evacuated first to Sevilla and then to Cádiz, surrendered. On Oct. 1, 1823, King Ferdinand VII restored an absolutist regime.

Revolution of 1834-43.The third Spanish revolution was closely associated with the First Carlist War. In October 1833 the regent, María Cristina, published a manifesto that preserved the absolutist order in Spain. The manifesto occasioned widespread discontent, which forced María Cristina to make concessions, including the formation in January 1834 of a government of moderados headed by Martínez de la Rosa and, from June 1835, by Toreno. The moderados’ policy encountered opposition from the liberal-bourgeois party of progresistas and caused popular revolts, during which the slogan of restoration of the Constitution of 1812 was put forth. Revolutionary juntas were created in localities and contributed to the consolidation of democratic forces. Under their pressure, on Sept. 14, 1835, a government of progresistas headed by Mendizábal was formed. It carried out a series of important reforms, including the sale of church lands. An ensuing attempt by María Cristina to stage a counterrevolutionary coup caused another revolt. In August 1836 the 1812 constitution was restored and the Calatrava government was created; it continued the sale of church lands, closed a number of monasteries, and restored the laws of the 1820–23 revolutionary period. A constituent cortes was convened, and on June 18, 1837, it adopted a new constitution, which limited the monarch’s power with a bicameral cortes. The progresistas believed that with the introduction of a constitution and the sale of church lands, which to a large extent came into the hands of the bourgeoisie, the tasks of the revolution had been fulfilled; this moderately liberal policy led to the abandonment of the party by its republican and democratic wing, thus facilitating the triumph of the counterrevolutionary forces.

In late 1837 the progresistas were ousted from the government, and until October 1840 governments whose policies were marked by increasingly reactionary tendencies alternated in power. Conservative forces began to group around the leader of the moderados, General Narváez, and the progresistas around B. Espartero. Capitalizing on the anger of the popular masses and leaning on army support, Espartero seized power. María Cristina renounced the regency on Oct. 17, 1840. In March 1841 elections to a new cortes and municipal bodies were held. Espartero, who was appointed regent, retained total power. However, General Narváez, relying on army support, soon came to power; on July 23, 1843, he occupied Madrid. Espartero fled to Great Britain.

Revolution of 1854-56.The fourth Spanish revolution began with a military revolt that broke out on June 28, 1854. In their manifesto (the Program of Manzanares, of July 7, 1854) the rebels demanded the elimination of the royal camarilla, the establishment of the rule of law, and the convening of a constituent cortes. The revolt was supported by the population of Madrid and other major cities in Spain. On July 31, 1854, Queen Isabella II was forced to appoint Espartero, the former regent, as prime minister; he formed a government of progresistas and right-wing liberals. Detachments of the national militia that had been created in July received legal status. On Nov. 8, 1854, the unicameral Constituent Cortes gathered in Madrid; most of its deputies belonged to the Liberal Union Party (created in 1854 from right-wing liberals), which was headed by O’Donnell, the minister of war. The left wing of the Cortes included progresistas (supporters of Espartero) and a small group of republican Democrats. In 1855 and 1856 the Cortes passed laws on “disentail-ment,” that is, the sale of lands belonging to the church, monasteries, and the state and the lands of peasant communes. The ongoing personal rivalry between Espartero and O’Donnell gradually developed into a large-scale political conflict, which defined a dividing line between the advocates and opponents of an intensification of the revolution. O’Donnell was supported by Isabella II, court circles, the clergy, and other conservative elements. The republican movement was gaining strength in Catalonia, Valencia, and Andalusia. In 1854, Barcelona workers organized a federation of their trade unions—the Union of Classes—and held a general strike in July 1855. In the spring and summer of 1856 agrarian disturbances began in Andalusia, Estremadura, and Valladolid. On July 13, 1856, the queen dismissed the Espartero government. On July 14, at the call of the progresista deputies in the Constituent Cortes, a revolt of the national militia and workers broke out in Madrid; it was suppressed after three days of bitter fighting. Similar uprisings occurred in a number of other cities around the country. The new government formed by O’Donnell, after suppressing the uprisings, disbanded the national militia and the Constituent Cortes and restored the 1845 constitution and other laws that had been in force before the revolution.

Revolution of 1868-74.The fifth Spanish revolution began on Sept. 18, 1868, in Cádiz, with a naval revolt led by Admiral Topete, followed by an army uprising that was led by the highest generals (Marshal Serrano, Generals Prim and Dulce). The population of the largest cities, including Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia, led mainly by the democrats and the republicans, joined the struggle. The revolution also reached the countryside. Revolutionary juntas began to spring up throughout the country. After a battle at Alcolea in Andalusia, Queen Isabella II fled the country on September 30 and a provisional government headed by Serrano was formed on October 18. However, the democrats and the republicans were not taken into the government. On June 6, 1869, a constitution was published that proclaimed Spain a hereditary monarchy. The constitution introduced universal suffrage for men, civil marriage, and freedom of the press, assembly, and association; for the first time in Spanish history freedom of religion was proclaimed. On June 18, 1869, Serrano was appointed regent and Prim became prime minister. On Nov. 16, 1870, Prince Amadeo of Savoy (son of King Victor Emmanuel II of Italy) was elected to the Spanish throne.

The results of the revolution could not satisfy the broad popular masses. The strike struggle intensified throughout the country, and the peasants waged a struggle for land. The demand for a republic was put forth everywhere. The creation of various organizations of the masses accelerated under the stimulus of the revolution. The Federal Center of Workers’ Societies, which numbered more than 25,000 workers, was formed in October 1868 in Barcelona. In late 1868 and early 1869, Spanish groups of the First International sprang up in Madrid and Barcelona. Spain’s proletariat emerged as an independent political force for the first time and, despite disorganizing activities by Bakuninites, fought for a republic. Revolts by the republicans began in December 1868. The rule of Amadeo of Savoy, who had been the target of attacks by the republicans from the left and by supporters of Isabella and Carlists (supporters of the first Don Carlos, pretender to the Spanish throne) from the right, proved unstable. On Feb. 11, 1873, Amadeo abdicated, after which the Cortes proclaimed Spain a republic; a provisional republican government was formed, with a right-wing republican, E. Figueras, at its head. In June 1873 a new constituent Cortes met; it had been elected May 10, 1873. The head of executive authority was now a left-wing republican, F. Pi y Margall, whose government put forth a broad democratic program, including the abolition of slavery in Cuba. By mid-1873 the Cortes had drawn up the basic provisions of a draft constitution which provided for the establishment of a federal republic. The draft constitution caused discontent among republicans, who advocated fragmenting the country into small, independent cantons (the “irreconcilables”). They used its publication as a pretext for organizing antigovern-ment revolts in various parts of the country; Bakuninites took part in the revolts. In July 1873 the Pi y Margall government resigned. On Jan. 3, 1874, General Pavía and Marshal Serrano staged a coup d’etat, which resulted in the establishment in the country of a military dictatorship. On Dec. 29, 1874, as a result of a new coup engineered by General Martínez Campos, Alfonso XII, the son of Isabella II, was proclaimed king of Spain.

The incompleteness of the bourgeois revolutions resulted in a compromise by the Spanish bourgeoisie with the feudal lords. The development of capitalism in Spain took the so-called Prussian path, which doomed the Spanish peasantry to decades of the most severe expropriation and bondage.


Diario sesiones de Cortes Constituyentes 1808–74.


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N. IU. KOLPINSKII (Revolution of 1808–14),
N. N. KOSOREZ (Revolution of 1820–23),
J. GARCIA (Revolution of 1834–43),
L. V. PONOMAREVA (Revolution of 1854–56),
and J. GARCIA (Revolution of 1868–74)

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.