The origin of Spanish American liberalism is a much debated subject. Some scholars maintain that liberalism was an alien ideology imported from France, England, and the United States while others argue that liberalism emerged from hispanic traditions. Nettie Lee Benson refined the latter argument by noting that Mexican liberalism, and by extension Spanish American liberalism, was profoundly influenced by the first Spanish constitutional Cortes (1810-1814 and 1820-1823). Subsequently, Charles Hale questioned her views. While admitting that some aspects of Mexican liberalism had their roots in Spanish political thought, he dismissed the Cortes in a few sentences stressing instead Benjamin Constant’s influence on José María Luis Mora, whom he considered the leading theorist of Mexican liberalism. Now Mario Rodríguez has entered the debate by studying in detail the effects of the Cortes on Central America in this volume under consideration.
Rodríguez carefully examines what he calls the “Cádiz Experiment” by looking both at Spain and Central America. He argues: “The Cádiz Experiment was basically an adaptation of enlightenment thought to the process of modernization in the Spanish-speaking world” (p. 229), emphasizing dignity, freedom, and man’s capacity to improve himself and his environment. These attitudes emerged earlier in the eighteenth century during the so-called Bourbon reform period. Like John T. Lanning, Rodríguez maintains that Central Americans were reform-minded men who sought to adapt the new Enlightenment thought to their circumstances while retaining the best of hispanic traditional theories. Thus, when as a result of the Spanish imperial crisis, peninsular leaders convoked the first modern hispanic parliament in Cádiz, the Central Americans were ideologically ready to participate in its reforms.
The Cádiz legislators were not radical revolutionaries, but practical men who effectively merged the Spanish Catholic tradition of natural rights and contractual law with the secular natural rights doctrines of the eighteenth century. In Rodríguez’ view the Constitution of 1812 and the laws enacted by the Cortes were “a well-conceived blueprint for a modern Hispanic society” which provided the basis for later nineteenth-century liberalism. Interestingly, he argues that agrarian reform and modern pro-Indian legislation received their first impetus in Cádiz. Those and other liberal reforms were ably supported by the Central Americans and other New World deputies.
The Cádiz Experiment, however, was not without conflict between Americans and Spaniards. The principal source of friction was the “American question.” The Americans wanted greater autonomy and more representation than even liberal Spaniards were willing to grant. The issue of free trade and monopolies also soured relations between the two groups. But the greatest source of friction resulted from the abuses and obstructions of Spanish officials overseas. The activities of Captain General José de Bustamante were the cause of repeated complaints by Central Americans. Yet later under supportive officials the Cádiz experiment achieved much success in Central America. Eventually, the return of absolutism and the chaos of the second constitutional period disillusioned the Central Americans and convinced them to declare independence in September 1821.
The experience of the Spanish Cortes, however, continued to influence political thought in Central America. The Constitution of 1812 and the laws enacted by the Cortes either remained in effect or became the basis for subsequent legislation. Indeed, the influence of the Cádiz experiment was so great that both liberals and conservatives later “referred to Spanish precedents in order to convince colleagues on certain reforms . . .” (p. 198). Rodríguez maintains that in both the short-lived union with Mexico and in the subsequent establishment of the federal republic, Central Americans continued the programs inaugurated in Cádiz.
The Cádiz parliament also suffered the types of divisions that were later to weaken the Central American political system. An exaggerated regionalism emerged which, although not created in Cádiz, received added impetus there. After independence the localism degenerated into the federal civil war. Cádiz also set a pattern that would be repeated in Central America of a few brilliant men overwhelming, dominating, and ultimately alienating their opponents. The inability to compromise or even to moderate political conflict became one of the system’s greatest flaws. Finally, the ultimate failure of this early liberalism may be attributed to Central America’s economic weakness and to the unwillingness of its people to pay the taxes necessary to support its government. In such circumstances no regime could function effectively.
Rodríguez’ arguments are convincing and backed by an impressive array of archival sources. The greatest strength of the study is the clarity with which the issues are presented and illustrated, both in Central America and in Spain. The study, however, is wedded to a narrow Central American perspective. At times Rodríguez tends to overemphasize the contributions of Central Americans. For example, in his discussion of the provincial deputation, he fails to mention the contributions of Miguel Ramos Arizpe, its chief architect. A more comparative perspective would have enriched the work. Nevertheless, this is a major contribution which will he welcomed by all scholars of the period.