We cannot begin to assess the impact of the Cortes of Cádiz (1810-1814) on the collapse of the Spanish empire until we have a complete picture, global rather than relating to individual American countries, of everything that occurred in that parliamentary setting. I am glad to say that this highly skilled and exhaustively researched book is an important step forward. Despite giving unequal attention to the Cortes ordinarias (October 1813-May 1814), for which the documentation, particularly the Diario de sessiones, is not as rich as for the Cortes extraordinarias (September 1810–September 1813), Rieu-Millán offers the first treatment in a single volume of the whole sweep of debate and legislation in Cádiz relating to American questions. The critical nature of the issues raised in Cádiz—the definition of power relations in an empire that pretended not to be an empire, the nature of the Americans and their suitability for self-government, slavery and the role of the Indians and castas, and many more—can still provoke controversy today. It was a parliament convoked in a conquered mother country, and it proposed to join American and European deputies as equals in legislating a profound revolution in Spanish government, all amid explosive intellectual innovation and a French siege. We cannot be surprised that the Cortes failed to deal successfully with some of the issues.

For a Spanish scholar to venture into the minefield of American demands and Spanish responses after 1810 requires both nerves of steel and the wisdom to be sympathetic to both sides. The most admirable quality of this book is that Rieu-Millán’s interpretations are equitable, subtle, often complex, betraying no hint of the apologetic. She argues that the American deputies, although not properly representative of their home territories, spoke for the full range of political views, from radical to reactionary. In general, they sustained a belief that the empire, the worldwide “Hispanic family,” was redeemable; they did not advocate political separation for their home provinces. The Spanish deputies worked to create a liberal, unified state; the creole deputies worked to “Americanize” an increasingly foreign state. Precisely because Rieu-Millán is sensitive to all the gray areas, because she can express the subtle complexities of emerging national aspirations and related hurt feelings, this book is enormously useful.

The Cortes of Cádiz was a truly remarkable experiment—an attempt to create a government for a multinational empire that claimed to be one single nación española. The creole Cortes deputies participated in writing the Constitution of 1812 because they believed the American provinces could acquire a greater degree of autonomy while remaining part of a great Hispanic union. By 1814, events had disabused them of what seemed a naive expectation. This is the first book I know that explains why some American deputies actually supported the sometimes ethnocentric decisions of the peninsular majority in the Cortes. Perhaps the major weakness of the book is that, because of the sheer size of the topic, the author only briefly discusses the whole issue of why the high-sounding Cortes decisions found little implementation in America.

Rieu-Millán’s lucid and evenhanded study will provide a solid foundation for further research into the impact of the Cortes on Latin American independence. What we need now, more than ever, is a similar book on the Cortes from 1820 to 1823.