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Home arrow History/Politics of Spain arrow 1812 The First Spanish Constitution
1812 The First Spanish Constitution
Written by Andrew Brown   
Wednesday, 19 November 2008

You can’t have failed to notice all the references to the huge celebrations that are being planned for 2012 in Cádiz. They will be the culmination of a series of events over the next three years during which the city will be the centre of attention not only throughout Spain but across the whole of the Central and South America. The 21st Iberoamerican summit – a meeting of Heads of State held every five years – will be in Cádiz in 2012, and the city has been appointed Iberoamerican City of Culture for the same year; both in recognition of the importance of the city’s commemoration of the bicentenary of the Constitution.

So, what is everyone getting so excited about? And what exactly happened in 1812?  


King Ferdinand VII acceded to the Spanish throne in 1808. The previous year Spain and France had signed a treaty which allowed French troops to enter Spain with the intention of invading Portugal. In February 1808 Napoleon turned on his ally and seized strategic cities taking Spain by surprise. Napoleon then forced Ferdinand’s father, Charles IV, to abdicate but not before he had made him relinquish his family’s rights to the Spanish throne in favour of Napoleon.  Ferdinand himself was taken Valencay Chateau in France where he was held as a prisoner for the next seven years. Napoleon appointed his brother Joseph as king in his stead.  Although the Spanish authorities accepted, with some reluctance, this state of affairs the people did not and at the beginning of May 1808 they rose up against the French and the War of Independence (the Peninsular War) began.

The government of Spain, in the absence of the king, fell to local juntas who were unable to agree on almost anything. The British and Portuguese had repelled the French attack on Portugal and had forced them back into the north of Spain. However the inability of the Spanish juntas to mobilise the army effectively gave Napoleon the chance to regroup and reinforce his troops and subsequently to attack. There were many bloody battles but Napoleon’s progress over the next fifteen months was inexorable. When Madrid fell the government fled to Cádiz, which because of its location, was impossible to invade by land. The British navy ruled the waves following the destruction of the French navy at Trafalgar and the city was kept well-stocked with food and troops. The British were now more than happy to ally themselves with their former enemy Spain since their common aim now was the defeat of the French emperor. So great was the allied force in Cádiz – some 26,000 soldiers at one time – that the French blockade tied up huge numbers of troops whose purpose was to prevent a counter attack from the city.

In spite of being trapped within the city and isolated from the rest of the country now occupied by invaders the Supreme Central Junta, which had assumed power in the King’s absence, ordered the Cortes (the legislative assembly) to convene with representatives from all the provinces and all parts of the Spanish empire, with the aim of drawing up a Constitution for Spain which would establish a form of democratic government to replace the absolute power of the monarchy.  

The Constitution

The debates and discussions over the constitution took many months. The first session was held on 24th September 1810 and the document was not finalised until March 1812. The liberals sensed an opportunity to create a framework which would be revolutionary in protecting the rights of the people and putting power into the hands of properly elected representatives. In the end, the Constitution was a model of clarity, justice and fairness. Among the basic rights formulated were:

National sovereignty. Sovereignty was vested in the people as one nation. Ferdinand VII was recognised as the lawful monarch but power was to be exercised through ministers and subject to the control of Parliament.

Separation of Powers. The making of laws (legislative power) was made separate from their enforcement (judicial power). Civil and criminal courts and judges were to be independent from government.

Rights of Representation. Deputies who were to make up the new government were to be elected by the people. The church and the nobility would no longer have special rights of election.

Freedom of Speech. Everyone was given the right to say or publish whatever they wished without restriction, subject only to specific laws necessary for the security of the State.

Freedom from Torture. All forms of torture were banned.

Personal Freedom. No-one was to be deprived of their liberty other than by due process of law, and no-one’s home was to be forcibly entered without a legal warrant.

The Constitution also set up a modern civil service, and a reform of the tax system as well as many other far-sighted and innovative reforms. The abolition of many harsh property restrictions was designed to promote a freer economy and allow the expansion of small businesses.

Eventually on 12th March 1812 the New Constitution was presented to the city of Cádiz. It was quickly nicknamed “la Pepa” due to the fact that March 12th is Saint Joseph’s day. (Pepe is the diminutive form of Joseph but as ‘Constitución’ is a feminine noun Pepe became Pepa). It is widely regarded, even today, as a model of progressive liberalism and during the nineteenth century it was used as the basic framework for the constitutions of many other countries including Portugal and Mexico.  

Post 1812

Ferdinand VII was finally restored to the throne in March 1814 by the victorious allies following Napoleon’s defeat and abdication. He promised to uphold the new Constitution and recognise the new government but, egged on by the Church, the nobility and Conservative elements he repudiated it in May of that year and had the Liberal leaders of the Cortes arrested. He proclaimed that the Constitution was itself unconstitutional, having been drawn up in his absence and without his consent. As far as he was concerned the King had absolute power which could not be removed by any legislative body.

Ferdinand was unpopular and extremely oppressive and in 1820 the army, backed by the people, mutinied and overthrew him. He was imprisoned and the new Constitution of 1812 was adopted by the revolutionary liberals as the way forward.

In 1823 the French, alarmed by the success of this revolution once again invaded Spain with the intention of restoring Ferdinand to the throne. The Spanish government fled, with Ferdinand still a prisoner, to Cádiz. The French followed swiftly and besieged the fort of Trocadero which controlled entry to the city. The fort fell after a fierce battle and although the city held out for another three weeks it eventually capitulated and Ferdinand was again restored to the throne. This time his reprisals knew no bounds and some 30,000 citizens were executed or murdered for their part in the rebellion and the adoption of the Constitution, which Ferdinand again repudiated. Another 20,000 were imprisoned without trial.

“La Pepa” was briefly revived in 1836 while another constitution - the Constitution of 1837 -  was being drafted. This document used the 1812 Constitution as its foundation but it was less progressive in its aims. However the basic principles of national sovereignty and an elected government were maintained.  

Points of interest

Although the 1812 Constitution had a short and very turbulent life it is still regarded as one of the most important documents in the history of Spain.  All subsequent constitutions – the current one drawn up in 1978 following the death of Franco is the seventh – have used its framework, and many of its provisions are enshrined in the current Constitution. It marked a huge change in the way the country was ruled by abolishing the absolute power of the monarch and paved the way for true democracy.

There are many commemorations of the Constitution, especially in Cádiz. A large painting in the Cortes museum depicts the moment when the document was presented to the people. The museum itself was built as a memorial to the Cortes of 1812 and the exterior is covered with plaques recording the visits of many Heads of State in 1912 on the occasion of the Constitution’s centenary.

The huge monument now standing in la Plaza de España in Cádiz was begun in 1912, also to celebrate the centenary.

 The new road bridge currently under construction linking the city with Puerto Real has already been nicknamed "La Pepa", as it is due to be completed and opened during the early part of 2012 and in time for the influx of dignitaries and other visitors coming to join in the celebrations.

The website of CCC (Cádiz Ciudad Constitucional) has a huge amount of information about the forthcoming celebrations and the history of the Constitution including copies of the newspapers from March 1812. http://www.cadiz2012.es/ 

Constitution Day in Spain is a national holiday but it is not on 12th March. It is, instead, on 6th December to commemorate the signing of the current Constitution of 1978.


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