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Plaza de España in Cadiz, commemorating the Spanish Constitution of 1812.

The Spanish Constitution of 1812 was promulgated by the Cádiz Cortes, the national legislative assembly (Cortes Generales "General Courts") of Spainmarker acting while in refuge. The Spaniards baptised the constitution "La Pepa" because it was adopted on Saint Joseph's Day, (Pepe in Spanish is the standard nickname for José, comparable to Joe for Joseph. Pepa is the female equivalent, a nickname for Josefa, used because la constitución is a feminine noun).


At the time the Cortes drafted and adopted the Constitution, it was taking refuge first in Isla del Leónmarker and then in Cádizmarker from the Peninsular War, which the Spanish call the Guerra de la Independencia, a war against the French Empire and the king installed by the French, Joseph Bonaparte. That war began on the night of May 2, 1808 immortalized by Francisco Goya's painting The Second of May 1808, also known as The Charge of the Mamelukes. Despite of the war underway on Spanish territory and Napoleon's forces facing Spanish partisans and the British under the Duke of Wellington, the interim Spanish government, the Supreme Central Junta, called for a Cortes to convene with representatives from all the Spanish provinces throughout the worldwide empire, in order to establish a government with a firm claim to legitimacy.

Deliberations and Reforms

The opening session of the new Cortes was held on September 24, 1810. Several basic principles were soon ratified: that sovereignty resides in the nation (see popular sovereignty), the legitimacy of Ferdinand VII as King of Spain, and the inviolability of the deputies. The first steps towards a political revolution had been taken, since prior to the Napoleonic intervention, Spain had been ruled as an absolute monarchy by the Bourbon and their Habsburg predecessors. Liberal deputies were in the majority, and they wanted equality before the law, a centralized government, an efficient modern civil service, a reform of the tax system, the replacement of feudal privileges by freedom of contract, and the recognition of the property owner's right to use his property as he saw fit. The Cortes of Cádiz worked feverishly, and the first written Spanish constitution was promulgated in the city of Cádiz on March 12, 1812. The Constitution of 1812 is regarded as the first example of classic liberalism in Spain, and one of the first worldwide. It came to be called the "sacred code" of the branch of liberalism that rejected the French Revolution, and during the early nineteenth century it served as a model for liberal constitutions of several Mediterranean and Latin American nations. It served as the model for the Norwegian Constitution of 1814, the Portuguese Constitution of 1822 and the Mexican one of 1824, and was implemented with minor modifications in various Italian states by the Carbonari during their revolt of 1820 and 1821.

As the principal aim of the new constitution was the prevention of arbitrary and corrupt royal rule, it provided for a limited monarchy which governed through ministers subject to parliamentary control. Suffrage, which was not determined by property qualifications, favored the position of the commercial class in the new parliament, since there was no special provision for the Church or the nobility. The constitution defined the Spanish Monarchy as the union of all the Spanish possessions around the world and defined as Spaniards all persons born or naturalized in these. The constitution set up a rational and efficient centralized administrative system for the whole monarchy based on newly reformed and uniform provincial governments and municipalities, rather than maintaining some form of the varied, historical local governmental structures. Repeal of traditional property restrictions gave the liberals the freer economy they wanted.

Repeal and Restoration

When Ferdinand VII was restored in March 1814 by the Allied Powers, he promised to uphold the new charter of Spanish government, but within a matter of weeks, encouraged by conservatives and backed by the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy, he repudiated the constitution (May 4) and arrested the liberal leaders (May 10), justifying his actions as repudiating a constitution made by a Cortes assembled in his absence and without his consent. Thus he had come back to assert the Bourbon doctrine that the sovereign authority resided in his person only.

When Ferdinand's harsh rule resulted in a mutiny of army officers in 1820, the Constitution of 1812 was the unifying document of the liberals, who wished to see a constitutional monarchy in Spain. The other European monarchies became alarmed at the liberals' success and at the Congress of Veronamarker in 1822 approved intervention of French forces in Spain to support Ferdinand VII. After the Battle of Trocadero liberated Ferdinand from control of the Cortes in August 1823, he turned on the liberals and constitutionalists with fury. After Ferdinand's death, the Constitution was in force again briefly in 1836 and 1837, while the Constitution of 1837 was being drafted. Since 1812, Spain has had a total of seven constitutions, including the one of 1978, currently in force.


  • The Political Constitution of the Spanish Monarchy. Biblioteca Virtual "Miguel de Cervantes" on-line version of a partial translation originally published in Cobbett's Political Register, Vol. 16 (July-December 1814).
  • Artola, Miguel. La España de Fernando VII. Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1999. ISBN 8423997421
  • Benson, Nettie Lee, ed. Mexico and the Spanish Cortes. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1966.
  • Harris, Jonathan, "An English utilitarian looks at Spanish American independence: Jeremy Bentham's Rid Yourselves of Ultramaria," The Americas 53 (1996), 217-233
  • Lovett, Gabriel. Napoleon and the Birth of Modern Spain. New York: New York University Press, 1965.
  • Rieu-Millan, Marie Laure. Los diputados americanos en las Cortes de Cádiz: Igualdad o independencia. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 1990. ISBN 978-8400070915
  • Rodríguez O., Jaime E. The Independence of Spanish America. Cambridge University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-521-62673-0
  • Rodríguez, Mario. The Cádiz Experiment in Central America, 1808 to 1826. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978. ISBN 978-0520033948


  1. Otras constituciones on the official Spanish government site about the Spanish constitution. Accessed 16 April 2006.
  2. Articles 18-26 of the Constitution. Spain, The Political Constitution of the Spanish Monarchy. Alicante: Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes, 2003.
  3. Articles 1, 5 and 10 of the Constitution.

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