Excerpt: Political Culture in Spanish America

The following is an excerpt from Political Culture in Spanish America, 1500–1830 by Jaime E. Rodriguez O. (February 2018).



“The people of . . . [Spanish] America are the most ignorant, the most bigoted, the most superstitious of all Roman Catholics in Christendom. . . . No Catholics on earth were so abjectly devoted to their priests, as blindly superstitious as themselves. . . . Was it probable, was it possible, that . . . a free government . . . should be introduced and established among such a people . . . ? It appeared to me . . . as absurd as . . . [it] would be to establish democracies among the birds, beasts, and fishes.” —John Adams, Quincy, March 27, 1815

John Adams is not the only one to have believed the Hispanic world incapable of self- government. Many scholars then and now believe that constitutional representative government is alien and unsuited to the supposedly conservative society of the Hispanic world.1 They erroneously believe that the Spanish Monarchy was highly centralized, they confuse absolute with autocratic rule, and they equate the modern concept of colony with pre-nineteenth-century governing practices. As a result they are certain that the representative political structures established in the post-independence period were alien systems imported from Great Britain, the United States, and France. These scholars are unaware of the broad body of scholarship that demonstrates that Spain played a central role in the development of ideas that were embraced by fifteenth-century intellectuals and refined over subsequent centuries. To understand the nature of Spanish  American political culture it is necessary to dispel misperceptions about the political system of the Spanish Monarchy and the theory and practice that sustained it.

A Shared Political Culture

Western political culture originated in ancient Greece and Rome. As Paul Cartlege states: “Much of our political terminology is Greek in etymology: aristocracy, democracy, monarchy, oligarchy, plutocracy, tyranny, to take just the most obvious examples, besides politics itself and its derivatives. Most of the remainder—citizens, constitution, dictatorship, people, republic and state—have an alternative ancient derivation, from the Latin.”2 The government of the Roman Republic (509–27 BC) influenced political theorists in the West over the centuries. Most contemporary regimes are modeled on the Roman Republic, which is considered a mixed government because it included the rulers (two consuls), an aristocratic elite (the senate), and the people (the assembly). Indeed, it provided the United States with virtually all its political concepts, such as the two members of the executive branch (president and vice president), the senate, and the assembly (House of Representatives), as well as separation of powers, term limits, regularly scheduled elections, checks and balances, quorum requirements, vetoes, block voting, and dilatory tactics known as the filibuster.3 Many of these principles appear in the charters of other Western nations because they share the Greco-Roman heritage.


During the Middle Ages, Western Europe developed a common political culture. The works of scholars, who created a Western legal and political culture, circulated throughout Europe. Writing in Latin, the language of erudition, facilitated intellectual interchange. Some of these treatises advanced the theory of a mixed government.

Based upon the political cultures of ancient Greece, Rome, late medieval Europe, and the Italian Renaissance, city-states embraced the concept of mixed government, a regime in which all shared sovereignty: the one, the ruler; the few, the prelates and the nobles; and the many, the people. Mixed governments were considered the best and most lasting because they limited the arbitrary or tyrannical power of the king, the nobles, and the people.4

During the twelfth to fifteenth centuries, cities and commerce expanded in Western Europe, creating a new class who were neither vassals nor nobles. These urban residents emerged as significant political actors in twelfth-century Iberia. The cities and towns gained power and influence in León-Castile because their financial and physical resources—particularly their militias—proved crucial to the Crown during the Reconquista (the reconquest of territory from the Muslims).

In 1188 King Alfonso IX convened the Cortes, the first congress in Europe that included the three estates: the clergy, the nobility, and the cities. Although the English Magna Carta  f 1215 is often considered the foundation of representative government, the first true English parliament, which included the representatives of cities, met in 1275; and although regions of France created parlements (autonomous courts), the first true French congress, the States-General, met in 1302. Subsequently, other areas of Europe also established representative assemblies. All of those bodies convened randomly when the ruler required counsel and, especially, when he sought tax increases.6

This heritage and three events in the sixteenth century transformed the nature of Hispanic political thought. A great political revolution, the Rebelión de las Comunidades de Castilla (the rebellion of the cities of Castile), erupted in the Iberian Peninsula during the years 1517 to 1521. Taking advantage of the coronation of King Carlos I, who was raised in Flanders and had few direct ties with Spain, the representatives of the cities of Castile attempted to assume power and establish a new constitutional order. They formed a Junta General de las Comunidades de Castilla (a general assembly of the cities of Castile), which insisted that the cities represented the patria, that the king was their servant, that they possessed the right to elect the Cortes on a regular basis, and that they could defend their liberties with force if necessary. They maintained that the will of the people and the consent of the governed had to be recognized, insisting not only on liberty but also on democracy. The forces of the Crown defeated this movement, which has been called the first modern revolution, in the Battle of Villalar on April 23, 1521. Thereafter, the Cortes continued to function in a traditional form. Nevertheless, the rebelión became the foundational myth for the revolutionaries in the Cortes of Cádiz three centuries later.7



  1. Carlos A. Forment, for example, has recently argued that Catholic culture
    is essentially irrational and that Latin Americans were colonial peoples and
    “were two passionate to be able to exercise their rational faculties.” Therefore
    they could not govern. Forment, Democracy in Latin America, 51.
  2. Cartledge, “Greek Political Thought,” 11.
  3. Flower, Roman Republics and Wiedemann, “Reflections of Roman Political Thought,” 517–31. The English term filibuster is derived from the Dutch vrijbuiter
    (privateer, pirate, robber). The Spaniards converted it into filibustero to refer to the Dutch, English, and French attackers and thieves in the Spanish world. In the 1850s, the Spanish term was applied to U.S. privateers then operating in Central America and the Spanish West Indies such as William Walker. Apparently, the term was used first used in 1853 by Representative Albert G. Brown when referring to Abraham Watkings’ speech against “filibustering” intervention in Cuba. Subsequently, it has been used as a dilatory tactic.
  4. Blythe, Ideal Government.
  5. O’Callaghan, The Cortes of Castile-León.
  6. Van Zanden, Buringh, and Bosker, “The Rise and Decline of European Parliaments,” 1–28.
  7. Maravall, Las comunidades de Castilla.


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