Already at the time of Philip V, Francisco Benito la Soledad had said: “All the evils of Spain are derived from the abogados” (lawyers). At the head of the mischievous magisterial hierarchy of Spain was placed the Consejo Real of Castile. Sprung up in the turbulent times of the Don Juans and the Enriques, strengthened by Philip II, who discovered in it a worthy complement of the Santo Oficio [the Holy Office of the Inquisition], it had improved by the calamities of the times and the weakness of the later kings to usurp and accumulate in its hands the most heterogeneous attributes, and to add to its functions of Highest Tribunal those of a legislator and of an administrative superintendent of all the kingdoms of Spain. Thus it surpassed in power even the French Parliament which it resembled in many points, except that it was never to be found on the side of the people. Having been the most powerful authority in ancient Spain, the Consejo Real was, of course, the most implacable foe to a new Spain, and to all the recent popular authorities threatening to cripple its supreme influence. Being the great dignitary of the order of the lawyers and the incarnate guaranty of all its abuses and privileges, the Consejo naturally disposed of all the numerous and influential interests vested in Spanish jurisprudence. It was therefore a power with which the revolution could enter into no compromise, but which had to be swept away unless it should be allowed to sweep away the revolution in its turn. As we have seen in a former article, the Consejo had prostituted itself before Napoleon, and by that act of treason had lost all hold upon the people. But on the day of their assumption of office the Central Junta were foolish enough to communicate to the Consejo their constitution, and to ask for its oath of fidelity, after having received which they declared they would dispatch the formula of the same oath to all the other authorities of the kingdom. By this inconsiderate step, loudly disapproved by all the revolutionary party, the Consejo became convinced that the Central Junta wanted its support; it thus recovered from its despondency, and, after an affected hesitation of some days, tendered a malevolent submission to the Junta, backing its oath by an expression of its own reactionary scruples exhibited in its advice to the Junta to dissolve, by reducing its number to three or five members, according to Ley 3, Partida 2, Titulo 15; and to order the forcible extinction of the provincial juntas. After the French had returned to Madrid and dispersed the Consejo Real, the Central Junta, not contented with their first blunder, had the fatuity to resuscitate the Consejo by creating the Consejo Reunido — a reunion of the Consejo Real with all the other wrecks of the ancient royal councils. Thus the Junta spontaneously created for the counter-revolution a central power, which, rivalling their own power, never ceased to harass and counteract them with its intrigues and conspiracies, seeking to drive them to the most unpopular steps, and then, with a show of virtuous indignation to denounce them to the impassioned contempt of the people. It hardly need be mentioned that, having first acknowledged and then re-established the Consejo Real, the Central Junta was unable to reform anything, either in the organization of Spanish tribunals, or in their most vicious civil and criminal legislation.
That, notwithstanding the predominance in the Spanish rising of the national and religious elements, there existed, in the two first years, a most decided tendency to social and political reforms, is proved by all the manifestations of the provincial juntas of that time, which, though composed as they mostly were of the privileged classes, never neglected to denounce the ancient régime and to hold out promises of radical reform. The fact is further proved by the manifestoes of the Central Junta. In their first address to the nation, dated 26th October, 1808, they say:
“A tyranny of twenty years, exercised by the most incapable hands, had brought them to the very brink of perdition; the nation was alienated from its Government by hatred and contest. A little time only has passed since, oppressed and degraded, ignorant of their own strength, and finding no protection against the governmental evils, either in the institutions or in the laws, they had even regarded foreign dominion [as] less hateful than the wasting tyranny which consumed them. The dominion of a will always capricious, and most often unjust, had lasted too long; their patience, their love of order, their generous loyalty had too long been abused; it was time that law founded on general utility should commence its reign. Reform, therefore, was necessary throughout all branches. The Junta would form different committees, each entrusted with a particular department to whom all writings on matters of Government and Administration might he addressed.”
In their address dated Seville, 28th October, 1809, they say:
“An imbecile and decrepit despotism prepared the way for French tyranny. To leave the state sunk in old abuses would be a crime as enormous as to deliver you into the hands of Bonaparte.”
There seems to have existed in the Central Junta a most original division of labor — the Jovellanos party being allowed to proclaim and to protocol the revolutionary aspirations of the nation, and the Floridablanca party reserving to themselves the pleasure of giving them the lie direct, and of opposing to revolutionary fiction counter-revolutionary fact. For us, however, the important point is to prove from the very confessions of the provincial juntas deposited with the Central, the often-denied fact of the existence of revolutionary aspirations at the epoch of the first Spanish rising.
The manner in which the Central Junta made use of the opportunities for reforms afforded by the good will of the nation, the pressure of events, and the presence of immediate danger, may be inferred from the influence exercised by their Commissioners in the several provinces they were sent to. One Spanish author candidly tells us that the Central Junta, not overflowing with capacities, took good care to retain the eminent members at the center, and to dispatch those who were good for nothing to the circumference. These Commissioners were invested with the power of presiding over the provincial juntas, and of representing the Central in the plenitude of its attributes. To quote only some instances of their doings: General Romana, whom the Spanish soldiers used to call Marquis de las Romerias, from his perpetual marches and counter-marches — fighting never taking place except when he happened to be out of the way — this Romana, when beaten by Soult out of Galicia, entered Asturias, and as a Commissioner of the Central. His first business was to pick a quarrel with the provincial Junta of Oviedo, whose energetic and revolutionary measures had drawn down upon them the hatred of the privileged classes. He went the length of dissolving and replacing it by persons of his own invention. General Ney, informed of these dissensions, in a province where the resistance against the French had been general and unanimous, instantly marched his forces into Asturias, expelled the Marquis de las Romerias, entered Oviedo and sacked it during three days. The French having evacuated Galicia at the end of 1809, our Marquis and Commissioner of the Central Junta entered Coruña, united in his person all public authority, suppressed the district juntas, which had multiplied with the insurrection, and in their places appointed military governors, threatening the members of those juntas with persecution, actually persecuting the patriots, affecting a supreme benignity toward all who had embraced the cause of the invader, and proving in all other respects a mischievous, impotent, capricious blockhead. And what had been the shortcomings of the district and provincial juntas of Galicia? They had ordered a general recruitment without exemption of classes or persons; they had levied taxes upon the capitalists and proprietors; they had lowered the salaries of public functionaries; they had commanded the ecclesiastical corporations to keep at their disposition the revenues existing in their chests. In one word, they had taken revolutionary measures. From the time of the glorious Marquis de las Romerias, Asturias and Galicia, the two provinces most distinguished by their general resistance to the French, withheld from partaking in the war of independence, whenever released from immediate danger of invasion.
In Valencia, where new prospects appeared to open as long as the people were left to themselves and to chiefs of their own choosing, the revolutionary spirit was broken down by the influence of the Central Government. Not contented to place that province under the generalship of one Don José Caro, the Central Junta dispatched as “their own” Commissioner, the Baron Labazora. This Baron found fault with the provincial junta because it had resisted certain superior orders, and cancelled their decree by which the appointments to vacant canonship, ecclesiastical benefices, and commandries had been judiciously suspended and the revenues destined for the benefit of the military hospitals.
Hence bitter contests between the Central Junta and that of Valencia; hence, at a later epoch, the sleep of Valencia under the liberal administration of Marshal Suchet; hence its eagerness to proclaim Ferdinand VII on his return against the then revolutionary Government.
At Cadiz, the most revolutionary place in Spain at the epoch, the presence of a commissioner of the Central Junta, the stupid and conceited Marquis de Viliel, caused an insurrection to break out on the 22nd and 23rd of February, 1809, which, if not timely shifted to the war of independence, would have had the most disastrous consequences.
There exists no better sample of the discretion exhibited by the Central Junta in the appointment of their own Commissioners, than that of the delegate to Wellington, Senor Lozano de Torres, who, while humbling himself in servile adulation before the English General, secretly informed the Junta that the General’s complaints on his want of provisions were altogether groundless. Wellington, having found out the double-tongued wretch, chased him ignominiously from his camp.
The Central Junta were placed in the most fortunate circumstances for realizing what they had proclaimed in one of their addresses to the Spanish nation.
“It has seemed good to Providence that in this terrible crisis you should not be able to advance one step toward independence without advancing one likewise toward liberty.”
At the commencement of their reign the French had not yet obtained possession of one-third of Spain. The ancient authorities they found either absent or prostrated by their connivance with the intruder, or dispersed at his bidding. There was no measure of social reform, transferring property and influence from the Church and the aristocracy to the middle class and the peasants, which the cause of defending the common country could not have enabled them to carry. They had the same good luck as the French Comité du salut public — that the convulsion within was backed by the necessities of defense against aggressions from without; moreover they had before them the example of the bold initiative which certain provinces had already been forced into by the pressure of circumstances. But not satisfied with hanging as a dead-weight on the Spanish revolution they actually worked in the sense of the counter-revolution, by re-establishing the ancient authorities, by forging anew the chains which had been broken, by stifling the revolutionary fire wherever it broke out, by themselves doing nothing and by preventing others from doing anything. During their stay at Seville, on July 20, 1809, even the English Tory Government thought necessary to address them a note strongly protesting against their counter-revolutionary course apprehending that they were likely to suffocate the public enthusiasm. It has been remarked somewhere that Spain endured all the evils of revolution without acquiring revolutionary strength. If there be any truth in this remark, it is a sweeping condemnation passed upon the Central Junta.
We have thought it the more necessary to dwell upon this point, as its decisive importance has never been understood by any European historian. Exclusively under the reign of the Central Junta, it was possible to blend with the actualities and exigencies of national defense the transformation of Spanish society, and the emancipation of the native spirit, without which any political constitution must dissolve like a phantom at the slightest combat with real life. The Cortes were placed in quite opposite circumstances — they themselves driven back to an insulated spot of the Peninsula, cut off from the main body of the monarchy during two years by a besieging French army, and representing ideal Spain while real Spain was conquered or fighting. At the time of the Cortes Spain was divided into two parts. At the Isla de Leon, ideas without action — in the rest of Spain, action without ideas. At the time of the Central Junta, on the contrary, particular weakness, incapacity and ill will were required on the part of the Supreme Government to draw a line of distinction between the Spanish war and the Spanish revolution. The Cortes, therefore, failed, not, as French and English writers assert, because they were revolutionaries, but because their predecessors had been reactionists and had missed the proper season of revolutionary action. Modern Spanish writers, offended by the Anglo-French critics, have nevertheless proved unable to refute them, and still wince under the bon mot of the Abbé de Pradt: “The Spanish people resemble the wife of Sganarelle who wanted to be beaten.”