Empire of Liberty: Nobody Expects the Spanish Reformation

“For neither good nor evil can last for ever; and so it follows that as evil has lasted a long time, good must now be close at hand.” 

-Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote

Excerpt from Dr. Mark Gonzalez’ “The Great Transition of Europe”, University of Chicago Press, 1921

Chapter VIII: El Triunvirato

In Madrid, the losses to the French in the War of the First Coalition stung but were not devastating. Spanish ministers learned two hard lessons. First, Spain was not as prepared for war as they believed in the wake of their victories during the American Revolution. Secondly, they realized that Spain had fallen behind its rival powers and it needed to be ready for unexpected upheavals and new ideas. The American Revolution, and to an extent the rebellion in St. Domingue, demonstrated that Spain could lose its New World empire at any time. The events in Paris showed that the old traditions of baroque Europe were on the out. Of course, learning lessons and applying them are two different things.

The central reasons for Spain’s stagnation before the war lie with the government of King Charles IV. The successor to the reformist Charles III, Charles IV did not care much for governance and left the rule of Spain to his ministers. In some cases this was a good thing such as when Spain was effectively ruled by José Moñino y Redondo, the 1st Count of Floridablanca, a reformer who worked closely with Charles III. The Count’s political enemies deposed him and the state eventually came under control of the queen and the ineffective Manuel de Godoy (rumored to be her lover). That Spain came out of the War of the First Coalition as well as it did is a miracle. Had the war gone on longer there is no reason to think Paris might not have bullied Spain into its sphere of influence or demanded the earlier separation of a Basque Republic or Catalonian Republic as Napoléon demanded of the Austrians in Italy. Instead, France took peace with Spain and Britain and moved on to battling the Holy Roman Empire. The defeat was humiliating, but it was not debilitating. It also allowed more competent officials in Madrid to revolt without fear of French interference on behalf of the unpopular Godoy [1].


Excerpt from the 1911 Encyclopedia Americana

Charles IV of Spain

“In character he was not malignant, but he was intellectually torpid [stupid], and of a credulity which almost passes belief. His wife, Maria Luisa of Parma, his first cousin, a thoroughly coarse and vicious woman, ruled him completely, though he was capable of obstinacy at times. During his father’s lifetime he was led by her into court intrigues which aimed at driving the king’s favorite minister, Floridablanca, from office, and replacing him by Aranda, the chief of the “Aragonese” party. After he succeeded to the throne in 1788 his one serious occupation was hunting. Affairs were left to be directed by his wife and her lover Godoy (q.v.). For Godoy the king had an unaffected liking, and the lifelong favor he showed him is almost pathetic. When terrified by the French Revolution he turned to the Inquisition to help him against the party which would have carried the reforming policy of Charles III much further. But he was too slothful to have more than a passive part in the direction of his own government. In a rare display of understanding, he exiled himself and the queen to the countryside and allowed the reformist triumvirate, led by Floridablanca and his son, to lead Spain.” [2]


Excerpt from Dr. Mark Gonzalez’ “The Great Transition of Europe”, University of Chicago Press, 1921

In mid-1796 a reformist faction coalesced around the Count of Floridablanca, Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, and the young Crown Prince Ferdinand. In the wake of the war, but with France constantly demanding concessions and bullying Godoy, this unlikely triumvirate sprang into action knowing that if Spain and France went to war sooner than later, France could this time march all the way to Madrid. They utilized their influence with Charles IV to help him (briefly) find his spine. Charles dismissed Godoy, gave Ferdinand a long leash to run things in Spain in consultation with Floridablanca and Jovellanos (who would act almost as regents to the 13-year old), and took the queen out of the capital to what became, more or less, a permanent hunting vacation.

It is important to remember that these three men, El Triunvirato, were not the salvation of Spain. All had their flaws. Ferdinand was young, passionate, fiery, quick to anger and impulsive. Jovellanos was scholarly and bookish. Even before his appointment and return to the capital, he had established himself as one of Spain’s great enlightenment thinkers and economists. Floridablanca was a pragmatist to a fault who had recently been acquitted of a scandal and arrest orchestrated by Godoy and his Aragonese political enemies. Indeed, the time they had to actually “rule” Spain was limited. Most of their reforms impacted the policy decisions of later regimes and Jovellanos’ and Floridablanca’s impact on the young Ferdinand cannot be overstated given the toxic familial situation between his father, the king, his mother, the queen, and the always lurking Godoy.

Immediately, however, these three found themselves tasked with rebuilding Spain, once one of the great powers of the world and now a virtual satellite of France since the War of the Spanish Succession.

Remarkably, the team worked well together despite their brief rule.

Jovellanos knew the reforms Spain needed, Floridablanca was capable of walking a middle path to not upset the nobility or the church too much and if either of them proved too bookish and weak to overcome an obstacle, Ferdinand could break down the door with near reckless abandon. They began their work slowly, knowing that rapid reform of institutions could lead to backlash from Charles and the nobles or perhaps a mob-like situation, as occurred in France. Officials made inquiries into potential solutions to shore up Spanish positions in the New World and its outposts in Asia. Some immediate concerns could be tackled, primarily an invasion from France. The Pyrenees offered the best protection but the War of the First Coalition had shown that French incursions along the coasts could be effective, especially incursions into Catalonia. Madrid ordered several new border fortresses built but the central military reform hinged on the thinking of the new Spanish War Minister José Ramón de Urrutia y de las Casas.

Casas played little role on the Pyrenees front during the War of the First Coalition but many held him in high esteem as a military engineer and siege tactician. Not only was he a leader during the Great Siege of Gibraltar during the American Revolutionary War but he also received the Cross of St. George from Catherine the Great of Russia for the role he played in the Russo-Turkish War. Floridablanca knew that Spain needed new military leadership, preferably leadership with an eye for defense, but had no desire to find that talent from the lackluster showing that occurred in the Pyrenees. Instead, the triumvirate appointed Casas in a move the surprised many in and out of Spain.

Casas believed that France had shown that the wealthy medium sized power was no longer relevant in European politics. The ease with which France and its military reorganizations had pushed aside Savoy, the Swiss, Holy Roman states and the Dutch meant that some existing powers were simply non-factors in a general war. Casas reasoned that places like Denmark and Portugal had little value beyond their utilization by other powers for their geographic value (something that Portugal would, ironically, prove sooner than later). Instead, the powers that mattered going forward would be Britain, France, Austria, Russia and the Ottomans. Places like Spain and Prussia could endure because either they kept up with changing events or they could stagnate and reduce themselves into the same irrelevant basket as the small and medium sized nations. Casas also reasoned that geographically and politically, Spain and France would go to war again and Spain’s other greatest threats would be the British (especially if they operated out of Portugal) and the Americans. Because three of those threats were Mediterranean Sea powers, he argued that Spain had to become at least a regional player in the Mediterranean and it needed to seriously bolster its navy [3]. Barcelona, Cadiz and Valencia began producing warships at a rapid rate. Casas ordered the renovation of fortresses in Spain and the colonies, funded new roads and poured every available real into preparing Spain for war.

Casas’ brief time in charge of the Spanish military made him a sort of “rising star” among European courts. Immediately, his greatest achievement would be the restructuring of the Spanish navy, an act that proved critical to the twin Battles of the Nile. While this had lasting repercussions for the balance of power in the Mediterranean, we mostly remember Casas for his later tenure in the employ of Sweden.

Casas and El Triunvirato knew that an arsenal is only as good as those who operate it. So it was not enough to strengthen Spain’s defenses, they needed to strengthen the Spanish people themselves. Floridablanca focused on diplomacy while Ferdinand and Jovellanos focused on the domestic front. Citing the long standing Franco-Ottoman Alliance (which had existed, even if sometimes nominally, since 1536) which threatened the integrity of the Mediterranean, Spain pursued and signed the Treaty of Madrid which created an Anglo-Spanish Alliance in early 1797. This was a major diplomatic achievement in its own right given the historic animosity between Protestant London and Catholic Madrid. Before the War of the First Coalition, one has to go all the way back to the Nine Years War of the 17th century to find the last time England and Spain took up arms together (ironically as part of a grand European alliance against France).

Of course, the alliance would soon lead to war and disaster for Spain.

Spain also forged an alliance with the Austrians later that year and sent ambassadors to the courts in Lisbon, Berlin and St. Petersburg. Naturally, this enraged the French but the dysfunctional Directorie found itself in no position to retaliate militarily. France closed its ports to Spanish ships and Paris encouraged piracy in the New World but this actually backfired against them. Newly commissioned Spanish ships and officers gained valuable experience defending the annual treasure fleets from privateers while the closure of trade fostered closer economic relations between Spain and Britain while also forcing domestic trades to pick up the slack. Perhaps the most interesting note from this period of quasi-warfare before the War of the Second Coalition began in full was that Captain Claude-Armand Dufaure opted to apply for, and received, a French letter of marque and took his ship to the new world to begin his notorious career in piracy [4].

Internally, Jovellanos and the Crown Prince were the perfect good cop/bad cop combination to shake up the stagnant aristocracy. Ferdinand kept the church placated maintaining many of their privileges and even convincing Charles IV to undo Charles III’s expulsion of the Jesuits. This proved a very controversial change of course as the original expulsion only occurred thirty years prior. Floridablanca harbored mixed feelings on the matter and Charles IV needed some convincing to reverse the decision of his father so that his minister could merely have a bargaining chip with the pope. Like most of the contemporary mid-18th century expulsions, the Spanish expelled the Jesuits from its empire for a variety of reasons. Enlightenment spirit and nascent nationalism convinced many intellectuals and royals that the Society of Jesus possessed too much economic and intellectual influence on the various European states (and especially within their colonies) that the centralized capitals could not control. Executed similarly to France’s centuries old suppression of the Knights Templar, Spanish authorities dispatched secret orders across the empire and in a few short years, thousands of Jesuits either died or found themselves deported to exile in Italy. The notable families in the colonies cried foul (many received their education from Jesuit teachers and not a few had converted themselves only to be exiled) and many frontier missions emptied overnight. Indeed, Madrid gained further centralized control, and quite a bit of confiscated wealth, but the ramifications would prove long lasting.

The reversal, ordered in 1797, perturbed many intellectuals and Francophiles, especially in Aragon and Catalonia, made Charles IV the toast of the colonies and was widely applauded by the Catholic Church. Pope Pius VI hailed the move as “the greatest Christian act in a generation” and secretly penned a letter to the king hoping that a vigorous Catholic alliance between Spain and the Italies could finally turn the tide of the atheist Jacobins.

The alliance between El Triunvirato and the church put the nobles in a precarious situation. This was most notable regarding the reforms that made El Triunvirato popular amongst the general population and especially the middle class merchants and tradesmen. It also, arguably, began sowing the seeds of dissent amongst the leaders of places like Barcelona and Zaragoza.

Jovellanos used the leeway to pursue his long sought land reforms. Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and other enlightenment works influenced Jovellanos who published Informe en el expediente de ley agraria (“A report on the dossier of the Agrarian Law”) just before the formation of El Triunvirato. In that work, Jovellanos argued that the concentration of property ownership by aristocratic landed estates, the church, and tracts of “common lands” which were unavailable to private ownership held Spain back economically. Jovellanos believed that the key to Spain’s prosperity lie in its agricultural potential and the key to unlocking that potential lie in land reform. Immediately, Jovellanos found great success in opening up the common lands (a success that would later be duplicated) but El Triunvirato’s efforts towards breaking up the sheer concentration of land amongst the nobility probably led to the downfall.

Despite their best efforts to make their reforms methodical, the decrees and changes pursued by the triumvirate created considerable backlash. Spanish finances strained under the increased defense spending and not a few Spaniards fumed at the return of Jesuit societies even if the church celebrated. The pace of change, especially in 1797 and 1798 seemed dizzying at times and likely alienated many conservatives. The nobility chaffed at the reforms, especially in Aragon and Catalonia where the ousted Godoy’s powerbase lived. With their riches on the line, the whispers in the cigar clubs and parlors of Barcelona and Zaragoza evolved into shouts and talk of conspiracy and revolution. One cannot help but wonder if peace had endured if Spain’s fate would not have turned out differently. Alas, the alliance with Britain roped Spain into the War of the Second Coalition and, ultimately, this marked Spain’s downfall.

——— Author’s Notes ———

[1]: The changes are beginning to pile up now. In our timeline, Spain was thoroughly defeated by the French and forced to sign a treaty of alliance putting Spain into a position that benefited France but not itself. In this timeline, because Britain cannot sustain an indefinite war effort, the French Revolutionary Wars are shorter in duration amongst the various coalition members. Spain sues for peace earlier, makes out of the war better and a recovery movement occurs in Madrid. This also means certain immediate events will not happen such as the War of the Oranges, the Second Treaty of San Idlefonso, etc.

[2]: This is a word-for-word transcription of our timeline’s 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica article on Charles IV with the last sentence added to reflect in timeline events. Basically, the key change in Spain is that the earlier end to the War of the First Coalition gives Spain a chance for a reformist quasi-coup that turns out successful. Yes this is a big change to the timeline from the happenstance of one event but sometimes random chance allows for major changes in history.

[3]: The author’s timing is off. In the 1790’s the United States was not yet a Mediterranean power but it sooner became involved in Mediterranean affairs so he lumps the U.S. in with Britain and France.

[4]: A “letter of marque” being a legal license by one country to engage in piracy against that countries enemies.

Source Materials

Charles IV (King of Spain). Vol. 19. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911.

Deans-Smith, Susan & Werner, Michael. Bourbon Reforms, Encyclopedia of Mexico: History, Society, Culture. Volume 1. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997.

DeNevi, Don & Francis Moholy, Noel. Junípero Serra: The Illustrated Story of the Franciscan Founder of California’s Missions. Harper & Row, 1985.

Floridablanca, Don Jose Moñino y Redondo, Count of. Vol. 19. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911.

Gibson, Charles. Spain in America. New York: Harper and Row, 1966.

Jovellanos, Gaspar Melchor de. Vol. 19. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911.

Millar, Stephan. “The Royal Favorite: Manuel Francisco Domingo de Godoy, Prince of the Peace.” Napoleon-Series.org. 2007. Accessed December 19, 2017. http://www.napoleon-series.org/research/biographies/Spain/c_Godoy.html.

Miranda, Salvador. The Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church – Biographical Dictionary – Consistory of April 26, 1773. Accessed December 19, 2017. http://www2.fiu.edu/~mirandas/bios1773-iii.htm.

Payne, Stanley. History of Spain of Portugal. Vol 2. University of Wisconsin Press., 1973.

Vogel, Christine. The Suppression of the Society of Jesus, 1758–1773. European History Online. Mainz: Institute of European History, 2011.

Next Chapter: The Pole Dance

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