Revolutionary Spain by Karl Marx 1854

First Published: in New-York Daily Tribune, December 2, 1854.


During the year 1819 an expeditionary army was assembled in the environs of Cadiz for the purpose of reconquering the revolted American colonies. Enrique O'Donnell, Count La Bisbal, the uncle of Leopoldo O'Donnell, the present Spanish Minister, was intrusted with the command. The former expeditions against Spanish America having swallowed up 14,000 men since 1814, and being carried out in the most disgusting and reckless manner, had grown most odious to the army, and were generally considered a malicious means of getting rid of the dissatisfied regiments. Several officers, among them Quiroga, López Baños, San Miguel (the present Spanish La Fayette), O'Daly, and Arco Agüero, determined to improve the discontent of the soldiers, to shake off the yoke, and to proclaim the Constitution of 1812. La Bisbal, when initiated into the plot, promised to put himself at the head of the movement. The chiefs of the conspiracy, in conjunction with him, fixed on July 9, 1819, as the day on which a general review of the expeditionary troops was to take place, in the midst of which act the grand blow was to be struck. At the hour of the review La Bisbal appeared, indeed, but instead of keeping his word, ordered the conspiring regiments to be disarmed, sent Quiroga and the other chiefs to prison, and dispatched a courier to Madrid, boasting that he had prevented the most alarming of catastrophes. He was rewarded with promotion and decorations, but the Court having obtained more accurate information, afterward deprived him of his command, and ordered him to withdraw to the capital. This is the same La Bisbal who, in 1814, at the time of the King’s return to Spain, sent an officer of his staff with two letters to Ferdinand. Too great a distance from the spot rendering it impossible for him to observe the King’s movements, and to regulate his conduct according to that of the Monarch — in one letter La Bisbal made a pompous eulogy of the Constitution of 1812, on the supposition that the King would take the oath to support it. In the other, on the contrary, he represented the constitutional system as a scheme of anarchy and confusion, congratulated Ferdinand on his exterminating it, and offered himself and his army to oppose the rebels, demagogues, and enemies of the throne and altar. The officer delivered this second dispatch, which was cordially received by the Bourbon.

Notwithstanding the symptoms of rebellion which had shown themselves among the expeditionary army, the Madrid Government, at the head of which was placed the Duke of San Fernando, then Foreign Minister and President of the Cabinet, persisted in a state of inexplicable apathy and inactivity, and did nothing to accelerate the expedition, or to scatter the army in different seaport towns. Meanwhile a simultaneous movement was agreed upon between Don Rafael de Riego, commanding the second battalion of Asturias, then stationed at Las Cabezas de San Juan, and Quiroga, San Miguel, and other military chiefs of the Isla de Leon, who had contrived to get out of prison. Riego’s position was far the most difficult. The commune of Las Cabezas was in the center of three of the headquarters of the expeditionary army — that of the cavalry at Utrera, the second division of infantry at Lebrija, and a battalion of guides at Arcos, where the commander-in-chief and the staff were established. He nevertheless succeeded, on January 1, 1820, in surprising and capturing the commander and the staff, although the battalion cantoned at Arcos was double the strength of that of Asturias. On the same day he proclaimed in that very commune the Constitution of 1812, elected a provisional alcalde, and, not content with having executed the task devolved upon him, seduced the guides to his cause, surprised the battalion of Aragon lying at Bornos, marched from Bornos on Jerez, and from Jerez on Port St. Marie, everywhere proclaiming the Constitution, till he reached the Isla de Leon, on the 7th January, where he deposited the military prisoners he had made in the fort of St. Petri. Contrary to their previous agreement Quiroga and his followers had not possessed themselves by a coup de main of the bridge of Suazo, and then of the Isla de Leon, but remained tranquil to the 2d of January, after Oltra, Riego’s messenger, had conveyed to them official intelligence of the surprise of Arcos and the capture of the staff.

The whole forces of the revolutionary army, the supreme command of which was given to Quiroga, did not exceed 5,000 men, and their attacks upon the gates of Cadiz having been repulsed, they were themselves shut up in the Isla de Leon.

“Our situation,” says San Miguel, “was extraordinary; the revolution, stationary twenty-five days without losing or gaining an inch of ground, presented one of the most singular phenomena in politics.”

The provinces seemed rocked into lethargic slumber. During the whole month of January, at the end of which Riego, apprehending the flame of revolution might be extinguished in the Isla de Leon, formed, against the counsels of Quiroga and the other chiefs, a movable column of 1,500 men, and marched over a part of Andalusia, in presence of and pursued by a ten times stronger force than his own, proclaiming the Constitution at Algeciras, Ronda, Malaga, Cordova, etc., everywhere received by the inhabitants in a friendly way, but nowhere provoking a serious pronunciamento. Meanwhile his pursuers, consuming a whole month in fruitless marches and countermarches, seemed to desire nothing but to avoid, as much as possible, coming to close quarters with his little army. The conduct of the Government troops was altogether inexplicable. Riego’s expedition, which began on January 27, 1820, terminated on March 11, he being then forced to disband the few men that still followed him. His small corps was not dispersed through a decisive battle, but disappeared from — fatigue, from continual petty encounters with the enemy, from sickness and desertion. Meanwhile the situation of the insurrectionists in the Isla was by no means promising. They continued to be blocked up by sea and land, and within the town of Cadiz every declaration for their cause was suppressed by the garrison. How, then, did it happen that, Riego having disbanded in the Sierra Morena the constitutional troops on the 11th of March, Ferdinand VII was forced to swear to the Constitution, at Madrid, on the 9th of March, so that Riego really gained his end just two days before he finally despaired of his cause?

The march of Riego’s column had riveted anew the general attention; the provinces were all expectation, and eagerly watched every movement. Men’s minds, struck by the boldness of Riego’s sally, the rapidity of his march, his vigorous repulses of the enemy, imagined triumphs never gained, and aggregations and re-enforcements never obtained. When the tidings of Riego’s enterprise reached the more distant provinces, they were magnified in no small degree, and those most remote from the spot were the first to declare themselves for the Constitution of 1812. So far was Spain matured for a revolution, that even false news sufficed to produce it. So, too, it was false news that produced the hurricane of 1848.

In Galicia, Valencia, Saragossa, Barcelona and Pamplona, successive insurrections broke out. Enrique O'Donnell, alias the Count La Bisbal, being summoned by the King to oppose the expedition of Riego, not only offered to take arms against him, but to annihilate his little army and seize on his person. He only demanded the command of the troops cantoned in the Province of La Mancha, and money for his personal necessities. The King himself gave him a purse of gold and the requisite orders for the troops of La Mancha. But on his arrival at Ocaña, La Bisbal put himself at the head of the troops and proclaimed the Constitution of 1812. The news of this defection roused the public spirit of Madrid where the revolution burst forth immediately on the intelligence of this event. The Government began then to negotiate with the revolution. In a decree, dated March 6, the King offered to convoke the ancient Cortes, assembled in Estamentos (Estates), a decree suiting no party, neither that of the old monarchy nor that of the revolution. On his return from France, he had held out the same promise and failed to redeem his pledge. During the night of the 7th, revolutionary demonstrations having taken place in Madrid, the Gaceta of the 8th published a decree by which Ferdinand VII promised to swear to the Constitution of 1812.

“Let all of us,” he said, in that decree, “and myself first, fairly enter upon the path of the Constitution.”

The people having got possession of the palace on the 9th, he saved himself only by re-establishing the Madrid Ayuntamiento of 1814, before which he swore to the Constitution. He, for his part, did not care for false oaths, having always at hand a confessor ready to grant him full remission of all possible sins. Simultaneously a consultative junta was established, the first decree of which set free the political prisoners and recalled the political refugees. The prisons, now opened, sent the first constitutional Ministry to the royal palace. Castro, Herreros, and A. Argüelles — who formed the first Ministry — were martyrs of 1814, and deputies of 1812.

The true source of the enthusiasm which had appeared on the accession of Ferdinand to the throne, was joy at the removal of Charles IV, his father. And thus the source of the general exultation at the proclamation of the Constitution of 1812, was joy at the removal of Ferdinand VII. As to the Constitution itself, we know that, when finished, there were no territories in which to proclaim it. For the majority of the Spanish people, it was like the unknown god worshipped by the ancient Athenians.

In our days it has been affirmed by English writers, with an express allusion to the present Spanish revolution, on the one hand that the movement of 1820 was but a military conspiracy, and on the other that it was but a Russian intrigue. Both assertions are equally ridiculous. As to the military insurrection, we have seen that, notwithstanding its failure, the revolution proved victorious; and, besides, the riddle to be solved would not be conspiracy of 5,000 soldiers, but the sanction of that conspiracy by an army of 35,000 men, and by a most loyal nation of twelve millions. That the revolution first acted through the ranks of the army is easily explained by the fact that, of all the bodies of the Spanish monarchy, the army was the only one thoroughly transformed and revolutionized during the war of independence. As to Russian intrigue, it is not to be denied that Russia had her hands in the business of the Spanish revolution; that, of all the European powers, Russia first acknowledged the Constitution of 1812, by the treaty concluded in Veliki Luki, on July 20, 1812; that she first kindled the revolution of 1820, first denounced it to Ferdinand VII, first lighted the torch of counter-revolution on several points of the Peninsula, first solemnly protested against it before Europe, and finally forced France into an armed intervention against it. Monsieur de Tatischeff, the Russian Embassador, was certainly the most prominent character at the Court of Madrid — the invisible head of the camarilla. He had succeeded in introducing Antonio Ugarte, a wretch of low station, at Court, and making him the head of the friars and footmen who, in their back-staircase council, swayed the scepter in the name of Ferdinand VII. By Tatischeff, Ugarte was made Director-General of the expeditions against South America, and by Ugarte the Duke of San Fernando was appointed Foreign Minister and President of the Cabinet. Ugarte effected from Russia the purchase of rotten ships, destined for the South American Expedition, for which the order of St. Arm was bestowed upon him. Ugarte prevented Ferdinand and his brother Don Carlos from presenting themselves to the army at the first moment of the crisis. He was the mysterious author of the Duke of San Fernando’s unaccountable apathy, and of the measures which led a Spanish Liberal to say at Paris in 1836:

“One can hardly resist the conviction that the Government was rendering itself the means for the overthrow of the existing order of things.”

If we add the curious fact that the President of the United States praised Russia in his message for her having promised him not to suffer Spain to meddle with the South American colonies, there can remain but little doubt as to the part acted by Russia in the Spanish revolution. But what does all this prove? That Russia produced the revolution of 1820? By no means, but only that she prevented the Spanish Government from resisting it. That the revolution would have earlier or later overturned the absolute and monastic monarchy of Ferdinand VII is proved: 1. By the series of conspiracies which since 1814 had followed each other; 2. By the testimony of M. de Martignac, the French Commissary who accompanied the Duke of Angoulême at the time of the. Legitimist invasion of Spain; 3. By testimony not to be rejected — that of Ferdinand himself.

In 1814 Mina intended a rising in Navarre, gave the first signal for. resistance by an appeal to arms, entered the fortress of Pamplona, but distrusting his own followers, fled to France. In 1815 General Porlier, one of the most renowned guerrilleros of the War of Independence, proclaimed the Constitution at Coruña. He was beheaded. In 1816, Richard intended capturing the King at Madrid. He was hanged. In 1817, Navarro, a lawyer, with four of his accomplices, expired on the scaffold at Valencia for having proclaimed the Constitution of 1812. In the same year the intrepid General Lacy was shot at Majorca for having committed the same crime. In 1818, Colonel Vidal, Captain Sola, and others, who had proclaimed the Constitution at Valencia, were defeated and put to the sword. The Isla de Leon conspiracy then was but the last link in a chain formed by the bloody heads of so many valiant men from 1808 to 1814.

M. de Martignac who, in 1832, shortly before his death, published his work: L'Espagne et ses Révolutions, makes the following statement:

“Two years had passed away since Ferdinand VII had resumed his absolute power, and there continued still the prescriptions, proceeding from a camarilla recruited from the dregs of mankind. The whole State machinery was turned upside down; there reigned nothing but disorder, languor and confusion — taxes most unequally distributed — the state of the finances was abominable — there were loans without credit, impossibility of meeting the most urgent wants of the State, an army not paid, magistrates indemnifying themselves by bribery, a corrupt and do-nothing Administration, unable to ameliorate anything, or even to preserve anything. Hence the general discontent of the people. The new constitutional system was received with enthusiasm by the great towns, the commercial and industrial classes, liberal professions, army and proletariat. It was resisted by the monks, and it stupefied the country people.”

Such are the confessions of a dying man who was mainly instrumental in subverting that new system. Ferdinand VII, in his decrees of June 1, 1817, March 1, 1817, April 11, 1817, November 24, 1819, etc., literally confirms the assertions of M. de Martignac, and resumes his lamentations in these words:

“The miseries that resound in the ears of our Majesty, on the part of the complaining people, overset one another.”

This shows that no Tatischeff was needed to bring about a Spanish revolution.