With a French family on the Spanish throne, two events had an irreversible effect on Spain’s relationship with her colonies.
Spanish Power is Weakened
By the mid-18th century, Spain was no longer at the pinnacle of European power. As a result of the wars over control of the crown (the War of Spanish Succession), Spain had lost her European possessions, and a French family occupied the throne. Nevertheless, she still administered the largest empire in the world. With the ideas of the Enlightenment influencing royal policies, the Spanish monarchy continued to exert control over her territories in the Americas.
Due to the weakening of Spanish naval power, however, the crown had loosened limits on foreign ships trading at ports in the Americas. Access to more commerce with other countries made Spanish Americans hungry for greater opportunities. A number of criollos began to contemplate other arrangements for Spanish America.
Some believed that a more democratic form of government should replace the monarchy. Others dreamt of a separate Spanish-American monarchy, distinct from but tied to Spain. Some wanted to limit the role of the Catholic Church in society. Others felt that the Spanish crown had grown too hostile to the Church.
Much of this last sentiment came as a result of the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767.
The Expulsion of the Jesuits
The Jesuits are a Catholic religious order founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola. Ignatius was a nobleman and a knight from the Basque Country in northern Spain. After being wounded in a battle, Ignatius underwent a religious conversion that led to his founding of a new religious community. Named the Society of Jesus, the order was officially approved by the Catholic Church in 1540. The followers of Ignatius, who came to be known as “Jesuits,” were disciplined, energetic and intellectually creative. All over Europe, Jesuit schools and universities sprung up, and Jesuit missionaries traveled across the world preaching the gospel.
Over time, the Jesuits became a powerful force in Spanish America. For more than two centuries, they had a great deal of success expanding the mission frontier into far-flung outposts such as the reducciones of Paraguay or the northern areas of New Spain. In the late 17th century, Jesuit missionaries brought Christianity to the Baja California peninsula and the Sonoran desert.
Due to the Jesuits’ fiercely independent nature and a particular loyalty to the pope, Enlightened monarchies throughout Europe began to look at the order with suspicion. Soon, European governments began to order the Jesuits to leave their territories. For Spain, the Jesuits were an obstacle to the reforms of the Bourbon monarchy aimed at centralizing control over what happened in the colonies.
Jesuit priests were expelled from Portugal in 1759 and France in 1764. In 1767, the king of Spain decreed that the Jesuits were to be removed from all Spanish territories, including those in the Americas. Spanish administrators placed Jesuit missions and educational institutions throughout North and South America into the hands of other religious orders, in particular, the Franciscans and Dominicans.
The expulsion of the Jesuits, who had educated generations of students in Latin America and had been responsible for the conversion of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people over the centuries, sent a shock wave through the Spanish colonies.
Jesuits who had been sent back to Europe began to write tracts and books about the glories of the Americas, like the Historia antigua de México (Ancient History of Mexico) by exiled Mexican Jesuit Francisco Javier Clavijero. They also began to question the need for Spanish Americans to be ruled by a European empire. Some Spanish Americans, especially those with ties to the Jesuit order, began to seriously doubt whether the Spanish crown had their best interests in mind.
Napoleon’s Occupation of Spain
The final factor that caused many in Spanish America to take independence from Spain seriously was the exile of the Spanish royal family at the hands of a foreign invader.
Napoleon Bonaparte, a French general from the island of Corsica, had rapidly risen to power after the French Revolution. He began a series of military conquests all over Europe that led to him being crowned Emperor of France. Eventually the French army under Napoleon controlled vast territories in Europe.
In 1807, Napoleon’s army occupied Spain on its way to seize Portugal. Spanish King Carlos IV, who had been an ally of Napoleon’s, abdicated in favor of his son Fernando. Napoleon, however, installed his brother Joseph as King of Spain while the Spanish royal family went into exile in France.
In Madrid and other cities throughout Spain, revolts ensued, and a war of resistance against the French broke out — a “little war” or guerrilla in Spanish. Spanish resistance to Napoleon gave the world the term “guerrilla warfare.” The Spanish painter Francisco de Goya depicted some of the most important moments of this time in Spain in some of his most famous works.
In 1808, a group of Spanish nobles, clergy and politicians formed a council that would serve as Spain’s governing body in resistance to Napoleon. They eventually established themselves in the southern city of Cádiz, safe from French attack. This parliament, or cortes in Spanish, came to be known as the Cortes of Cádiz. In 1812, after much deliberation, the Cortes of Cádiz drafted Spain’s first written constitution, one of the most liberal of its time for Europe.
Spanish Americans Must Choose
The news of Spain’s situation soon reached the Americas. With a foreign occupier and in Spain, Spanish Americans found themselves having to choose either to be loyal to the royal family of Spain in exile and the new parliament or to seriously consider breaking away from Spain altogether. They would soon decide.