Even at this resting point in the Peninsular War, some results had taken form. Geographically, the largest result was that the South American colonies of Spain and Portugal had freed themselves from their weakened motherland, and had begun their own lusty and unique career. All Spain south of the Tagus had been cleared of French troops. Militarily Wellington had proved that France could not take Portugal—and probably could not hold Spain—without risking the loss of all her conquests east of the Rhine. Socially, the popular resistance, however chaotic, had achieved a victory for the peasantry and the Church. Politically, the provincial juntas had won back some of their old power of local rule; each had built its own army, minted its own coinage, formed its own policy—even, in some cases, signing a separate peace with Britain. And most significantly of all, the juntas had sent delegates to a national Cortes, with instructions to formulate a new constitution for a new Spain.
This supreme Cortes, fleeing from French armies, had met first on the Isla de León in 1810; when the French withdrew, it moved to Cádiz; and there, on March 19, 1812, it promulgated a proudly liberal constitution. Since most of the delegates were good Catholics, Article XII declared that “the religion of the Spanish nation is and shall perpetually be Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman, the only true religion. The nation protects it by wise and just laws, and prohibits the exercise of any other [religion] whatever”; however, the constitution abolished the Tribunal of the Inquisition, and restricted the number of religious communities. In nearly all other matters the Cortes accepted the leadership of the 184 delegates from the middle class. Most of these called themselves “Liberals”—the first known use of the term as a political designation. Under their lead the Constitution of 1812 rivaled the Constitution of 1791 in revolutionary France.
It accepted the Spanish monarchy, and acknowledged the absent Ferdinand VII as the rightful king; however, it placed the sovereignty not in the king but in the nation acting through its elected delegates. The king was to be a constitutional ruler, obeying the laws; and adding to them, and making treaties, only in conjunction with the national Cortes, which was to be a single chamber. A new Cortes was to be chosen every second year, by the adult males of the nation, through three stages of election: parochial, district, and provincial. Laws were to be made uniform throughout Spain; all citizens were to be equal before the law; and the judiciary was to be independent of both the Cortes and the king. The constitution called for the abolition of torture, slavery, feudal courts, and seignorial rights. The press was to be free, except in matters of religion. Uncultivated communal lands were to be distributed to the poor.
Under the circumstances—which included the religious traditions of Spain —it was a brave and progressive constitution. Now, it seemed, Spain would enter the nineteenth century.