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The Decadence of Spain
by Henry Charles Lea

The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.

WHEN Charles V. was obliged to renounce the dream of a universal monarchy, and to abandon the Holy Roman Empire to his brother Ferdinand, he was still able to make over to his son Philip II. territories which rendered Spain the preponderating power in the civilized world. Besides his ancestral dominions in the Peninsula, to which, in 1580, he added Portugal, Philip was master of the wealthy Netherlands, of Milan and Naples, of the Mediterranean islands, and of the New World. His revenues far exceeded those of any other monarch, his armies were admitted to be the most formidable in Europe, and his command of the sea was disputed only by the Turk, whose navy he crushed at Lepanto, until the disasters of the Armada gave warning that the old methods of maritime warfare were becoming obsolete. In every way the supremacy of Spain was the dread of the nations, and its destruction was the cherished object of statesmen for a century. It was not by their efforts, however, that the result was accomplished. Olivares, it is true, was overmatched by Richelieu, but Spain had a vantage- ground enabling her to hold her own against external assault. The causes of her decadence were internal; they were numerous, but may be roughly defined as springing from pride, conservatism, and clericalism.

There is a pride which spurs nations on to great achievements, which reckons nothing done while aught remains to do, and which wisely adapts means to ends. Such was not the pride of Spain: it was proud of what it had done, and imagined that its superiority to the rest of the world left it nothing more to do; it could learn nothing and forget nothing; it had varied the centuries of the Reconquest with endless civil broils, while it left the arts of peace to subject Moors and Jews, until honest labor was regarded with disdain, and trade and commerce were treated in a barbarous fashion that choked all the springs of national prosperity. Derived from this blind and impenetrable pride was the spirit of conservatism which rejected all innovation in a world of incessant change, a world which had been sent by the Reformation spinning on a new track, a world in which modern industrialism was rapidly superseding the obsolescent militarism of Spain. The phrase current throughout Europe in the last century was not without foundation, that Africa began at the Pyrenees. Last, but by no means least, was the clericalism which developed in Spain the ferocious spirit of intolerance; which in 1492 drove out the unhappy Jews, and in 1610 the Moriscos, thus striking at the root of the commercial prosperity and industry of the land; and which surrendered the nation to the Inquisition, paralyzing all intellectual movement, crippling trade, and keeping the people so completely in leading- strings that the three generations since the Napoleonic upheaval have not sutficed for their training in the arts of self- government.
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Yet the Spaniard has qualities which, if not thus counterbalanced, ought to have assured him a maintenance of the commanding position which he held in the sixteenth century. His intellect is strong and quick, his imagination is vivid, and, before the censorship of the Inquisition had curbed its expression, his literature was the most promising in Europe. When fully aroused his perseverance is indefatigable. His courage is undoubted, -- not a merely evanescent valor, flaming up on occasion at the promise of success, but a persistent, obstinate, dogged quality, to be dreaded as much in defeat as in victory, and sustained by the pride of race which leads him to think all other races his inferiors. The unyielding steadfastness of the Spanish tercios on the disastrous field of Rocroy was paralleled in the defense of Saragossa. The exploits of the Conquistadores in the New World display a tenacity of daring amid unknown dangers which has rarely been equaled, and perhaps never surpassed. The practical efficiency of this determined valor is heightened, moreover, by a remarkable callous indifference as to the means to be employed in accomplishing a given purpose. Spanish legislation is full of the sternest laws, enacted in utter disregard of their contingent and ulterior consequences provided the immediate object in view can be effected. Alva's reign of blood in the Netherlands is typical of this fierce and cold- blooded determination to achieve a result at whatever cost of life and suffering, and the reconcentrado policy of Weyler is only a modern exhibition of this inherited characteristic.

Effective as this disregard of consequences may often have proved, it was one of the elements which contributed to the decadence of Spain; for when directed, as it often was, without foresight or judgment, it wrought havoc with interests of greater moment than those it served. The expulsions of the Jews and of the Moriscos are conspicuous instances of this, and, in a minor degree, the industries and commerce of the nation were perpetually wrecked by regulations, absurdly exaggerated, to serve some purpose that chanced at the moment to be uppermost in the minds of the rulers. When, to remedy the scarcity of the precious metals, repeated edicts, from 1623 to 1642, prohibited all manufactures of gold and silver, even to embroideries and gilding or plating, a flourishing branch of trade was destroyed for a time; and another was prostrated in 1683, when, to procure copper for the debased coinage of the mints, all of that metal in the hands of coppersmiths was practically sequestrated, and they were forbidden even to repair old utensils. Internal industry and external commerce were thus at the mercy of an infinity of fluctuating regulations which embarrassed transactions, and deprived manufacturers and merchants of all sense of security and all ability to forecast the future. During the period when the commerce of the world was developing into vast proportions, that commerce, with its resultant wealth and the power of offense and defense derived from wealth, fell into the hands of Spain's especial enemies, England and Holland. The Spaniard, who despised industry and commerce, thrust from him the inheritance of Venice and Florence, which the discovery of the New World and the Cape route to India had offered to him: and while his rivals waxed mightily, he grew poorer and poorer, in spite of the wealth of the Indies poured into his lap.

Labor, in fact, to Spanish pride, was the badge of inferiority, to be escaped in every possible way. It is the general complaint of the publicists of the seventeenth century that every one sought to gain a livelihood in the public service or in the Church, and no one to earn it by honest work. The immense number of useless consumers thus supported was constantly alleged as one of the leading causes of the general poverty, from which the most crushing and injudicious taxation could raise only insufficient revenues. Public offices were multiplied recklessly, and the steady increase in the ranks of the clergy, regular and secular, was a constant subject of remonstrance. In 1626, Navarrete tells us that there were thirty- two universities and more than four thousand grammar schools crowded with sons of artisans and peasants striving to fit themselves for public office or holy orders; most of them failed in this through inaptitude, and drifted into the swarms of tramps and beggars who were a standing curse to the community, while the fields lay untilled for lack of labor, and the industrial arts were slowly perishing, so that Spain was forced to import the finished products which she could so easily have made for herself. This national aversion to labor, moreover, manifested itself in an indolence which, except in Catalonia, rendered the pretense of working almost illusory. Dormer tells us of his compatriots that they did not work as in other lands; a few hours a day, and this intermittently, were expected to provide for them as much as the incessant activity of the foreigner. To these drawbacks on productive industry is to be added the multitude of feast- days, which Navarrete estimates at about one third of the working- days, rising to one half at the critical season of the harvests, -- feast- days which, according to Archbishop Carranza, were spent in a debauchery rendering them especially welcome to the devil. Under such conditions it was impossible for Spain to withstand the competition of the foreigner. How rapidly its industry declined is shown by the fact that in 1644 the shipments by the fleet to the West Indies from four cities of Castile -- Toledo, Segovia, Ampudia, and Pastrana --amounted to $3,864,750, while in 1684 the total value of all Spanish goods carried by the fleet was only $800,000. It is true that in 1691 Carlos II. proposed legislation to check the overgrown numbers of the clergy and the immoderate absorption of lands by the Church, but his feeble projects were abandoned.

Thus the nation possessed little recuperative power to make good the perpetual losses of its almost continuous foreign wars. Already, in the apogee of its greatness under Charles V., symptoms of exhaustion were not lacking. His election to the empire, in 1520, was an unmitigated misfortune for Spain. Involved thenceforth in the entanglements of his continental policy, the land was drained of its blood and treasure for quarrels in which it had no concern, and of which it bore the brunt without sharing the advantages. So heavy was the load of indebtedness incurred that, on his accession, Philip II. seriously counseled with his ministers as to the advisability of repudiation. Under the latter monarch downward progress was accelerated. Imagining himself to be specially called of Heaven to uphold the threatened Catholic faith, he regarded no sacrifices as too great when heresy was to be repressed. For this he provoked the Low Countries to revolt, leading to a war of forty years, with uncounted expenditure of men and money. For this he incurred the crowning disaster of the Armada, and for this he stimulated and supported the wars of the League in France. Despite the unrivaled resources of the monarchy his finances were reduced to hopeless confusion; he was a constant borrower on usurious terms, and already in 1565 the Venetian envoy reported his annual interest payments at 5,050,000 ducats, which at eight per cent represented an indebtedness of 63,000,000 ducats, -- a sum, at that period, almost incredible. When the reins slipped from his grasp, in 1598, his successor was the feeble and bigoted Philip III., and the seventeenth century witnessed the fortunes of Spain in the hands of a succession of court favorites, -- Lerma, Olivares, Haro, Nithard, Oropesa, and their tribe, -- mostly worthless and grossly incompetent. Financial distress grew more and more acute, aggravated by senseless tampering with the currency, which drove to other lands the precious metals of the New World, until the whole active circulation of the country consisted of a token copper coinage, the value of which the government endeavored to regulate by a succession of edicts of the most contradictory character, producing inextricable perplexity and uncertainty, fatally crippling what productive industry had survived the temper of the people and the wisdom of legislation.

Clericalism contributed its full share to this downward progress. The intensity of the Spanish character, which can do nothing by halves, lent an enormous power for evil to the exaggerated religious ardor of the people. In the earlier Middle Ages no other European nation had been so tolerant as Spain in its dealings with the Jew and the infidel, but, under the careful stimulation of the Church, this tolerant spirit had passed away with the fourteenth century, and in its place there had gradually arisen a fierce and implacable hatred of all faiths outside of Catholicism. This fanaticism gave to the priesthood preponderating power, which it utilized for its own behoof, in disregard of the public welfare, and all doubtful questions were apt to be decided in favor of the faith. The royal confessor was ex officio a member of the Council of State, and under a weak monarch his influence was almost unbounded. Fray Gaspar de Toledo, the confessor of Philip III., boasted that when he ordered his royal penitent to do or to leave undone anything, under penalty of mortal sin, he was obeyed; and the fate of a kingdom thus virtually subjected to the caprices of a narrow- minded friar can readily be divined. The royal confessorship was freguently a steppingstone to the supreme office of inquisitor- general, which controlled the conscience of the nation; and as under such a régime the delimitation between spiritual and tempora1 affairs was most uncertain, the wrangling between the religious and secular departments of the state was incesssnt, to the serious detriment of united and sagacious action. When, in the minority of Carlos II., the regent mother, Maria Anna of Austria, made her German Jesuit confessor Nithard inquisitor-general, it required a popular uprising to get rid of him and relegate him to Rome, for he was speedily becoming the real ruler of Spain.

This unreasoning religious ardor culminated in the Inquisition, established for the purpose of securing the supreme good of unblemished purity and uniformity of belief. Nothing was allowed to stand in the way of this, and no sacrifice was deemed too great for its accomplishment. All officials, from the king downward, were sworn to its support, and the sinister influence which it exercised was proportioned to the enormous power which it wielded. The tragic spectacles of the autos- de-fé were abhorrent, but they were of little more importance than the closely related bull- fights in determining the fate of the nation, save in so far as they stimulated the ruthless characteristics of the people. The real significance of the Inquisition lay in the isolation to which it condemned the land, and its benumbing influence on the intellectual development of the people. It created a fresh source of pride, which led the Spaniard to plume himself on the unsullied purity of his faith, and to despise all other nations as given over, more or less, to the errors of heresy. It obstructed his commercial relations by imposing absurd and costly regulations at the ports to prevent the slightest chance of the introduction of heretical opinions.

It organized a strict censorship to guard against the intrusion of foreign ideas or the evolution of innovations at home. It paralyzed the national intelligence, and resolutely undertook to keep the national mind in the grooves of the sixteenth century. While the rest of the civilized world was bounding forward in a career of progress, while science and the useful arts were daily adding to the conquests of man over the forces of nature, and rival nations were growing in wealth and power, the Inquisition condemned Spain to stagnation; invention and discovery were unknown at home, and their admission from abroad was regarded with jealousy. Recuperative power was thus wholly lacking to offset the destructive effects of misgovernment, the national conservatism was intensified, and a habit of mind was engendered which has kept Spain to this day a virtual survival of the Renaissance.

All these causes of retrogression were rendered more effective by the autocratic absolutism of the form of government, which deprived the people of all initiative, and subjected everything to the will of the monarch. The old Castilian liberties were lost in the uprising of the Comunidades in 1520, and those of Valencia about the same time in the kindred tumults of the Germania, while those which survived in Aragon and Catalonia were swept away in 1707, when the War of Succession gave Philip V. the excuse for treating them as conquered provinces. Nowhere in Europe, west of Russia, had the maxim of the imperial jurisprudence, "Quod placuit principi legis habet vigorem," more absolute sway. The legislative and executive functions were combined in the sovereign; there were no national political life, no training in citizenship, no forces to counterbalance the follies or prejudices of the king and his favorites. Under a series of exceptionally able rulers, this form of government might have maintained Spanish prosperity and power, while repressing enlightenment, but it was the peculiar curse of Spain that the last three Hapsburg princes, whose reigns filled the whole of the sixteenth century, were weak, and their choice of favorites, ghostly and secular, was unwise. Especially the latest one, Carlos II., brought Spain to the nadir of decadence. At his death, in 1700, the Spanish population is estimated to have shrunk within a century from ten to five millions. The prolonged War of Succession which followed partook so much of the nature of civil strife as to be peculiarly exhausting to the scanty resources left by the misgovernment of the preceding two centuries, but with the accession of the Bourbons there was a promise of improvement. Philip V. was weak, but he was not as bigoted and obscurantist as his predecessors, and his sons, Ferdinand VI. and Carlos III., were men of more liberal ideals. Especially was Carlos an enlightened monarch, who curbed to some extent the Inquisition, relaxed somewhat the rigid censorship of the press, and earnestly strove to promote the industrial development of his kingdom. Under his rule prosperity began to revive, and there seemed a prospect that Spain might assert her place among progressive nations.

The outbreak of the French Revolution, however, was the death- blow of liberalism. Dynastic considerations outweighed all others, and the rulers of Spain were especially sensitive to the dangers apprehended from the introduction of theories as to the rights of man and universal equality. Carlos III. had died in 1788, and his son, Carlos IV., was weak, bigoted, reactionary, and wholly under the imfluence of his favorite, Godoy, the so-called Prince of Peace. His son and successor, Ferdinand VII., was trained in the same school. After the Napoleonic invasion and the Peninsular War, his restoration, in 1814, was the signal for the sternest repressive and reactionary measures; the monarch claimed absolute power, the Constitution of 1812 was set aside, censorship was revived in the most despotic fashion, the Inquisition was reestablished, and nothing was left undone to bring back the conditions of the sixteenth century. These conditions were upset by the revolution of 1820, but restored by the intervention of the Holy Alliance in 1823, when the Duc d'Angouleme, at the head of a French army, executed the mandate of the Congress of Verona. The history of Spain since then, with its succession of civil wars, revolutions, and experiments in government, holds out little promise of settled and orderly progress. The national characteristic of indomitable pride which disdains to learn from the experience of other nations, the tendency to resort to violent and exaggerated methods, the dense political ignorance of the masses, so sedulously deprived through long generations of all means of political enlightenment and all training in political action, combine to render the nation incapable of conducting wisely the liberal institutions which are foreign importations, and not the outgrowth of native aspirations and experience. In many respects the Spaniard is still living in the sixteenth century, unable to assimilate the ideas of he nineteenth, or to realize that his country is no longer the mistress of the sea and the dominating power of the land.

There is still another cause which has contributed largely to Spanish decadence. Allgovernments are more or less corrupt, -- absolute honesty would appear to be impossible in the conduct of public affairs, -- but the corruption and venality of Spanish administration have been peculiarly all- pervading and continuous. From the time of the youthful Charles V. and his worthless horde of Flemish favorites, this has been a corroding cancer, sapping the vitality of Spanish resources. It was in vain that the most onerous and disabling imposts were laid on wealth and industry; the results were always insufficient, and the national finances were always in disorder, crippling all efforts at aggression or defense. Already in 1551 the cortes of Castile gave a deplorable account of the corruption in every branch of official life, the destruction of industry, and the misery of the people under their crushing burdens. In 1656, when Philip IV., under a complication of misfortunes, was struggling to avert bankruptcy, Cardinal Moscoso, the Archbishop of Toledo, bluntly told him that not more than ten per cent of the revenues collected reached the royal treasury. While income was thus fatally diminished, expenditure was similarly augmented through collusion, fraud, and bribery. It raises a curious psychological question, how pride and punctilious sensitiveness as to honor can coexist with eager rapacity for iniquitous gains, how undoubted patriotism can accommodate itself to a system which deprives the fatherland of the resources necessary to its existence; but human nature is often only consistent in inconsistency. To what extent this prevails at the present day must of course be only a matter of conjecture, but recent events would seem to indicate that supplies and munitions paid for are not on hand when urgently needed, and that troops in the field bear but a slender proportion to those on the payroll. When, the other day, Don Carlos alluded to "generously voted millions diverted from the fulfillment of their patriotic purpose to the pockets of fraudulent contractors and dishonest state employees, and disorder, peculation, and mendacity in every department of the public service," he merely described conditions which in Spain have been chronic for centuries.


The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.

The Atlantic Monthly; July 1898; The Decadence of Spain; Volume 82, No. 489; pages 36 - 46.
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