The French Revolution of 1789 and Its Impact

By Gail M. Schwab; John R. Jeanneney | Go to book overview
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The French Revolution and Spain

Richard Herr

Economic historians have a near monopoly of so-called counterfactual history. Because they deal in numbers, they feel empowered to calculate whether free labor would have been more profitable than slave labor or how much the GNP of a country would have been at such-and-such a date if railroads had never existed. Although we other historians do not approach our issues with such an impressive term, we are in fact all writing counterfactual history as soon as we describe a cause and effect. If we say an event E was the effect of cause Q, we imply that if you project developments without Q, E would not have occured. Similarly, to analyze the impact of the French Revolution on Spain is to ask what the future history of Spain might have been without the French Revolution.

Before the French Revolution, Spain enjoyed one of its most successful reigns, that of Carlos III ( 1759-1788), who deserves high rank among the enlightened despots of Europe. It was marked by economic prosperity, especially after the end of the United States War of Independence; an empire expanding into California, the Carribean area, and southern South America; and major legislation aimed at reforming the administration, the Church, the universities, the countryside, and foreign and colonial trade. Some of the king's subjects objected to his reforms, especially in the colonies, but almost no one questioned his authority to decree them.

After 1815 the situation was markedly different. The economy was depressed, the colonies were in revolt, and at home Spaniards had violently opposing views on the just authority of the king and the doctrines and jurisdiction of the Church. Some hoped to restore the liberal Constitution of 1812 enacted by the opponents of Napoleon's occupation, and others approved of the persecution of its authors. A century and more of intermittent civil strife had begun. To what extent can this radical transformation in the climate of Spain be attributed to the French Revolution, whether or not one includes


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