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19 March 1812: Liberals ratify La Pepa, the Constitution of Cadiz

Monument dedicated to the 1812 Constitution of Cadiz.
Monument dedicated to the 1812 Constitution of Cadiz. / SUR
  • This was not only the first constitution of Spain, but also one of the earliest in world history

On 19 March 1812, the Political Constitution of the Spanish Monarchy was founded in the Oratory San Felipe Neri in Cadiz. Also known as the Constitution of Cadiz, it was ratified by a group of liberals who refused to support the king (Napoleon's brother Joseph Bonaparte) imposed on them by the French occupiers during the Spanish War of Independence. In an attempt to protect the fundamental rights of the Spanish people, a group of around 300 members of parliament drew up a liberal constitution proclaiming a democratic parliamentary monarchy. However, because of French occupation, it was not enacted until some years later.

This was not only the first constitution of Spain, but also one of the earliest in world history. It was the first legislature that included delegates from the entire nation, including the Philippines and Spanish America. It also proclaimed Roman Catholicism as the sole legal religion in Spain.

The constitution was one of the most liberal of its time and was one of the first to allow all adult male citizens to vote regardless of religion, race or financial status.

Among the most debated questions during the drafting of the constitution was the status of the native and mixed-race populations in Spain's possessions around the world. Spanish nationals were defined as all people born, naturalised or permanently residing for more than ten years in Spanish territories.

It became known as the 'sacred code' and during the early 19th century, it served as a model for liberal constitutions of several Mediterranean and Latin American countries.

The text established national sovereignty, a law that allowed each state supreme authority over its own territory. It also introduced free enterprise and freedom of the press. The principal aim of the new constitution, affectionately known as La Pepa, was the prevention of corrupt royal rule. Instead, the monarchy would govern through ministers subject to parliamentary rule.

This historic document was published on the feast day of San José (St Joseph). Pepe (feminine Pepa) is the diminutive for José, and, thanks to the renowned wit of the people of Cadiz, the constitution gained its nickname. Spain has had seven constitutions since La Pepa; the current one was enacted in 1978, during the transition after Franco's death.