Revolutionary Movements of Portugal and Spain: Political & Economic Developments

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  • 0:02 19th-Century Iberia
  • 0:40 Napoleonic Wars
  • 1:58 Spain
  • 4:53 Portugal
  • 6:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the revolutionary movements in both Spain and Portugal in the 19th century and the long struggle between liberal revolutionaries and the traditional monarchies.

19th-Century Iberia

Arguably Spain's most famous painter, the cubist, Salvador Dalí, was known for painting mind-altering images such as melting clocks and timepieces. Though many of his paintings contained subtle and profound meanings and symbolism, on the surface, the Spaniard's paintings can simply seem downright confusing.

While Dalí was active in the 20th century, his country's 19th-century history was just as confusing, exhibiting several foreign invasions and civil wars. However, just like those famous paintings, the history of Spain and its Iberian neighbor, Portugal, was driven by underlying motives and movements that were incredibly important.

Napoleonic Wars

At the beginning of the 19th century, both Spain and Portugal found themselves embroiled in war alongside the rest of Europe in opposition to Napoleon Bonaparte and the French Empire. Over the course of the war, Napoleon forced multiple abdications by the King of Spain, who then placed his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, on the Spanish throne. By 1808, this forced regime change had effectively made Spain a client state of the French Empire.

Portugal, however, had managed to remain separate and unaffected by French influence. In fact, Portugal was arguably Great Britain's biggest ally in the fight against Napoleon's France. This status and Napoleon's desire to cut Britain off from any ports on the European mainland led to an invasion of Portugal by Napoleon and the Spanish troops loyal to his brother in 1807.

The invasion did two things: it caused Spanish royalists to rise up in the north and oppose the pro-French forces led by Joseph Bonaparte, and also caused the Portuguese royal family to flee to their colony in South America, Brazil. Despite the flight, Portugal's British allies soon landed in Portugal and began pushing the French forces back. After a few years of fierce fighting, British, Spanish, and Portuguese troops eventually pushed all French forces out of Iberia by 1814.


The defeat of Napoleon produced a power vacuum in both Spain and Portugal, which both countries' revolutionary liberal and republican movements rushed to fill before the monarchies could be successfully reestablished. In Spain, for instance, in the chaos of the final years of the French occupation, a group of liberal Spaniards gathered together to write a Spanish constitution in 1812. The constitution was extremely progressive for its time, including guarantees for universal male suffrage, freedom of the press, and establishing Spain as a limited constitutional monarchy.

Though the constitution was incredibly popular with Spain's liberals, it had little effect on Spanish society while the war with Napoleon's France continued. Furthermore, once Napoleon was finally defeated, the prospect for Spain's progressive constitution got bleaker. In a matter of weeks after the Spanish king, Ferdinand VII, retook the throne in 1814, he denied the Constitution's viability and dismantled any changes which it had already made.

In the ensuing decades, revolutionary liberals across Spain organized into militias plotting to overthrow Ferdinand's government and reintroduce the 1812 constitution and its liberal ideals. The most formidable of these plots occurred in 1820 when a liberal-minded military general, Rafael del Riego, mutinied against the Spanish government with an entire battalion of Spanish troops. Within a few short months, Riego's revolt had inspired uprisings across the country. In March, Ferdinand was forced to recognize the 1812 constitution.

Unfortunately for Riego and Spain's liberals, the rest of Europe took notice. Deciding that Spain's liberal revolt might encourage liberal revolts elsewhere on the continent, France invaded on behalf of the rest of Europe in 1822. Before long, Riego's liberal government fell and he himself was imprisoned and executed in 1823.

The decades following Riego's death were alternating periods of civil war and peace, and the fortunes of the revolutionary liberals waxed and waned with the inclinations of Spain's various rulers and power brokers. For example, liberals experienced harsh persecution for the decade following Riego's death. After that, a civil war connected to the accession of the three-year old Queen Isabella further hurt the liberals' hopes for government reform as they sided with the ultimately losing side.

The goals of the liberal revolutionaries were finally realized when an army mutiny in 1868 was joined by most of the Spanish forces and Queen Isabella resolved to flee. The army sided with the cause of Spain's revolutionary liberals and in 1869 a new, progressive constitution was written which enshrined many of the same rights that the 1812 constitution had.

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