In 1810, the Consejo de Regencia, which headed the Spanish state, then at war against the French invaders, called upon the colonies in the Americas to send representatives to the Cortes Extraordinarias (Extraordinary Legislative Assembly) which were to be held as a constituent assembly in Cadiz. Puerto Rico elected Ramón Power y Giralt by a drawing among three candidates nominated by the town council of San Juan. It was the first time under the long colonial regime that the metropolis had permitted its colonies to be represented in the legislative assembly of the realm.
Power was the only elected deputy from the Americas present at the opening of the Cortes on September 24, 1810. This fact, his renowned naval career, and probably his liberal reformist ideas earned him election as vice president of the constituent assembly in September and October of that year. He was about to turn 36 when the Cortes began. He was one of the few military men elected to represent the colonies, most of whom were churchmen and government officials. He remained in the Cortes Extraordinarias until his death of yellow fever on June 11, 1813. He held the rank of fleet captain in the Spanish navy and was buried with military honors. Power’s efforts in the Cortes were divided between his actions on behalf of the Americas and those focused on achieving particular reforms for Puerto Rico.
Equality in Representation
Power was on various commissions that deliberated matters common to the whole of the realm. He defended the sovereignty of the people, the rights of individuals – which he defined as “sacred, inalienable, and unrenouncable” – and equality in representation between peninsular deputies and those from the Americas, which was rejected in the call to the constituent assembly. He claimed that the inequality was not a product of ignorance or of error but a premeditated action in the belief that the mere invitation would satisfy the Americas, and that differentiated representation – he claimed – did not square “with decorum, dignity, and his rights.” He alerted the congress about the possible consequences of this situation and advised taking precautions. For Power, the path to equality in representation was “the most prudent and most just…the most urgent and most necessary” path to follow.
Opposition to the Rigors of Despotism
The intensity he displayed in the defense of human rights was repeated in his language against the despotism and arbitrariness of the colonial order in his native country in asking for the derogation of the absolute powers granted to the already powerful captain general. He believed that the reach of the tyrannical order, which he called impolitic and inopportune, had gone too far in Puerto Rico and in no way contributed to tranquility in the Americas: “What would Caracas say, or Bogotá, of the Regency Council?” Such a provision “was degrading to the majesty of sovereignty, confounding it with the most oppressive despotism” and it contradicted its promises of liberty and dignity.
The Eleven Petitions offered by the Americas
Power was one of the 24 deputies from the Americas who on December 16, 1810, signed the list of 11 petitions for Asia and the Americas. The deputies were bolder in their calls for economic reform than for political reform, limiting the latter to equality of representation and access for persons born in the Americas – Spaniards and Indians – to public positions.
In the context of that assembly, it seemed wiser to wait for the constitution that was being prepared to make peninsular and overseas provinces juridically equal, and for the powers of the town councils and provincial deputations to allow them to attend to and administer the particulars of each province. From there on, they would center their immediate political struggle on obtaining degrees of administrative decentralization.
The instructions that the Puerto Rican town councils sent to Power coincided in many respects with the petitions of the deputies from the Americas in general. They were an inventory of complaints against the colonial system and they reflected the aspirations of the dominant groups in Puerto Rican society. They spoke out against the unjust tax system, the trade restrictions, the lack of educational centers – universities, above all – the lack of access to positions in public administration for creoles, the appreciable lag in matters of health and public works, and the menacing presence of foreigners who were beginning to displace Creole landowners and ranchers then making their fragile social ascent.
At moments of transition toward an agricultural export economy based on sugar, they expressed the need, given the fear of increasing the amount of slave labor, of providing for a stable labor force by moving agricultural workers into wage-based work. They were aware not only of the Haitian experience, but also of the liberal ideas regarding free labor as more profitable than slave labor.
In political terms, the first autonomist approach in Puerto Rico was presented by the town councils of San German (November 13, 1809) and San Juan (April 26, 1810), the two oldest cities in Puerto Rico. Both made use of the model of the provincial councils established in peninsular Spain to propose something similar. The town council of San Juan, which had chosen Power, asked for autonomy in economic and administrative matters. San German, bolder and also at a greater distance from the captain general, warned, first of all, that if Spain became subordinate to France, Puerto Rico would be at liberty to choose its own destiny.
Second, it asked that a provincial council be established made up of the captain general and the bishop (who at that time was a Creole liberal named Juan Alejo de Arizmendi) plus five deputies, one for each town council, for which it claimed “all the higher authority – governmental, military, and administrative – of the province” with responsibility “for all matters that concern the nation and the state, for the well-being and usefulness of the island and its inhabitants…” The council would even attend to appeals in certain civil and criminal suits. That is to say, it also claimed the legal jurisdiction that had belonged to the Audiencia de Puerto Príncipe (the Court of Puerto Principe), in Cuba, from 1795, when that of Santo Domingo was abolished. In fact, this petition for total political and administrative autonomy proposed a co-government with that of the captain general, but in addition, it was a carta de negociación (white paper) such as other town councils in the Americas had presented. Whether out of fear or for other reasons, what is sure is that the instructions were focused on asking for reforms that favored the development of Puerto Rico and a certain degree of administrative decentralization.
In the meanwhile, in San German (1809-1811), a separatist conspiracy came about linked to movements in Caracas, Mexico, and Bogota, to judge by some of the correspondence of the town council. In light of the documentation now known, it is difficult to say if Power knew of the conspiracy or if he was involved in it. It is perhaps more reasonable to think that he was not involved. Despite the conspiracy in San German, Power raised his voice to stress Puerto Rico’s loyalty. He proposed that the rebellious town be granted the title of “most noble and loyal.” To support his petition, he “claimed glorious deeds” and forgotten services that showed “the firm loyalty” and “heroic patriotism” of the residents. He stressed over and over again the loyalty of the Puerto Ricans, contrasting it with the commotion that affected a great part of Spain’s possessions in the Americas. But the awards commission of the assembly, based on a report from the Regency, did not find sufficient merit in the case and recommended that it be set aside, a decision that the Cortes ratified despite Power’s arguments.
It was not the first time that Power had had to reaffirm his own loyalty and that of his province, besieged as he was by the hostility of Meléndez Bruna, the captain general of Puerto Rico. On August 20, 1811, in the midst of the jealousies and fears that also existed in the assembly in regard to Spain’s possessions in the Americas, a document was circulated in the assembly under the title of “Primeros sucesos desagradables en la Isla de Puerto Rico, consecuentes a la formación de la Junta Soberana de Caracas” (The First Disagreeable Events on the Island of Puerto Rico, Arising from the Formation of the Sovereign Council of Caracas). The author called himself “Amigo de la Verdad” (Truth’s Friend), even though it would not be too wild a guess that the emissaries of the implacable captain general were behind the anonymous document. Power, indignant at this new attempt to besmirch his “honor and ideas, which had always been respected,” insisted on the “permanent adherence of Puerto Rico to the cause of the motherland…,” but not without protesting once again against the arbitrary and despotic conduct of Meléndez Bruna.
There was no agreement among the town councils of Puerto Rico when the instructions were written out. Each council presented its instructions individually. Even so, taken as a whole, the instructions reveal likenesses that show the discontent of the councils with the colonial structure. The weight they gave to economic reform allowed Power to produce a synthesis that he presented to the assembly in the name of the province.
In the exposition that preceded the petitions, Power gave a brief historical overview of Puerto Rico, in which he described the numerous reasons for Puerto Rico’s slow progress. All the ills had a common root: the legislation in force had been extended to Puerto Rico without taking into account the particular circumstances of the island province. Throughout the long speech, he interspersed severe criticism of the political regime in power, especially of the person and absolute powers of the captain general.
Power presented sixteen petitions in all, of which seven referred to overseas trade, five to tariffs and taxes, and four to administrative matters. He asked for separation of the post of the intendente (administrator) from that of the captain general (governor), and for the creation of a Sociedad Económica de Amigos del País (Financial Society of Friends of Puerto Rico), adjusting it to local circumstances. He rejected the proposal of San Germán as he considered it “contrary to the oaths taken,” thus avoiding dangerous questions that the extension of the Constitution could help to resolve. On the other hand, it seems that only the town councils of San Juan and San Germán asked for reforms that were autonomist in character. Although the instructions that were submitted by the town council of Arecibo have not been found, it is possible that they followed the line of arguments presented by Coamo and Aguada.
From his first expressions in the Cortes Extraordinarias, Power used the plural to refer to the Americas and to the several Spains – also plural – as integral parts of the Spanish monarchy, with equal rights to national representation. For Power, a liberal, a just government that attended to the particularities of each territory would be the only way to safeguard the integrity of the nation; it was the antidote to independence. Similarly, Power’s repeated denunciations of the despotic conduct of the captain general of Puerto Rico were not limited to the personal struggle between the two, nor were they an exception in that assembly. Many other deputies also asked for the destitution of their governors or the limitation of their powers with the underlying purpose of impugning the colonial system.
The issue of representation of the races generated an intense debate in the Cortes because, if this were included, it would give the Americas a majority in the assembly. The difficulty grew sharper when the time came to include free Blacks and the darker-skinned castes, descendants of people who had originated in Africa. The peninsular deputies refused to take them into account, but the deputies from the Americas did not want to include them, either, and the deputies from the Antilles were even less so inclined, given their fear of any change in the established social hierarchy. After long discussions on the subject, the decree of October 15, 1810, was passed, by which the Cortes agreed to the concept that “the Spanish dominions in both hemispheres form a single monarchy, a single nation, and a single family, and that therefore those who are native to the European or overseas dominions are equal under the law to those from the peninsula…”
The phrase that limited the rights of those who were “native,” with which the African castes were excluded, has been attributed to Power. The attempt therein to reconcile the entrenched positions of the peninsular Spanish and some of the Creole deputies is apparent. The decree set the precedent for Articles 18, 22, 28, and 29 of the Constitution of Cadiz, which excluded from citizenship, and from the population base to be represented, inhabitants of African descent. By the light of known documentation, it is difficult to say for certain whether Power supported this position as a compromise measure, given the existing impasse, or whether, in spite of his liberal conscience, he could not entirely overcome the interests and prejudices of the landowning class to which he belonged.
Power acted in the Cortes in accord with his liberal, reformist ideas, his military and naval training, and the context in which the assembly was operating. He was convinced that if the reasons for the complaints and dissension of the deputies from the Americas were eliminated, peace would be restored and the unity of the territories of the Spanish monarchy would be strengthened. For him, the nation was Spain and the province Puerto Rico.
In promoting the formula for political assimilation – understood as absolute equality of rights for peninsular and New World Spaniards, and economic and administrative autonomy, which provided for the power to attend to local matters according to their peculiarities – he set the precedent for what would be the dominant current in liberal thought in Puerto Rico in the 19th century, which always oscillated between what was desirable and what was possible.
Author: Dra. María de los Ángeles Castro
Published: September 12, 2014.
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