Jaime E. Rodríguez O.
The concept of a constitution, a political entity that determines how a people are governed, emerged in ancient times. The government of the Roman Republic (509–27 BC) influenced the Western world. Later, Romanized Visigoths adopted a charter, the Fuero Juzgo (654), in the Iberian Peninsula that integrated Roman and Visigothic legal systems. The document influenced regional political entities throughout the Middle Ages. In the 13th century, each of the realms of the Iberian Peninsula adopted individual rather than shared fundamental codes. In 1265, King Alfonso X established Castilla’s and Leon’s first constitution, the Siete Partidas. The New World obtained its own legal system, known as the Derecho Indiano (Laws of the Indies). Like the kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula, those of America created a compact between the monarch and the citizens of each realm rather than Hispanic America as a whole. These systems of uncodified legislation evolved to meet changing circumstances and societal norms. They provided corporations and individuals expanding opportunities for indirect and direct experience in self-government.
In 1808, an unexpected upheaval transformed the Hispanic world. The French invaded Spain. Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte lured the royal family into France, compelled them to abdicate in his favor, and then granted the Spanish monarchy to his brother, José. The Spanish people did not accept the usurper king, José I. They formed the Junta Central to oppose the invaders. As the French continued to conquer the nation, they convened a Cortes, which met on September 24, 1810, in the port of Cádiz. Approximately 220 deputies, including sixty-five Americans and two Filipinos, eventually participated in the extraordinary Cortes of Cádiz. Deputies representing overseas dominions played a central role in developing the most progressive constitution of the 19th century. Despite the political chaos that surrounded the constituent congress, the delegates debated and eventually reached consensus on a modern, flexible charter that reconciled the competing interests of the multiplicity of areas and ideological positions represented at the assembly. They produced a constitution for the entire Hispanic world that made the executive and the judiciary subordinate to the legislature. It also increased the scope of political activity by establishing representative government at three levels: the city or town with a thousand or more inhabitants (constitutional ayuntamiento), the province (provincial deputation), and the monarchy (Cortes). The charter transferred political power from the center to the localities, and incorporated large numbers of people into the political process for the first time by redefining the concept of active citizenship (i.e., those eligible to vote). This fundamental document formed the basis for constitutional development throughout the Hispanic monarchy and for most charters promulgated in the nations that emerged after the breakup of that political entity.