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New Left Review 55, January-February 2009


Ronald Fraser on Henry Kamen, Imagining Spain. Excavation of the historical myths that have shaped peninsular self-perceptions.

RONALD FRASER

PENINSULAR MYTHOLOGIES

During the Napoleonic war of 1808–14, the concept of a sovereign nation was conjured up, like the proverbial rabbit from a hat, by Spain’s liberals in the Constitution of 1812, which replaced the absolutism of the Old Order with popular national government. [1] Henry Kamen, Imagining Spain: Historical Myth and National Identity, Yale University Press: New Haven and London 2008, £25, hardback, 254 pp, 978 0 300 12641 9. In future, representatives were to be elected to a unicameral assembly; the separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers was enacted—with the King reduced to the executive—and the Cortes, in charge of the legislative, had ‘the exclusive right’ to establish the nation’s fundamental laws. The nation itself was defined as ‘the union of all Spaniards in both hemispheres’: laws would be the same for all regions of Spain and its transatlantic empire. Within two years, the Constitution’s 384 articles had been trampled under foot by the sovereign, Ferdinand VII, on his return from wartime seclusion in France at Napoleon’s pleasure; in his baggage he brought the return of absolutism, displacing the national ideal. The liberals, who were rapidly imprisoned or exiled, had made a cardinal mistake: believing it sufficient to commit to paper a constitution which all must observe, they neglected to furnish themselves with the necessary political base to support both it and them. Not surprisingly, its abolition generated not popular protest but jubilation—much helped along, of course, by the liberals’ sworn enemies.

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