Spanish Constitution of 1876 Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Spain’s 1876 constitution created a stable political system that lasted for half a century, but it was based on a prearranged sharing of power by rival political parties through electoral fraud.

Summary of Event

After the Spanish Revolution of 1868, the failed Spanish Republic, and the Second Carlist War Carlist Wars over succession to the throne, Spaniards longed for order and stability. There was therefore widespread public support for the military coup that overthrew the republican government in January, 1874, and made General Francisco Serrano y Domínguez temporary chief of state, pending a decision on what form the government was to take. Spain;constitutions Constitutions;Spanish Cánovas del Castillo, Antonio [kw]Spanish Constitution of 1876 (1876) [kw]Constitution of 1876, Spanish (1876) [kw]1876, Spanish Constitution of (1876) Spain;constitutions Constitutions;Spanish Cánovas del Castillo, Antonio [g]Spain;1876: Spanish Constitution of 1876[4840] [c]Government and politics;1876: Spanish Constitution of 1876[4840] Alfonso XII Serrano y Domínguez, Francisco Martínez de Campos, Arsenio Primo de Rivera, Fernando Sagasta, Práxedes Mateo Ruíz Zorrilla, Manuel

Meanwhile, Serrano had to go north to fight the Carlists, who had risen against the Spanish Republic and continued to fight after the coup. The chief civilian leader in Madrid was Antonio Cánovas del Castillo, a leader of the old Conservative Party. A historian who understood many of Spain’s problems, Cánovas wanted to keep the military out of politics and to force the Roman Catholic Roman Catholic Church;in Spain[Spain] Roman Catholics;in Spain[Spain] Church to be obedient to civil power. He believed that the military and the Church had been responsible for much of Spain’s political turmoil since the insurrection of 1808. Both he and the army favored a restoration of a Bourbon Bourbon dynasties;Spanish Spain;Bourbon Dynasty monarchy, but Cánovas did not want the army to effect a restoration through a coup.

In December of 1874, a young officer, Arsenio Martínez de Campos, proclaimed for Alfonso XII, the son of the exiled Queen Isabella. Still fighting in the north, General Serrano Serrano y Domínguez, Francisco asked the other army leaders to reject Martínez Martínez de Campos, Arsenio de Campos’s coup, but they refused. The commander of the Madrid garrison, General Fernando Primo Primo de Rivera, Fernando de Rivera, supported the coup and contributed to its success. Alfonso Alfonso XII , who was then a seventeen-year-old cadet at the Royal College of Infantry and Cavalry at Sandhurst in England, arrived in Spain in January, 1875, and made a joyful entry into Madrid Madrid .

Because the army had no plans other than a restoration, and was still in the midst of war with the Carlists, Cánovas was able to keep power in the hands of civilians. Two years later, in February of 1876, Charles VII Charles VII withdrew from Spain with ten thousand soldiers and supporters. With the support of the new Spanish king, Cánovas summoned a committee to draft a new constitution. The resulting Spanish constitution of 1876 would be so well designed that it would serve Spain until 1923—the longest period that any Spanish constitution had lasted.

Spain’s 1876 constitution was a compromise between radical liberal documents, such as the constitution of 1812, and more conservative ones, such as the constitution of 1837. It provided for a parliamentary system of ministerial responsibility and limited monarchy, much like the British system. Suffrage was based on property ownership, and the legislature was to be bicameral. Some individual rights were guaranteed. Ardent republicans, however, were unwilling to accept this new government and continued to plot its overthrow from their headquarters in Paris. Manuel Ruíz Zorrilla, Ruíz Zorrilla, Manuel the leader of the exiled republicans, planned a revolution for 1878, but it failed, and its leaders were jailed.

Political stability was not maintained by the constitution but by Cánovas’s “system,” a pragmatic reliance on an outward show of constitutionality that manipulated the electoral process. Fearing a return of military coups by opposition parties and desiring no more radical political transitions, he provided for a peaceful turnover of ministries between his party, the conservative Liberal-Conservatives, and the liberal Fusionist Liberals of Práxedes Mateo Sagasta Sagasta, Práxedes Mateo . It was agreed that Cánovas would govern for a few years, and then Sagasta would take his turn as prime minister.

All elections were rigged to provide this peaceful transition. At the base of Cánovas’s plan was the cacique system Spain;Cacique system . Caciques were rural political bosses who could deliver votes according to the dictates of the ministry in Madrid. Although the caciques held little sway in the towns, they had sufficient strength to control the elections. After the votes had been counted by local committees appointed by the government, results were left blank and district governors could fill in the totals as required. Even after Sagasta’s Sagasta, Práxedes Mateo ministry provided universal suffrage during the 1880’s, Cánovas’s system still worked to thwart the desires of a growing electorate, which included workers and peasants. Whatever their internal bickering, the Liberal-Conservatives and the Fusionist Liberals shared a common belief that Spain could be governed only by fraud. Thus, the very strength of Cánovas’s system eventually weakened the status of the monarchy in Spain.

The youthful king Alfonso XII entering Madrid.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

Cánovas was shrewd enough to keep the army from interfering with political life. His premise was that the army had no praetorian ambitions, but served simply as a force to restore order in times of anarchy and disorder. So long as civilian governments could provide order, there was no need for the army to intervene. Nevertheless, in order to maintain power, the government became increasingly dependent on the army to preserve order in the face of republican opposition and a growing response to the corruption.

The Roman Catholic Church, long interested in a political settlement favorable to itself, had supported the clerical Carlist movement. Cánovas pacified the clergy with a constitutional provision that provided for clerical salaries to be paid by the state. Since the clergy had lost their landed wealth during the period of liberal confiscations, this method of payment pleased them. Furthermore, members of the clergy were unlikely to oppose a government that supported them, and they were content to accept a provision of the constitution that provided limited toleration for other sects but retained Catholicism as the official religion of the state.


The forces of change, both reactionary and progressive, were neutralized for almost half a century by the Spanish constitution of 1876. Although it accomplished Cánovas’s goal of providing stability, his system perverted the political system and created a monarchy that was insensitive and unresponsive to the majority of the Spanish people.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brenan, Gerald. The Spanish Labyrinth: An Account of the Social and Political Background of the Civil War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. The first chapter of this study of forces leading to the Spanish Civil War of the 1930’s deals with the Bourbon restoration and the impact of Cánovas del Castillo’s system on Spanish politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carr, Raymond. Spain, 1808-1939. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1966. History of Spain from the insurrection of 1808 through the accession to power of Francisco Franco in 1939. A leading historian of Spain, Carr defends Cánovas’s use of caciques, or political bosses, as a way to provide political stability.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carr, Raymond, ed. Spain: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Collection of essays that provide an excellent overview of the political climate in Spain before, during, and after Isabella’s thirty-five year reign.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Flynn, M. K. Ideology, Mobilization, and the Nation: The Rise of Irish, Basque, and Carlist Nationalist Movements in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Comparative study of Spanish and Irish nineteenth century nationalism that examines the rise of nationalism among Spain’s Carlists.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Madariaga, Salvador de. Spain: A Modern History. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1958. Opinionated history of Spain that criticizes Cánovas’s regime for returning the Roman Catholic Church and the army to political power.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Payne, Stanley G. Politics and the Military in Modern Spain. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1967. General survey of the military’s role in Spanish politics that offers a good discussion of military participation in the events of the restoration and the constitution of 1876.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Rhea Marsh. Spain: A Modern History. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1965. Comprehensive work on Spanish history with two chapters on the failure of the republic and the reign of Alfonso XII.

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Categories: History