Top of page

Collection Puerto Rico at the Dawn of the Modern Age: Nineteenth- and Early-Twentieth-Century Perspectives

Political Trends in the Nineteenth Century

Amidst long periods of Spanish control and repression, there were brief times--largely coinciding with the ascendance of liberal governments in Spain--that brought liberal reforms to Puerto Rico. Most political reforms on the island took place between 1812 and 1814 and between 1869 and 1873. Local political leaders were highly influenced by the liberal ideas of the American Revolution (1776), the French Revolution (1789), and the wars of independence throughout Spanish America (1800-1825). They therefore supported ideas such as individual freedom, representative government, democratic elections, and open trade.

[Detail] Discurso que el día 2 de enero de 1846, en la solemne apertura de la Real Audiencia de Puerto-Rico, dijo su ministro decano, encargado accidentalmente de la rejencia. General Collections, Library of Congress.

A national political discourse first emerged on the island under the liberal Spanish Constitution of 1812, which gave Puerto Rico the status of a Spanish province. The first elections in Puerto Rico under the 1812 constitution were held in mid-October of that year. Yet this first attempt at liberal rule was short lived: in 1814, an absolutist monarchy replaced the constitutional-monarchic government in Spain, bringing an end to the possibility of further reforms in Puerto Rico.

Although national political parties were not formally organized until the 1870s, two well-defined Puerto Rican political groups emerged during the early part of the nineteenth century: the liberals and the conservatives. At the time, they served as pressure groups within a highly repressive society whose government felt threatened by liberal ideas and the possibility of rebellion. Liberals, also known as reformists, supported civil rights, the abolition of slavery, and increasing trade relations with other countries. During the first half of the 1800s, they were divided between those who favored total independence from Spain and those who wanted political assimilation as an "overseas" Spanish province.

Conservatives, on the other hand, supported the status quo represented by Spanish authority on the island, promoted the preservation of the existing mercantilist economic system, and opposed the abolition of slavery. Conservatives considered freedoms such as individual rights and freedom of the press to be threats to the established order.