American Political Identity as Influenced by Spain
By Juan Ortega
Studying abroad in Spain with Professor John William Bailly
What is the United States of America? One may think of words such as “capitalist”, “democratic”, “equal”, etc. to define the idea of the United States. Documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution would likely pop into the thinker’s mind. However, all of these ideologies that frame the concept of America stem from Europe. While many may think these are adaptations of British ideas, they would be incorrect. These came from Spain.
Politically speaking, the United States adopted multiple ideas from Spanish influence. Politics is a wide umbrella of topics that can be broken down into the main three factors that keep a country prospering, functioning, and secure: economics, legislation, and military. Of these topics, the United States of America has grown to become the superpower it is today in part due to Spanish creations. From capitalism to human rights to guerrilla warfare, the United States has adopted multiple Spanish-born ideas to help grow and spread its interests.
The founding of the New World by Christopher Columbus in 1492 started the race for colonies amongst multiple European states. Funded by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, Columbus’s claim of the Americas for Spain provided an immediate increase in raw materials for production and manufacturing of finished goods to be sold around the world. This was the birth of colonialism.
Colonialism was a direct result of the economic ideology of the time: mercantilism. This concept described global wealth as finite. Currency was backed by precious metals, meaning that all the wealth in the world was limited to the amount of precious metal that existed. Therefore, the economy was a zero sum game. It was the goal of all European countries to accumulate as much of the wealth as possible.
In order to accumulate such wealth, countries had to produce finished goods that would be desirable for buyers both inside and outside the country. However, this was a constant balancing act because it was believed that if imports outweighed exports that would mean wealth was leaving the country. It was the constant goal to have exports far surpass imports, meaning a country would need more colonies for even more raw materials.
It was a race to basically conquer the world, and Spain had the lead. Inspired by the Spanish, the Portuguese began its search for colonies as well. Portugal began to fight for pieces of South America, setting up colonies in what is today Brazil. It also began setting up colonies in Africa along the southwestern and southeastern coasts since merchants would have to traverse around the entire continent to reach Asia, and these ports were prime real estate for resupplying. Fighting between the two countries, both ruled by Catholic monarchs, broke out, forcing the intervention of the Church. Born in Spain himself, Pope Alexander VI produced the Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided the globe in two halves. Spain was given ownership of all land discovered and undiscovered 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands, and Portugal was given claim to the land east of the line. This would not be the first time religion interfered in political matters, but that will be elaborated on later.
Capitalism was inspired by this European search to concentrate wealth. English thinkers Adam Smith, James Steuart, and David Ricardo were the ones that primarily formed the concept of capitalism by arguing against many practices of mercantilism. For example, the governments that did follow mercantilism would practice many protectionist policies in order to avoid over importation, as mentioned earlier. In order to ensure that wealth was not escaping the country heavy tariffs would be placed on foreign products; therefore, people would be forced to buy from sellers within their own countries. The products that were not sold would then be stored away or destroyed. These thinkers argued towards a global economy in which multiple national economies would buy and sell from one another and rely on credit instead of precious metals. Mercantilism would go on to evolve into capitalism, and while the concept was formalized by English thinkers, it came as a result of Spanish expansionism.
Capitalism has since become a centralized theme in American culture. A lack of regulations on big businesses comes from the concept of laissez faire, translating to “hands off”, that limits government intervention in the free market. Even the concept of the free market itself stems from the goal of trying to accumulate as much wealth as possible. However, now wealth is seen is unlimited.
Legislation: HUMAN RIGHTS
Part of the discussion revolving around human rights actually stems from the aforementioned involvement of the Catholic Church in Spanish politics. While colonialism helped to boom the Spanish economy, the discovery of Native Americans introduced a very peculiar situation. Since the Natives lived on what was claimed to be Spanish territory would they be subjects to the crown? Were they human? Were they equals?
The treatment of Native Americans was from then on one of brutality, rape, murder, and slavery. Natives were overwhelmed by well-armed and well-organized conquistadors using weapons never before seen by the Natives and completely incomparable to the spears and bows and arrows the Natives used. Furthermore, aside from soldiers being sent to the New World, priests were also sent to begin evangelization.
First, to justify colonialism in the New World to Spaniards that questioned its morality, King Ferdinand, Queen Isabella, and the legal jurists argued that the Spanish had the right to exploration since the world was created by God for man’s use. Furthermore, the Spanish had the right to evangelize, and finding an entire population that had yet to hear of Catholicism meant more followers for Christ. The Spanish also had the right to protect themselves against the Natives; if the Natives should attack them or reject the faith, the Spanish rationalized that armed conflict would then be justified. Therefore, it would be a righteous war. These rights were granted to the Spanish simply on the basis of their humanity as children of God.
To justify the treatment of Native Americans back in Spain, the government argued that the Natives were lacking the truth of God’s Will, and it was the Spanish’s responsibility to God as a Catholic nation to spread the Good News. Missionaries were set up all throughout the Americas, with forced conversions becoming common. Torture and cruelty were the norm to force Native Americans to give up their own gods, rituals, and beliefs for acceptance of monotheism and the Catholic dogma. However, the introduction of Catholicism to the Natives would actually help in their eventual legal protection.
Some members of the Church, such as Dominican friar Bartolome de las Casas, began writing to the king regarding the conditions the Native Americans were being subjected to. His writings became some of Spanish society’s first encounters with the harsh realities of what was happening in the Americas. Another member of the Church, theologian and philosopher Francisco de Vitoria, began to write on the concept of natural law as a reaction to de las Casas’s leters. Natural law states that each human being is born with an innate moral compass, with an understanding of what is right and what is wrong. During the 1500s, when de las Casas and de Vitoria were writing, it was understood that this moral understanding was ordained by God. De Vitoria states that since Native Americans were taught Catholicism, there is an acceptance that they, too, are human beings. Furthermore, by their very nature as humans and their ability to perceive morality and immorality, they are also children of God. Therefore, they are equals to the Spanish. His writings helped to push King Charles II to create the New Laws of the Indies of 1542.
This legislation went on to grant Native Americans Spanish citizenship as well as protections from unequal treatment. The Natives were to be taxed and paid fairly. Most importantly, the law abolished slavery of Native Americans. If a Spaniard in the New World did want to hold a Native as a slave they would have to present their case in Spain, which was far too expense and too long a travel for many to justify holding enslaved Natives. The encomienda system was also abolished. This system stated that when conquistadors conquered an area, the land was to be split amongst them. The Natives that resided on the portion of land given to a conquistador were then under his jurisdiction. While this was introduced partly to help with evangelization, it became a type of quasi-slavery.
This legislation was extremely unpopular in the New World and was not fully enforced due to the fact that colonies had a certain sense of autonomy allowed to them by geographical distance. However, this is widely considered to be the first piece of human rights legislation. The discussions meant to justify Spanish colonialism and those meant to protect Native Americans became some of the first discussions ever regarding the rights guaranteed to a human being simply on the basis of their existence. This is no way crediting Spain or the Catholic Church with progressive ideals. Following the passing of this legislation, Spain began to import African slaves. Therefore, one cannot seriously say that Spain or the Catholic Church were leaders in this field. However, this legislation helped to implement the idea into the social psyche, which would eventually grow with abolitionists calling for an end to slavery. This legislation was extremely unpopular in the New World and was not fully enforced due to the fact that colonies had a certain sense of autonomy allowed to them by geographical distance. However, this is widely considered to be the first piece of human rights legislation. The discussions meant to justify Spanish colonialism and those meant to protect Native Americans became some of the first discussions ever regarding the rights guaranteed to a human being simply on the basis of their existence.
These concepts find themselves ingrained in the American Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution, which list a people’s right to recreate a functioning government should their government fail, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, etc. The ideal of innate human rights has become integral to the American identity, as oppressed groups have used these documents to argue against segregation, inequality, etc. throughout generations. The belief in human rights led to documents like the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in the U.S., and later the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to secure legal protection for people of color. While America does have a history of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination, the centrality of human rights in the founding documents has pushed the country constantly forward, always progressing.
Warfare: GUERRILLA WARFARE
While the techniques behind guerrilla warfare have been used for centuries, the formalization of the informal warfare was done by Spain. Following Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power in France at the end of the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars broke out across Europe. These conflicts came from Napoleon’s quest to conquer all of Europe. The French army under his guidance was seemingly unstoppable, defeating large, organized army after large, organized army on the battlefield. However, the French’s biggest rivals came from small, disorganized armed militias. The Peninsular War began in 1807, when Napoleon’s Grand Armée invaded the Iberian Peninsula. As the French marched across the peninsula, small Spanish militias would hide in the brush, over hills, and behind buildings along their path. Then, when the time was right, they would rain down bullets on the French and quickly retreat.
These surprise attacks were not the norm of for European warfare at the time that saw two organized armies meeting at a location, lining up, and firing at one another until one army retreated or surrendered. The militiamen that fought using this tactic became known as “guerrilleros”, which roughly translates to irregular fighters. Guerrilla warfare was so effective that it eventually pushed the French out of Spain, and Napoleon referred to the constant losses in Spain as the “Spanish ulcer”.
Guerrilla warfare is largely associated with rebellions and resistance groups that are under armed or underfunded. American interventionist policies following World War II have actually led to a rise in American support of guerrilla warfare. Throughout the Cold War and even today, with conflicts such as the Syrian Civil War, the United States has provided weapons, ammunition, and basic training to rebels. This training largely focuses on guerrilla style tactics since most rebel fighters are not trained professionals. The optics of guerrilla warfare has actually helped to spread American interests in a region and justify direct intervention: a poorly organized group of everyday citizens trying to fight off the big bad enemy. This type of imagery has, on more than one occasion, been used to help garner sympathy from American citizens to boost war morale.
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