Understanding the process of “disentailment” implemented by the Liberal regime in Spain

Ruins of the Cistercian monastery of Santa María de Moreruela, visible result of the liberal confiscation. Guías Zamora

***La versión original en español del artículo se puede encontrar en este enlace. La traducción al inglés la ha realizado uno de los amigos del Círculo Blas de Ostolaza, de Perú***

We believe that there are certain misunderstandings surrounding the word “amortization” that lead to a misunderstanding of certain facts that are often grouped together as the same, when, in fact, they are substantially different.

Today the verb “to amortize” refers either to the progressive repayment of the principal of a debt, or to the progressive deterioration of a physical capital asset (cars, buildings, machinery, etc.). But neither of these is the sense it has when we speak generically of the so-called “disentailment processes”. In the latter case, “amortize” means to bind or tie a real estate property to a certain social body to guarantee its economic security and independence, prohibiting any possibility of alienating or encumbering such property. These social bodies were called “dead hands”, hence the term “amortize”. Therefore, to “disentail” simply means to change the legal nature of that property, converting it into a “marketable good”, that is, susceptible to sale or legal encumbrance by its present holder. But the latter is not what everyone understands to have been done in the so-called “disentailment processes” of the Revolution.

The confusion is even greater when historians tend to associate the so-called “Desamortization of Godoy” to the events of the revolutionary period. In the context of the wars against Great Britain (1797-1808), the Crown’s need for financing made it create the so-called Caja de Amortización (separate from the Royal Treasury) in February 1798, which had the purpose of recognizing and liquidating the interest and principal of the Vales Reales (titles of Public Debt) issued by the King since its creation by Cabarrús in 1780 (also in the context of the wars against Great Britain of 1779-1783). In this specific case, the word “amortization” is used in the new sense of “progressive repayment of the amount of a debt”.

In September 1798, Carlos IV approved a series of Decrees, which, in fact, established the sale of a series of goods linked to institutions of a mixed nature (civil-ecclesiastical) in order to allocate the proceeds of their sale to the Amortization Fund.

It is important to point out these differences in order not to fall into the exaggerated criticisms promoted much later by the historiography coming from the Ultramontanists of the Alfonsine period (Menéndez Pelayo, Alejandro Pidal, and above all Vicente de la Fuente, whose antiborbonistic attitude bordered almost on obsession), which influenced later authors.

Having clarified this, of course we do not deny that constructive and reasonable criticism can be made about the wisdom of these measures, as was done, for example, by the great jurist and royalist Juan de la Reguera Valdelomar. However, it will not be superfluous to remember that, with respect to the protagonists of these acts, Urquijo and Godoy, the former ended up as Secretary of State of usurper José “I” Bonaparte, and the latter confessed in his Memoirs that he always tried to act as a Liberal, and the Liberals of the Elizabethan (Isabelina, after usurpress Elizabeth so-called II of Spain) era recognized him as one of their own. That allows us to judge about the “loyalty” of these former ministers of Charles IV.

Now, having explained what a simple desamortization consists of, and that what is called “Godoy’s Desamortization” was a mere process of expropriation with compensation — which name do the acts carried out after “the Revolution of 1833” deserve, with the snatching of most assets linked to all the social corporations, both ecclesiastical (parishes, convents, monasteries, bishoprics, etc.) and civil (family estates, universities, municipalities, schools, etc.)? We believe that the expression used by Menéndez Pelayo (rightly so in this case) to describe the nature of the “economic” actions perpetrated by the revolutionaries is the most appropriate: “immense larceny”. It was nothing more than a pure and absolute plundering of all the goods linked to each of the multiple and varied bodies and institutions that made up the rich social fabric of the Ancien Régime.

Félix María Martín Antoniano