Grassroots Democracy in Early Modern Spain

Wednesday, July 12, 2017
JWS - Room J10 (J355) (University of Glasgow)
Sarah Elizabeth Penry , History, Fordham University
My paper argues that a political philosophy of popular sovereignty and participatory democracy, neither of which are typically identified with Early Modern Spain, was widely understood by common people through their participation in town life. Political life was invested in towns; no other regional government interceded between the people and the crown. At the same time intensive town creation was underway in the Iberian Peninsula. Iberian municipalities encompassed large territories that included subordinate smaller towns. As a way to raise funds, the crown allowed dependent villages to ‘liberate’ themselves, and buy their independence from their governing town by paying a substantial fee to the crown for the privilege. My focus is on how the new towns were created. Towns sought independence with claims that remaining under the jurisdiction of another town deprived them of justice and interfered with their rights to maintain and enforce laws. Town creation provided a kind of laboratory in communitarian democracy, where townspeople became adept in the language of local level democracy as they took active roles in creating their self-governing towns. This grassroots democracy stayed in place until the 19th century, when the new nation state sought to end municipal autonomy in favor of a consolidated national citizenship. Even so, many Spaniards still feel as much or more loyalty to their (or their parents’) natal town or region, than to the contemporary nation. That, and the regional rather than national focus of EU representation, helps to account for today’s fragmented politics.