Dec 15, 2018

The Spanish Enlightenment and the Founding Fathers

The scholars of the Spanish Enlightenment are often overlooked as influencial to political thought throughout the Americas.

Spanish Enlightenment

Do you know what book John Locke, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Francisco de Miranda had in common? The Spanish Jesuit Juan de Mariana’s The General History of Spain. This curious fact hints at the fairly unknown story of a shared liberal tradition between the Old and New World.

Usually, when we learn about what schools of thought influenced the American Revolution, our history teachers rightly point out the influence of the British, Scottish, and the French Enlightenments. This fits in nicely with the narrative of the typical Western Civilization course taught in many American high schools, where students are introduced to John Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and maybe even Edmund Burke.

But missing from this narrative is the existence of the Spanish Enlightenment of the 16th century, known today as the School of Salamanca, and the influence it had on the American Founding Fathers. This rich school of thought flourished with the Dominican Francisco de Vitoria and may be said to have culminated with the Jesuit Juan de Mariana.

To the south of the Rio Grande, we grow up learning about the influence the French Revolution and the ideas of Rousseau had on the Latin American Founding Fathers. This narrative, too, misses the much greater influence of the ideas shared by the School of Salamanca and the American Revolution: that all men are created equal, that sovereignty resides in the people, limited government, no taxation without representation, among others.

Ángel Fernández Álvarez, member of the History of Economic Thought Research Group at the Complutense University of Madrid, says that Juan de Mariana, the direct heir to the School of Salamanca, is a precursor to Western liberalism. Doctor Fernández documents this in his thesis (now published as a book: La Escuela de Escuela Española de Economía, Unión Editorial 2017). Fernández shows us how widely read Mariana was in England, despite the censorship of the writings of Catholics. He zeroes in on the influence the Spanish Jesuits had over John Locke and on one of America’s Founding Fathers, John Adams.

This is relevant for all Americans—northern, central and southern—because it allows us to debunk the historical myth that somehow we don’t all share the legacy of Western Civilization. It is also important for the English and Spaniards, because very few of them know of a liberal tradition within the Spanish Empire and its influence in one of England’s greatest philosophers —John Locke. 

With regards to Locke, Fernández points out the striking similarities between Locke’s Two Treatises on Government (1689) and Mariana’s On the King and the Royal Institution (De Rege et Regis Institutione, 1599). We know that Locke actually read Juan de Mariana by way of a couple of surviving documents where he included a detailed citation of one of Mariana’s works and where he listed Mariana’s The General History of Spain among the greatest, most important history books that every aspiring gentleman should read.

Mariana and Locke concurred that men enter into society because in the state of nature they are worse off. They both also agreed that civil society precedes government and that government is established to safeguard the individual’s natural rights. These rights, as well as certain obligations, according to both Mariana and Locke, are independent of any positive legislation and are accorded to individuals “by nature.”

Fernández also points out that Locke’s argument for “no taxation without representation” is almost identical to Mariana’s. Compare both pertinent quotes (boldface added):

“…the king cannot impose new taxes without first having the consent of the governed. Ask, then, and do not strip your subjects taking every day something by your own will and reducing little by little to misery those who until recently were rich and happy.”

—Juan de Mariana, On the King and the Royal Institution (1599)

“for if any one shall claim a power to lay and levy taxes on the people, by his own authority, and without such consent of the people, he thereby invades the fundamental law of property, and subverts the end of government

They must not raise taxes on the property of the people, without the consent of the people, given by themselves, or their deputies.

The legislative neither must nor can transfer the power of making laws to any body else, or place it any where, but where the people have”.

—John Locke, Two Treatises on Government, (Hollis ed., 1689)

Fernández claims that Locke shares with Mariana positions on “the origin of society, the origin of the State, the origin of property in work, the consequentialist justification of property, the hierarchy of rights, the role of the state, the constraint of government and the right to rebellion.” And like Mariana, Locke saw in a king’s violation of property rights a justification for rebellion.

Even when it comes to the conception of the institution of money, Fernández argues that Locke agrees with Mariana as to money’s origin and functions, though, Fernández notes, the English philosopher did not reach the same conclusions as Mariana when it comes to the debasing of money. On this particular point, Fernández says that Mariana was “four centuries ahead of the 20th century economists” who talked about the “inflationary tax.”

Mariana’s influence spun across the Atlantic and is evident in the United States’ third president, John Adams. Fernández documents that not only did Adams possess a couple of Mariana’s works, but that he seems to have read them. Fernández shows that in 1788 Adams acquired a work of Mariana’s that he had been avidly searching for: On the King and the Royal Institution. This copy has survived until today and is part of the John Adams Library collection at the Boston Public Library (it can be viewed here).

Fernández shows that there is a clear similarity between Mariana’s arguments in On the King and the Royal Institution and those of Adams in his Discourses on Davila, which were originally serialized in the Gazette of the United States between 1790 and 1791. The Gazette was an important publication at the time; President George Washington subscribed to it between 1788 and 1796.

Fernández sees Mariana’s work reflected in Adams’s many references to the history of Spain and his similar distinction between a king and a tyrant, as well as the same justification for the right to rebellion. Fernández also points out that the edition of Mariana’s political economy work that Adams read was the one that included the chapter “On Money,” which is relevant because Fernández believes Adams later used Mariana’s arguments to oppose the alteration of money and the creation of a central bank with the monopoly over the minting of money.

Fernández also mentions that Thomas Jefferson not only bought for himself Mariana’s The General History of Spain, but seems to have deemed it important enough to purchase it for several of his friends, among them James Madison. And we could add to Mariana’s list of distinguished readers the Venezuelan liberal who led the country’s first Independence and Republic, Francisco de Miranda.

Recent populist movements in Latin America have tried selling the idea that Latin Americans are not part of the tradition of Western Civilization and would be better off rejecting the classical liberal ideas on which it is based. Works like Fernández’s show that both empires, the British and the Spanish, shared an intellectual heritage which followed them to the new world. Liberalism is not bounded by the Atlantic Ocean or the Rio Grande.