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A New System of Imperial Government for Spanish America

Fidel J. Tavárez, Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholar, History

The eighteenth century was an age of imperial reform throughout the Atlantic world but especially in the Spanish Empire. Indeed, during this period, Spanish ministers made a concerted effort to transform Spain’s far-flung composite monarchy into a modern commercial empire capable of competing with Britain and France. Where did this interest in creating a Spanish commercial empire come from? What were its intellectual origins? These are some of the central questions that my research addresses and that I would like to explore very briefly in the paragraphs that follow.

I will begin by defining what I mean by “modern commercial empire.” The term does not simply refer to an empire that engaged in trade. What empire hasn’t? Rather, a modern commercial empire was a kind of polity that first took shape at the turn of the eighteenth century, when Enlightenment statesmen began to distinguish “empires of conquest,” which were almost exclusively focused on hoarding silver, from modern “empires of commerce,” which focused on promoting economic improvement through labor and trade. While British and French thinkers initially developed this modern ideology of empire, it was Spain that carried out the largest experiment of the eighteenth century with modern commercial imperialism.

In spite of its far-reaching nature, this new vision of empire had inauspicious beginnings in Spanish administrative circles. Its origins are to be found in the 1740s, when a manuscript titled Nuevo sistema de gobierno económico para la América circulated in the court among Spain’s most important statesmen. Indeed, the Nuevo sistema contained a basic blueprint of reform, which ministers of the second half of the century followed almost to the letter. It is surprising, to say the least, that few historians have attempted to reconstruct the intellectual context in which this relatively unpretentious but essential manuscript was written.

To understand the intellectual context that gave birth to the Nuevo sistema, it is necessary to provide a brief inventory of the most important versions of the text. While the first printed version of the Nuevo sistema dates to 1789, the most important manuscript versions allegedly date to 1743. There are at least two known versions of this 1743 manuscript, one at the Biblioteca Nacional de España and another at the Biblioteca del Palacio Real in Madrid. Additionally, portions of the Nuevo sistema appeared in the second half of Bernardo Ward’s Proyecto económico. There is a manuscript version of Ward’s Proyecto at the Biblioteca del Palacio Real, and a printed version appeared in 1779.

Scholars have assumed that the author of the Nuevo sistema was José del Campillo y Cossío, who is listed as the author in the manuscript versions of 1743. Given Campillo’s reputation as a respectable, hardworking, and learned minister, the attribution is not entirely unwarranted. However, upon close inspection, Campillo’s authorship becomes increasingly implausible. In particular, a passage within the Nuevo sistema alludes to a report written by Antonio de Ulloa, which likely refers to the celebrated Noticias secretas. This report was written in 1747 or 1748, which means that the Nuevo sistema could not have been written in 1743 and consequently that Campillo could not have written the text, especially considering that he had died in 1743.

The author of the Nuevo sistema probably was Melchor Rafael de Macanaz, a prolific writer and adviser to Philip V, the king of Spain until 1746. Among other reasons, Macanaz’s authorship can be proven by the existence of two manuscripts signed by the aforementioned adviser: 1) Discurso sobre la America española, held at the Real Academia de la Historia in Madrid, and 2) Nuevo sixtema para el perfecto gobierno de la América, which currently sits in the Instituto Valencia de Don Juan in Madrid. Both texts coincide almost to the letter with the manuscripts signed by Campillo. It is likely that Macanaz wrote the text earlier in century and continued to update it until the late 1740s. At that point, someone else, whose identity we may never recover, circulated the text as if Campillo were its author.

The fact that Macanaz was the original author of the Nuevo sistema provides a rich context from which to reconstruct the main ideas of the text. Although Macanaz was a faithful adviser to Philip V, he lived in exile in France from 1715 until 1748. In France, he experienced firsthand what contemporaries called the “John Law system,” an innovative scheme of administrative reform for the French Monarchy designed by the Scottish projector John Law. Law’s system included a national bank, a credit-based circulating currency, and a commercial company.  Although Macanaz did not agree with everything the Scottish projector proposed, the fact that he used the concept of a “new system” clearly shows that the experience in France inspired him to design a project for a Spanish commercial empire. The notion of a “new system” allowed him to rethink the very foundations of the Spanish Monarchy, while portraying the king as a political engineer and his ministers as scientific advisers.

The key idea proposed in the Nuevo sistema was that Spain had to abandon the “spirit of conquest,” associated with the pursuit of mines and territories in Spanish America, and adopt the “spirit of trade and industry,” which was concerned with stimulating economic improvement by creating synergy between the colonies and the metropole. The reason behind this proposal was simple. “Real wealth,” the Nuevo sistema suggested, “consists in the products of the land and the industry of men,” not in hoarding bullion.[1] And the most efficient way to stimulate work was to promote commerce, “for it [commerce] revitalizes agriculture, the arts, factories and the manufactures of industry.”[2] Macanaz had a specific kind of trade in mind: comercio libre (free trade within the bounds of the empire). In fact, he continued, it was important “to think of liberty as the soul of commerce, without which it [commerce] could not prosper nor live.”[3] Commercial liberty, he concluded, “is the soul of all the improvements which we argued will occur in Spain’s agriculture, manufactures and other significant matters.”[4]

Macanaz’s new system had many more dimensions, among which we can cite the institution of a new administrative apparatus for the New World. However, for our purposes here, we should keep in mind a few of the tenets of commercial empire that Macanaz put forward in the 1740s: 1) that to become powerful Spain had to acquire markets, not bullion, 2) that Spain had an abundant source of markets in the colonies, and 3) that the best way to control colonial markets was to implement comercio libre between the metropole and the colonies. According to Macanaz, what would come about as a result of instituting comercio libre was a highly integrated imperial economic system in which the colonies and the metropole worked in concert to stimulate economic growth. This new vision of empire is what subsequent ministers had in mind when they issued and implemented decrees or charters of comercio libre in 1765, 1778, and 1789. As an exiled intellectual who lived in France during the first half of the eighteenth century, little could Macanaz have suspected that his advice paper, the Nuevo sistema, would transform the political culture, the administrative system, and the economy of Spain’s vast empire for the rest of the century.


[1] José del Campillo y Cossío, Nuevo sistema de gobierno económico para la América (Mérida, Venezuela: Universidad de los Andes, Facultad de Humanidades y Educación, 1971 [1789]), p. 209.

[2] Ibid., p. 95.

[3] Ibid., p. 94.

[4] Ibid., p. 146.