The Americas 58.3 (2002) 443-469
[Access article in PDF]
The Burden Of Citizenship:
Artisans, Elections, And The Fuero Militar In Santiago De Chile, 1822-1851*
James A. Wood
On December 13, 1845 the recently founded Santiago newspaper El Artesano Opositor (The Opposition Artisan) published a letter submitted by "twenty artisan friends of Cerda." 1 The letter related the tragic case of José Agustin Cerda, a young tailor, soldier in the civic militia, and member of an electoral association called the Sociedad de Artesanos de Caupolicán (Caupolicán Artisans Society), who had been arrested on November 12 by the city's military prosecutor on the charge that he was involved in an anti-government "conspiracy." Claiming innocence, Cerda, according to his companions, denied his involvement in the alleged conspiracy "with noble arrogance." As a result he was locked in iron shackles in a military prison, causing his legs to swell up and his illness-weakened lungs to struggle for air. A follow-up article in the newspaper announced that Cerda was still being held in that "unjust and inhumane" condition two months later, along with several other city residents who were linked to the electoral associations of the liberal opposition in Santiago. 2 While the outraged authors of the letter to El Artesano Opositor singled out the Cerda case for its malicious effects on their friend, they clearly saw the incident as part [End Page 443] of a larger problem: the routine and systematic mistreatment of all artisan militiamen by the conservative governing regime. Not content simply to demand the release of their colleague, the "friends of Cerda" demanded the complete reform of a political system that denigrated the honor, dignity, and patriotism of all the city's artisans. "Understand," continued the letter in a provocative flourish, "that by attacking the innocent life of Cerda you attack the lives of all the artisans of the Republic." "We should expect more," it concluded solemnly, "from the men we elevate with our votes, defend with our blood, and maintain with our sweat and labor." 3
The imprisonment of José Agustin Cerda and the impassioned letter to the editor it produced raise several questions about Chile's early republican history. What, for example, was the nature of the "conspiracy" in which Cerda was allegedly involved? Why did the government view him as a threat? What did his being a tailor--and thus a member of the general class known as "artisans"--have to do with his arrest? Why did his "friends" utilize the letter-to-the-editor format to issue their grievance?
This article seeks to answer these and other important questions about the early development of the Republic of Chile, a republic that was widely acknowledged as the "exception" to the nineteenth-century Spanish American rule of political chaos, economic decline, and social disorder. In particular, the article will offer a new perspective on the relationship between artisans, elections, and militia service in Santiago de Chile, the capital of the country. Central to the argument presented below is the institutional and judicial arrangement known in Spanish American history as the fuero de guerra militar--or simply fuero militar.
Defined as a set of special legal prerogatives provided to the military institutions of the Spanish monarchy, the fuero militar was introduced into Spanish America with colonial rule. 4 Originally applied only to the officers and soldiers of the royal army, the fuero militar was eventually extended to all members of the colonial militia during the era of the Bourbon Reforms. The fuero militar has traditionally been viewed by historians as a means by which urban, plebeian males, often men of casta or mixed racial backgrounds, [End Page 444] acquired a form of legal protection, even immunity, from the Spanish civil authorities. In the eyes of numerous historians, the fuero militar served the interests of both powerful criollos and lower class men of color by shielding them from the rigors of civil justice. 5 Research has clearly demonstrated that under the protection of the fuero militar colonial militiamen often flaunted the...