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  • Decembrists with a Spanish Accent
  • Richard Stites (bio)

The Four Horsemen

In a series of revolts starting in 1820, four military officers issued pronunciamentos on the squares of obscure European towns: Las Cabezas de San Juan in Spain, Avellino in the kingdom of Naples, Iaşi (Jassy) in the Ottoman Empire, and Vasil´kov in Ukraine.1 From there, they marched forth—to fight for political freedom and a constitution for Spain, Naples, and Russia, and to win national independence for the Greeks. The expeditions eventually ended in failure and the revolutionaries who led them became martyrs. Rafael del Riego of Spain and Sergei Murav´ev-Apostol of Russia were hanged; the Russo-Greek Alexander Ypsilantis landed in prison; the Neapolitan Guglielmo Pepe escaped into exile, and two of his compatriots were executed. The spectacle of idealistic officers riding to liberty in Europe (and Latin America as well) thrilled liberals everywhere and evoked literary outpourings. The apparent sweep of the almost simultaneous revolts suggested to Byron, a master of poetic contraction, a romantic vision: "On Andes' and on Athos' peaks unfurled, / The self-same standard streams o'er either world." After it was all over, the Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin brilliantly telescoped the four revolts: "First menace rocked the Pyrenees / And Naples' Vulcan spewed his flame. / A one-armed prince [Ypsilantis] to the Peloponnese / From Kishinev unveiled his game." A few lines later, he added the Russian Decembrists to the list.

The wave began in 1820 when the restored Spanish monarch Fernando VII ordered army officers to launch a counterrevolutionary expedition against insurgent Latin America. Lt. Col. Riego raised the banner of revolt by "pronouncing" to the men in his garrison town: [End Page 5]

Soldiers, my love for you is great. Because of this, I as your commander cannot permit you to leave your country aboard some rotten vessels to go and wage an unjust war in the New World.… It is necessary to sacrifice your own lives to burst the chains that have bound [your families] since 1814. An absolute king, driven by whim and fancy, has imposed on them unbearable duties and taxes. He has vexed them, oppressed them; and, finally—the very culmination of misfortunes—has snatched you and your beloved sons to sacrifice them to his pride and ambition. Yes, he has taken them from the paternal nest so that in faraway and unhealthy climes they might venture off to continue a senseless war which could easily be ended by returning to the Spanish nation its rights. The constitution, yes, the constitution is sufficient to appease our brothers in America.

Riego took his men to Cádiz and through Andalusia, an exploit that set off risings in other cities. The liberals proclaimed the lapsed Spanish constitution of 1812, and the king was persuaded to take an oath to it.2

Riego's act, preceded by earlier failed attempts, became the first successful military intervention in the national politics of modern Spain. The method, in Raymond Carr's words, "developed the rigid form of classical drama," with certain fixed episodes: sounding out possible collaborators (trabajos); initiation into the plot (compromisos); and the speech launching the revolt—the pronunciamiento—given as a shout ("grito or electrifying harangue"). Riego's pronunciamento became a hallmark of the numerous attempts to change regimes in 19th-century Spain and Latin America. Pronunciamentos, soon acquiring the aura of romance, were copied as practical attempts to overthrow absolutism. The device became so common that Spanish officers in subsequent times were issued a manual on public speaking.3 With local variations, the model was repeated in Naples, Greece, and Russia.

The constitution had its beginnings during the Napoleonic occupation of Spain. The French armies pushed the resisters into, and laid siege to, the port city of Cádiz. There the patriots assembled in 1810, established a cortes, and issued a liberal constitution two years later, exalting the exiled King Fernando as their beloved monarch. Tsar Alexander I of Russia, a bitter foe of [End Page 6] Napoleon, recognized the Cortes and the constitution in 1812. But in 1814, the now restored Fernando arrested many of the Cortes leaders and abrogated the constitution. From then...


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