Would the Aragonese have chosen differently? Political Institutions in the New World

Spanish American political institutions were highly centralized during the colonial time period. I always assumed this was because the Crown wanted to have more control over how the colonies were run. However, there may be other factors that influenced the choice of highly centralized institutions in the colonies. It may be that centralized political institutions were chosen over less centralized ones because the Castilian Spaniards, not the Aragonese Spaniards, initially developed the New World.

More after the jump….

Background- Castile and Aragon

When the Americas were (re)discovered in 1492, Spain was evolving out of its medieval past and developing into a unified state. Spain was originally a group of Kingdoms, not a unified political unit. People who lived in these Kingdoms were considered Spanish but beyond this common ethnic identity, they had not common political identity. This was changing during this time period, as Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon vowed to unify Spain but, at the time of the discovery of the New World, Spain was still divided into Kingdoms, mainly Aragon and Castile.

There were stark contrasts between political institutions in Aragon and political institutions in Castile. Aragonese political institutions were less centralized than the ones in Castile. In Aragon, the Crown had to go both through the several local Corteses (tri-cameral legislatures) and the general Cortes to change laws and collect taxes. In contrast, in Castile, there was only one Cortes and the Crown could supersede its decisions. There were some places in Castile the Crown could not completely control, but overall, the Crown in Castile had more power than the one in Aragon.

Castile and Spanish America

Once again, Spain will still in its unification process after the colonies were (re?)discovered. So Spain as we know it today did not intitially explore and develop the the New World, one Kingdom did, the Kingdom of Castile did. Isabella, Queen of Castile, made sure of this; from the very beginning, she restricted immigration to the colonies to Castilians only. This was only partially relaxed at the end of the sixteenth century. Her ability to dominate early colonial development comes to no surprise as the Castilians were more just capable of accomplishing the task of discovery and development. Castile contained 80% of the population and controlled most major overseas trade before 1492, not to mention it was more capable of forming and funding an effective army for war.

The Castilians choose highly centralized political institutions for their colonies. Without going into too much detail, the executive, the viceroy, was appointed by the Crown. Several other important political positions were appointed and were mostly reserved for Spaniards. The people who held those positions could not own property in their own jurisdiction, they could not marry individuals from their jurisdiction, and they only held their posts for a few years.

So the Castilians went to great lengths to choose carefully the types of people who would govern the New World, and how they would govern it once they arrived. Was the selection of highly centralized colonial institutions a byproduct of the fact the Castilians had highly centralized institutions at home? Perhaps… while I do not think the political institutions in the New World were solely derived from the ones in the Old World, I do think Old World institutions influenced the development of New World ones.

I wonder what would have happened had the Aragonese developed the New World, or helped develop it. Would they have chosen less centralized political institutions than the Castilians did? In the very least, I think it is possible that they would have been more open to the prospect of considering less centralized institutions because they dealt with less centralized institutions at home.

Julie VanDusky-Allen

About Julie VanDusky-Allen

Julie VanDusky-Allen is at Boise State University and received her PhD in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2011. Her research focuses on institutional choice and development, political parties, the legislative process, and Latin American politics.

2 Replies to “Would the Aragonese have chosen differently? Political Institutions in the New World”

  1. This is a very cool counterfactual. There is a problem with it, however: there’s no significant variation in the attitude–or even the personages–of the rulers of Castile and Aragon; while Isabella (and Ferdinand) pursued policies designed to prevent feudal relations from developing in the New World–and thus a repeat of the forces they overcame in Castile–presumably Ferdinand would have had this same agenda, as would have Charles and Philip. Despite this policy, moreover, the Castilian colonizers could prove quite interested in decentralizing power towards themselves… as presumably would have the Aragonese, the Valencians, or the Catalans.

  2. There is an argument to be made that there was significant variation in the attitudes of the rulers of Castile and Aragon, and in the attitudes of the people of Aragon and Castile. There were significantly different opinions about what the royal government could and could not do, like raise taxes, establish a unified legislature, whether local militias should be combined into a unifying force, how the government should treat Moors and Jewish converts to Christianity, and there was even a debate over whether the Crown could remove judicial officers.
    The Aragonese, were always testing the limits of political power in Spain under Ferdinand and probably would have done so in the New World. The Castilians, on the other hand, had already dealt with centralized political institutions, and did not cause Isabella too many problems, so they were more familiar and perhaps more favorable to them. So it seems as though there would have been a greater push for decentralization had more people from Aragon settled in the New World.

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