the dark episode that sank Espartero’s fame

Updated:01/11/2021 01:54h


The images of the US Capitol assaulted by Trump supporters and long-horned shamans are not so foreign to the Spanish. One of the most iconic episodes of the Transition is the entry of Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero, at the head of a group of Civil Guard agents, in the Palace of the Courts during the vote to invest as president Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo. The coup d’etat remained in an attempt, but the stamp of Tejero, gun in hand, entering Congress is part of the most serious history of Spain.

A century earlier, on January 4, 1874, a similar scene had occurred in the last days of the short but intense life of the First Republic. In the early morning of that day, General Pavía and a group of armed soldiers dissolved the Cortes, not mounted on horseback as oral tradition assures, but they did fire the odd single shot to speed up the passage of some deputies who had sworn to die in their positions and that, faced with the detonations of gunpowder, they preferred to quickly pick up their outerwear in the wardrobe and win, head down and silent, Floridablanca street.

Both the entry of Tejero and that of Pavía in the Congress of Deputies are well known, not so much the other occasion in which the military aimed, and fired, directly at the legislative chamber of representation.

Fire against lions

The so-called Spanish Revolution of 1854 began with a pronouncement by O’Donnell and other moderate military men known as the Vicalvarada. Fed up with the corruption of the mother of Queen Elizabeth II and the excessive power of Ramón María Narváez, who returned to the presidency when and how he wanted, certain soldiers lit the fuse of a revolution that, beyond their plans, spread to the hungry Spanish people. The pronouncement was followed by weeks of barricades, jails raided, noble residences burned down, and the royal family besieged in their palace. The closest thing in Spain to the French Revolution of 1789 it happened those days.

Episode of the 1854 revolution at Puerta del Sol, by Eugenio Lucas Velázquez ..
Episode of the 1854 revolution at Puerta del Sol, by Eugenio Lucas Velázquez ..

With the water at chest level, the Queen decided to call Baldomero Espartero to her aid, whose popularity in the Army and among the people made him the only one capable of stopping the coup. Retired from politics in Logroño, this walking and ringing liberal symbol who had already turned sixty took a week to respond to the Queen’s request, and even then he did not clarify whether he intended to accept the position. However, the rumor that Espartero was coming to the capital was enough to clear the cloud of dust caused by the work on the barricades and the flames of some buildings. When people began to place portraits of the Queen next to those of Espartero and to dance and sing on the barricades, they had to to write off the revolution.

The song of a dollar had been lacking for Isabel to lose her crown, but neither the republic nor the replacement of the Bourbons by another dynasty were options with sufficient support at that time. It was accepted, as a medium, that Espartero acceded to the presidency to satisfy the people, and O’Donnell to the War Ministry to attach the Army strap. Almost everyone calculated that, whatever band-aids they wanted, the Queen would not hesitate for three months on the throne, but she was more than ten years.

Isabel II, closely watched by progressives, not only did it hold the crown against all odds, but even outlived Espartero. Both O’Donnell and the Queen crouched for a time allowing it to be the liberal greatsword who will squander his prestige and stop the bullets. As well expressed Karl Marx on the new coming of the caudillo, “the Espartero who made his triumphal entry into Madrid was no longer a real man, but a ghost, a name, a reminiscence.” And as such he acted.

“The Espartero who made his triumphal entry into Madrid was no longer a real man, but a ghost, a name, a reminiscence”

For two years Espartero oscillated between applying repressive measures to save the Monarchy and winks at the Democrats who wanted to end the royal institution. Between his fondness for order and his progressive ideas. Between satisfying the people or the international markets. Between his affection for the Queen and his belief that Elizabeth was incapable of ruling. Between retiring or fighting … In the end, Espartero betrayed himself and his party, or at least that is how progressives considered it. He parried more blows than he should have been in the name of the Crown, and then left as if he had never been there with the prestige riddled with bruises.

As Isabel Burdiel defends in her book “Elizabeth II: a biography” (Taurus), «Espartero would have been, perhaps, a good constitutional monarch, allowing the general will and the institutions represented to do so. However, he was a very bad leader of a party that had to fight, outside the Cortes and in them, against the conservative reaction sheltered on the throne ».

Second parts never was good

When in July 1856 the progressives tried again to revive the revolution of two years earlier, Espartero marched through the barricades, slapped his comrades in encouragement, and then disappeared. For days he remained hidden in the house of a military friend before finally retiring to Logroño. Thus he avoided taking part in the government repression that caused a thousand deaths in Madrid alone and that ended with the Congress of Deputies bombed and the head of a lion shattered.

Leopoldo O'Donnell's portrait
Leopoldo O’Donnell’s portrait

Defying the martial law decreed by O’Donnell, a group of around ninety progressive deputies and some Democrats had presented and approved a motion of distrust towards the new government, which it refused to recognize as valid, and had decided on the night of On July 14, stay locked up in the Cortes. The number of deputies was decreasing as the violence in the streets increased and the military related to the Queen took positions.

Francisco Serrano, as captain general of Madrid, ordered shrapnel, bombs and grenades to be fired the next day at the insurgents, which included the Congress of Deputies, whose progressive members had not decided, despite everything, to support the revolution openly. One of the grenades exploded the roof of the building and one of the lions on the steps lost his head. During a six-hour truce agreed by Serrano, a group of militiamen they managed to enter the halls of Congress to inform the deputies that their ranks were out of gunpowder and weak. Resistance was useless.

“But Baldomero, where have you been lately?”

At four in the morning on the 16th, the surviving deputies they met in secret session to declare the courts suspended. The president of the chamber pronounced the sentence: “The session is adjourned, the next session will be notified at home.” The fighting in the streets also died down that day, at least in Madrid. The confrontations in Barcelona and Zaragoza were still prolonged. There were no prisoners or those executed, although the freedom of the press was further limited in order to anesthetize the agitated public opinion.

Espartero would regret his smoke bomb a thousand times: “Staying inactive was for me a thousand times more cruel than death,” the progressive would justify himself with the excuse that he had thus avoided another civil war. His not very brave performance even won him over to the screeching of the Queen, who interrupted his farewell speech injected in grave words to ask him, with a little mocking tone: “But Baldomero, where have you been in recent times?”

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