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Yesterday’s Spain, Today’s America

How the conquistadors' empire undermined stability at home

Americans who worry about the future of their country can gain perspective by traveling overseas, where they can see how other countries have dealt, and are dealing, with collective challenges.

A trip to Spain, for example, might provide some poignant and pointed lessons in what countries ought not to do. Indeed, huge lessons leaped into the mind of this recent tourist:

First, the dangers of military adventurism, not only because of the loss of life and the possibility of losing even more in the event of defeat, but also because of the inevitable damage done to the civil society at home.

Second, the dangers of financialism, defined as putting money and monetary manipulation ahead of actual innovation and productivity. It’s gratifying, of course, to possess vast treasures of gold and silver, but the history of Spain reminds us that national wealth is not the same as national well-being.

Madrid is a city of art museums, most notably, the Prado. Its walls and spaces are graced by works from all over Europe. It took money to import paintings from Rubens and Titian, and other painters from far away, such as the Doménikos Theotokópoulos–soon to be known as El Greco–were inspired to move to Spain. In 1577, Toledo was the best place in the world to find a rich patron.

Yes, those were the glory years of Spanish wealth and power, from the 15th to 17th centuries. And yet the visitor sees few paintings by non-Spaniards from more recent centuries; it would seem that the patrons were no longer rich enough to afford them.

Yet in trolling through the Prado and another museum, the Thyssen-Bornemisza, one sees evidence that even when Spain was rich, it was still, in many ways, poor. The artworks tell us that in 17th century Holland and Flanders, for instance, many of the city streets and plazas were paved; those in Spain were not.

Such investments in what we now call “infrastructure” have always yielded many benefits; not only were places prettier and cleaner, and transport better, but they were also healthier. Long before germ theory was understood, city fathers in some cities intuited that better water runoff and sewage facilities were useful in thwarting such contagious diseases as cholera and typhoid, and wise leaders managed to divert money for civic improvements.

By contrast, a museum visitor can see that even in old Madrid, the capital, the streets were not paved; one 18th century painting shows royal coaches kicking up dust on one of the main boulevards of the city, the Paseo del Prado.

A society that cares about its common people will spend money on the commonweal, and history shows that such caring is rewarded in not only in social solidarity, but also in economic growth. And so we see a huge divergence in Europe, as the emerging bourgeois societies of the Low Countries, Catholic as well as Protestant, pulled away–politically, economically, and socially–from the feudal and reactionary rulers of Spain. By the 19th century, the people of Holland, for example, enjoyed a literacy rate more than triple that of Spain; Dutch per capita incomes and life expectancies were vastly superior as well.

And why this divergence? It’s possible for the curious observer to piece together some clues simply from Spanish stones and statues.

It’s said, for example, that Spain has more castles than any other country in Europe, a legacy of the nearly eight centuries of the Reconquista. That was the long war waged by Christians against the Muslims who invaded Spain in 711 CE; the final ejection of the Moors was achieved in the pivotal year of 1492. That near-millennium of religious warfare–by comparison, the wars of the Reformation lasted “only” 130 years–left a gory red streak through Spanish culture.

So the virus of military adventurism was loosed in Spain; many generations of young men wanted to be the next El Cid. Even after the last Muslim ruler was gone from the Iberian peninsula, Spaniards still felt the urge to fight Muslims somewhere; Spain soon tried its hand at invading North Africa.

Thus the historical imperative of national liberation turned itself into a seeming infatuation with war. Indeed, even before Christopher Columbus made landfall in the New World, Iberian mariners and conquistadors were spreading out across the planet, seeking gold, slaves, the fountain of youth–anything that they could claim. The Spanish, victims of aggression at home, became the aggressive victimizers abroad.

In the 16th century, Spain gained mastery of the Caribbean, South America, Central America, and a good deal of North America. Those remarkable victories were achieved in large measure through political stratagem–Cortes and Pizarro were adroit in forming indigenous coalitions to overcome the Aztecs and the Incas–but historical memory has focused on Spanish martial prowess.

Centuries later, in 1847, the American historian William H. Prescott, writing his History Of The Conquest Of Peru, set the scene, describing the worst and best of that epoch:

The mail-clad cavalier, brandishing his bloody lance, and mounted on his war-horse, riding over the helpless natives, or battling with his own friends and brothers; fierce, arrogant, and cruel, urged on by the lust of gold, or the scarce more honorable love of a bastard glory. Mingled with these qualities, indeed, we have seen sparkles of the chivalrous and romantic temper which belongs to the heroic age of Spain.

The conquistadors made Spain rich, or so it seemed. It’s estimated that Spain imported some 4000 metric tons of silver, just in the second half of the 16th century. And the immense reserves inside Cerro Rico–rich mountain–at Potosí, in what is now Bolivia, continued to produce what Prescott described as “torrents” and “rivers” of silver for centuries thereafter. And that was just silver; the Spanish were extracting legendary amounts of gold and other precious metals. In addition, of course, the Spanish used
Indian and African serfs and slaves to run vast plantations.

Thus Spain was able to finance costly wars across Europe–most of which they lost. Most famously, in 1588, Spain’s King Philip II sent his Armada to conquer England; instead, he lost half his fleet, and Spain lost its naval preeminence.

We might pause over one problem that Spain faced: For the most part, it was not manufacturing the weapons it needed; instead, it was importing them. One needn’t be a Keynesian during World War Two to see the economic difference: A foreign war effort based on a domestic arms industry is expensive, but win or lose, the factories, and the
knowhow, remain to enrich the country, even after the fighting is over. By contrast, a war effort based on imported weapons is simply, well, expensive.

The Eighty Years’ War, representing Spain’s failed effort to subdue Dutch revolutionaries from 1568 to 1648–the last portion of which was folded into the Thirty Years’ War–proved to be a ruinously expensive defeat for Spain. The conflict proved to be a ruinously expensive defeat for Spain. As an aside, for those who are curious as to what a losing battle back then looked like, here’s a YouTube clip depicting the Battle of Rocroi in 1643, in which the French defeated the Spanish; Rocroi broke Spain as a land power in Europe.

To be sure, other important battles worked out better. The same Philip II financed much of the Battle of Lepanto in 1571; that was the naval battle that stopped the advance of the Ottoman Turks in the Mediterranean. We might remember, with admiration and gratitude, that the history of European Christendom would have been different had that
battle gone differently.

But wars, just or not, often impose hidden and long term costs. As James Madison wrote in 1795,

Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.

The Spanish suffered all the effects that Madison described–and more. A culture that glorifies violence overseas will likely also find itself glorifying violence, too, in its own territory.

Indeed, 1492 was not only the year of Columbus, and of final victory over the Muslims; it was also the beginning of a brutal new period for the Spanish Inquisition. The same Ferdinand and Isabella authorized the forced conversion or expulsion of Jews, and, soon thereafter, the mandatory conversion of the surviving but subordinated Muslim
population. Thus Spain created an intolerant culture of spies and stool pigeons, in which a single accusation of lingering Jewish or Muslim faith, real or imagined, could destroy an individual, a family, even a community.

In fact, in their bloody zeal, the Spanish set up two nasty and counterproductive institutions: In addition to the Church’s Inquisition, the state pursued a policy of limpieza de sangre– “cleanliness of blood.” That is, officials sought to ascertain who
was an “Old Christian,” and who was a “New Christian,” that is, a convert from Judaism or Islam. And only a cristiano viejo could serve, for example, as a military officer, or enter into a holy order. A cristiano nuevo, by contrast, was a second-class citizen, or
worse. These dueling destructive institutions, church inquisition and state race-categorization, sought to purify–and yet instead, they corrupted. They helped cripple Spanish society and its economy, until finally abolished in 19th century.

So now we are starting to see how Spain could arrive at such a paradoxical condition: how a country could be so rich and yet so poor. Yes, it had wealth, but it was doing everything else wrong.

Indeed, in Spain’s glorification of violence–or, if one prefers, chivalry and the military–and its preoccupation with racial purity, all the while ignoring the needs of its economy, one can draw at least some comparison between Spain and the antebellum American South. In both places, the cultivation of cavalier attitudes and the quest for glory–while ruthlessly defending cruel race-based hierarchies–addled the minds of the ruling class.

Indeed, 19th century Southern cavaliers might have learned from earlier caballeros across the Atlantic. In Spanish culture, old times there were not forgotten–with a vengeance. In the 1986 work, The Count-Duke Olivares: The Statesman in an Age of Decline, Oxford historian J.H. Elliott describes a reformist report written in early
17th century Castile, in the heart of Spain, outlining the economic challenge:

Major problems of the Castilian economy were correctly identified–the rentier mentality, the neglect of the mechanical arts, the lack of productive investment, the weakness of the agricultural sector, the export of raw materials and the consequent decay of native Castilian industries.

Yet as Elliott explains, that worthy report went nowhere. The Count-Duke Olivares, the first minister of Spain from 1621 to 1643, indeed had many of the right ideas, but the reactionary nature of Spanish culture stymied him. In addition, the attention devoted to
Spain’s endless wars always seemed to preempt positive action on the homefront, and thus Spain continued its decay.

We might return, as one important indicator of positive social priorities, to the issue of paved roads and other public works. In 19th century America, the North focused on building roads and canals and railroads, while the South focused on defending its honor and its “peculiar institution” of slavery. The result was the rapid industrialization and population growth of the North, while the South lagged behind.

Another result, of course, was the Civil War. The South had the better conquistadors, but the North had more men, weapons, and materiel. And that’s how the stolid Ulysses S. Grant beat the dashing Robert E. Lee.

So today in America, long after slavery and other forms of de jure racism have been abolished, self-styled Jeffersonians, who see only the virtues of government that governs least, might still reflect on the issue of what actually makes an economy grow. Is it just low taxes and limited government? Or is it also good infrastructure, an educated workforce, and a national celebration of technological innovation and economic dynamism?

Moreover, one needn’t be a fan of an engorged welfare state to see the economic value of national leadership. As Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton observed in his 1791 Report on Manufactures, ordinary people are often hesitant over needed changes and improvements; as he put it, “The simplest and most obvious improvements … are adopted with hesitation, reluctance and by slow gradations.” To speed up progress, Hamilton argued, the government must sometimes take the lead: “To produce the desirable changes, as early as may be expedient, may therefore require the incitement and patronage of government.”

As we have seen, the Spanish government incited nothing but religious tyranny, race-based persecution, and vainglorious military action. That’s how you lose an empire.

So while the parallels between Spain and the U.S. are far from perfect, it still could be useful to draw them. China is projected to overtake the U.S. in the overall size of its economy, and even now, the U.S. ranks just 11th in per capita income. And in other metrics, including education, health, and life expectancy, the U.S. is unimpressive. The one place where America has the clear edge is … the military.

American reformers might ask: Is the U.S. really the best place in the world to do business? Or is it simply a good place to be rich? There is, after all, a difference between “pro-business” and “pro-rich.”

In particular, American reformers eager to avoid the traps that Spain fell into might focus on one point from Oxford’s Elliott: the rentier mentality. That is, the financialist idea that sitting back while reaping the benefits of money is as good, or better, than actually figuring out how to produce things.

In their defense, sort of, we might note that the Spanish stumbled into their financialist windfall: Nobody in history had ever seen anything like the sudden surge of silver and gold that poured into Spain from the Americas.

Yet if a visitor to Spain wants to see how and where that money was spent, a trip to the Primate Cathedral of St. Mary of Toledo helps to answer the question. The novelist James Michener, in his 1968 non-fiction work, Iberia: Spanish Travels and Reflections, observed of the cathedral, “It is so beautiful that one could never exhaust its variety … it is a masterpiece of concept and execution.” Adding, “I wonder if there is another church in the world whose interior is so rich and at the same time so beautiful.”

Construction of the cathedral began in the 13th century, long before the Spanish possessed the Cerro Rico, but the fabulous adornments were added during the high tide of Spanish wealth. The Great Monstrance–that is, the vessel that holds the consecrated Eucharistic host–is ten feet tall, containing some 40 pounds of gold and 400 pounds of silver. It took seven years to build, and it was built by a German.

So yes, the conquistadors made Spain rich–but ironically, too rich for its own good. The wealth of the Americas turned out to be a kind of fool’s gold; the Spanish forgot how to do everything except fight and persecute and consume.

Today, in our time, in our own country, we can each feel free to ponder the impact of financialism. To be sure, our financial wealth comes from a financial source–in our case, we don’t mine it, we simply conjure it up. Indeed, we can further espy the actions of the Federal Reserve, engaged in the arcana of quantitative easing, and wonder if such policies are helping Main Street anywhere near as much as Wall Street. And we can further wonder whether our own flourishing imperial capital is thinking about the wellbeing of a wilting heartland.

Those are all questions that we have to answer for ourselves, through our own politics. Still, a good perspective on the past–including what happened to Spain–provides some useful guideposts for the present. We may be an exceptional nation, but we aren’t so exceptional that we can evade the harsh lessons of history.

James P. Pinkerton is a contributor to the Fox News Channel and a TAC contributing editor. Follow him on Twitter.



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