Causes Of The Rapid Decline
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Loyalty and superstition; reverence for their kings and reverence for their clergy, were the leading principles which influenced the Spanish mind, and governed the march of Spanish history. The results of this combination were, during a considerable period, apparently beneficial, and certainly magnificent. For, the church and the crown making common cause with each other, and being inspirited by the cordial support of the people, threw their whole soul into their enterprises, and displayed an ardor which could hardly fail to insure success. Gradually advancing from the north of Spain, the Christians, fighting their way inch by inch, prest on till they reached the southern extremity, completely subdued the Mohammedans, and brought the whole country under one rule and one creed.
This great result was achieved late in the fifteenth century, and it cast an extraordinary luster on the Spanish name. Spain, long occupied by her own religious wars, had hitherto been little noticed by foreign powers, and had possest little leisure to notice them. Now, however, she formed a compact and undivided monarchy, and at once assumed an important position in European affairs. During the next hundred years, her power advanced with a speed of which the world had seen no example since the days of the Roman Empire. So late as 1478 Spain was still broken up into independent and often hostile states; Granada was possest by the Mohammedans; the throne of Castile was occupied by one prince, the throne of Aragon by another. Before the year 1590, not only were these fragments firmly consolidated into one kingdom, but acquisitions were made abroad so rapidly as to endanger the independence of Europe.
The history of Spain, during this period, is the history of one long and uninterrupted success. That country, recently torn by civil wars, and distracted by hostile creeds, was able in three generations to annex to her territory the whole of Portugal, Navarre, and Roussillon. By diplomacy, or by force of arms, she acquired Artois and Franche Comte, and the Netherlands; also the Milanese, Naples, Sicily, Sardinia, the Balearic Islands, and the Canaries. One of her kings was emperor of Germany ; while his son influenced the councils of England, whose queen he married. The Turkish power, then one of the most formidable in the world, was broken and beaten back on every side. The French monarchy was humbled. French armies were constantly worsted; Paris was once in imminent jeopardy; and a king of France, after being defeated on the field, was taken captive, and led prisoner at Madrid.
Out of Europe, the deeds of Spain were equally wonderful. In America, the Spaniards became possest of territories which covered sixty degrees of latitude, and included both the tropics. Besides Mexico, Central America, Venezuela, New Granada, Peru, and Chile, they conquered Cuba, San Domingo, Jamaica, and other islands. In Africa, they obtained Ceuta, Melilla, Oran, Bougiah, and Tunis, and overawed the whole coast of Barbary. In Asia, they had settlements on each side of the Deccan; they held part of Malacca; and they established them-selves in the Spice Islands. Finally, by the con-quest of the noble archipelago of the Philippines, they connected their most distant acquisitions, and secured a communication between every part of that enormous empire which girdled the world.
In connection with this, a great military spirit arose, such as no other modern nation has ever exhibited. All the intellect of the country which was not employed in the service of the Church was devoted to the profession of arms. Indeed, the two pursuits were often united; and it is said that the custom of ecclesiastics going to war was practised in Spain long after it was abandoned in other parts of Europe. At all events, the general tendency is obvious. A mere list of successful battles and sieges in the sixteenth and part of the fifteenth century, would prove the vast superiority of the Spaniards, in this respect, over their contemporaries, and would show how much genius they had expended in maturing the arts of destruction. Another illustration, if another were required, might be drawn from the singular fact that since the time of ancient Greece, no country has produced so many eminent literary men who were also soldiers. Calderon, Cervantes, and Lope de Vega risked their lives in fighting for their country.
In Spain, however, directly after the government slackened its hold, the nation fell to pieces. During that prosperous career which has just been noticed, the Spanish throne was invariably filled by very able and intelligent princes. Ferdinand and Isabella, Charles V. and Philip II. formed a line of sovereigns not to be matched in any other country for a period of equal length. By them, the great things were effected, and by their care, Spain apparently flourished. But, what followed when they were withdrawn from the scene, showed how artificial all this was, and how rotten, even to the core, is that system of government which must be fostered before it can thrive, and which, being based on the loyalty and reverence of the people, depends for success not on the ability of the nation, but on the skill of those to whom the interests of the nation are entrusted.
Philip II., the last of the great kings of Spain, died in 1598, and after his death the decline was portentously rapid. From 1598 to 1700, the throne was occupied by Philip III., Philip IV., and Charles IT. The contrast between them and their predecessors was most striking. Philip III. and Philip IV. were idle, ignorant, infirm of purpose, and passed their lives in the lowest and most sordid pleasures. Charles II., the last of that Austrian dynasty which had formerly been so distinguished, possest nearly every defect which can make a man ridiculous and contemptible. His mind and his person were such as, in any nation less loyal than Spain, would have exposed him to universal derision. Altho his death took place while he was still in the prime of life, he looked like an old and worn-out debauchee.
At the age of thirty-five, he was completely bald; he had lost his eyebrows; he was paralyzed; he was epileptic; and he was notoriously impotent. His general appearance was absolutely revolting, and was that of a driveling idiot. To an enormous mouth, he added a nether jaw protruding so hideously that his teeth could never meet, and he was unable to masticate his food. His ignorance would be incredible, if it were not substantiated by unimpeachable evidence. He did not know the names of the large towns, or even of the provinces, in his dominions; and during the war with France he was heard to pity England for losing cities which in fact formed part of his own territory. Finally, he was immersed in the most groveling superstition; he believed himself to be constantly tempted by the devil; he allowed himself to be exorcised as one possest by evil spirits; and he would not retire to rest, except with his confessor and two friars, who had to lie by his side during the night.
Now it was that men might clearly see on how sandy a foundation the grandeur of Spain was built. When there were able sovereigns, the country prospered; when there were weak ones, it declined. Nearly everything that had been done by the great princes of the sixteenth century, was undone by the little princes of the seventeenth. So rapid was the fall of Spain, that in only three reigns after the death of Philip II., the most powerful monarchy existing in the world was deprest to the lowest point of debasement, was insulted with impunity by foreign nations, was reduced more than once to bankruptcy, was stript of her fairest possessions, was held up to public opprobrium, was made a theme on which schoolboys and moralists loved to declaim respecting the uncertainty of human affairs, and, at length, was exposed to the bitter humiliation of seeing her territories mapped out and divided by a treaty in which she took no share, but the provisions of which she was unable to resent.
Then, truly, did she drink to the dregs the cup of her own shame. Her glory had de-parted from her, she was smitten down and humbled. Well might a Spaniard of that time who compared the present with the past, mourn over his country, the chosen abode of chivalry and romance, of valor and of loyalty. The mistress of the world, the queen of the ocean, the terror of nations, was gone; her power was gone, no more to return. To her might be applied that bitter lamentation, which, on a much slighter occasion, the greatest of the sons of men has put into the mouth of a dying statesman. Good reason, indeed, had the sorrowing patriot to weep, as one who refused to be comforted, for the fate of his earth, his realm, his land of dear souls, his dear, dear land, long dear for her reputation through the world, but now leased out like to a tenement or pelting farm.
It would be a weary and unprofitable task to relate the losses and disasters of Spain during the seventeenth century. The immediate cause of them was undoubtedly bad government and unskilful rulers; but the real and overriding cause, which determined the whole march and tone of affairs, was the existence of that loyal and reverential spirit which made the people submit to what any other country would have spurned, and, by accustoming them to place extreme confidence in individual men reduced the nation to that precarious position in which a succession of incompetent princes was sure to overthrow the edifice which competent ones had built up.