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Chile Civil Wars - 1818-30

Of all the republics which were formed in our America on the emancipation of the Spanish colonies, Chili had the least chequered existence. The stability introduced into its institutions in good time made Chili a prosperous commercial and industrial nation, essentially agricultural and pastoral, and with a natural inclination for material progress.

It may be said, on the other hand, that the nature of the country protects it against civil war better than against foreign invasion. Chili extends from north to south, measuring 343,458 square kilometres, and forms a strip, bounded on one side by the Pacific Ocean, and on the other by the gigantic mountain range of the Andes for a length of 2200 kilometres. A country enclosed in such a manner between the sea and the mountains offers few resources to the conquered to hide, take breath and form again. Insurrections last but a short time, and victory is almost always decided after the first battle. For this reason civil wars have not been permanent in Chili as in the neighbouring republics, Bolivia, for instance, which is its northern limit, where vast deserts offer a secure refuge to the vanquished but not discouraged parties.

From 1817 to 1823, Bernardo O'Higgins ruled Chile as supreme director (president). He won plaudits for defeating royalists and founding schools, but civil strife continued. O'Higgins alienated liberals and provincials with his authoritarianism, conservatives and the church with his anticlericalism, and landowners with his proposed reforms of the land tenure system. His attempt to devise a constitution in 1818 that would legitimize his government failed, as did his effort to generate stable funding for the new administration. O'Higgins's dictatorial behavior aroused resistance in the provinces. This growing discontent was reflected in the continuing opposition of partisans of Carrera, who was executed by the Argentine regime in Mendoza in 1821, like his two brothers were three years earlier.

Although opposed by many liberals, O'Higgins angered the Roman Catholic Church with his liberal beliefs. He maintained Catholicism's status as the official state religion but tried to curb the church's political powers and to encourage religious tolerance as a means of attracting Protestant immigrants and traders. Like the church, the landed aristocracy felt threatened by O'Higgins, resenting his attempts to eliminate noble titles and, more important, to eliminate entailed estates.

O'Higgins's opponents also disapproved of his diversion of Chilean resources to aid San Martín's liberation of Peru. O'Higgins insisted on supporting that campaign because he realized that Chilean independence would not be secure until the Spaniards were routed from the Andean core of the empire. After Chili had recovered her independence, she sent an expedition to give independence to Peru, which was the last of the Spanish colonies to throw off the yoke of the mother country; and also that on 22nd July, 1822, a Congress was convoked in Santiago, to which O'Higgins resigned the dictatorship, which had been confided to him, according to his own expression, in less happy times. His resignation was accepted by Congress, and the title of Supreme Director was conferred on him three days later. On 23rd October the constitution was promulgated, which, if it had some defects, sanctioned the abolition of slavery.

Discontent did not delay to show itself in various provinces, chiefly in Coquimbo, which complained that the working of the mines was neglected. General Freyre resolved to make use for his own advantage of this discontent and of that of his soldiers for the neglect from which they suffered, and, being aided by some friends, raised the above-mentioned province, whose Committee of Government declared on 22nd December "that in the future the provinces of Coquimbo and Concepcion would consider themselves in every point independent of the Chilian Republic". The constitution voted by the Congress of Santiago was declared null and void, and the director O'Higgins was declared to be deposed . Freyre marched at the head of the revolted troops against Santiago, the garrisons of Quillota and Aconcagua, which were sent to bar his passage, joining him on the road.

Amid mounting discontent, troops from the northern and southern provinces forced O'Higgins to resign. During these events the partisans that Freyre had in the capital demanded that the director should abdicate his office, to which he agreed on condition that a committee should be formed which could receive his resignation and put itself at the head of the Government, and this being done he quitted the capital and went to Valparaiso, Peru, where he died in 1842.

After O'Higgins went into exile in 1823, civil conflict continued, focusing mainly on the issues of anticlericalism and regionalism. Presidents and constitutions rose and fell quickly in the 1820s.

After the retirement of O'Higgins Freyre was nominated to succeed him, his first resolution being to convene for June, 1823, a new Congress which changed the constitution. Freyre did not succeed in putting an end to the evils that had been attributed to the want of judgment of O'Higgins, and on this account signs of discontent became general, when an attempt made by the former in the archipelago of Chiloe gave occasion for the agitation to increase to such an extent that Congress, in order to restrain it, conferred, although only for a short time, the dictatorship on the director; but this measure did not restrain the factions, and the disorder and confusion reached their height. To re-establish order, Congress, by a decree of 17th May, 1825, conferred the dictatorship again on Freyre for a month and dissolved itself. This measure was scarcely taken when new insurrections broke out, the supreme director being obliged to fly to Santiago, and order could only be re-established by seizing and exiling the principal disturbers of peace.

About this time Freyre sent against the archipelago of Chiloe, which was governed in the name of Spain by Quintanella, an expedition composed of 4000 men and a squadron of two frigates and some smaller vessels, which set sail on 2nd January, 1826. After numerous actions, in which the Chilians almost always gained the victory, Quintanella was obliged to sign a capitulation on the 19th, in virtue of which the whole archipelago remained in the power of the republic. This conflict gave occasion for fresh disturbances, because the inhabitants of San Carlos, encouraged by a military insurrection, met in sovereign assembly, which, on 25th May, sent a decree establishing a special Government for the archipelago, presided over by Manuel Fuentes, with the title of intendant governor.

A new Congress having assembled in Santiago (14th July, 1826) desirous of re-establishing peace and tranquillity and of attending to the demands that were made to it from all sides, declared that the form of government should for the future be federative. Not even by giving this satisfaction to the aspirations of the provinces did it succeed in re-establishing calm, since fresh disturbances broke out at the beginning of 1827. The Congress, discontented with the ministers, had them seized during a sitting of the council, dismissed the provisional director, and obliged General Freyre to accept this office, which he had resigned on the opening of the Chamber, and a few days after annulled this decision and accused Freyre.

While the legislative power attacked the executive, the provinces refused to obey the contradictory decrees of the Congress; on account of all this the director, in despair at seeing himself impotent to put a stop to such grave evils, presented his resignation to the Congress in the following terms: "Convinced that I have not the talent necessary to command without laws, nor to put order in the chaos in which Chili now is, my duty commands me to beg Congress to relieve me of the insupportable task which it has confided to me. I shall always submit to its august power when it is a question of going to fight; I am ready to sacrifice myself for everything, but I do not wish to undertake any office in the political government of the country." The resignation of Freyre was accepted, but no successor was appointed, Pinto performing the duties of chief magistrate as vice-president.

In this, as in the other South American republics, the disputes between Unionists and Federalists occasioned continual agitation, insurrections and changes of president and constitution. On 24 February 1828, the Congress met, first in Santiago and then in Valparaiso, in order to discuss a new constitution which, being the work of the Radicals or Federalists, it is needless to say was based on the principles of the most Radical democracy. Congress, knowing the dangers of the chief magistracy being exercised by one not holding the title, raised Pinto to the presidency, this being the first time since the foundation of the republic that this high office had been legally filled. This title, nevertheless, was not sufficient for the new president, in order that all parties should respect him, and in a short time the province of Concepcion, in which the federalists always found support, was in open rebellion against the president and the Congress which had elected him.

In August 1828, Pinto's first year in office, Chile abandoned its short-lived federalist system for a unitary form of government, with separate legislative, executive, and judicial branches. By adopting a moderately liberal constitution in 1828, Pinto alienated both the federalists and the liberal factions. He also angered the old aristocracy by abolishing estates inherited by primogeniture ( mayorazgo) and caused a public uproar with his anticlericalism. Pinto, desirous of pacifying the country, determined to retire into private life, and resigned on 20 October 1829. The federalists appointed General Lastera as his successor.

The Opposition, that is, the Unitarians, known, in allusion to their retrograde tendencies, by the nickname of Pelucones, or the Wigs, had General Joaquin Prieto at its head, and in its ranks a citizen named Diego Portales, who was very soon to play an important part. The dispute between the Unitarians and the Federalists became more inflamed with the resignation of Pinto, and in a short time an insurrectional committee was formed in Santiago. In December 1829 the two parties met in a sanguinary combat in Larcay, the Pelucones gained the victory, and hastened to exile the chief defenders of the constitution of 1828, declaring it "null and void ".

The civil struggle's harmful effects on the economy, and particularly on exports, prompted conservatives to seize national control in 1830. In the minds of most members of the Chilean elite, the bloodshed and chaos of the late 1820s were attributable to the shortcomings of liberalism and federalism, which had been dominant over conservatism for most of the period. The abolition of slavery in 1823--long before most other countries in the Americas--was considered one of the liberals' few lasting achievements. One liberal leader from the south, Ramón Freire Serrano, rode in and out of the presidency several times (1823-27, 1828, 1829, 1830) but could not sustain his authority. From May 1827 to September 1831, with the exception of brief interventions by Freire, the presidency was occupied by Francisco Antonio Pinto Díaz, Freire's former vice president.

After the defeat of his liberal army at the Battle of Lircay on April 17, 1830, Freire, like O'Higgins, went into exile in Peru. The trimming policy that prevailed in the Government councils was to resist the Radicals, under the well-known pretext that the country was not yet prepared for liberty, and to oppose an obstacle to the abuses that the triumph of the upper or rich classes and the clergy could not fail to bring or to resuscitate.

There did not exist any real patriotism among the Chilenos, nor were they capable of entertaining any feeling of disinterestedness towards their fellow beings. At the commencement of the revolution, a kind of wild sensation pervaded some of the leading personages to shake off the Spanish yoke, and to substitute for it the present order of affairs, which virtually was the same as the former under another name: all acts, all new establishments, differed only in title. There was hardly one citizen who would not sacrifice his country for money, or for hopes of pecuniary aggrandisement ; even its independance would have been bartered away or sold for money long ago, but for the existing jealousies among them, and the conviction that greater facilities for plunder, and a less degree of responsibility, exist under the present condition of affairs.

No one unacquainted with the national character can conceive the total disregard of honor and honesty which pervaded the Chilenos in political matters : suffer them only to pursue their petty trading occupations, and party men may fight and intrigue for power and influence, may make laws, and levy duties, may enrich themselves at the public expense, and ruin the resources of the country without their taking the trouble to notice it; much less is even a public murmur heard, or an inquiry called for. Whenever conspiracies or revolutions took place, they were looked upon with the utmost unconcern, exciting as little sensation or reflection in the body of the people as if the event had occurred in a foreign country. This apathy in the public, or rather the non-existence of any notions of government, or of being governed as they should be, rendered any plan of a republican, or free government, both absurd and impracticable in Chile.

The only persons who took any interest in the government were about 120 families in the capital, and eighty families in all other parts of the country. The ministers were either the members or the tools of these families ; the officers of the army were branches of these families, every office of emolument was in their hands ; and what with intermarriages, and other ties of affinity, the real power and influence was comprised within the reach and command of less than twenty persons. These ties were so bounded by interest, so cemented by long existing habits and prejudices, and so upheld by old forms and established regulations, that no hope could rationally be entertained of altering the system, until the great body of the people became enlightened, and can think for themselves : there existed almost as little hope of their advancement in these respects as might have been expected under the Spaniards.

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Page last modified: 06-12-2012 14:23:23 ZULU