No. 555.
Mr. Adee to Mr. Fish.

No. 182.]

Sir: The prolonged crisis of the past six weeks or more has reached a temporary halting-place in the investment of Marshal Serrano with, practically, absolute powers as chief of the state. A decree, adopted in cabinet council on the 26th ultimo, and published in the official gazette on the 27th, separates, the functions of the President of the executive power from those of the president of the council, and clothes the ex-regent with attributions even more extended than those he possessed during the early stages of the revolutionary period.

But a few days had passed after the events of the 3d of January, when it became apparent that the cabinet, although united in the main purpose of overcoming the factions in arms in favor of the traditional monarchy, was divided on matters of governmental procedure. The published manifestations of the new government were seen to lack that perfect harmony which might be supposed to mark the accords of men avowedly joined in defense of the conquests of the revolution. These divergencies first arose with respect to legalizing the status of a situation not directly descended from a prior legality but rather built upon its ruins. The first expression of the purposes of the government, as seen in the circulars of the minister of the interior and in the manifesto to the nation, seemed to assume that by tacit acquiescence in the new order of things the country had accepted it without reserve, and that an appeal to the popular will would be not merely supererogatory but productive of fresh conflicts and embarrassing issues. These two publications agreed in relegating the minor questions of form and procedure to an ordinary legislature to be chosen at some future time when the country and the colonies should enjoy peace, and the constitution of 1869, modified in a republican sense and released from its enforced suspension, should again become the supreme code of the land. Next appeared the celebrated memorandum of the minister for foreign affairs. In this notable state paper a new political phase came into view. It was asserted in no doubtful terms that the renunciation of the crown by the late King had left a void which remained to be filled under the existing constitution, although by whom and how did not appear. Its general tenor regarded the republican experiments of the past year as merely passing disturbances, barren of results, and serving only as warnings for the future.

From this time the diverging tendencies in the cabinet became marked. The need of obtaining some form of popular ratification of the situation created by the garrison of Madrid on the morning of the 3d of January, was advanced with increasing boldness and opposed with equal persistence. On the one hand it was contended that an enduring legality remained to be established; on the other it was proclaimed that the republic was already the government of the country, and that nothing was left to do save to arrange mere matters of detail.

At this stage of the question, a bomb was dropped into the camp in the form of a proposition for a plebiscite. This was first broached by the organ of Admiral Topete, “El Gobierno,” which was promptly fined for a violation of the somewhat stringent press regulations in force. The discussion was, however, initiated, and could not be stayed; a crisis was definitely set on foot. The project was received with benevolence [Page 872] by a fraction of the republican party, following, it was rumored, the leadership of Castelar. It was proposed that two questions should be presented jointly for the vote of the people: the acceptance of the republic as the national form of government, and the elevation of Marshal Serrano to the chief magistracy, following the example, set in the neighboring republic, of Marshal MacMahon. The moderate republican alliance was expected to insure the success of the scheme, and it was even hinted that the acknowledged leader of that party might be persuaded to organize the first ministry under the new legality. The retirement of the conservative element of the present cabinet was predicted as a certainty. The federal republicans, as was to be expected, opposed the scheme. A plebiscite, they said, was an innovation in Spain. It detracted still more from the prestige of the Cortes—the traditional supreme power under a long line of Spanish monarchs—already shaken by the events of the 23d of April and the 3d of January. And the experience of the measure in France had shown its untrustworthiness as a means of obtaining a genuine popular verdict. Its result was a foregone conclusion; the usual ratification of the statu quo by the masses in favor of tranquillity at any price. As the question was likely to be put, its defeat rejected the republic, and its acceptance set a monarchist in supreme power. The abstention of the entire federal element was therefore counseled. The discussion was, beside, inaugurated at a most inopportune moment. The Carlists, emboldened by their partial successes of Monte Jurra and Puenta la Keina, in which the army under General Moriones had not been able to accomplish the strategic movements it undertook, concentrated their forces in the Basque provinces, and redoubled their attack on Bilbao. The situation of that city was critical in the extreme; its supplies were practically cut off, its strongest outpost, Portugalete, had fallen, and the besiegers brought their approaches nearer day by day, till their guns were able to command the town itself. Moriones, abandoning his old line of operations, had shifted his forces by sea to the west of the beleagured capital, and the rival armies stood face to face almost under its walls. A great battle was imminent, and much depended on its issue. The attention of the nation was fixed on the Cantabrian coast, where its fate might be decided any day. It was in no humor for entering upon a heated canvass. The actual government, so far as it represented anything, represented liberal Spain arrayed against traditionalism. A diversion now, however well founded in principle, might weaken the resistance to the common enemy. It was therefore given out that no real motive for a crisis existed, that no immediate appeal to the country was contemplated, and that the cabinet was a unit as to the expediency of conferring the supreme magistracy on Marshal Serrano, but the only points on which perfect harmony did not prevail were the title, attributions, and salary of the chief of the state. Ulterior questions would be postponed until the siege of Bilbao was raised.

A period of anxious suspense followed. All eyes were turned to the north. A fearful tempest, with deluging rains, swept over the Biscayan coast. The operations of the army were paralyzed. The transmission of supplies and men was stopped. The vessels of the fleet sought refuge in the nearest harbors. Communications with the forces in the field were interrupted. The wires were prostrated by the storm, or cut by roving bands of marauders. In the absence of trustworthy news, the wildest rumors gained credence. The bourse showed the feverish spirit of the day by its rapid fluctuations.

The storm at last ceased, and the forces under General Moriones [Page 873] began to move. Then came reports that the struggle had begun. Hundreds of the wounded were arriving at Santander. The Carlists positions were being carried one by one. If the heights of Avano could be won, Portugalete would be retaken and Bilbao saved. At this point, however, the national troops met with a reverse, and after desperate fighting were forced to fall back to the positions they held on the first day, near Somarrostro. This was speedily magnified by the alarmists into a disastrous defeat. The bourse fell, and Spanish three per cents touched 14.15, the lowest price yet quoted since the revolution of 1868. General Moriones urgently called for six battalions of fresh troops. Every train for the north was laden with re-enforcements. Marshal Serrano and Admiral Topete determined to put themselves in person at the head of the land and sea forces. This brought to a climax the lingering cabinet crisis, which now bid fair to become chronic. The deus ex machina of the situation, General Pa via, interposed his influence, and, as a compromise, constitutional issues respecting name and powers were left open by the retention of the title borne by the chief executive since the renunciation of Amadeo, supreme power was given to Serrano by a decree in council, and the vexed question of the forthcoming presidency of the ministry was postponed by intrusting the office provisionally to General Zavala, the minister of war. The decree was published on the 27th ultimo, and on the same day the president and the minister of marine set out for the Basque Provinces.

An analysis of the several articles of the constitution referred to in the preamble and decree in question will show the indeterminate character of the solution reached. They relate to the functions and powers of a king. Article 35 provides that the executive authority shall reside in the sovereign, and be exercised through his ministers. Title 4 (articles 67 to 76) defines the powers of the monarch. His responsibility devolves on his ministers. He may declare war and conclude peace. If the constitutional guarantees be suspended by reason of public disorders, as they are now, he is absolute until peace be restored. And article 86 provides that his decrees and orders shall be countersigned by the responsible minister. The decree of February 26 confers all these powers upon Marshal Serrano. No limitation is assigned to the duration of his term of office. Even the seventy-sixth article, which directs the emoluments of the king to be fixed at the commencement of each reign, has been followed in the present instance, and it is announced that a decree will soon be promulgated granting an income of one hundred thousand dollars annually to the chief of the state. It is not surprising that this solution should be claimed by the most extreme partisans as in accordance with their doctrines. The moderate republicans see in it the renewed affirmation of the republic, while the constitutional monarchists accept it as a return to first principles, under a merely transitory change of name. The vague intimation found in the preamble that the country may be consulted at a fitting time, while standing as an acknowledgment that the legality of the act still awaits the national sanction, does not show the manner in which it is to be obtained. Nor is it evident in what way the suggested reform of the constitution, in a republican sense, is to be accomplished, whether by decree of a self-constituted executive, by summoning anew the historical Constituent Cortes of Spain, or by direct legislation in an ordinary parliament. In short, it may not inaptly be said of the present arrangement, as was said of the authority assumed by the Prince President of the French Republic of 1848, by Mr. Jerningham, the British chargé [Page 874] d’affaires in Paris, that “if not absolutely perfect, it is at least perfectly absolute.”

Meanwhile the gravity of the situation in the north remains unchanged, or is, perhaps, even greater than before. Spain has been well-nigh stripped of troops to re-inforce the army of operations in Vizcaya. The sending of men to Cuba has been suspended, and it is even proposed to take a thousand Oarlist prisoners from the Cuban service and reship them to Spain for exchange. A fresh storm has delayed military movements on the one hand, while on the other the forces of the pretender, some twenty-five thousand strong, have had ample time to increase their already strong defenses. They still hold most of Aragon and Catalonia. Guerrilla bands roam almost without hinderance in the east. Santes is operating with a formidable column in Guadalajara, at some eighty miles distance from Madrid. Besides the army besieging Bilbao, Don Carlos can show a muster-roll of thirty thousand men in the rest of the peninsula. It seems, however, that the main issue is to be fought out before the, heights of Somarrostro and Avano, and in the vicinity of Portugalete. The government of the 3d of January is staking all on the cast. If it loses now, its future is critical to the utmost, and if it wins, the question of a definite organization of a national government on bases of unquestionable and lasting legality remains as a source of perplexity, and perhaps of peril.

I am, &c,


Decree of February 28, conferring the chief magistracy of the nation upon Marshal Serrano.

[Translated from “La Gaceta de Madrid,” February 27, 1874.]

Presidency of the Executive Power of the Republic:


Nations, like individuals, obey the instinct of self-preservation, and since they cannot die—for human society may be transformed but it does not perish—it is a law of history that in critical moments they always find in themselves the providential instrument of their salvation. So it fell out on the memorable 3d of January. The army, nobly represented by the garrison of Madrid, faithfully and fearlessly interpreting the national sentiment, which gazed with horror upon the advancing tide of general dissolution, rushed forward to meet the danger, and in a few hours, without effusion of blood, confident of the moral support of all the social forces, restored order and freed Spain from the horrors of demagogism.

Thus a perfectly legal state of things, but one that nevertheless appeared to be in close alliance with anarchy, was brought to nought amid the execrations of the people. The Cortes were dissolved, after having displayed their baleful impotence, and when they had already been doomed to a violent end through their own waywardness. And now, to replace the Cortes, a firm, energetic government became at once necessary; a government which, fortified by all the attributes of authority concentrated in it, should have the means to resist and dominate the Carlists, and to secure the tranquillity of the state so profoundly perturbed.

Since the uprising of the 3d of January was not the result of political combinations nor of dark conspiracies, but rather the spontaneous upheaval of society in self-defense on seeing its dearest interests ignored and trampled under foot; and since also heterogeneous elements, unanimous now in the one idea of saving the country, had joined hands without previous accord to this common end, the form of government came forth intact from this supreme crisis and was accepted as an existing fact, because the vastness of the peril and the greatness of the purpose hushed in nearly all parties the voice of rival aspirations. Without denying their antecedents, without failing in their pledges or breaking faith with their doctrines, urged on by the irresistible necessity of the hour, recalling the noble example offered by liberal and conservative parties in France, they demurred not to an honorable compromise with the republican régime which they found already established, and which the same military movement of the 3d of January was bound to respect and did respect.

From this political concord, imposed by events, and to which nearly all parties not [Page 875] in arms loyally submitted, sprang forth a new situation, vigorous indeed, but more or less indefinite in form, as the natural result of the confusion that at first existed. If it was inevitable, and, perhaps, expedient, that the person elevated at that time to the supreme magistracy of the nation should assume also the presidency of the council of the ministers, yet now, when such urgent and temporary motives have in a great measure ceased, the indefinite prolongation of this anomalous state of things might give rise to serious and incessant conflicts. In all countries governed by a constitution, the chief of state, whatever be his title, does not govern directly, but through responsible ministers, subject to removal from office; because, otherwise, if he were at one and the same time the judge and the party in a political or administrative measure, he would fail to discharge properly his ordained mission as a moderator, and would no longer be the impartial arbiter between the various tendencies which in modern society dispute the control of public opinion. No political organization, however imperfect, can contain a stable power which forms an integral part of transitory powers; nor is it conceivable how difficult cabinet questions can be resolved with unimpassioned judgment by one who, in the exercise of his office, is obliged to intervene therein, and perhaps even to initiate them.

The evil being known, and the difficulties of the first few days having been overcome, it becomes urgent to proceed with the separation and limitation of the powers and functions respectively corresponding to the president of the executive power and to the ministers, pursuant to article 35 of title 2, title 4, and article 87 of title 6, of the constitution; and it is all the more urgent, because it is the most expeditious mode of strengthening the government created by the legitimate exigencies of the nation, of facilitating its progress, and of giving to it conditions of regularity, which are always conditions of strength.

In order to attain this object, it is not necessary to change the nature of the power constituted on the morning of the 3d of January, nor to commit any act of usurpation; which, however, could in no case be such, especially as the gravity of our political status has placed discretionary authority in the hands of the chief of the government. It is only necessary that the President of the executive power should renounce any immediate and personal intervention in the counsels of the ministers, confining his functions to those which the constitution of 1869 attributes restrictively to the chief of the state, and which may be compatible with the character with which he is at present clothed, and those transitorily allowing the exercise of the extraordinary powers made indispensable by the violence of our civil discords. In this way, by establishing a legal separation between the supreme moderating power and the active elements of the government, the confusion that embarrasses, or rather paralyzes, political action is dispelled, constitutional precepts on the most essential points are affirmed, and the President of the executive power is relieved from functions which do not belong to him, and is clothed with due independence to exercise, within the orbit of expressly-defined faculties and attributions, his impartial and elevated magistracy.

In view of all these considerations, and without prejudice to an appeal to the country when its condition shall admit thereof, the government of the republic, in council of ministers assembled, has seen pepper to emit the following decree:

Sole article.—In view of the constitutional incompatibility existing between the functions of the chief of the state and those corresponding to the president of the council of ministers, Don Francisco Serrano y Dominguez renounces the latter office, reserving only to himself, as President of the executive power of the republic, the powers and functions comprised in title 4 of the constitution of 1869, and the extraordinary powers with which he stands invested until the restoration of public peace.

The President of the executive power of the republic,
The minister of state,

The minister of grace and justice,

The minister of war,

The minister of marine,

The minister of finance,

The minister of the interior,

The minister of public works,

The minister of ultramar,
[Page 876]


Exercising the powers and functions conceded to me by the constitution, I hereby order that Don Juan Zavala y de la Puente, minister of war, be charged with the presidency of the council of ministers.

The President of the executive power of the republic,


The minister of state,
Praxedes Mateo Sagasta.