Front Page Titles (by Subject) 24.: Letter to Félix Coudroy - The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat. Vol. 1: The Man and the Statesman: The Correspondence and Articles on Politics
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24.: Letter to Félix Coudroy - Frédéric Bastiat, The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat. Vol. 1: The Man and the Statesman: The Correspondence and Articles on Politics 
The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat. Vol. 1: The Man and the Statesman: The Correspondence and Articles on Politics, translated from the French by Jane and Michel Willems, with an introduction by Jacques de Guenin and Jean-Claude Paul-Dejean. Annotations and Glossaries by Jacques de Guenin, Jean-Claude Paul-Dejean, and David M. Hart. Translation editor Dennis O’Keeffe (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2011).
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Letter to Félix Coudroy
Madrid, 17 August 1840
[vol. 1, p. 34]
. . . You have asked me a question I cannot answer: How can the Spanish people allow the monks to be chased away and killed?41 I ask myself this often, but I do not know the country well enough to explain this phenomenon to myself. What is probable is that the era of monks is finished everywhere. Their uselessness, rightly or wrongly, is a generally established belief. Assuming that there were forty thousand monks in Spain, involving as many families with five members, that would only make two hundred thousand inhabitants compared with ten million. Their immense riches may have tempted many people from the prosperous class, and the prospect of being relieved from a host of fiscal impositions may have tempted many people from the ordinary class. The fact is that the power of the monks is finished; but certainly no measure, assuming it is necessary, has ever been conducted with as much savagery, as much lack of foresight and political tact.
The government was in the hands of the moderates who wanted monasteries to be abolished but did not dare to set about it. Financially, the hope was, with the product of the national property, to pay Spain’s debts, end the civil war, and restore the state of the finances. Politically, through the division of the lands, they wanted to reconcile a considerable part of the people to the revolution. I think that this aim has been unsuccessful.
As they did not dare to act legally, an agreement was reached with the fanatics. One night, the fanatics broke into the monasteries. In Barcelona, Malaga, Seville, Madrid, and Valladolid they cut the throats of the monks or chased them away. The government and the public forces remained impassive witnesses of these atrocities for three days. When the uprising ran out of steam, the government intervened and the minister Mendizabal issued a decree confiscating the monasteries and monastic property. This is now being sold; but you will have the measure of this government. Some individual or other declares that he wants to tender for an item of national property. The state has it valued and this valuation is always very low because the acquirer is in league with the assessor. Once this is done, the sale is processed publicly. Agreement is also reached with the notaries to avoid publicity, and the property is yours for a low price. You have to pay a fifth in cash and the other four-fifths in eight installments over eight years. The state receives in payment rent from various sources which is traded on the stock exchange at a loss ranging from 75 to 95 percent, that is to say, that with twenty-five francs and even with five, you pay one hundred francs.
Three things result from this: first, the state receives almost nothing, you can even say nothing; second, it is not those from the provinces who are buying, since they are not at the stock exchange to barter paper; and third, this mass of land sold all together for a pittance has depressed the price of other properties. In this way, the government, which has made scarcely enough to pay the army, will not be paying back the debt.
The property will be divided up only when the speculators sell it on.
The farmers have simply changed masters, and instead of paying farm rents to the monks, who, it is said, were very accommodating owners who did not stick to the rules and who lent seed and even renounced income in bad years, they will be paying on the nail to Belgian and English companies which, uncertain as to the future, will be aiming to repay the state with produce from the land.
The simple peasant, in calamitous years, will no longer be given soup at the monastery door.
Lastly, humble owners will be able to sell their lands only for a pittance. This, it seems to me, will be the result of this disastrous operation.
More capable men had suggested that advantage be taken of an existing custom in use here: leases of fifty and even one hundred years. They wanted to lease farms to peasants at a moderate rate for fifty years. With the income, the annual interest on the debt would have been paid and Spain’s credit would have been raised, and at the end of fifty years the peasants would have had an immense capital, probably more than doubled through security and hard work. You will see at a glance the political and financial superiority of this arrangement.
Be that as it may, there are no more monks. What has become of them? Probably some died in the monasteries in the service of Don Carlos, and others would have succumbed to starvation in the gutters and attics of towns. A few may have found refuge with their families.
As for the monasteries, they have been converted into cafés, public dwellings, theaters, and most of all into barracks for another group of predators, rather cruder than the others. Several were demolished to widen streets and construct squares; on the site of the most beautiful of all, one that was considered to be a masterpiece of architecture, a passageway and a hall that clashed in style were built.
Nuns are no less to be pitied. In the event, those who wished to return to the world were thrashed; the others were enclosed in two or three convents, and because their property, which represented the dowries they had brought to their order, had been seized, they should have been paid a pension. However, since this is not paid, you can often see on convent gates this simple notice, Pan para las pobres monjas (bread for the poor nuns).
I am beginning to think, my dear Félix, that our M. Custine had really not seen Spain in its true light. Hatred for another civilization had made him seek here virtues which are not there. Perhaps he has on the contrary committed the same fault as the Spanish, who see nothing to criticize in English civilization. It is with great difficulty that our prejudices allow us to see things as they are, let alone judge them well.
I am coming home, my dear Félix, and I have learned that tomorrow the law on ayuntamientos (local councils)42 will be proclaimed. I do not know whether I have spoken of this matter with you but here at least is a summary.
The moderate government, which has just fallen, had appreciated that, to govern Spain, the central power had to be given a certain authority over the provinces. Here, from time immemorial, each province, each town, and each village governs itself. As long as the monarchical principle and the influence of the clergy compensated for this extreme dilution of authority, things went on more or less well, but now this state of things cannot last. In Spain, each locality nominates its ayuntamiento, alcaldes, regidors,43 etc. These ayuntamientos, in addition to their municipal functions, are responsible for gathering taxes and raising troops. The result of this is that when a town has reason to be discontented, whether well founded or not, it limits itself to not collecting taxes or refusing to collect its share. What is more, it appears that these ayuntamientos are the centers of major abuses and that they do not hand over to the state half of the contributions they gather. The moderate party therefore wanted to undermine this power. A law has been proposed by the government, adopted by the chambers, and sanctioned by the queen, which stipulates that the queen will select the alcaldes from three candidates nominated by the people. The fanatics uttered loud cries, leading to the revolution in Barcelona and the intervention of Espartero’s saber. However, what is seen only here, and what you have to be here to grasp, is that the queen, although obliged to change the government, has nominated another which is maintaining the law already voted and approved. Doubtless, since it came to power through a violation of the constitution, this government believed it had to show that it respected it by allowing a law that had received the sanction of the three powers44 to be promulgated. This law will therefore be proclaimed tomorrow. Will this pass off without disturbance? I scarcely dare to hope so. In addition, because France and our ambassador are considered to be at the root of this hoax, after the events in Barcelona it is to be feared that the rage of the fanatics will be directed against our fellow countrymen. I will therefore take care to write to my aunt in two days’ time since the newspapers will not fail to talk about the insurrection being planned. It is none the less terrifying to think that, to keep order, there are just a few soldiers faithful to Espartero, who must be mortally offended by the manner in which his coup d’état has been thwarted.
But what a subject for discussion is Spain, which, to achieve liberty, is losing the monarchy and the religion that are so dear to her and, in order to achieve unity, has placed under threat the local freedoms which are the very fabric of her existence!
Farewell, your devoted friend. I do not have the time to reread this jumble; make of it what you will.
P.S. My dear Félix, the peace in Madrid was not disturbed for a minute. This morning, the members of the ayuntamiento met in public session to promulgate the new law which will bring down their institution. They had this ceremony followed by an energetic protest in which they said that they would all die rather than obey the new law. It is also being said that they paid a few men to shout the customary vivas and mueras,45 but the people were no more moved than the peasants of Mugron would be, and the ayuntamiento succeeded only in showing the increasing necessity of the law. For when all is said and done would it not be a very sad spectacle to see a town in upheaval and the safety of its citizens compromised by the very people who are responsible for maintaining order?o
I have been assured that the fanatics did not agree among themselves; the most advanced (I do not know why credit has been given to this quotation by people’s agreeing to adopt it) said:
It is absurd to start a movement which fails to achieve a result. A movement can be decisive only if the people are involved; however the people do not want to take action for the sake of ideas. We therefore have to show them that there is a real possibility of pillage.
And in spite of this terrible logic, the ayuntamiento has not given way to this initial provocation! Anyway, I am just relaying public gossip since for my part I was in the Royal Library and did not see anything.
[41 ]The Spanish clergy had considerable influence, legal powers, and wealth. From 1835 to 1837, a number of monasteries were confiscated by law and sold to help pay off the ever-increasing public debt. The law was applied in a very brutal way.
[42 ]The law, which was promulgated by Queen Maria Christina in July 1840, allowed the queen to appoint members of the local councils but met with violent opposition from General Espartero. (See Letter 21, note 38.) It took the abdication and exile of Maria Christina (15 July 1840) to unravel the situation.
[43 ]alcaldes: mayors; regidors: aldermen.
[44 ]The parliament, the senate, and the king.
[45 ]vivas: “long life” and o “down with.”