Petitioning in the name of the constitution: corporate privileges and individual rights in Portugal, Spain, Naples and Greece during the 1820s revolutions

Maurizio Isabella
School of History – Queen Mary University of London

The right to appeal directly to constitutional authorities through petitions was central to the way in which citizenship was understood during the revolutions in Portugal, Spain, Naples and Greece in the 1820s. The petitionary movement of the 1820s marked a new phase in the history of this practise across these countries not only for its unprecedented dimensions, but also for the change in its nature and meaning. Its spontaneity signalled a growing desire for political participation both from individuals and communities which provided a powerful legitimacy to the constitutional order and its institutions. The paper argues that the petitionary practice did much to shape the way in which constitutions were understood among different social groups at the local level. It also demonstrates also the ambiguous and hybrid nature of the political culture produced by the revolutionary experience. While it shows the extent to which the principles of representation, popular sovereignty and the rule of law were endorsed, it also points to the existence of conflicting interpretations of its nature. Large sectors of society associated support for representative government with the defence of corporate privileges, the protection of local communities from state interference, hostility to competition, and an ambiguous understanding of what individual right meant, while others, but by no means representing the opinion of the majority, were keener on the dismantling of any form of protection of corporative life. In the end, a communitarian understanding of political participation went often hand in hand with requests for new individual rights, defence of rule of law and the state (as Greek petitions show). In short petitions show how new political rights were supported alongside with the defence of older forms of freedom and privileges.

Key Words:

Petitions, Constitution, Citizenship, Revolution in Naples, Spain, Portugal, Greece