What’s In A Name? Plaza de la Constitución

“Hey do you know about the USA? Do you know about the government? Can you tell me about the Constitution?” Nope, not the United State’s Constitution from School House Rock’s 1976 song Preamble. Today, we sing about the constitución behind St. Augustine’s Plaza de la Constitución. Join us as we harmonize over the other revolutionary document that influenced our city.

A color photograph of a book with a red and gold ribbon bookmark.
The original Constitución Política de la Monarquía Española of 1812. (Congreso de los Diputados)

Until the 1808 Napoleonic invasion of Spain, the royal family ruled as absolute monarchs. In an attempt to create legitimacy, the new king, Joseph Bonaparte, called for the Cortes of Cádiz. The Cortes (a Spanish Parliament) included representation from across the Iberian peninsula as well as the Americas and Philippines. The representatives drafted and ratified the first Spanish constitution – the Constitución Política de la Monarquía Española (Political Constitution of the Spanish Monarchy) – in 1812. The document reduced the power of the crown and church, allowed for an almost-universal male suffrage, widened citizenship, and granted greater self-rule to the territories.

A black and white illustration of people walking in a plaza surrounded by a church and other buildings.
The Plaza de la Constitución as seen in an 1840 issue of The Family Magazine. (UFDC)

In celebration, the Cortes issued a royal decree on August 13, 1812, calling for towns to rename their plazas, where officials proclaimed the new constitution, “Plaza de la Constitución.” The following January, St. Augustine’s town council – created by the same constitution – met to discuss the matter. The council appointed Fernando de la Maza Arredondo, senior alderman, and Francisco Rovira, town attorney, to lead a committee for the development of a monument to mark the historic event.

Almost a year later, the committee completed the construction of a 30-foot-tall, coquina obelisk at the cost of 151 pesos. However, the new name did not last long. In September 1814, St. Augustine receives news that other cities renamed their plazas to “Plaza de Fernando Septimo.” As a result, Alderman Francisco Pons orders the removal of the inscribed tablet on St. Augustine’s monument – leaving the plaza and obelisk nameless.

A black and white photograph of a person sitting on the base of an obelisk in a field with buildings in the background.
The Plaza de la Constitución’s coquina obelisk during the 1860s. (Library of Congress)

Why? Back in Europe, Bonaparte conceded the Spanish crown to Ferdinand VII in December 1813 – returning Spain to an absolute monarchy. The royal order officially dissolving the constitutional government does not reach St. Augustine until January 1815.

The coquina monument remained bare until 1820 – when a military uprising in Spain re-instated a liberal government. Once more, a city council formed in St. Augustine. To honor the occasion, the city re-created the proclamation ceremony by placing the inscribed tablet back on the monument “with all ceremonies and majesty” that the act required.

Today, the name remains on our map – and many others’ – as a reminder of Spanish America’s own constitutional history. To learn more about St. Augustine’s monument to Spain’s 1812 Constitution, visit Governor’s House Library’s digital collections at ufdc.ufl.edu.

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