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Chile: Civil Wars, 1818-30
Country Study > Chapter 1 > Historical Setting > Civil Wars, 1818-30

CIVIL WARS, 1818-30


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. However, amid mounting discontent, troops from the northern and southern provinces forced O'Higgins to resign. Embittered, O'Higgins departed for 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. 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. 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 -- see Glossary) and caused a public uproar with his anticlericalism. 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.

Data as of March 1994




Last Updated: March 1994


Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Chile was first published in 1994. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on Factba.se.

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