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The Spanish tradition of freedom in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries

The following article is written by Angel Fernández Álvarez and translated by Joshua Gregor.

This October 31, I will give a conference entitled "The Spanish School of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries" at Harvard University, in order to explain in detail the “institutional framework” and the principles of growth upheld by the late Spanish scholastics.

In the conference, organized by the Harvard Real Colegio Complutense, I will explain the importance of Christian humanism, which spread especially from the University of Salamanca but also from other Spanish universities such as Alcalá, Valladolid, Palencia, Valencia, and Seville.

As a result of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492, an initial globalization took place, with migrations of the European population to the New World. Maritime transport and trade increased in the Atlantic Ocean, which created a need to study the moral disputes arising from colonization and market transactions.

For this reason, Spanish professors and academics studied political and economic questions during the process of colonization and Christianization of the New World in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in works by dozens of significant authors. Among these we can note Francisco de Vitoria, Domingo de Soto, Diego de Covarrubias, Martín de Azpilcueta, Tomás de Mercado, Luis Sarabia de la Calle, Pedro de Valencia, Pedro de Aragón, Luis de Molina, Francisco de Suárez, Juan de Mariana, Juan de Salas, and Juan de Lugo.

The Spanish scholastic authors thought of the market as a natural order (“something that exists independently of the human will”) that arises spontaneously from the exercise of freedom in sociocultural interactions and commercial exchanges among the thousands of people who live in a given region.

In 2015, I defended my doctoral thesis on Juan de Mariana (1536-1624) at the Complutense University of Madrid. In it, I showed that Fr. Mariana’s scholastic ideas are present in the English moral philosopher John Locke (1536-1624) and in the American founding father and second president John Adams (1735-1826). Here I will briefly explain Mariana’s influence on Locke and Adams, based on documentary evidence cited and included in the doctoral thesis and the book The Spanish School of Economics.

Juan de Mariana’s influence on the moral philosopher John Locke

Analyzing the ideas of the English moral philosopher John Locke’s book Two Treatises of Government (1689), we observe a strong likeness to Mariana’s ideas regarding the origin of civilized society, sovereignty entrusted to government by the people, the origin of private property, the importance of property, the principle of the people’s consent before tax hikes or changes in the law, and even the limitation of political power by the right of opposition to leaders that act as tyrants by attacking private property. This can be read in Mariana’s work De Rege et Regis institutione (1599).

While professing Anglicanism, John Locke read at least two works of the Catholic Jesuit Mariana. For one, he cited Mariana’s work Historia de rebus Hispaniae (1592) in his essay on the history of navigation. We also find that Mariana’s work De ponderibus et mensuris was in Locke’s private library. In fact, Locke recommended the reading of Mariana for the education of a gentleman, as he held Mariana’s thought in high esteem.

Locke wrote his book to give impulse to the ideas upheld by the Glorious Revolution (1688) and to secure the establishment of modern parliamentarianism in England. Curiously, though, his works also gave intellectual grounding for the American Revolution (1775-1783), which triumphed with the drafting of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 and the Bill of Rights in 1789, containing the first ten amendments to the Constitution. These documents set up a limited government by means of an institutional framework with the following characteristics:

  • Sovereignty belongs to the people and is merely entrusted to the government;
  • Rights and individual liberties are guaranteed, and private property in particular is protected to the highest degree;
  • The principle of consent of citizens is established, which translates into free elections and more recently to the holding of referendums; and
  • Executive government is limited by the legislative Congress and also by the selection of judges and independent tribunals.

Defense of individual rights, the market, and limited government

In my doctoral thesis I showed that Juan de Mariana’s works and Spanish scholastic ideas not only spread in Europe among the “Protestant scholastics” (as Joseph Schumpeter [1883-1950] called Hugo Grotius, Samuel Pudendorf, and John Locke), but also crossed the Atlantic and moved to America.

Juan de Mariana offered a resounding defense of private property from political power, justifying the right of opposition (overthrow or rebellion) to tyrants. In fact, he established limits to political power in the form of “institutions” such as the defense of property and the principle of consent before changes in laws, tax raises, and even currency debasement. Because of this firm defense of citizens’ individual rights and freedoms, Juan de Mariana’s works were suppressed by absolutist governments in Europe. Thanks to printing and the use of Latin as the academic language of the time, however, his scholastic ideas were replicated in in the works of Protestant authors such as Grotius, Pudendorf and Locke, and even in the works of the founding fathers of the United States, including the second president, John Adams.

Juan de Mariana’s influence on the founding father John Adams

Like Locke, Adams was an inveterate bibliophile and assembled a library of more than 3000 volumes, with books in Greek, Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, and English.

John Adams published A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America in 1787. This work references the ideas, paragraphs and pages of the work Excellencie of a Free-State (1654) by the English journalist Marchamont Nedham, where Juan de Mariana is cited in relation to the limitation of executive power and the separation of legislative power.

Besides this, a letter survives written by Adams to John Taylor, dated December 14, 1814, in which Adams affirmed the following regarding Juan de Mariana:

“But to come nearer home, in Search of causes which “arrest our Efforts.” Here I am like the Wood cutter on Mount Ida, who could not See Wood, for Trees, Mariana wrote a Book De Regno, in which he had the temerity to insinuate that Kings were instituted for good and might be deposed if they did nothing but Evil. Of course the Book was prohibited and the Writer persecuted…


I already feel, all the ridicule, of hinting at my poor four volumes of “Defence” and Discourses on Davila, after quoting Mariana, Harrington Sydney and Montesquieu. But I must submit to the imputation of vanity, arrogance, presumption, dotage, or insanity, or what you will … because I have still a Curiosity to see what turn will be taken by public affairs in this Country and others. Where can We rationally look for the Theory or practice of Government, but to Nature and Experiment?”

John Adams, in fact, was looking for Juan de Mariana’s work on political economy entitled De Rege et Regis institutione (1599), until he received a copy dated 1611, corresponding to a second edition published in 1605. This was a gift to Adams from Thomas Brand Hollis on April 7, 1788, when Adams was only two weeks from finishing his diplomatic mission in Europe and returning to America. The work is in John Adams’s private library and is conserved in the Boston Public Library.

In my doctoral thesis and in the book The Spanish School of Economics, I explain in detail how the English moral philosopher John Locke and the founding father John Adams bought, read and cited the works of Juan de Mariana, and used the Spanish Jesuit’s ideas on political economy. As a result we can say that Mariana, as one of the principal exponents of the Spanish school of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, was a precursor of the tradition of freedom in England and the United States, since his works influenced authors who gave impulse to the “institutions” on which liberal democracies are based.

Angel Fernández Álvarez is Jefe de Financiación at the Spanish Ministry of Finance. His upcoming conference The Spanish School of the XVI and XVII Centuries will be held at Harvard University’s Real Colegio Complutense on October 31, 2018.

Angel Fernández Álvarez is Jefe de Financiación at the Spanish Ministry of Finance.