The Politics of Giving in the Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata: Donors, Lenders, Subjects, and Citizens



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The Politics of Giving in the Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata: Donors, Lenders, Subjects, and Citizens. By Viviana L. Grieco. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2014. ix + 298 pp. Tables, map, appendix, notes, index. Cloth, $55.00. ISBN: 978-0-8263-5446-4.
Reviewed by Daniel J. Greenberg
The subject of Spain’s military spending at the end of the eighteenth century is a subject one that historians have seldom explored. Viviana Grieco’s monograph provides an important new look at this subject;. hHowever, in seeking to magnify the impact of those fiscal operations, Grieco posits many unproven assertions. The result is a tendentious work laden with analytical errors. Still, The Politics of Giving offers nuggets of data and insights that reveal the Bourbon dynasty as innovators in fiscal policy.

The study’s scope is the South American Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata (including modern Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Bolivia) between 1793 and 1810: the concluding years for much of Spain’s Latin American empire. During this period, Madrid was embroiled in two conflicts: the War of the French Convention (1793–1795), and the English Naval Wars (1797–1802). Moreover, between 1806 and 1807, Buenos Aires was twice invaded by Great Britain in a bid to snatch the trade entrepôt. Finally, in 1808 Napoleon invaded Spain, captured King Charles IV and crown Prince Fernando VII, and placed Joseph Buonaparte on a puppet throne.

Grieco’s purpose is to examine how Madrid utilized the donativo, a semi-voluntary payment requested from viceregal citizens, to pay for these wars. In the process, she argues, Spain was able to stimulate the viceregal economy and even assist in the social and political integration of Creoles (American-born Spaniards), Guaraní Indians, and the black and mestizo masses. Moreover, Grieco portrays the payments as part of Spanish pactismo—: the Crown’s tendency to negotiate with rather than dictate to its subjects—. fFor in return, some donors received social and material benefits in return, cementing their loyalty. Thus, Grieco challenges the view that the absence of colonial self-government was a prime cause of the rise of independence movements. Likewise, she attempts to revise the long-accepted notion that the drive toward independence was Creoles’ the response of Creoles to a crisis of rising expectations and Madrid’s centralization of authority. Scholars such as John Lynch have argued that the intendant system, by rationalizing taxation, removing corrupt officials, and curtailing smuggling, brought a rising tax burden and declining opportunity for Creoles.

In focusing on fiscal policy and collectivities of Spanish bureaucrats, merchants, clergy, and military men, Grieco mirrors the approach of scholars like Susan Socolow, Regina Grafe, Cynthia Milton, John Phelan, Tulio Halperín Donghi, Lyle McAllister, and John TePaske. Moreover, the study is solidly backed supported [OK Yes--DJG?] with by Spanish and Argentine archival material. However, this strength is transformed into weakness by the author’s tendency to fill the narrative with long lists of archival detail, drowning the argument in a sea of arcane minutiae.

But the monograph does provide important new knowledge about fiscal policy under Charles IV (1788–1808):; in particular, how Madrid utilized used physiocratic and classical liberal economics to revamp revenue collection. Many historians (e.g.,including Charles Gibson, Clarence Haring, Stanley and Barbara Stein, and Earl J. Hamilton) have detailed how the Hapsburgs burdened colonials with a rigid, bureaucratic, monopoly-ridden, protectionist, and tax-heavy mercantilism that suffocated colonial enterprise and planted the seeds of economic underdevelopment. However, after the Bourbons’ accession of in 1707 of the Bourbons, the Crown began to reform government and the economy. As Richard Herr[(The Eighteenth-Century Revolution in Spain, 1958)AU: please briefly give the source—“(Book Title, 2015)”] argues, under King Charles III (1716–1788), Madrid’s embracing of the “new economics” led to far-reaching change. The creation of the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata in 1776, the intendant system, and the Free Trade Regulation of 1778 were reforms undertaken in that spirit.

Grieco scrutinizes the dynasty’s decision after 1790 to utilize the donativo to convince subjects to collaborate with[AU: “in paying”? they wouldn’t collaborate with the costs I agree with replacing “with” with “in paying” DJG] the wars’ heavy costs. Donativos were solicited by government officials, and thus were more voluntary than taxes. Sometimes the payments were interest-bearing loans, but more often, like charitable donations. Moreover, at least for Peninsulares, the Spanish-born colonial elite, generous contributions were often compensated by government positions for one’s self or descendants. Further, she Grieco argues that this aspect of what she terms a “composite monarchy” enabled Spain to avoid Britain’s alienation of colonial subjects due to the imposition of taxes without consultation. Donativos played a small but important role in meeting Madrid’s fiscal needs. But significantly, Creoles, mestizos, Indians, and blacks who contributed received no rewards. Oddly, Grieco fails to acknowledge that such discrimination supports the conventional thesis that Creole resentment was a major cause of the independence movements. If Spanish pactismo had really been so effective, there would have been no need for those movements. Moreover, in using donativos to prove her thesis, Grieco never proves that other policies followed the pattern. Thus, her argument seems to overstate the policy’s broader effects.

However, one of the study’s most interesting findings is that the payments’ collection and transfer of the payments was effected by merchant bankers, other entrepreneurs, postmasters, and regional governors, priming the pump of economic activity and integrating the viceroyalty’s far-flung regions into something like a “national” economy. For That is, the payments were not transferred, as if held in escrow, from taxpayer to the treasury;. rRather, collectors first utilized them in commercial operations. While Grieco does not discuss it, this aspect may have been another effect of the Crown’s embrace of classical economics. Just as likely, the measure may have responded been a response to colonial complaints of overtaxation. To this reviewer, these explanations are far more plausible than their springing from a benevolent “pactismo.” Other scholars have provided too much evidence that Spanish absolutism was overly centralized, bureaucratic, and hierarchical to sustain the notion of a benevolent, quasi-democratic polity eager to negotiate with and ingratiate its subjects.

To summarize, while it suffers from flaws in writing and analysis, The Politics of Giving offers important new insights in a little-studied area of colonial Latin American fiscal history. Its significance lies in revealing that the Bourbons, in addition to freeing trade and tightening administration, were capable of reshaping fiscal practice to promote economic growth.


Daniel J. Greenberg is director of Latin American studies and Associate Professora of History professor of history at Pace University. A specialist in modern Argentina and Brazil, his studies have appeared in the Hispanic American Historical Review, the Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, and The History Teacher. With Antonio Pedro Tôta, he is coauthor of The Seduction of Brazil: The Americanization of Brazil during World War II (University of Texas Press, 2009).


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