Dear Sir,

IN a research like this, after those people in Europe who have had the skill, courage, and fortune, to preserve a voice in the government, Biscay, in Spain, ought by no means to be omitted. While their neighbours have long since resigned all their pretensions into the hands of kings and priests, this extraordinary people have preserved their ancient language, genius, laws, government, and manners, without innovation, longer than any other nation of Europe. Of Celtic extraction, they once inhabited some of the finest parts of the ancient Boetica; but their love of liberty, and unconquerable aversion to a foreign servitude, made them retire, when invaded and overpowered in their ancient feats, into these mountainous countries, called by the ancients Cantabria. They were governed by counts, sent them by the kings of Oviedo and Leon, until 859, when finding themselves without a chief, because Zeno, who commanded them, was made prisoner, they rose and took arms to resist Ordogne, son of Alfonsus the Third, whose domination was too severe for them, chose for their chief an issue of the blood-royal of Scotland, by the mother’s side, and son-in-law of Zeno their governor, who having overcome Ordogne, in 870, they chose him for their lord, and his posterity, who bore afterwards the name of Haro, succeeded him, from father to son, until the king Don Pedro the Cruel, having put to death those who were in possession of the lordship, reduced them to a treaty, by which they united their country, under the title of a lordship, with Castile, by which convention the king of Spain is now lord of Biscay. It is a republic; and one of the privileges they have most insisted on, is not to have a king: another was, that every new lord, at his accession, should come into the country in person, with one of his legs bare, and take an oath to preserve the privileges of the lordship. The present king of Spain is the first who has been complimented with their consent, that the oath should be administered at Madrid, though the other humiliating and indecent ceremony has been long laid aside.

Their solicitude for defence has surrounded with walls all the towns in the district. They are one-and-twenty in number; the principal of which are, Orduna, Laredo, Portugalete, Durango, Bilbao, and St. Andero. Biscay is divided into nine merindades, a sort of juridiction like a bailiwick, besides the four cities on the coast. The capital is Bilbao. — The whole is a collection of very high and very steep mountains, rugged and rocky to such a degree, that a company of men posted on one of them might defend itself as long as it could subsist, by rolling rocks on their enemy. This natural formation of the country, which has rendered the march of armies impracticable, and the daring spirit of the inhabitants, have preserved their liberty.

Active, vigilant, generous, brave, hardy, inclined to war and navigation, they have enjoyed, for two thousand years, the reputation of the best soldiers and sailors in Spain, and even of the best courtiers, many of them having, by their wit and manners, raised themselves into offices of consequence under the court of Madrid. Their valuable qualities have recommended them to the esteem of the kings of Spain, who have hitherto left them in possession of those great immunities of which they are so jealous. In 1632, indeed, the court laid a duty upon salt: the inhabitants of Bilbao rose, and massacred all the officers appointed to collect it, and all the officers of the grand admiral. Three thousand troops were sent to punish them for rebellion: these they fought, and totally defeated, driving most of them into the sea, which discouraged the court from pursuing their plan of taxation; and since that time the king has had no officer of any kind in the lordship, except his corregidor.

Many writers ascribe their flourishing commerce to their situation; but, as this is no better than that of Ferrol or Corunna, that advantage is more probably due to their liberty. In riding through this little territory, you would fancy yourself in Connecticut; instead of miserable huts, built of mud, and covered with straw, you see the country full of large and commodious houses and barns of the farmer; the lands well cultivated; and a wealthy, happy yeomanry. The roads, so dangerous and impassable in most other parts of Spain, are here very good, having been made at a vast expence of labour.

Although the government is called a democracy, we cannot here find all authority collected into one center; there are, on the contrary, as many distinct governments as there are cities and merindades. The general government has two orders at least; the lord or governor, and the biennial parliament. Each of the thirteen subordinate divisions has its organized government, with its chief magistrate at the head of it. We may judge of the form of all of them by that of the metropolis, which calls itself, in all its laws, the noble and illustrious republic of Bilbao. This city has its alcalde, who is both governor and chief justice, its twelve regidores or counsellors, attorney-general, &c. and by all these, assembled in the consistorial palace under the titles of consejo, justicia, y regimiento, the laws are made in the name of the lord of Biscay, and confirmed by him.

These officers, it is true, are elected by the citizens, but they must by law be elected, as well as the deputies to the biennial parliament or junta general, out of a few noble families, unstained, both by the side of father and mother, by any mixture with Moors, Jews, new converts, penitentiaries of the inquisition, &c. They must be natives and residents, worth a thousand ducats, and must have no concern in commerce, manufactures, or trades; and, by a fundamental agreement among all the merindades, all their deputies to the junta general, and all their regidores, sindics, secretaries, and treasurers, must be nobles, at least knights, and such as never exercised any mechanical trades themselves or their fathers. Thus we see the people themselves have established by law a contracted aristocracy, under the appearance of a liberal democracy. Americans, beware!

Although we see here in the general government, and in that of every city and merindad, the three branches of power, of the one, the few, and the many; yet, if it were as democratical as it has been thought by some, we could by no means infer, from this instance of a little flock upon a few impracticable mountains, in a round form of ten leagues diameter, the utility or practicability of such a government in any other country.

The disposition to division, so apparent in all democratical governments, however tempered with aristocratical and monarchical powers, has shewn itself, in breaking off from it Guipuscoa and Allaba; and the only preservative of it from other divisions, has been the fear of their neighbours. They always knew, that as soon as they should fall into factions, or attempt innovations, the court of Spain would interpose, and prescribe them a government not so much to their taste.


IN the republic of the Three Leagues of the Grisons, the sovereign is all the people of a great part of the ancient Rhetia. This is called a democratical republic of three leagues. 1. The League of the Grisons. 2. The League Caddee. 3. The League of Ten Jurisdictions. These three are united by the perpetual confederation of 1472, which has been several times renewed. The government resides sovereignty in the commons, where every thing is decided by the plurality of voices. The commons elect and instruct their deputies for the general diet, which is held once a year. Each league elects also its chief or president, who presides at the dietes, each one in his league. The general diet assembles one year at Ilanz, in the league of the Grisons; one year at Coire, in the league Caddee; and one year at Davons, in the league of Ten Jurisdictions. There is another ordinary assembly, composed of chiefs and of three deputies from each league, which is held at Coire, in the month of January. Besides these regular assemblies, they hold congresses whenever the necessities of the state require them; sometimes of the chiefs alone, sometimes of certain deputies from each league, according to the importance of the case: these assemblies are held at Coire. The three leagues form but one body in general affairs; and, although one league has more deputies than another, they count the voices without distinction of leagues. They conduct separately their particular affairs. Their country is thirty-five leagues in length, and thirty in breadth.

Even in this happy country, where there is more equality than in almost any other, there are noble families, who, although they live like their neighbours by the cultivation of the earth, and think it no disgrace, are very proud of the immense antiquity of their descent, and boast of it, and value themselves upon it, as much as Julius Cæsar did, who was descended from a goddess.


THERE are in Friesland and Overyssell, and perhaps in the city of Dort, certain remnants of democratical powers, the fragments of an ancient edifice, which may possibly be re-erected; but as there is nothing which favours Mr. Turgot’s idea, I shall pass over this country for the present.


2 Responses to “LETTER IV”

  1. 1 Michael Tim February 28, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    I love your site!

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  1. 1 Pages « Friends of the American Revolution Trackback on July 22, 2008 at 11:11 am

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