Constitutional Organization ( 1818-1833)
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, Ramon Freire , 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, 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) 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.
Conservative Period ( 1830-1861)
Although never president, Diego Portales dominated Chilean politics from the cabinet and behind the scenes from 1830 to 1837. He installed the “autocratic republic,” which centralized authority in the national government. His political program enjoyed support from merchants, large landowners, foreign capitalists, the church, and the military. Political and economic stability reinforced each other, as Portales encouraged economic growth through free trade and put government finances in order.
Portales was an agnostic who said that he believed in the clergy but not in God. He realized the importance of the Roman Catholic Church as a bastion of loyalty, legitimacy, social control, and stability, as had been the case in the colonial period. He repealed Liberal reforms that had threatened church privileges and properties.
Portales brought the military under civilian control by rewarding loyal generals, cashiering troublemakers, and promoting a victorious war against the Peru-Bolivia Confederation (1836-39). After defeating Peru and Bolivia, Chile dominated the Pacific Coast of South America. The victory over its neighbors gave Chile and its new political system a psychological boost. Chileans experienced a surge of national enthusiasm and cohesion behind a regime accepted as legitimate and efficacious.
Portales also achieved his objectives by wielding dictatorial powers, censoring the press, and manipulating elections. For the next forty years, Chile’s armed forces would be distracted from meddling in politics by skirmishes and defensive operations on the southern frontier, although some units got embroiled in domestic conflicts in 1851 and 1859.
The “Portalian State” was institutionalized by the 1833 constitution. One of the most durable charters ever devised in Latin America, the Portalian constitution lasted until 1925. The constitution concentrated authority in the national government, more precisely, in the hands of the president, who was elected by a tiny minority. The chief executive could serve two consecutive five-year terms and then pick a successor. Although the Congress had significant budgetary powers, it was overshadowed by the president, who appointed provincial officials. The constitution also created an independent judiciary, guaranteed inheritance of estates by primogeniture, and installed Catholicism as the state religion. In short, it established an autocratic system under a republican veneer.
The first Portalian president was General Joaquin Prieto, who served two terms (1831-36, 1836-41). President Prieto had four main accomplishments: implementation of the 1833 constitution, stabilization of government finances, defeat of provincial challenges to central authority, and victory over the Peru-Bolivia Confederation. During the presidencies of Prieto and his two successors, Chile modernized through the construction of ports, railroads, and telegraph lines, some built by United States entrepreneur William Wheelwright. These innovations facilitated the export-import trade as well as domestic commerce.
Prieto and his adviser, Portales, feared the efforts of Bolivian general Andres de Santa Cruz to unite with Peru against Chile. These qualms exacerbated animosities toward Peru dating from the colonial period, now intensified by disputes over customs duties and loans. Chile also wanted to become the dominant South American military and commercial power along the Pacific. Portales got Congress to declare war on Peru in 1836.