In 1787 John Adams (1735-1826), later to become the second president of the United States, published a key treatise in American history, Defense of Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, in which he defended a notion of “federal democracy” that would ultimately resemble the American model of democratic government that persists to this day.
Statute of John Adams in Bilbao, next to the Provincial Government of Bizkaia building. photo by Javi Guerra Hernando, via Wikimedia Commons
Adams used historical and contemporary examples of other democratic systems of government to sustain his argument, among which he most favored what he termed “democratic republics,” citing the cases of certain Swiss cantons, San Marino, and Bizkaia. Indeed, he had visited Bizkaia as part of a tour of Europe in 1779. In his own words (vol. 1, letter IV):
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 . . .
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.
The influence of the system of government in Bizkaia on Adams is discussed in The Old Law of Bizkaia (1452), by Gregorio Monreal Zia. This book also includes a detailed account of this system and a critical reflection on its implications. In short, it charts, explains, and discusses one particular genealogical strand of the current American governmental system.
See, also, Relational Democracy by Pedro Ibarra Güell, which critically examines the notion that democracy is defined merely by open, free, and popular elections. Instead, Ibarra argues for a new set of day-to-day relations between citizens and leaders that focus more closely on implementing popular demands at the government level, and applies his arguments to the Basque case.