This article analyses the intellectual and political activities of the newly-created consulados and Economic Societies in Spanish America between 1780 and 1810. It argues that these institutions decisively shaped both the formulation and implementation of metropolitan policy. Colonial elites used the consulados and Economic Societies as a vehicle to pursue licensed privilege and moderate, incremental reform in the context of a revivified, socio-economically stable Old Regime. They embraced the Bourbon reforms and used them to their advantage. Judging from consulado documents, the prevailing relationship between civil society and the state in Spanish America, at least until the late 1790s, was amicable and mutually supportive. After that time, mainly due to the disruption of Atlantic commerce, close co-operation gave way to conflict, but always within the framework of a cohesive empire. Drawing on archives in Argentina, Chile, Cuba and Spain, this essay traces the coalescence of numerous local intelligentsias that collaborated, to varying degrees, in the renovation of imperial governance and, simultaneously, incubated a robust public sphere in the nascent polities which gradually emerged after the collapse of Spanish royal authority in 1808.