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Order and Disorder in the Court: Press Law, Politics, and the Sedition Trials of Chile's Early Republic, 1813–1851

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 May 2022

James A. Wood*
North Carolina A&T State University Greensboro, North Carolina


This article explores the phenomenon of the sedition trial in the early history of the Spanish American republics, focusing on sedition trials that occurred in Santiago de Chile from the late 1820s to the early 1850s. Sedition trials were governed by laws enacted in the wake of Chile's political independence to protect and regulate the freedom of the press. Because of the way press laws were written, sedition trials were conducted in front of juries composed of active citizens. As such, they constituted a dramatic break with the judicial tradition of Spanish colonial rule. The article argues that sedition trials were instrumental in the dynamics of political conflict, but only when the national government allowed them to operate without interference, which was not always the case. When sedition trials had integrity, as they did for a period in the 1840s, they became a public space in which citizen-journalists and publishers participated in establishing the boundaries of political speech. However, as one might expect, government officials also used the charge of sedition to silence their opponents. Sedition trials can thus be seen as a form of political warfare that has not been fully appreciated by scholars.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of Academy of American Franciscan History

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The research for this article was made possible by a 2016 Fulbright US Scholar Award. I would like to thank Ana María Stuven, director of the History of Political Ideas in Chile program at the Universidad Diego Portales, and Manuel Vicuña, chair of the Department of Social Sciences and History at the Universidad Diego Portales, for supporting that fellowship. I would also like to thank Vasco Castillo, Álvaro García San Martín, Corinna Zeltsman, Jean Hébrard, and the two anonymous reviewers at The Americas for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this article.


1. Alberdi, J. B., Legislación de la prensa en Chile, o sea, Manual del escritor, del impresor y del jurado (Valparaíso: Imprenta del Mercurio, 1846)Google Scholar. The Imprenta del Mercurio published a second edition of Alberdi's manual in 1847, which included an appendix containing the full text of the new press law enacted on September 16, 1846. See J. B. Alberdi, Legislación de la prensa en Chile, o sea, Manual del escritor, del impresor y del jurado, con un apéndice que contiene la nueva ley sobre la prensa, puesta en concordancia con nuestras leyes anteriores y con otras de países extranjeros (Valparaíso: Imprenta del Mercurio, 1847). All subsequent references in this article correspond to the second edition of 1847.

2. Laborde, Francisco, Estudio crítico: Juan Bautista Alberdi (Madrid: Fundación Ignacio Larramendi, 2014), 2627Google Scholar. See also the pamphlet Defensa del Mercurio por el doctor Juan Bautista Alberdi en la noche del 5 de junio de 1844 (Valparaíso: Imprenta del Mercurio, 1844).

3. Alberdi, Legislación, 14–27.

4. Alberdi, Legislación, 24.

5. Those studies include Raúl Silva Castro, Prensa y periodismo en Chile, 1812–1956 (Santiago: Ediciones Universidad de Chile, 1958), 1–126; Ricardo Donoso, Las ideas políticas en Chile, 2nd ed. (Santiago: Editorial Universitaria, 1967), 344–380; Gonzalo Piwonka Figueroa, Orígenes de la libertad de prensa en Chile: 1823–1830 (Santiago: RIL Editores, 2000); and Ana María Stuven and Gabriel Cid, eds., Debates republicanos en Chile, Vol. 2 (Santiago: Ediciones Universidad Diego Portales, 2013), 343–376.

6. See for example Figueroa, Gonzalo Piwonka, “Los juicios por jurado en Chile,” Revista de Historia del Derecho 20 (2008): 133146Google Scholar; and Cifuentes, Patricio Ibarra, “Liberalismo y prensa: leyes de imprenta en el Chile decimonónico, 1812–1872,” Revista de Estudios Histórico-Jurídicos 36 (2014): 292313Google Scholar. See also José Santos Tornero, Reminiscencias de un viejo editor (Valparaíso: Imprenta de la Librería del Mercurio, 1889), 48–53, 130–136.

7. On the judicial traditions of nineteenth-century Latin America, see Roberto Gargarella, The Legal Foundations of Inequality: Constitutionalism in the Americas, 1776–1860 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

8. It is difficult to determine the exact number of accusations that were made against Santiago residents for violating the press laws of this period, due to the fragmentary nature of the judicial records. The Santiago criminal archive contains no record of press cases prior to 1833. Piwonka, using Volumes 15 and 16 of the Sesiones de los cuerpos legislativos de la República de Chile, 1811–1845, 37 vols. (Santiago: Imprenta Cervantes, 1886–1908) and contemporary newspapers, identified 14 specific accusations of the abuse of press freedom in Santiago between 1827 and 1833. (In some instances the accused could face multiple accusations at a single trial.) See Piwonka, Orígenes, 95–149. Using records from the criminal archive of the Department of Santiago, contemporary newspapers, and historian Diego Barros Arana's incredibly detailed Un decenio de la historia de Chile, 1841–51, 2 vols. (Santiago: Editorial Universitaria, 1905–06), I have identified 26 additional accusations of the abuse of press freedom in Santiago between 1833 and 1851. That adds up to a total of 40 accusations brought forward in Santiago between 1827 and 1851. Of those 40 accusations, 11 were for sedition (27.5%), 22 were for defamation (55%), six were for blasphemy and/or immorality (15%), and one was for publishing without a license (2.5%). On the number of Santiago press trials, see also Ibarra, “Liberalismo,” 308–309.

9. See Pablo Piccato, The Tyranny of Opinion: Honor in the Construction of the Mexican Public Sphere (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010); and Piccato, “Jurados de imprenta en México: el honor en la construcción de la esfera pública, 1821–1882,” in Alonso, ed. Construcciones impresas, 139–165.

10. According to the 1843 edition of the Spanish Royal Academy's Diccionario de la lengua castellana, sedición was defined as “Tumulto, levantamiento popular contra el soberano o la autoridad que gobierna” and sedicioso as “el que causa alborotos y sediciones.”

11. Hilda Sábato, Republics of the New World: The Revolutionary Political Experiment in Nineteenth-Century Latin America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018), 132–162.

12. Sábato, Republics, 149. Paula Alonso made a similar claim in the introduction to her edited book on the press in nineteenth-century Latin America. In post-independence Latin America, she wrote, the press was “una de las principales formas de hacer política.” See Alonso, ed. Construcciones impresas: panfletos, diarios y revistas en la formación de los estados nacionales en América Latina, 1820–1920 (Buenos Aires: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2004), 8.

13. Sábato, Republics, 13, 160. Following Piccato's research on press trials in nineteenth-century Mexico City, Sábato claimed that the press juries of the era were largely “free from official pressures,” except “during moments of great political tension, such as wars and revolutions” (151). This article contains evidence that further confirms that finding.

14. See Iván Jaksić, “Sarmiento and the Chilean Press, 1841–51,” in Sarmiento: Author of a Nation, Tulio Halperín Donghi et al., eds. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 31–60. Within that article (38–39), Jaksić briefly discussed the Álvarez, Bilbao, and Godoy trials that are the subject of a subsequent section of this article. An earlier Spanish version of that article appeared in the Chilean journal Historia. See Jaksić, “Sarmiento y la prensa chilena del siglo XIX,” Historia 26 (1991–92): 117–144.

15. Disposiciones relativas a la libertad de la prensa: Decreto de la Junta de Gobierno con acuerdo del Senado, en 23 de junio de 1813. Quoted in Ibarra, “Liberalismo,” 299. See also Piwonka, Orígenes, 95–96; and Alberdi, Legislación, 16. The decree still required censura for religious publications.

16. Harfuch, Andrés and Penna, Cristián, “El juicio por jurados en el continente de América,” Sistemas Judiciales 17:21 (2018): 112–120Google Scholar.

17. Harfuch and Penna, “El juicio,” 114 n3.

18. Piwonka, Orígenes, 100.

19. Piwonka, Orígenes, 121.

20. Piwonka, Orígenes, 118.

21. “Acontecimientos de Talca,” El Verdadero Liberal, July 31, 1827. The article was reprinted in Sesiones de los cuerpos legislativos de la República de Chile, 1811–1845, Tomo XV, 1827–28 (Santiago: Imprenta Cervantes, 1892), 27.

22. Pinto's statement appeared in Sesiones de los cuerpos legislativos, Tomo XV, 26.

23. Sesiones, Tomo XV, 26. See also Piwonka, Orígenes, 121.

24. Sesiones, Tomo XV, 26. See also Piwonka, Orígenes, 120–124.

25. Piwonka, Orígenes, 124.

26. Ley sobre abusos de libertad de imprenta (promulgada el 14 de diciembre de 1828). Reprinted in Alberdi, Legislación, 30–57. See also Ibarra, “Liberalismo,” 304–305; Piwonka, “Los juicios,” 137–140; and Piwonka, Orígenes, 102–109.

27. Quoted in Alberdi, Legislación, 20; and Piwonka, Orígenes, 104.

28. Alberdi, Legislación, 1.

29. It is worth noting that a comparison of Chile's 1828 press law with the one enacted under Mexican president Guadalupe Victoria that same year reveals strong similarities, directing us again to the laws’ common roots in the liberal constitutionalism of Napoleonic Spain. See Piccato, Tyranny, 34–35.

30. Ley sobre abusos, Article 29.

31. Alberdi, Legislación, 40.

32. Piccato, Tyranny, 51.

33. Ley sobre abusos, Article 42.

34. Ley sobre abusos, Article 47.

35. Piccato, Tyranny, 49.

36. Juicio de imprenta seguido por D. Pedro de Alcántara San de Niz por publicaciones en El Barómetro (1836), Archivo Judicial de Santiago, Expedientes Judiciales (Criminales), Juicios de Imprenta, caja 928, leg. 1623, no. 11.

37. Acusación por D. Juan Esteban Muñoz contra D. Buenaventura Grez como autor de un artículo publicado en el N. 22 del Siglo (1844), Archivo Judicial de Santiago, Expedientes Judiciales (Criminales), Juicios de Imprenta, caja 921, leg. 1612, no. 3.

38. Ley sobre abusos, Articles 48–50. On the question of determining editorial responsibility for accused publications, see Zeltsman, Corinna, “Defining Responsibility: Printers, Politics, and the Law in Early Republican Mexico City,” Hispanic American Historical Review 98:2 (2018): 189–222CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

39. Ley sobre abusos, Articles 53–68.

40. A bill to restrict press freedom was introduced in the Senate in June 1839, including increased sentences for those convicted, but it did not become law. See Barros Arana, Un decenio, Tomo I, 69–70.

41. “Turquía,” El Defensor de los militares, September 10, 1830. See also Diego Barros Arana, Historia general de Chile, Tomo XVI y Último (Santiago: Imprenta Cervantes, 1902), 7–11, including the lengthy footnote on pages 10 and 11; and Piwonka, Orígenes, 139–141.

42. To deal with the problem, the government passed a modification to the 1828 press law that increased the number of potential press trial jurors in each municipality from 40 to 60. Alberdi confirmed this change in his manual. It does not appear that the change was permanent, however, as the trials of the 1840s went back to drawing juries from pools of 40 potential jurors. See Alberdi, Legislación, 40; and Piwonka, Orígenes, 142.

43. “Diesiocho de setiembre,” El Defensor de los Constitucionales, September 18, 1830. Note the difference in the paper's name on this special date. See also Barros Arana, Historia general, 11; and Piwonka, Orígenes, 143.

44. El Defensor published several of the legal documents related to Lecuna's trial during its brief reappearance in January 1831. See “Documentos importantes,” El Defensor de los Militares, January 26, 1831. See also Barros Arana, Historia general, 11.

45. Lecuna's September 25, 1830, deposition was one of the “important documents” included in El Defensor de los Militares, September 26, 1831.

46. Lecuna deposition, September 25, 1830.

47. Lecuna's point about the government's manipulation of the pool of potential jurors in Santiago echoed El Defensor's editorial position at the time. One can assume that the paper's editors, including Mora, were giving their colleague Lecuna legal advice. It is worth noting the fact that Mora himself did not step forward as the author of the allegedly seditious article, allowing the charge to fall on the printer. Mora fled the country for Peru in February 1831.

48. Lecuna deposition, September 25, 1830.

49. Lecuna deposition, October 22, 1830.

50. Piwonka, Orígenes, 137.

51. Thus far I have not located the records of the most famous press trials of the era. They are not in the Santiago criminal archive. My search for those records is ongoing. That is the case with regard to the three trials discussed in this section of the article. Fortunately, contemporary newspapers provided extensive coverage of these trials, including the publication of both accusations and defenses. Barros Arana also provided detailed accounts of these trials in Un decenio, Vol. 1, 81–91, 483–497, and Vol. 2, 65–84.

52. Pedro Pablo Figueroa, Diccionario biográfico de Chile, Vol. 1, 4th ed. (Santiago: Imprenta Barcelona, 1897), 65.

53. José Victorino Lastarria, Recuerdos literarios: datos para la historia literaria de la América española y del progreso intelectual en Chile. 2nd ed. (Santiago: Librería de M. Servat, 1885), 58–59.

54. On the Patriotic Society's electoral strategy, see Barros Arana, Un decenio, Vol. 1, 81.

55. “Sociedad Patriótica,” El Diablo Político, January 23, 1840.

56. “Sociedad Patriótica,” El Diablo Político, January 23, 1840.

57. “Defensa,” El Diablo Político, July 23, 1840.

58. “Defensa,” El Diablo Político, July 23, 1840.

59. “Defensa,” El Diablo Político, July 23, 1840.

60. Lastarria, Recuerdos, 60–64. The eyewitness was Lastarria's friend and fellow law professor, Antonio García Reyes.

61. Barros Arana, Un decenio, Vol. I, 85.

62. Lastarria, Recuerdos, 62.

63. Álvarez's moment did not last long, however. That same night, February 10, 1840, the government declared a state of siege in Santiago in order to deal with an alleged “conspiracy” to assassinate General Bulnes, the leading presidential candidate and likely successor of President Prieto. The government claimed to have witnesses who placed Álvarez at the center of the conspiracy. That episode, however, goes beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say here that Álvarez survived the 1840 conspiracy investigation and eventually resumed publication of El Diablo Político for a few more months.

64. Francisco Bilbao, “Sociabilidad chilena,” El Crepúsculo, June 1, 1844. The essay has been reprinted many times. A recent example is Sergio Grez Toso, ed. La “cuestión social” en Chile: ideas y debates precursores, 1804–1902. (Santiago: DIBAM, 1995), 63–91.

65. One of the most insightful of these studies is the chapter “Los límites de la polémica: ‘Sociabilidad chilena’ por Francisco Bilbao,” in Ana María Stuven, La seducción de un orden: las elites y la construcción de Chile en las polémicas culturales y políticas del siglo XIX (Santiago: Ediciones Universidad Católica de Chile, 2000), 251–282.

66. “Refutaciones a Bilbao,” Revista Católica, June 18 through November 1, 1844.

67. Bilbao quoted the accusation in his defense. See “Defensa del artículo ‘Sociabilidad chilena,’” in Pedro Pablo Figueroa, Obras completas de Francisco Bilbao, Vol. 1 (Santiago: El Correo, 1897), 71–6.

68. “¡Viva la libertad!” El Siglo, June 21, 1844. This letter to the editor, written by “un ciudadano de la barra,” observed, “Soldados armados estaban colocados en diferentes puntos. Este aparato militar representaba la época en que la fuerza dominaba a la razón, a la justicia, a la libertad.”

69. “Sociabilidad chilena,” El Crepúsculo, June 1, 1844, 32 n1.

70. Bilbao, “Defensa del artículo,” 79–80.

71. Bilbao, “Defensa del artículo,” 59.

72. Bilbao, “Defensa del artículo,” 59.

73. Bilbao, “Defensa del artículo,” 76.

74. Bilbao, “Defensa del artículo,” 76.

75. Bilbao, “Vida de Francisco Bilbao,” xxxi.

76. Barros Arana, Un decenio, Vol. 1, 500–502. In the aftermath of the trial, the Instituto Nacional expelled Bilbao and the government burned the copies of “Sociabilidad chilena” it had collected (citing a legal precedent from the early colonial era).

77. Barros Arana, Un decenio, Vol. 1, 153–164. See also the articles “Jurado de imprenta. Defensa” and “Sentencia,” in Guerra a la Tiranía, March 12, 1841.

78. Barros Arana, Un decenio, Vol. 2, 62–65. See also María Angélica Illanes, “Del mito patriótico al positivismo militar: el pensamiento del Coronel Pedro Godoy,” in Mario Berríos, El pensamiento en Chile, 1830–1910 (Santiago: Nuestra América Ediciones, 1987), 27–44; and Figueroa, Diccionario, Vol. 2, 45–48.

79. “Honor a la Municipalidad de Santiago. Acusación de los Serenos,” El Diario de Santiago, September 4, 1845.

80. “Las Guardias Nacionales de Santiago en el presidio. El Cazador,” El Diario de Santiago, August 28, 1845.

81. “Las Guardias Nacionales de Santiago en el presidio. El Cazador,” El Diario de Santiago, August 28, 1845.

82. “Acusación,” El Diario de Santiago, September 12, 1845.

83. “Acusación de los Serenos,” El Diario de Santiago, September 9, 1845.

84. “Acusación de los Serenos,” El Diario de Santiago, September 9, 1845.

85. “Defensa,” El Diario de Santiago, September 12, 1845.

86. “Defensa,” El Diario de Santiago, September 12, 1845. The charge of defamation had to do with the city's failure to pay the serenos for the previous three months. The letter was titled, “La justicia ni a Dios teme,” El Diario de Santiago, August 28, 1845.

87. “Defensa,” El Diario de Santiago, September 12, 1845.

88. “Defensa,” El Diario de Santiago, September 12, 1845.

89. “Defensa,” El Diario de Santiago, September 12, 1845.

90. Barros Arana, Un decenio, Vol. 2, 69–70.

91. Several of the leading figures of the Santiago opposition, including Godoy, were arrested following the post-trial riot. The Interior Ministry then conducted a far-reaching conspiracy investigation that lasted for the rest of the year. The disturbance of public order following the trial came as a shock to many of the city elites, who responded to the situation by establishing a new association in the city, La Sociedad del Orden.

92. Ley sobre abusos de la libertad de imprenta (Santiago, September 16, 1846). Reprinted in Alberdi, Legislación, appendix, 4–26. See also Barros Arana, Un decenio, Vol. 2, 104–109; Jaksić, “Sarmiento,” 57 n25; Piwonka, “Los juicios,” 140–142; and Ibarra, “Liberalismo,” 306–307.

93. Jaksić, “Sarmiento,” 40.

94. The 1872 press law preserved several aspects of the traditional press trial system, but also made changes to it. Barros Arana claimed that the 1846 law was not enforced after 1849, but I have found records of press trials from the 1850s. Press trials were not formally eliminated in Chile until 1925, with the passage of a new constitution. See Barros Arana, Un decenio, Vol. 2, 109; Piwonka, “Los juicios,” 142–145; and Ibarra, “Liberalismo,” 305–307.

95. Ley sobre abusos, Articles 37 and 50.

96. Ley sobre abusos, Article 1.

97. Ley sobre abusos, Article 16.

98. Ley sobre abusos, Article 4.

99. This article was most likely added in response to yet another sedition trial, one carried out in July 1846 against the radical printer Santiago Ramos, whose fiery columns in the pages of his newspaper El Pueblo led the government to declare a state of siege in the capital in March 1846. On Ramos's sedition trial, see the document “Contra don Santiago Ramos y don Manuel Espejo, por el delito que en la sentencia se expresa,” La Gaceta de los Tribunales, October 3, 1846. Reprinted in Republicanismo popular. Escritos de Santiago Ramos, “El Quebradino,” recopilación y estudio, Vasco Castillo and Camilo Fernández, eds. (Santiago: LOM Ediciones, 2017), 324–325.

100. Ley sobre abusos, Article 5.

101. Ley sobre abusos, Article 6.

102. Ley sobre abusos, Article 77.

103. Ley sobre abusos, Article 78.

104. Ley sobre abusos, Article 79.

105. On the history of the Sociedad de la Igualdad, see James A. Wood, The Society of Equality: Popular Republicanism and Democracy in Santiago de Chile, 1818–1851 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2011).

106. See Benjamín Vicuña MacKenna, Historia de la jornada del veinte de abril de 1851: una batalla en las calles de Santiago (Santiago: Rafael Jover, 1878).

107. “Despedida de La Barra,” La Barra, December 31, 1850.

108. “Despedida de La Barra,” La Barra, December 31, 1850. Historian Diego Barros Arana agreed with them. See Barros Arana, Un decenio, Vol. 2, 534. Barros Arana claimed that the manipulation of the pool of potential jurors in Santiago began under the previous minister of the interior, the powerful Manuel Camilo Vial, who led a rival faction within the governing coalition until he was ousted by Montt. Vial allegedly took this action in advance of the December 1, 1848, selection of jurors in order to control the outcome of a 1849 defamation trial of the editor of El Corsario, an anti-Vialista newspaper in Santiago. Montt was thus following Vial's lead, according to Barros Arana. See Barros Arana, Un decenio, Vol. 2, 287–288. Jaksić, echoing Barros Arana, agreed, arguing that the press trials of the late 1840s onward were mere “public exercises in oratory” whose results were predetermined by the government. See Jaksić, “Sarmiento,” 57 n25.

109. “Despedida de La Barra,” La Barra, December 31, 1850.

110. “Diario de don Benjamín Vicuña Mackenna desde el 28 de octubre de 1850 hasta el 15 de abril de 1851,” Revista Chilena de Historia y Geografía 1:3 (1911): 466.

111. “Diario,” 466.

112. Vicuña Mackenna also believed that the Santiago jury pool had been corrupted by the government. “Todo el jurado le pertenece,” he wrote in his diary (466). He also noted that in the last week of December a number of prison guards and 40 soldiers of the Valdivia battalion had been imprisoned for reading La Barra (465).

113. “La elección es imposible,” La Barra, April 1, 1851.

114. “La elección es imposible,” La Barra, April 1, 1851.

115. Juicio de imprenta seguida por el Fiscal de la Corte de Apelaciones por publicaciones en La Barra, Archivo Judicial de Santiago, Expedientes Judiciales (Criminales), Juicios de Imprenta, caja 937, leg. 1644, no. 3.

116. Valenzuela was clearly a member of the Society of Equality. In his diary, Vicuña Mackenna mentions that on March 24, 1851, “el pobre cajista Valenzuela,” along with Francisco Bilbao and three other Igualitarios, was fined 50 pesos by the Intendant of Santiago for violating the public meeting ban. See “Diario,” 467.

117. Juicio de imprenta seguida por el Fiscal de la Corte de Apelaciones por publicaciones en La Barra. See also “Ha lugar” and “Juzgado del crimen,” La Barra, April 7, 1851.

118. Vicuña Mackenna, Historia de la jornada, 437–438.

119. Juicio de imprenta seguida por el Fiscal de la Corte de Apelaciones por publicaciones en La Barra, Expedientes Judiciales (Criminales), Juicios de Imprenta, caja 937, leg. 1644, no. 20. See also Vicuña Mackenna, Historia de la jornada, 438.

120. See Vicuña Mackenna, “Diario,” 474; and Historia de la jornada, 438. In the latter, Vicuña Mackenna wrote, “Intentó el editor de La Barra el usual expediente de presentar como personero y autor responsable del escrito condenado a un cabeza-de-fierro llamado don Antonio Pérez de Arce.”

121. See Piccato, “Jurados de imprenta,” 146–151.

122. Barros Arana, Un decenio, Vol. 2, 534. Barros Arana noted that a second printer at the Imprenta del Progreso, Antonio Rodríguez, was tried and convicted as the editor responsable on a separate defamation charge in 1851 and that Valenzuela and Rodríguez were “tipógrafos de profesión, que eran inducidos a presentarse como autores o responsables de esos escritos.”