The Real History of the Obelisk in St. Augustine’s Plaza de la Constitucion
By: Raphael Cosme
The cities of Cadiz, Spain and St Augustine have joined to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Spanish Constitution of 1812, in the first large scale event of the greater 450th Commemoration of the founding of the City of St Augustine.
St Augustine was still a Spanish colony when a constitution came into effect. Its adoption was certainly important then; but why is it important today? Amazingly, the monument situated in the Plaza de la Constitution may be the Western Hemisphere’s only remaining monument built to honor Spain’s Constitution of 1812.
Construction of the Constitution Monument
In 1783, the British released the Florida colonies back to Spain in St. Augustine, but most of the British residents preferred to abandon the city rather than converting to Catholicism.
The French revolution caused a wave of liberalism to spread over Europe. French armies, under Napoleon, overran much of Spain and Joseph, brother of Napoleon, was set to be King over the partially conquered realm. During this period, the delegates to the National Assembly (Cortes) met at Cadiz in 1809-1813 and adopted the so-called “liberal” Constitution of 1812.
At the same time, St. Augustine’s city council proposed that a stone and coquina obelisk be constructed in the plaza as a symbol of the new constitution. Mayor Geronimo Alvarez and Eusebio Maria Gomez introduced to the council the estimated cost for construction of the obelisk to be one hundred and sixty-eight pesos. It took many weeks to raise the money to invest in the project.
On June 21, 1813 the council approved construction of an obelisk thirty feet high containing a tablet carved with the liberalist constitution inlaid on the east side. A budget was also approved for the construction materials, daily wages for laborers and wages for the master builder totaling one hundred and sixty-eight reales daily. In the end, the project took more reales than were originally planned.
Later in 1813, the obelisk was erected and the plaza was named La Plaza de la Constitucion. The names of all personnel involved in the construction of the Constitution Monument are: Don Fernando de la Maza Arredondo-Council, Don Francisco Robira-Council, Geronimo Alvarez, Ciscopoly, Jose Bermudez Reyes, Jose Maria Duarte, Juan de Estralgo, Eusebio Maria Gomez, Martin Hernandez, Antonio Lopez, Ignacio de la Pazuela, Francisco Rosado, Rossell, Jose Sanchez and Benjamin Seguyer.
Spain Defeats the Liberalist Government
With the final defeat of Napoleon in 1814, Ferdinand VII was restored to the Spanish throne. He quickly restored the absolute monarchy, completely revoking the liberal Constitution of 1812, and ordered the destruction of any monuments dedicated to liberalism.
However, in St Augustine, the council only removed the tablet from the plaza’s obelisk and hid it. With a re-enactment of the 1812 Constitution the tablet was placed back on to the monument. According to council records, the tablet was replaced with all the ceremonies and majesty that the act required in 1820.
Mysterious Masonic Emblem
No one has an explanation for how a small Masonic emblem got onto the Constitution tablet after it was restored. St. Augustine residents woke up to find a Masonic emblem on the tablet but there is no record of any person responsible for the act. More mysterious was how a symbol can be carved on a monument in the middle of the plaza without it being noticed.
Some speculated that the carving was made when the tablet was in storage. We know that freemasonry has existed in Spain since about 1750. Many were revolutionaries supporting the constitution of 1812 in the New World.
In 1986, John Garner, the person in charge of restoration of the deteriorated monument, investigated the Masonic emblem. He discovered that in the early 1800’s a woman visiting from Quebec made a sketch of the obelisk with the Masonic emblem on the plaque.
Many years later, a visiting Jacksonville Mason noticed the sketch on display in a Masonic lodge in Quebec. Upon learning of this, Garner wrote and obtained a copy of the early sketch.
As for the history of the Masonic emblem, it is still uncertain why it was carved onto the tablet. Other experts said the carving could have been made after the Second World War and would need to be examined by a stone carving expert to determine when it was made.
About the author: Raphael Cosme is a Historian specialized in Latin American History.