Taken together, these two major volumes by two distinguished Princeton historians provide a comprehensive reexamination of the history of Spain's eighteenth-century struggle to use the wealth of its colonial empire in the Americas to regain its great-power status. The first volume, reissued in paperback, examines the emergence of the Atlantic commercial system between 1500 and 1700, when Spain's control of the rich mines of Peru and Mexico brought it immense wealth. Spain thus found itself at the cutting edge of the early global economy, but failed to capitalize on its riches while others, notably France and England, used silver to spur long-term development. In their second volume, the Steins describe how a new Spanish dynasty, the Bourbons, tried to remake the colonial pact and renovate the institutional structures they had inherited from the Hapsburgs. Radical changes, however, were resisted, spurring a long conflict between reformers and traditionalists. When Charles III, the most reform-minded Bourbon ruler, died, Spain had still only managed to make superficial changes, leaving it unprepared to withstand the vast upheaval that would shake the Atlantic world at the end of the eighteenth century.
Based on prodigious original research over several decades, these volumes do much to unravel the paradox of Spain's resilience as a great power during the eighteenth century. The authors also reveal the hollowness and rigidity of that power and show why Spain was unable, in the end, either to modernize or to benefit from its control of the main source of the world's bullion.