The Transformation of Liberalism in Late Nineteenth-Century Mexico

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A leading intellectual historian of Latin America here examines the changing political ideas of the Mexican intellectual and quasi-governmental elite during the period of ideological consensus from the victory of Benito Juárez of 1867 into the 1890s. Looking at Mexican political thought in a comparative Western context, Charles Hale fully describes how triumphant liberalism was transformed by its encounter with the philosophy of positivism. In so doing, he challenges the prevailing tendency to divide Mexican thought into liberal and positivist stages. The political impact of positivism in Mexico began in 1878, when the "new" or "conservative" liberals enunciated the doctrine of "scientific politics" in the newspaper La Libertad. Hale probes the intellectual origins of scientific politics in the ideas of Henri de Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte, and he discusses the contemporary models of the movement the conservative republics of France and Spain. Drawing on the debates between advocates of scientific politics and defenders of the Constitution of 1857 in its pure form, he argues that the La Libertad group of 1878 and their heirs, the Cientificos of 1893, were constitutionalists in the liberal tradition and not merely apologists for the authoritarian regime of Porfirio Díaz. Hale concludes by outlining the legacy of scientific politics for post-revolutionary Mexico, particularly in the present-day efforts to inject "democracy" into the political system.

Originally published in 1990.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Winner of the 1990 Bolton Memorial Prize of the Conference on Latin American History
One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 1991
Hale history, U. of Iowa examines the changing political ideas of the Mexican intellectual and governmental elite during the period of ideological consensus from the victory of Juarez in 1867 into the 1890s, describing how triumphant liberalism was transformed by its encounter with the philosophy of positivism. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691078144
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 2/21/1990
  • Series: Princeton Legacy Library
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.58 (h) x 0.96 (d)

Read an Excerpt

The Transformation of Liberalism in Late Nineteenth-Century Mexico

By Charles A. Hale


Copyright © 1989 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07814-4


Introduction: The Problem of Liberalism after 1867

The subject of this book is liberalism in Mexico from 1867 to 1910, an era that was governed by the experience of midcentury civil war and the heroic struggle against foreign intervention. Nineteenth-century liberalism was a set of political ideas that saw its classic formulation as an ideology in the 1820s and 1830s and its implementation in the Constitution of 1857 and the Laws of Reform. With the victory of Benito Juárez in 1867 over Emperor Maximilian and the native Conservative party, liberalism was triumphant. Thereafter, it became irrevocably identified with the nation itself, a nation that in the words of Juárez had won its second independence. The years following 1867 were ones that saw the establishment of an official liberal tradition, a tradition that was further solidified with the Revolution of 1910. In other words, liberalism after 1867 became transformed from an ideology in combat with an inherited set of institutions, social arrangements, and values into a unifying political myth.

However, liberalism after 1867 also encountered a new intellectual environment, influenced in part by the introduction of the philosophy of positivism. A major characteristic of European positivism at its origin in France in the 1820s was its repudiation of central elements of liberal theory. Though positivism first entered Mexico in the 1860s, its initial impact was not in politics, but rather in the reorganization of higher education. Its effect on political ideas came a decade later in 1878 with the enunciation of scientific politics, a doctrine presented by a self-styled "new generation" of intellectuals in La Libertad, a newspaper subsidized by the fledgling government of Porfirio Díaz. Scientific politics came increasingly to provide the intellectual basis of policy assumptions during the long authoritarian Díaz regime, yet ultimately remained in tension with it. Therefore, the focus of this study will be on the definition of this purportedly new and regenerative concept and its complex relationship with liberalism, the dominant political myth.

Whatever Mexican liberalism became after 1867, its ingredients must be sought in the formative years of the previous half-century. At the heart of the liberal idea was the free individual, unrestrained by government or corporate body and equal to his fellows under the law. In the political sphere this ideal was first to be achieved by placing limits on central government authority through the legal constraints of a written constitution. The protection of civil liberties, representative institutions, the separation of powers, federalism, and municipal autonomy became important liberal goals. These constitutional guarantees and institutions would serve to protect the individual from "despotism." In short, constitutionalism was a major ingredient of the liberal program.

Second, individual freedom could only be realized within a society where traditional corporate entities—church, army, guilds, and Indian communities—would be replaced by a regime of legal uniformity. The principal corporation was of course the church, with its vast wealth, its judicial privileges, and its control over education and the events of life itself. Thus the liberal anticorporate struggle was directed primarily against the temporal power of the church in order to achieve the ends of secularization. The free individual in a modern society must become a citizen whose primary loyalty was to the nation or secular state and not to a corporation under the control of clerics. The supremacy of the secular state was a basic tenet of liberal ideology. Moreover, the secular state must be a republic. Since traditional governmental and corporate restrictions on individual freedom were a legacy of the Spanish monarchical system, Mexican liberals by the mid-1820s were uniformly republicans. The heroic struggle of the 1860s against two emperors and the monarchist conservatives became first of all a struggle to restore the republic.

Liberalism also embraced a vision of social progress and economic development. If enlightened individuals could be left to their natural inclinations, that is, to pursue their own interests freely, the result was supposed to be a spontaneous identification of common interests and social harmony. Individual interest was based on property, the right to which was an extension of the individual's right to life itself. If property, including the property of traditional Indian communities, could be freed from corporate, monopolistic, or governmental restrictions, then individual initiative, a natural division of labor, and free exchange between individuals and nations would flourish, leading ultimately to the general enhancement of wealth. These classic liberal assumptions guided article 27 of the Constitution of 1857, which reaffirmed the inviolability of private property; article 28, which abolished monopolies and prohibitive tariffs; and the many anticlerical decrees issued between 1856 and 1863, which first disentailed and then nationalized ecclesiastical wealth. These socioeconomic measures, even the ones that were extreme because they were issued in a time of armed conflict, became embedded in the Mexican liberal tradition.

The new intellectual environment encountered by triumphant liberalism had scarcely taken form by 1867; there were only scattered indications of the major changes to come within the next decade. One such early indication appeared in what had been a conventional vehicle of the liberal era, an independence day oration delivered on 16 September 1867, in Guanajuato, the fount of Mexican patriotism. The orator was Gabino Barreda, leader of the educational reform commission, newly appointed by President Juárez. Barreda's famous Oración cívica repeated all the liberal pieties, putting the most emphasis on the recent war to regain national independence, the conflict between "American civilization" and "European retrogression."

Barreda's address was novel in that he saw Mexico's heroic struggle since 1810 as the culmination of a centuries-long movement toward "mental emancipation," that is, the gradual decline of old doctrines and their replacement by new ones. Political emancipation cannot be separated from religious and scientific emancipation, he said; "for in the domain of the intelligence and in the field of true philosophy nothing is heterogeneous, everything is joined together (solidario)." For Barreda the efforts of the great liberators Hidalgo, Morelos, and Juárez were made understandable only by multiple precedents and cumulative influences over three centuries. These included: Galileo's "simple scientific hypothesis"; the Protestant challenge, "whose banner was the right of free inquiry"; the assertion by the Spanish Crown of regalian rights at the expense of the Papacy; and the Dutch, American, and French Revolutions, from which sprang the doctrines of popular sovereignty and equality. Did it not follow, asked Barreda, that just as supernatural explanations were being replaced by natural laws and as human intervention was growing in all the sciences, so "the science of politics would also go forward, freeing itself increasingly from theology?"

However, Barreda emphasized that mental emancipation had also brought with it an anarchy of ideas, "painful collisions" from which great social lessons could be drawn. Moreover, such anarchy would continue until "a truly universal doctrine unites all intellects in a common synthesis." Barreda's acknowledged guide was the philosopher of positivism, Auguste Comte, whom he quoted at the outset and whose influence is apparent throughout the Oración cívica. However, this influence is most evident in Barreda's conclusion, the theme of which was "social reconstruction." Because of the sacrifices of two generations, he maintained, the obstacles to reconstruction have been cleared and its bases laid—the Laws of Reform and the constitution. "Let our motto henceforth be Liberty, Order, and Progress." Liberty of conscience and expression now reigns and "makes unnecessary and impossible any disturbance that is not purely spiritual, any revolution that is not merely intellectual." Let "material order," he concluded, protected at all cost by the governors and respected by the governed, be the sure road to progress and civilization. Barreda had set the tone for the coming era, but true to his charge, he himself turned away from politics and devoted the next decade to instituting a new system of scientific preparatory education, as we shall see in chapter 5. The full political implications of his message were not formally articulated until 1878. These political implications are the subject of chapter 2.

Although the first appearance of positivism in Mexican politics came with Barreda's dramatic address of 1867, some of its assumptions can be discerned in political writings as early as the 1840s. Positivism was only one of several European intellectual currents that in the aftermath of the French Revolution challenged the validity of the doctrines of natural rights and utility, those two variants of Enlightenment political philosophy that made up classic liberalism. French literary romantics, political conservatives inspired by Burke and De Maistre, legal scholars of the historical school of Savigny, and the early socialists all judged these eighteenth-century doctrines to be abstract, legalistic, and of questionable universal application. Like the contemporary positivists, Henri de Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte, they rejected the notion of the autonomous individual as the root element in society and instead construed him to be an integral part of the social organism, conditioned by time and place and as ever-changing as society itself.

In Mexico the shift away from classic liberal doctrines can be seen, of course, in Lucas Alamán, who by the early 1830s had become a frank political conservative. It can be seen even more pertinently in Mariano Otero, a young liberal politician and jurist of the turbulent 1840s. In his Ensayo of 1842, Otero emphasized historical inevitability, the progress of civilization, and the interrelated nature of all society. Unlike the classical liberal, José María Luis Mora, Otero believed that the method of social science must be historical. He opened his essay with a quotation from Mme. de Stael that asserted that the French Revolution was not an accidental occurrence, the work of specific men, but rather the work of history, the culmination of past events. He criticized the anticlerical reformers of 1833, for whom Mora was the major theorist. Otero maintained that the economic power of the church was being undermined by social changes and the spread of enlightenment, and that the extreme measures of the reformers only caused an unnecessary political schism in the country. He argued that civilization could only triumph if there were a "general change" in society, if "the diverse elements that compose it ... change in the form necessary for that new state."

Otero combined acute analysis by which he identified property as the "generating principle" of society with a marked optimism about Mexico's future. His optimism, including an apology for federalism, appears to have been inspired by the "associative socialism" of the school of Charles Fourier, which maintained that voluntary association according to a prearranged plan was the key to social problems. Otero saw the adoption of federalism in Mexico as a response to a "universal law." From families to nations, men organize, he said, in "diverse associations" to best serve their needs. His philosophical attachment to federalism and his conviction that the power of the church would naturally decline led him to become a political moderate, someone reluctant to seek a strong reformist state acting against corporate privilege. The affinity of Otero's thought with French positivism can be seen in his general approach to the individual and society, in his emphasis on social reconstruction, and in his adoption of the historical method in social analysis, and not in his attitude toward the state. Statism was central to the ideas of both Comte and Saint-Simon. With this significant limitation, Otero may be seen as a precursor of positivism in Mexico.

Mariano Otero (b. 1817) was a precocious and short-lived member of what might be called the "romantic generation" of Mexican liberals, which was also the intellectual generation of the Reforma, including such men as Ponciano Arriaga (b. 1811), Miguel Lerdo de Tejada (b. 1812), Melchor Ocampo (b. 1814), Ignacio Ramírez (b. 1818), and Guillermo Prieto (b. 1818). A study of the intellectual orientation of these men might reveal that they were exposed to many of the same ideas as Otero, and that under other circumstances they might have moved gradually away from classic political liberalism, as did their contemporaries in Argentina and Chile, for example, Domingo F. Sarmiento (b. 1811), Juan Bautista Alberdi (b. 1810), José Victorino Lastarria (b. 1817) and Francisco Bilbao (b. 1823). However, in contrast to Argentina and Chile, political polarization in Mexico after 1846 inhibited the application of the new ideas, such as the organic view of society and the historical approach to social analysis; and the suppositions of classic liberalism continued to hold sway.

In Mexico, the dichotomy within earlier political liberalism between doctrinaire constitutionalism and a strong reformist state was perpetuated in the incongruous juxtaposition of the Constitution of 1857 and the Laws of Reform. The Mexican constitution, with its emphasis on natural rights, popular sovereignty, and a limited executive was quite different, for example, from the Argentine Constitution of 1853, which was imbued with the pragmatic and conciliatory spirit of the historical school of law, as espoused by Alberdi. The Argentines regarded all three constitutional doctrines as abstract and radical. Ideological conciliation in midcentury Argentina and Chile was also enhanced by the absence of the church issue that so dominated politics in Mexico. The difference between the situation of Mexico and that of Argentina and Chile was dramatized by the travail of the moderados during the Reforma era. Otero might have become one of those tormented political moderates, like for example José María Lafragua or Manuel Siliceo, had he not died prematurely in 1850. Mexico's midcentury civil war not only made political moderation impossible, but it also disrupted the gradual transformation of political and social thought. In Chile and Argentina the grafting of new ideas onto old ones came about more gradually and imperceptibly than it did in Mexico. In Chile, it was Lastarria, Otero's intellectual counterpart and an outspoken political liberal of the 1840s, who introduced positivism in 1868. Whereas in Mexico, positivism found its first champion in Barreda, who, though he was a contemporary of Otero and Lastarria, was an apolitical physician and scientist.

Although Barreda's Oración cívica of 1867 introduced positivist concepts that would later be used to attack cherished liberal principles, his address also signaled the beginnings of the official liberal tradition. The elements of this tradition can be found in the public policy of the next two decades; its formal expression came subsequently in the historical writings that flourished from 1888 to 1906, even though most of this historiography revealed an infusion of positivist ideas.

One major policy objective of the years after 1867 (pointed to in Barreda's address) was political reconciliation, which meant both reconciliation of the parties in conflict during the recent civil war and reconciliation of the factions in conflict within the triumphant Liberal party. As we shall see in the chapters that follow, the regime of Benito Juárez (1867–72) dedicated itself particularly to the first task, the regimes of Porfirio Díaz (1877–80, 1884–88) and Manuel González (1880–84) to the second. Within a month of the liberal victory in 1867, Juárez proposed that voting rights be extended to the clergy and that distinctions of degree be made in punishing those who had collaborated with the French or with Maximilian. The proposals caused much controversy, but a broad amnesty law was passed on 10 October 1870. These political measures were supplemented by the efforts of Ignacio M. Altamirano to reunite the Mexican literary community by extending a hand to those writers who had sympathized with the conservative cause. He saw such reconciliation as necessary in order to create a truly national literature, and this became the theme of his weekly periodical, appropriately entitled El Renacimiento (1869). Nonetheless, Altamirano made it clear that this national literature was to be based on liberal principles.


Excerpted from The Transformation of Liberalism in Late Nineteenth-Century Mexico by Charles A. Hale. Copyright © 1989 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Preface, ix,
Chapter 1 Introduction: The Problem of Liberalism after 1867, 3,
Chapter 2 The Structure of Scientific Politics, 25,
Chapter 3 Scientific Politics and Constitutionalism, 64,
Chapter 4 The Científicos as Constitutionalists, 102,
Chapter 5 Positivism and the National Preparatory School, 139,
Chapter 6 The Great Textbook Controversy, 169,
Chapter 7 Positivism, Liberalism, and Society, 205,
Chapter 8 Conclusion: The Legacy, 245,
Bibliography, 263,
Index, 281,

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