The Tyranny of Opinion: Honor in the Construction of the Mexican Public Sphere

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In the mid-to-late nineteenth century, as Mexico emerged out of decades of civil war and foreign invasion, a modern notion of honor-of one's reputation and self-worth-became the keystone in the construction of public culture. Mexicans gave great symbolic, social, and material value to honor. Only honorable men could speak in the name of the public. Honor earned these men, and a few women, support and credit, and gave civilian politicians a claim to authority after an era dominated by military heroism.

Tracing how notions of honor changed in nineteenth-century Mexico, Pablo Piccato examines legislation, journalism, parliamentary debates, criminal defamation cases, personal stories, urban protests, and the rise and decline of dueling in the 1890s. He highlights the centrality of notions of honor to debates over the nature of Mexican liberalism, describing how honor helped to define the boundaries between public and private life; balance competing claims of free speech, public opinion, and the protection of individual reputations; and motivate politicians, writers, and other men to enter public life. As Piccato explains, under the authoritarian rule of Porfirio Díaz, the state became more active in the protection of individual reputations. It implemented new restrictions on the press. This did not prevent people from all walks of life from defending their honor and reputations, whether in court or through violence. The Tyranny of Opinion is a major contribution to a new understanding of Mexican political history and the evolution of Mexican civil society.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Piccato has produced a first-rate monograph of the period he previously studied, and his analysis of the press at the end of the nineteenth century, the muzzling of the press by Diaz after 1885, and the legal shift in the definition of honor and defamation is first class. The book is engaging, well researched, and well written, and is an interesting read.” - Robert Jackson, H-Net Reviews

“Piccato’s work is an important contribution to our understanding of honor in nineteenth-century Mexico and how shifting conceptions of honor were tied to class, gender, and modernity. In particular, his discussion of honor as a commodity—as something that could be produced, accumulated, and exchanged—elucidates an understanding of how honor did not serve a merely ideological function; it also served as a way to re-create and reinforce class and gender behaviors during a period when Mexico was rapidly changing.” - Nicole Sanders, Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos

The Tyranny of Opinion will likely become the definitive historical work on republican honor in Mexico and one of the most important works on republican honor and the public sphere in Latin America. With chapters on everyone from elite public men to lower-class women, the book provides exceptionally broad coverage.”—Robert M. Buffington, author of Criminal and Citizen in Modern Mexico

“This masterful exploration of the constitution of the public sphere joins questions of gender, representational practices, class, and politics in a fascinating mosaic. It is a delightful read and an illuminating work of historical ethnography, which reveals much about the difficult century between 1810 and 1910. It will help set new research agendas for modern Mexican history.”—Eric Van Young, author of The Other Rebellion: Popular Violence, Ideology, and the Mexican Struggle for Independence, 1810–1821

Robert Jackson

“Piccato has produced a first-rate monograph of the period he previously studied, and his analysis of the press at the end of the nineteenth century, the muzzling of the press by Diaz after 1885, and the legal shift in the definition of honor and defamation is first class. The book is engaging, well researched, and well written, and is an interesting read.”
Nicole Sanders

“Piccato’s work is an important contribution to our understanding of honor in nineteenth-century Mexico and how shifting conceptions of honor were tied to class, gender, and modernity. In particular, his discussion of honor as a commodity—as something that could be produced, accumulated, and exchanged—elucidates an understanding of how honor did not serve a merely ideological function; it also served as a way to re-create and reinforce class and gender behaviors during a period when Mexico was rapidly changing.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822346456
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 1/11/2010
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Pablo Piccato is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Institute of Latin American Studies at Columbia University. He is the author of City of Suspects: Crime in Mexico City, 1900–1931, also published by Duke University Press, and a co-editor of True Stories of Crime in Modern Mexico.

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Read an Excerpt


Honor in the Construction of the Mexican Public Sphere
By Pablo Piccato

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2010 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4653-1

Chapter One

Setting the Rules of Freedom

The Trajectory of the Press Jury

According to Benjamin Constant, sovereignty needed a limitation, and establishing it was not just a matter of claiming abstract rights but of looking at what was possible. Such limitation, he argued, "will be ensured first by the same force which legitimates all acknowledged truths: by public opinion." In early national Mexico, José María Luis Mora echoed this belief: "A true public opinion," he argued, was the only force that could stop tyranny and "the love of power, innate in man and always growing in the government." In this chapter I look at what was possible by focusing on freedom of the press, an aspect of public life which (perhaps because historians have not considered it important in a largely illiterate country) has not been explored very deeply, in spite of its centrality for Constant and Mora. After Charles A. Hale's groundbreaking work on Mora, an expanding historiography has examined transforming notions of sovereignty after Mexican independence, focusing on themes first addressed by the illustrious liberal, such as federalism, representation, and citizenship. Yet few scholars have looked at the limitation of sovereignty that Constant proposed in the text from 1815 quoted above, and only recently a group has advanced the exploration of the impact of liberalism on actual political practices, especially among indigenous communities.

I propose that freedom of the press should be studied not simply as an abstract right but, as Constant and Mora conceived of it, as practiced in public life. The result will be to displace the emphasis from unanimity and large national themes toward dialogues in a smaller, albeit still meaningful, scale of analysis. Rather than sovereignty, the research should focus on governance and the everyday interactions among citizens and between civil society and state. These interactions nurtured and transformed, often through personal decisions and conversations, the ideas that Mora and his contemporaries placed at the foundation of the national polis. One advantage of taking such a close look at free speech and public opinion (understood as social practices rather than immanent values) is that, as we will see, it yields a more nuanced picture than the usual dichotomy of conservatives against liberals. Another result, perhaps more interesting from the methodological point of view, is that such an approach reveals the cultural and social texture of what we tend to call, rather vaguely, politics. The specificity of this texture is suggested by comparing Constant's views of freedom of the press with those developed by nineteenth-century Mexicans. Constant stressed that such freedom could be limited only if publications attacked authority and a strict (and, in his view, natural) division between public and private themes could be easily enforced. The public men I examine in this chapter, by contrast, worried about the impossibility of establishing such a neat division and saw the difficulty in distinguishing attacks on authority from criticisms of public officers. Part of a constitutionalist tradition, they tried to legislate freedom of the press rather than allowing strongmen or precedents to decide what could be said. In doing so, they faced two practical problems that define the empirical substance of the following pages.

The first problem was that Mexican public opinion was made from the opinions of fallible citizens. Mora spoke about the importance of opinion and the multiplicity of opinions. He identified the unity of public opinion with that of reason but noted that reason was only partially realized in individual citizens: different abilities distinguished them, although all men had the potential for autonomy and perfectibility. A product of the diverse polity that emerged from independence, public opinion could not come into being except through public discussion, yet the number and quality of interlocutors were themselves subject to debate. Early politicians recognized the need to allow public opinion to shape policy but warned against confusing "the popular voice with public opinion." Against the ignorance of the masses, they held that public opinion was "the general expression of the people convinced about the truth, which it has examined through discussion." Mexicans were sorely aware, after all, that opinions may also hurt the public good by calling for insurrection, subverting Catholic doctrine, promoting debauchery, or offending private citizens. For Mora, reason and morality were essentially individual and free within a person's soul and thus difficult to regulate from the public realm.

The second practical problem in legislating freedom of the press was tyranny itself, the tendency of Mexican politics to gravitate toward strongmen who were not prone to tolerate dissent. Mora warned that only open exchanges could validate opinion. The problem was to create rules for discussion in the public sphere. The solution adopted by Mexican liberals was double-sided and not particularly original: while the state had to guarantee the freedom of opinions through the press, it also had to build effective institutions to contain the freedom of journalists.

Honor was the most worrisome object of opinion because abuse could be damaging both at the individual and collective levels. After all, subversive writings could easily be explained as dangerous instruments of partisan or personal struggles for power, religious doctrine was no longer a matter of public debate, and stiff fines effectively countered "writings that are obscene and against proper customs." Instead, wrote Mora, "insults deserve the severest punishment" because libel made seditious writings more explosive and invaded "the secret asylum of private life." Thus, the first rule to shape debate was that "private life should not be the object of public discussion." Or, in other words, opinions took their first step toward public opinion and the nobility of reason by recognizing a realm of privacy. For Mora and most liberals through the first half century of independent life, the best way to move in that direction was by establishing a tribunal composed of politically and financially independent individuals who could punish the abuses of the press.

That institution was the press jury. This chapter will reconstruct the history and functioning of the press jury as a privileged terrain for the interactions between civil society and the state. Even though it shaped the contents of the press during the first six decades of national life, determining what could be expressed and how, the press jury has been neglected by historiography. First legislated in 1821, it found its moment of greatest influence between 1868 and its abolition in 1882, when it made possible unprecedented freedom of speech in spite of mounting political pressure. The institution was central to political life, I argue, because public opinion was not the pure rational distillation of popular sovereignty ideologues claimed, but the product of myriad, seemingly unimportant exchanges between individuals. This chapter begins to illustrate a thesis that is fully developed in the next one: that in nineteenth-century Mexico public opinion was more concerned with interpersonal relations than with the abstract purity of reason, and it worked as a judge of character as much as the expression of the general will.

Besides the discussions it channeled and the legislation that created it, the jury's membership is of central relevance: citizens' participation in press juries shaped the meaning of citizenship in nineteenth-century urban Mexico. The press jury's symbiotic relationship with the ayuntamiento (city council) and the social situation of the well-known vecinos (neighbors) who acted as jurors point to a republican tradition that can be traced back to colonial times. Rather than a democratic achievement of the República Restaurada, as the prevalent liberal narrative has it, the press jury was the product of a local tradition that subsisted through small political practices. This chapter, then, will not be a history of freedom against censorship but will stress the success of the press jury in protecting journalists and its key role in adjudicating honor in front of public opinion.

Free Speech Through Jury Legislation

In the archives of the Ayuntamiento of Mexico City five volumes entitled "Jurados de imprenta" (press juries) contain a narrative of national life in which freedom of the press was the first outcome of independence and the principal path in the evolution of citizenship henceforth. The volumes include trials conducted in the capital and most of their legal framework, constituting a corpus of texts that jurists like José María Gamboa, who studied press legislation in 1884, characterized as "the mirror of customs, the genuine expression of the peculiar character of each people." The first product of that narrative is the contrast between modern rules and old practices as recorded in the empire's legal compendium, the Novísima recopilación, which, in Gamboa's words, "seem today inconceivable, against nature ... highly offensive and unfair ... consequence ... of an era that was completely different from ours." Liberal jurists characterized preindependence legislation by its religious intolerance and excessive zeal to punish libel. In the Novísima recopilación, believed Ignacio Ramírez, the "public writer, especially if he is a journalist, cannot take a step without insulting somebody, without venturing a profane look across the doors of private life." The Inquisition, abolished in 1813, was the key point of reference, although other colonial authorities also had jurisdiction over the press. Gamboa and Ramírez might have read those five volumes as testimony that the struggle between honor and free speech was the central drama during the most difficult period of national history.

Beginning with the establishment of provisional authorities against the French in Spain, legislation of the press made its way across the ocean. In November of 1810, the Spanish Cortes abolished prior censorship (censura previa) with the purpose of bringing the nation "to the knowledge of true public opinion." The authorities of New Spain, however, believed the fight against the insurgency of Miguel Hidalgo subordinated any reforms emanating from the metropolis, and the viceroy did not publish the decree. Liberal legislation continued to arrive, notably with the Constitution passed by the Cadiz Cortes in 1812. Its article 371 guaranteed citizens the "freedom to write, print and publish their political ideas." Authorities in Mexico City published the Constitution and a viceroyal edict establishing freedom of the press in October 1812.

Freedom came with penal responsibilities for authors of "defamatory libels and writings that are slanderous, subversive ... and contrary to public decency." These three limits (slander, subversion, immorality) would become, with varying emphases, the basic structure of press restrictions in the nineteenth century. Slander was defined in terms of a strict divide between, and different consequences for, statements of public and private character. A Reglamento de la libertad de imprenta approved by the Cortes in 1813 established that printed accusations against public officers supported by evidence would not be punished, but everything that involved "private crimes, domestic defects and others that do not have immediate influence on the public good" would be prosecuted according to penal laws.

The struggle for independence created a long-standing ambivalence among Mexican authorities regarding political news and debates. Creole writers had demanded greater freedom of expression as far back as 1805, and ideas about the role of the colony vis-à-vis Spain began to be printed in New Spain in 1808, testing a precarious middle ground of open discussion through the incipient periodical press. The edict of 1812 prompted the publication of new journals, but colonial authorities restricted news and discussions about the insurgency on moral and religious grounds. Viceroyal authorities responded to the Creole challenge expressed in the City Council elections of October 1812 by suspending the new press regulations in spite of the protests of Mexico City's neighbors and delegates to the Cortes. Ferdinand VII's coup against the 1812 Constitution in the peninsula returned things, in appearance, to the status quo. But freedom of the press became an element of the insurgents' program, autonomist newspapers continued to appear in regions controlled by the rebels, and papers in loyalist Mexico City still reported on the advances of freedom of the press in Europe. In 1814, the insurgent Decreto Constitucional, issued in Apatzingán, proclaimed "the freedom to speak, think and express opinions through the press," unless the writings attacked "dogma" or "the honor of citizens." Although José María Morelos and the Apatzingán Congress were defeated, the liberal impulse did not stop completely. Multiple pamphlets published in Mexico City defended freedom of the press as one of the basic demands of the new political era. The demand was all the stronger because it maintained the centrality of urban institutions in the process of reverting sovereignty to the people (los pueblos), both in Spain and in America, after the abdication of Charles IV in 1808.

The 1820s saw an expansion in the volume and intensity of political debate through the press. That year, a liberal Junta Provisional in Spain reestablished the Cadiz Constitution and freedom of the press in Spain and its colonies. The new Cadiz Cortes approved further regulation that continued in the direction set by their predecessors, extending the character of injurioso (slanderous) to all writings that stained "the reputation or the honor of particulars, mentioning their private behavior." The Cadiz Reglamento of 1820 established a jury system to adjudicate on the transgressive character of writings and the penalties to be meted out to their authors-thus replacing the special judges and prosecutors set by previous regulations. Even though Agustín de Iturbide's declaration of independence in September 1821 was to some extent a reaction against peninsular liberalism, the new Mexican authorities soon published the most recent press legislation coming from Cadiz. Two months later, Iturbide began what would become a long series of adjustments to the limits of freedom by issuing a Reglamento Adicional del Imperio that established new restrictions and penalties of up to six years of prison for subversive writings.

The Mexican appropriation and design of press regulations since independence cannot be understood simply as a derivation of Cadiz liberalism. Press legislation, in Cadiz as much as in Mexico City, was the product of European, particularly French, examples that were never characterized by coherence and durability. Except for the English case (influential although difficult to apply in the Iberian world because of the primacy given to codes over precedents), there was an abundance of regulations whose duration was tied to that of the governments issuing them. Even though the Cadiz laws were an example of openness, subsequent Spanish laws were characterized by expansive definitions of abuses of the press, including political, allegorical, and personal attacks, and increasing censorship. The central concern of most of these regulations was political control, rather than the protection of reputations. Thus, for example, they prescribed in detail the responsibilities of writers, editors, printers, and sellers who could be tried because of offensive texts.


Excerpted from THE TYRANNY OF OPINION by Pablo Piccato Copyright © 2010 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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


Introduction. Honor and the Public Sphere in the Republican Era....................1
1. Setting the Rules of Freedom: The Trajectory of the Press Jury....................27
2. Representing Public Opinion: Combat Journalists and the Business of Honor....................63
3. "The Word of My Conscience": Eloquence and the Foreign Debt....................100
4. Breaking Lamps and Expanding the Public Sphere: Students and Populacho against the Deuda Inglesa....................129
5. Honor and the State: Reputation as a Juridical Good....................159
6. "A Horrible Web of Insults": The Everyday Defense of Honor....................188
7. "One Does Not Talk to the Dead": The Romero-Verástegui Affair and the Apogee of Dueling in Mexico....................220
Sources Cited....................337
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