David Rock, Liberalism in Argentina and Mexico: Nineteenth-Century Perspectives

On 5 December 2011, we were delighted to host a lecture by the esteemed Professor of Latin American History, David Rock (University of California, Santa Barbara), entitled “Liberalism in Argentina and Mexico: Nineteenth-Century Perspectives.” He engaged with the comparative ambitions of our project by using selected contrasts from Mexico’s experiences with liberalism to throw into clearer focus the distinctive and particular aspects of Argentine liberalism. In a dynamic discussion session after his paper, Rock answered questions for nearly an hour and spoke to many of the important issues that have shaped our research agenda on the Liberalism in the Americas project.

Recalling Tulio Halperín Donghi’s maxim that Argentina was “born liberal,” Rock began by pointing out that for this to be the case, a period of “pregnancy” must have occurred, and discussed the pre-Independence trading relations that Buenos Aires developed with British merchants as evidence of this, and as a possible distinguishing feature of Argentina from many other Latin American countries. In terms of economic liberalism, at least, Rock argued that liberal policies were implemented, first in Buenos Aires, and then in other parts of the future nation-state of Argentina, with a comparative lack of opposition and contestation. In Mexico, by contrast, significant interest groups–primarily the Catholic Church, and the indigenous peasantry–posed strong opposition to successive attempts by liberal reformers to eradicate communal landholding practices.

In political terms, Rock contended that the essential liberal criterion was the presence of representative government and, in this regard, Argentina’s relationship with political liberalism was less straightforward than with economic liberalism. Although independent Mexico’s periods of monarchical rule (which will be explored by Erika Pani in our next research workshop Liberalism, Monarchy and Empire: Ambiguous Relationships) might again suggest that Mexico’s experience with political liberalism was more contested than Argentina’s, Rock outlined the existence of a “second tradition”  that opposed liberalism throughout modern Argentine history. In various different eras, disparate movements (Rosismo, nacionalismo, Peronismo) emerged to challenge the individualist elements of liberalism, whether through a clientelist political culture, corporate structures like trade unionism, or an organic vision of collective society such as nationalism.

In the extended discussion following Rock’s paper, among the most interesting issues were: how Latin American ideologies are formed from national, international, local, popular and elite influences; the political and economic struggles between the centre and the regions in the process of nation-building; the relationship between liberalism and nation-building, with the “civilising” agenda within liberal ideology being a strong impulse behind nation-building; and the relationship between liberalism and democracy. During his paper, Rock stressed the importance of representation to the existence of political liberalism and this issue was central to the later discussion of the extent of the connections between liberalism and democracy, on which no consensus was reached. By a happy coincidence, we will be returning to these very issues in our next events in February 2012: a research workshop on Liberalism, Monarchy and Empire: Ambiguous Relationships and a public lecture by Roderick Barman (UBC): “The Enigma of Liberalism in Imperial Brazil.”

In the meantime, let us know your thoughts on David Rock’s lecture in the comments section!

Key Liberal Documents: Beyond Civilisation and Barbarism

In addition to eliciting an animated debate about Domingo Faustino Sarmiento and the Conquest of the Desert in late nineteenth-century Argentina, the recent ISA-hosted symposium “Two Hundred Years of Sarmiento: Backwards and Forwards” also gave me some new ideas about important documentary sources for the project’s digital library on Liberalism in the Americas.

Of course, Sarmiento’s name immediately brings to mind his most famous work, Facundo o civilización y barbarie (1845): a polemic essay critiquing the provincial leaders and political cultures of the Argentine interior opposed to the liberal reformers of Buenos Aires. Facundo was an enormously important work that helped to shape the debate about the nature of Latin American societies and political cultures during the nineteenth century and remains a key referrent for researchers and educators working on this era. However, while it is undoubtedly a key referrent on the subject, the fact that Facundo is already very widely available in print and digital formats means that it is not a priority for inclusion in the Liberalism in the Americas digital library. For digital versions of Facundo, see:

The Internet Archive, available in pdf and other formats. [Edition: Buenos Aires: Librería de Facultad de Juan Roldán y Compañía, 1921], [Edition: Buenos Aires: Félix Lajouane, 1889], [Edition: Montevideo: Tipografía Americana, 1888], [Edition: Nueva York: D. Appleton y Compañía, 1868], [Edition (in English): London: Sampson Low, Son, and Marson, 1868], [Edition (in English): New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1868] [Edition (in French): Paris: Arthus Bertrand, 1853].

The Internet Archive also hosts some other items of interest written by Sarmiento, including “North and South America. A Discourse Delivered before the Rhode-Island Historical Society, December 27, 1865,” various editions of Sarmiento’s biography of Abraham Lincoln, and two editions of Las escuelas: Base de la prosperidad i de la republica en los Estados Unidos.

Missing from the collection, however, is Argiropolis (1850), which creates a vision of a utopian city of the future in the Argentine region. Adrián Gorelik discussed this text in the symposium, explaining how Sarmiento used the imagined city as a prototype for the ideal national community, outlining in microcosm how society, politics, culture and the economy operated in this urban community. The British Library carries two editions of this text: one is a French edition published in Paris in 1851; the other dates from 1916, published in Spanish in Buenos Aires, with a bibliographical introduction by Ernesto Quesada. Which of the two editions would be most useful to include in our digital library? Are there other lesser known works by Domingo Sarmiento that we could usefully include? Let us know in the comments section below.

Two Hundred Years of Sarmiento: Looking Backwards and Forwards

As President (1868-74), advocate of educational reform, and author of one of the most widely known and discussed essays of nineteenth-century Latin America, Facundo o la civilizacion y la barbarie (1845), Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1811-1888) was an enormously influential figure in Argentine liberalism. The bicentenary of Sarmiento’s birth provided the inspiration for this symposium, which sought to interrogate the historical, political, scientific and cultural legacy of this important Argentine state-builder of the nineteenth century. Three speakers gave short papers on different aspects of Sarmiento’s role in public life and how subsequent scholarship has interpreted his legacy, and a particularly animated discussion between the speakers and the audience followed. Abstracts of the three papers can be downloaded here.

Richard Gott (The Guardian) opened the symposium with, “Sarmiento: Ideologue of White Settler Racism,” which contended that the historical consensus routinely portrays Sarmiento as a progressive statesman and educationalist, glossing over or ignoring altogether his role in providing intellectual justification and political support for the military conquest and extermination of indigenous groups during the Conquest of the Desert in the 1870s. Gott argued that Sarmiento’s advocation of immigration of white Europeans, in order to promote the economic, political and cultural development–or “civilisation”–of Argentina was twinned with an increasing belief in the need to bring about the extinction of the indigenous population of the hinterlands who, Sarmiento believed, were holding back Argentina’s advancement and modernisation. In addition, Gott argued that this aspect of Sarmiento’s philosophy–ultimately, his racism–cannot simply be dismissed as “of the time,” since many of Sarmiento’s contemporaries advocated for the education, or, to a lesser degree, the autonomy, of the Indians, rather than their extermination.

In “The Metaphor and the Prototype: Figures of the “Urban” in Sarmiento’s Imagination,” Adrián Gorelik (Simón Bolívar Chair, Centre of Latin American Studies, Cambridge) also discussed the “Desert” into which the Argentine nation expanded in the late nineteenth century, in terms of the desert’s metaphorical function and relationship with urban space in Sarmiento’s prose. Outlining two major ways in which Sarmiento used urban images in his works–as metaphor and as prototype–Gorelik explained that the desert acted as a kind of blank canvas onto which images of the emergent nation and its evolving future as a more civilised nation could be projected. Within this figurative framework, the city could function as an experimental prototype of the national: the urban landscape and its architecture act as agents capable of creating and shaping civic practices and communities of citizens. In the second figurative trope–city as metaphor–Sarmiento used the materiality of urban life and urban space to reflect on the moral character and universe of the Argentine people and nation.

In the final presentation, “Sarmiento and Science in Argentina,” Eduardo Ortiz (Imperial College) gave a detailed overview of the early institutionalisation and solidification of the Argentine scientific community during, and in the wake of, Sarmiento’s term as President (1868-74). Sarmiento promoted scientific research as part of his general program of modernising reforms designed to improve educational levels in Argentina and to attract a high calibre of immigrants from Europe. Within this overall picture, Ortiz traced the careers of some prominent scientific figures, including Santiago Cáceres, and gave a fascinating insight into the international networks and connections involved in this process.

The first questions from the audience picked up on these transnational and international dimensions to Sarmiento’s activity and legacy. In particular, his ideas about the tensions between urban and rural communities within the nation, and about the competing forces of “civilisation” and “barbarism” in Argentine history, had great resonance with intellectuals and politicians across Latin America in the nineteenth century. Moreover, Sarmiento’s own travels throughout Europe and the United States, as well as the growing involvement of Argentine scientists in international networks, were instrumental to the development of his programme for educational reform, immigration, and modernisation.

The discussion became particularly animated when dealing with the issues raised by Richard Gott’s paper. Several members of the audience, as well as Adrián Gorelik, disagreed with Gott’s contention that the darker side of Sarmiento’s administration and legacy was rarely discussed by scholars of nineteenth-century Argentina. Some also took issue with the idea that Sarmiento actively supported and provided justification for a campaign of ethnic cleansing, while others argued that the demographic picture of indigenous decline was complicated by miscegenation, both biological and cultural, in this era. Gott remained unconvinced by the alternative points of view put forward regarding Sarmiento’s role in the Conquest of the Desert: namely, that Sarmiento did not systematically endorse genocide; and that the “elimination” of the indigenous population was not solely achieved through violent force, but also through cross-cultural marriages and cultural change, which meant that people with an indigenous heritage ceased to be identified or to self-identity as Indian. However, a greater degree of consensus was reached that the topic of Sarmiento’s racial ideology and policy had been given a considerable degree of attention by scholars. The interested reader might like to pursue this topic further, through the following works:

Jens Andermann, “Argentine Literature and the ‘Conquest of the Desert’, 1872-1896,” Relics and Selves: Iconographies of the National in Argentina, Brazil and Chile, 1880-1890. Web exhibition, London 2000. www.bbk.ac.uk/ibamuseum.

Elizabeth Garrels, “Sobre indios, afroamericanos y los racismos de Sarmiento,” Revista Iberoamericana, Vol. 63, no. 178-79 (1997), pp. 99-113.

Álvaro Kaempfer, “Lastarria, Bello y Sarmiento en 1844: Genocidio, historiografía y proyecto nacional,” Revista de Crítica Latinoamericana, Año 32, No. 63/64 (2006), pp. 9-24.

 Are there any other useful sources that could contribute to the debate? Please let us know your thoughts about Sarmiento, the event, and ensuing discussion!

Klaus Gallo, The Development of Laicism in Argentina, 1810-1827: The Case of Juan C. Lafinur

Completing the project’s first wave of events, on 1 November 2011 Professor Klaus Gallo, from the Universidad Torcuato di Tella in Buenos Aires, Argentina, delivered a fascinating lecture on the rise of laicist and secularising agendas during Argentina’s first wave of liberal and republican reforms in the early nineteenth century. You can watch a recording of the lecture here. Having recently completed a biography of Bernardino Rivadavia (1780-1845), Professor Gallo focused his presentation on the era of Rivadavia’s reformist experiment in the province of Buenos Aires, when freedom of the press was expanded, universal male suffrage was introduced, the Universidad de Buenos Aires was founded, convents were closed, and other reforms were aimed towards reducing the political and social role of the Catholic Church.

In addition to summarising the heated debates that took place in the Buenos Aires press regarding secularisation, Gallo focused particular attention on the enigmatic figure of Juan Crisóstomo Lafinur (1797-1824), who pioneered a philosophy of teaching geared towards reducing the influence of the Catholic Church in university education and produced a series of controversial plays and performances at civic festivals that aimed to spread laicist and secularist messages to the broader public. In general, Gallo’s lecture indicated that the dramatic plays of the period are an under-researched resource for understanding how political debates were framed and how these debates engaged, or attempted to engage, broader public opinion. By exploring the case of Lafinur’s life and work in more detail, Gallo revealed the potential of theatrical performances to reveal the connections between political discourse and popular culture.

Along the way, we were introduced to the colourful character of Lafinur himself who seemed to have an uncanny knack for upsetting and antagonising clerical authorities and anti-reformist scholars at every turn. Lafinur’s departure from Buenos Aires for Mendoza, precisely at the point when Rivadavia – and the reformist agenda with which Lafinur had such affinity – came to power in Buenos Aires yielded a particularly amusing anecdote: Lafinur reportedly fell (even further) out of favour with the head of the School of Philosophy at the university, when he was discovered playing the guitar instead of teaching his scheduled class, and the resulting fall-out may help to account for his abrupt relocation to Mendoza. Unfortunately, Lafinur’s provocative antics were prematurely cut short when he died as a result of injuries incurred in a horseriding accident in his mid-twenties.

It would be interesting to hear about similar characters engaged in promoting secularist and laicist agendas in other regions and countries in the Americas. So please let us know in the comments section if you have any interesting examples of laicist mavericks like Lafinur? Equally, has any detailed work been done on the role of dramatic plays in extending political debates into popular culture in early republican Mexico, Peru, or other parts of the Americas? Are there other under-research media that could offer similar insights to those discussed by Professor Gallo? Let us know in the comments section!


Greg Grandin, The Liberal Traditions in the Americas

On 31 October 2011, we were thrilled to inaugurate our Liberalism in the Americas lecture series, with a presentation by the esteemed Professor of History at New York University, Gregory Grandin. Giving an overview of the early stages of a project on Greater America and the idea of American exceptionalism, Grandin outlined a comparative framework for understanding the historical evolution of how sovereignty and rights, and the relationship between the two, were understood and applied differently in the US and Latin America. You can watch a recording of the lecture here.

Grandin’s lecture made several powerful arguments, centred within a comparative framework of interpretation in which US history was marked by an “interventionist-individual rights complex” and Latin American history by a “sovereignty-social rights complex”. In terms of a contrasting approach to the issue of rights, specifically in relation to indigenous groups and enslaved peoples, Grandin suggested that in nineteenth century Latin America there was much greater emphasis on the role of the state in moulding virtuous citizens than in the US and that social rights were consequently more important than in the US, where the natural and inalienable rights of the individual were paramount. Moreover, Grandin suggested that these differing positions on rights and citizenship were related to the relative balance and overlap between liberalism and republicanism in Latin America and the US, particularly in terms of the conceived relationship between individualism and the common good.

In the US, Grandin argued, the concept of the inalienable rights of the individual, particularly regarding property, was strongly connected to the development of an expansionist and interventionist concept of sovereignty. As expansion into the western territories had been predicated in terms of indigenous societies being too “immature” to exercise effective dominion over the territories in which they resided, so too did the US often view “immature” Latin American states as having failed to exercise effective sovereignty over all the territories within their borders (a notable example being the annexation of large swathes of formerly Mexican territory following the Mexican-American War of 1846-48).

Nineteenth century Latin American jurists and diplomats, meanwhile, developed a concept of sovereignty as absolute and inviolable, which had its basis in an overall interpretation of international law that stressed principles of non-aggression, multilateralism, confederation, and solidarity. The relationship between this concept of sovereignty and Latin America’s emphasis on social (as opposed to individual) rights, was less clear in Grandin’s argument than had been his explanation of the US’s interventionist-individual rights complex: this question was raised by Professor Alan Knight, and subsequently discussed in some detail, during the question and answer session following Grandin’s presentation.  In clarifying this aspect of his argument, Grandin suggested that even if the relationship between concepts of rights and sovereignty in Latin America was not as “mutually constitutive” as in the US case, comparing the trajectories of both rights and sovereignty in Latin America and the US was vital, as this comparison revealed a very neglected history: how Latin America had an important role in “socialising and containing US liberalism and US diplomacy”.  By persistently challenging US ideology, diplomacy, foreign policy, and so on, in direct debate and confrontation, and by enacting alternative models of sovereignty, property rights, and social rights, Latin America had an enduring influence on the US. In particular, Grandin stressed the increased importance that multilateral action took on the world stage during the 20th century and the strong contributions of Latin American rights charters to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Grandin’s comparative framework of analysis yielded, therefore, several very interesting insights into hemispheric debates about some key aspects of liberalism, and the ways in which those debates played out in social and political terms, which is one of the core aims of the Liberalism in the Americas project.  His paper also raised some questions to which we hope to return as the project’s series of events continues: the overlaps and boundaries between liberalism and republicanism; the relationship between religion and liberalism; the social history of liberalism; and the changing currency of different aspects of liberalism over time.

Did you see the presentation, or watch the video? Tell us what you think about Grandin’s framework of Latin America’s “sovereignty-social rights complex” Vs the US “interventionist-individual rights complex”, and how this relates to the history of liberalism in the region. We’d love to hear your thoughts, so please leave your comments below and let’s extend the fascinating discussion that Grandin’s paper started further!

And, finally, you might have noticed (and been puzzled by) several references made by Gregory Grandin to “Alan’s”, “Joanna’s” and others’ presentations during his talk: he was referring to the presentations made during a research workshop, “Liberalism in the Americas: What is to be Done?” which was held earlier in the day on 31 October. Key aspects of the workshop are discussed in another blog post, and you can read the papers presented at the workshop here.