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.