Jeremy Adelman, “Republicans, Liberals and Constitutions in Nineteenth-Century Latin America”.

Alternative title: The Lecture That Nearly Never Was! Since the beginning of the Liberalism in the Americas project in May 2011, I confess I have been constantly haranguing Prof. Jeremy Adelman with invites to participate in one of the events in our series. I must stress that he was (or seemed!) very keen from the outset, so I felt entitled to pester him again and again (and again) when the first few attempts didn’t work out because of his myriad commitments and responsibilities. So I was delighted and extremely grateful when it was at last possible to welcome Prof. Adelman (Princeton University) as a speaker in our project’s lecture series, at the Institute for the Study of the Americas on 2 May 2013. His talk on “Republicans, Liberals, and Constitutions in Nineteenth-Century Latin America” was stimulating and broad-ranging, examining the role of constitutional debates and constitution-making in the state- and nation-making process across Latin America in the nineteenth century.

Taking in examples from Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Uruguay and several other countries, and analysing them in a framework of broader continental and trans-Atlantic change, Adelman gave a masterclass in the kind of transnational and comparative history that the project has been trying to foster and pursue over the last couple of years. Overall, he highlighted how Latin America in the early nineteenth century was a kind of “laboratory for global experiments” in constitutionalism. He examined two separate periods of avid constitution-making in the nineteenth century, comparing the 1820s and the 1840s-1850s. To chart several key changes in political concepts and practices between these two periods, Adelman considered the role of changing political circumstances within Latin America as a whole, and within individual nations; the transnational circulation of ideas and ideologies; and international political developments.

During the 1820s, Adelman argued, Latin American elites were self-consciously engaged in an international moment of constitutionalism, echoing ideas that Linda Colley discussed in her lecture of March 2012 on “Liberties and Empires: Writing Constitutions in the Atlantic World, 1776-1848”. Their dual purpose, as these elites understood it at the time, was to make a people and a state: to create an autonomous civil society and to create stable institutions for their governance. Adelman highlighted the multiple intellectual and political influences, both domestic and international, that went into the pot of ideas from which Latin American constitution-makers drew out their constitutions, in a creative, experimental manner. One of the most defining features of this period of political experimentation was the implementation of a wide suffrage and direct elections, intended to shape the creation of republican electorates.

Recent scholarship on the early nineteenth century confirms that this new constitutional era was accompanied with high political mobilisation, which often produced anxieties about racial tensions, ethnic tensions, social divisions and regional divisions amongst the governing elites of Latin America. However, this in itself did not cause the experimental period to end – as we had discussed at length in our previous workshop on Liberal Constitutionalism in the Americas. Adelman identified 1828 as a key turning point, in which all Latin American states (even non-republican ones like Brazil) suffered crises of a fiscal and economic nature, and as a result of political boundary and sovereignty disputes. From a constitutional perspective, the result of these crises was the emergence of a broad consensus that the 1820s experiment in constitutionalism had been a failure.

What followed could be termed a period of “constitutionalism without constitutions”, where there was, in general, a shared commitment to the economics of free trade, a “carnivalisation of power” (to use José Murilo de Carvalho‘s phrase), and de facto federalism, based on political pacts established between provincial leaders. This period was also characterised by a style of governance embodied in the “Restorer of the Laws”, like Juan Manuel de Rosas or, less successfully, Antonio López de Santa Anna.

This post-crisis politics of rule-by-pact was, itself, the experiential framework from which a new wave of constitution-making emerged and, Adelman argued, this had a profound impact on the types of constitutions being made in the 1840s-50s. In contrast to the more optimistic, or perhaps even idealistic, constitutional experimentation of the 1820s, constitutional debates in the 1840s and 1850s reveal a more pragmatic outlook that explicitly drew on the political experiences and changes of the preceding decades to rationalise and explain constitutional decisions, and which also explicitly discussed the “failures” of the 1820s. Influential figures like Juan Bautista Alberdi and Andrés Bello increasingly argued that the “customs” of the people must be taken into account when designing laws, and the laws could then, and only then, start to influence those “customs” in a better (as they saw it) direction. Overall, the fundamental conception of a constitution had changed from a means of moulding ideal liberal citizens – a la the 1820s – to a means of achieving order, stability, unity and progress with the economic, social and material realities that particular nations had at their disposal.

As a whole, Adelman’s lecture helped to tie together several strands that have been debated and explored within the Liberalism in the Americas project, including the role that the transnational circulation of ideas and concepts had in the formulation of political concepts and practices in the Americas, the place of constitutionalism in legitimating liberal states, the tangled relationship between liberalism, federalism, and republicanism – and the alternative political models such as monarchism that continued to play a role in the nineteenth century. The vibrant questions session after the lecture also helped to draw out additional issues central to the project, including the question of the Church, the overlapping nature of “liberalism” and “conservatism”, and the equally porous division between military and civilian spheres in the practice of politics.

Moreover, in thinking about the choice of comparisons that formed the major element of Adelman’s talk (and which will feature in a future publication) – Chile Vs Brazil, and Argentina Vs Mexico – Adelman touched on one of the most important rationales of our transnational and comparative methodology: by looking across national borders, it is possible to unpick and destablise the traditional historical narratives that emphasise the “exceptionalist” nature of the national story in each case. Of course, we are always concerned with seeing how liberal ideas and practices were accepted, adapted, translated, and rejected in different local, regional, and national contexts, but in comparing these different contexts and following the movements and transformations of liberal concepts and practices across borders, a bigger picture emerges that tells us much about Latin American history, the history of the Americas, and global history as a whole.

I hope our forthcoming conference, “Liberalism in the Americas: Popular, Gendered and Global Perspectives” – which seeks to do both these things – can follow the example set by Adelman’s illuminating lecture!