Liberalism in the Americas Day 1: Religion, Church and State, Suffrage, and Citizenship

Both of our panels on Day 1 of the conference featured presentations from US and Latin American perspectives, which meant that a key conference goal to approach the history of liberalism in the Americas from a hemispherical perspective got off to a great start.

The first panel, dealing with Liberalism and the Church, began with Iñigo Fernández Fernández’s paper on Catholic Liberalism in the Mexican press during the early to mid nineteenth century. Fernández discussed issues that featured prominently in our earlier workshop on “Liberalism and Religion”, particularly pointing to the lack of a dichotomy or opposition between Catholicism and liberal politics in Mexican political culture at this time. Focusing on several prominent newspapers, including El Monitor Republicano, El Democrata, and El Siglo XIX, Fernández demonstrated that articles were often anti-clerical, but never anti-religious. Moreover, these newspapers often featured articles that sought to reconcile key liberal tenets, like reason and liberty, with Catholic faith and devotion to God. Another intriguing issue that Fernández addressed was the increasing activity of liberal presses in importing religious texts for sale and distribution to their subscribers. The ensuing discussion raised an intriguing point that would be worthy of further investigation, regarding how liberal discourse at the more local, parish level might have echoed or differed in terms of their critique of the church, from the debates going on in the national press. Given Matthew Butler’s work on popular Catholicism and anti-clericalism in the post-revolutionary era of Mexican history, this line of enquiry would surely increase our understanding of Catholic liberalism greatly.

Elizabeth Clapp’s fascinating paper about Anne Royall – a vocal opponent of evangelical revivalism – also connected very well with our previous discussions about liberalism’s role in shaping Church-State relations. In particular, Clapp explored Royall’s participation in the debate about the relationship between Church and State in Jacksonian America that emerged from the Sabbatarian and Anti-Sabbatarian movements, which had several interesting points of comparison with liberal debates in parts of Latin America, such as the questions of  freemasonry, freedom of worship, and the great wealth of the Church as its source of inordinate influence over the populace.

As Clapp explained, following the death of her husband, Royall supported herself through her work as a writer and editor and produced a series of travel commentaries during the 1820s and 1830s in which she often dwelt on how religion and revivalism were shaping public life. She was vehemently opposed to the evangelical Sabbatarians, who demanded the federal state should act to enforce the observance of Sunday Sabbath in the United States, which would directly conflict with the religious freedom of other denominations. Royall also singled out as a cause for alarm the growing financial power of the evangelicals and their concomitant growth of public influence, particular over women. Through this discussion, Clapp’s paper also intersected with another key interest of the conference, liberalism and gender, as one of Royall’s primary objections to the evangelicals was that they were diverting women – and their fundraising zeal – from what she understood to be their civic duty: undertaking charitable activities in support of widows and the poor.

The afternoon session moved on to consider different ways in which the rights and obligations of citizenship were being defined through debates about suffrage in Peru and the United States during the nineteenth century. Stuart Galloway focused on the contribution of the American Equal Rights Association to debates about suffrage and citizenship in the post-civil war United States, explaining how AERA tried to reframe these debates using core principles of liberalism and republicanism. Various rationales were made after the Civil War in support of enfranchising the black male population – in return for their service as soldiers during the war itself; in order to consolidate the Union and Republican victory in the war; and to raise the condition of black people as a class.

However, AERA’s arguments differed markedly, drawing on the principle that suffrage was a natural right fundamental to the social contract inherent to the republican political system, as opposed to treating suffrage as a bestowed right (i.e. one that African American men had “earned” through their service as soldiers). Moreover, they argued that suffrage was a natural right of individuals who are equal under the law, and should not be defined in terms of racial or class groups. Galloway highlighted that AERA also supported suffrage for women, which strongly shaped these dual aspects of the concept of suffrage they endorsed. In other words, according to the idea of the social contract, if it was the government’s duty to protect individual rights, all those represented by the government ought to have a say in their election. Therefore, the only way to justify suffrage for women and black men, they argued, was to define suffrage as a natural right of individuals without which the social contract was meaningless.

Meanwhile, in nineteenth-century Peru, a range of different constitutional definitions of suffrage emerged to deal with similar questions of representation, citizenship, and the relationship between government and the governed. Alicia del Aguila, speaking direct from Peru via a Skype connection, outlined the experimentation with forms of ‘corporate citizenship’ across the 1800s. As outlined in del Aguila’s paper, corporate citizenship was a way of defining suffrage to include a broad range of social groups, and especially indigenous communities, based on their different characteristics as corporate entities (for instance, Indian villages), rather than qualifying access to suffrage in terms of individual requirements, such as literacy or property ownership. This strategy emerged in the 1830s as a means of preserving the principle of representation in government without recourse to the potential anarchy, or mob rule, that governing elites feared would come with universal male suffrage.

For instance, a law of 1834 was formulated to restrict the suffrage in the interests of creating a more orderly political culture, but it included several distinct alternatives through which the right to vote was obtained in an effort to include a representative presence in the electoral process for all social sectors, including the indigenous population. While all enfranchised citizens would have to complete military service and fulfil residency requirements, the third article of the law provided several options: “Pay some contribution to the state or be legally exempt from paying it, or hold a public job, a scientific position or profession, or job as mechanic subject to an industrial tax, or belong to a secular clergy”.[1] Clearly, the concept of suffrage outlined by Peru’s constitutional congresses in the 19th century was very different to the idea of suffrage as the natural right of individuals advocated by AERA in the US.

The themes of how particular sectors of society were understood as citizens, potential citizens, and non-citizens by different liberal states in the Americas would be taken up by Nicholas Guyatt’s plenary talk on Day 1, which you’ll be able to read about here soon. Watch this space!



[1] Archivo Digital de la Legislación en el Perú, Congreso de la República del Perú, Ley orgánica de elecciones, 29 de agosto de 1834. Cited in, and translated by, Alicia del Aguila, ‘Conference Paper: Peruvian Liberalism, Indigenous Suffrage and Corporative Inclusion in the Nineteenth Century,’ Liberalism in the Americas: Popular, Gendered and Global Perspectives, 4-5 July 2013.

This entry was posted in Events, Project Update, Research Themes by Deborah Toner. Bookmark the permalink.

About Deborah Toner

Deborah worked at the Institute for the Study of the Americas as a postdoctoral research fellow in Latin American history from 2011-12, on the project ‘Liberalism in the Americas’, which is creating a digital library of resources for the study of liberalism in Peru and Argentina in the long nineteenth century. Now a Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Leicester, Deborah continues to work with ISA in overseeing the Liberalism in the Americas project as it comes to fruition. She completed her PhD on alcohol and nation-building in nineteenth-century Mexico at the University of Warwick, where she also completed her MA and BA in history.

1 thought on “Liberalism in the Americas Day 1: Religion, Church and State, Suffrage, and Citizenship

  1. Pingback: Liberalism has Landed: Liberalism in the Americas Conference, July 4-5, 2013. | Liberalism in the Americas

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.