Liberalism in the Americas: Plenary Lecture by Gabriel Paquette

All good things must come to an end, so they say. Although the conference did come to an end, the enormous plate of food for thought that was provided during the concluding plenary lecture made it abundantly clear that historical research into liberalism across the Americas still has much fascinating work to do. Gabriel Paquette, Assistant Professor in the History Department at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, provided a satisfying and thought-provoking conclusion to the conference, in his discussion of the historiography of liberals and liberalism in Latin America and the Iberian Peninsula.

As Paquette reminded us, the historiography of early nineteenth-century liberalism has been going through a rich vein of revision and change in the last couple of decades, particularly in the move away from an understanding of Iberian and Latin American liberalisms as derivative, imperfect imitations of European and North American liberalisms. The focus on the ‘Age of Revolutions’, for instance, had created a situation where Latin America’s revolutions for independence and the revolutionary wars in the Peninsula were seen as knock-on results of, or unoriginal hangers-on of the American and/or French Revolutions. A similar framework had been used to discuss Latin American and Iberian political culture as backward and derivative, either because European liberal philosophy had been imperfectly understood by liberal elites, or because liberalism wasn’t suited to prevailing social conditions in these countries. Essentially, these older historiographical paradigms created an image of Latin American and Iberian liberalism as something that was introduced from an external source and was imperfectly applied.

Numerous scholars have more recently overturned many of these assumptions and interpretations, in particular emphasising the alternative modernities experienced in Latin America and Iberia, the dynamic engagement of politicians and thinkers with a whole host of domestic and international political ideas, practices, and traditions, and the creativity and contingency involved in the course of political developments in these regions. In particular, Paquette singled out the recent work of Javier Fernández Sebastián, Christopher Bayly, and Maurizio Isabella in pushing these interpretations further, but the majority of participants in the Liberalism in the Americas project and network are also embracing these approaches too, as can be discovered through our recorded lectures and SAS-Space collection of working papers.

After framing his discussion against this historiographical background, Paquette then explored several core problems that he suggested need to be addressed more thoroughly. Firstly, the connection between Enlightenment thought and liberalism needs to be more comprehensively problematised. Paquette suggested that the connections and continuities between enlightened economic principles and liberal economic principles was less conflicted, but the political continuities (or lack thereof) needed  to be examined more closely. He made the important point that although there were similarities in the political language and policies of enlightened and liberal figures, similarities are not the same as continuities. Moreover, there were more pronounced divergences, as Roberto Breña’s work on the concept of national sovereignty has demonstrated.

Similarly, Paquette pointed to the complicated relationship between liberalism and republicanism as a further area on which to concentrate investigation. Indeed, several of our lectures and workshops have sought to tackle this question and it was clear from those discussions that much research still needs to be done to clarify and unpick this murky question. While an older vein of scholarship treated liberalism and republicanism in North America and parts of Europe as oppositional rivals, in the Latin American and Iberian context, they have sometimes become overly intermeshed in scholarly analyses. Perhaps, as the 2008 book by Andreas Kalyvas and Ira Katznelson suggested, it is more appropriate to conceive of the relationship as different, but organically linked: ‘Political liberalism burst from the shell of a republican chrysalis.’ [1] Paquette suggested that another productive way forward might be to conceive of liberalism as an idiom, as much as, or perhaps more than, an ideology, and to abandon a conception of liberalism as an immutable ideology. In this way, it is possible to study how republic and liberal languages coexisted and overlapped in Latin American and Iberian political cultures.

Thirdly, on a related point, Paquette raised the question of how we talk about liberalism or liberalisms? While new research – and the Liberalism in the Americas project itself – is obviously concerned with recognising and analysing a multiplicity of liberalisms, we must be careful to avoid a situation where anything and everything can be called a form of liberalism. Paquette proffered two important principles necessary to bear in mind when navigating this problem:

  • what we call liberalism is complicated by the demarcation of political liberalism and economic liberalism during the nineteenth century
  • we must start with a clear outline of the common traits and principles that define liberalism (for political liberalism, Paquette suggested: avoidance of arbitrary power; support for written constitutions and the rule of law to guard against arbitrary power; preventing the concentration of power; some model of national or popular sovereignty)

This was a very welcome reminder, as these were also the two clear principles that the opening workshop of the Liberalism in the Americas events series outlined, back in October 2011 (‘Liberalism in the Americas: What is to be Done?’) And indeed seeking to examine how different liberalisms were formulated and experienced across transnational, regional, popular and gendered perspectives was at the forefront of our minds when planning this conference, so it seems as though these are important principles to follow in navigating the liberalism/liberalisms problem as we move forward.

Paquette also encouraged the project to continue with its transnational perspectives, particularly continuing to incorporate an Atlantic dimension together with the hemispheric approach. Indeed, although the “Liberalism in the Americas” moniker suggests a continental restriction on our coverage, we have had numerous participants contribute their Atlantic world expertise: for instance, Linda Colley’s lecture on constitutions and Gregorio Alonso’s contribution to our ‘Liberalism and Religion’ workshop. Moreover, a sizeable chunk of material included in the digital library will relate to the Peninsular wars, the Cadiz constitution, and other significant events, developments, and ideas on the European side of the Atlantic.

Although the conference came to an end, therefore, it was with a strong bridge of ideas for future research and future developments in the project. The focus over the next couple of months will be on bringing the digital library to light, in support of some of those future research ideas. More digital news will be coming soon!

And thanks to one and all for a wonderful conference!


[1] Andreas Kalyvas and Ira Katznelson, Liberal Beginnings: Making a Republic for the Moderns (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 5.

This entry was posted in Events, Key Liberal Thinkers, Lecture Series, Project Update, Research Themes, Research Workshops 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.

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