H-Net Review [H-LatAm]: Caplan on Schaefer, 'Liberalism as Utopia: The Rise and Fall of Legal Rule in Post-Colonial Mexico, 1820-1900'

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Subject: H-Net Review [H-LatAm]:  Caplan on Schaefer, 'Liberalism as Utopia: The Rise and Fall of Legal Rule in Post-Colonial Mexico, 1820-1900'

Timo H. Schaefer.  Liberalism as Utopia: The Rise and Fall of Legal
Rule in Post-Colonial Mexico, 1820-1900.  Cambridge Latin American
Studies Series. Cambridge  Cambridge University Press, 2017.  274 pp.
 $99.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-19073-3.

Reviewed by Karen Caplan (Rutgers University-Newark)
Published on H-LatAm (November, 2017)
Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz

The past twenty years have seen a proliferation of historical
investigation of Mexico's early nineteenth century and the vast
expansion of our knowledge of Mexicans' day-to-day engagement with
liberal republican ideas, practices, and institutions. Demolishing
long-standing assumptions about Mexican popular sectors, historians
have convincingly demonstrated that mestizo townspeople, militia
soldiers, and indigenous villagers actively engaged with politics and
ideology. In _Liberalism as Utopia_, Timo H. Schaefer contributes to
this body of knowledge but also explicitly aims to move the field
forward in two ways. First, he presents his narrative as a study of
legal culture and "the extra-legal fabric of values and interests
that supported it" (p. 14), introducing a potential framework for
assessing what was shared across Mexican contexts. And second, he
links a study of several regions during the early republic with a
ground-level view of the Porfirian era, providing for perhaps the
first time an interpretation of the entire nineteenth century that
takes years of new findings into account and assesses the
significance of what we have learned.

Schaefer's archival work demonstrates that in Guanajuato, San Luis
Potosí, and to a lesser extent Oaxaca, in both mestizo towns and
indigenous villages, the challenge that new institutions posed to
colonial political traditions--especially those involved in municipal
self-government--prompted an intense reaction. Villagers sought to
turn new municipal and military institutions to their advantage and
to shape them to fit both new opportunities and long-standing
expectations. While his research and analysis are solid, this
perspective in itself will no longer surprise. But Schaefer's
inclusion of hacienda residents, mostly excluded from this kind of
study, is new and compelling, and allows him to broaden the scope of
his argument. Schaefer acknowledges that past failure to examine
these Mexicans as political actors has a strong basis: haciendas
lacked a formal political tradition for new laws and institutions to
challenge, and fell instead under a property-holding regime that was
more continuous with the colonial era. After independence, the new
order did not entirely penetrate these spaces; in Schaefer's words,
here "republican law remained at least partially suspended" (p. 128).
And indeed, most hacienda residents did not engage in the way other
popular sectors did, either for these institutional reasons or
because they provided places for those who wished to evade the
demands of the new system. But Schaefer uncovers a few tantalizing
cases in which hacienda residents made legal claims that in both
language and content fit squarely within the developing popular
liberal-republican tradition. That these were exceptions is clear,
but that they existed lends credence to Schaefer's contention that
popular political engagement across sectors in early republican
Mexico rested on some common and revolutionary assertions. Mexicans,
he shows, made claims about the value of labor and industriousness as
closely associated with legal equality and the rule of law. In a
place where labor had long been denigrated, this was a powerful and
indeed possibly revolutionary notion that had the potential to
validate the political participation of a wide swath of people long
excluded from public life. Although they combined and used these
concepts differently in different contexts, Schaefer convincingly
argues, Mexico's various non-elite populations all used this language
to stake their political claims. In doing so, they drew on "the
mixture of liberal and democratic elements" in Mexico's first
constitution that was one of its "most radical features" (p. 111).

This observation helps give shape to the mass of information
historians have uncovered. Schaefer's assertion that this literature
has been largely a work of "rescue" is somewhat exaggerated (p. 11),
and at times the book could have engaged more directly with the
global arguments that previous authors have derived from their
research. But he is correct to note that there is still much work to
do to make sense and use of what historians have found. In
particular, his interpretations help us to answer a persistent
question about the ultimate significance of widespread political
engagement among popular sectors in the early republic. If all of
this political fervor broke down in the civil wars of mid-century and
was eclipsed under the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, why does it
matter at all?

In asking this question, Schaefer's work shares some of the
fundamental concerns of James E. Sanders's provocative recent book,
_Vanguard of the Atlantic World: Creating Modernity, Nation, and
Democracy in Nineteenth-Century Latin America _(2014), which argues
for the uniqueness and importance of the rise of an inclusive
republicanism across early and mid-century Latin America. But
Schaefer, in his close examination of Porfirian legal practice in
chapter 5, does more to demonstrate the specific resonance of early
republican political and legal culture in the late nineteenth-century
context. While the Porfiriato has long been seen as and in many ways
was an episode of rupture in Mexican history, Schaefer argues that
the way in which it reversed early trends toward legal egalitarianism
and the rule of law owes much to those trends themselves. He seeks
out previously ignored continuities with the early republic and finds
them especially in the continued power of local courts to administer
justice. Although their influence was always under threat from the
newly buttressed powers of higher officials, these courts represented
a "larger institutional framework that, however imperfectly,
continued to represent the egalitarian aspirations of Mexico's
liberal-revolutionary tradition" (p. 203). Schaefer does not claim
that this was by any means the dominant feature of Mexican political
life during the Porfiriato. But he shows that the particular
practices of the regime--attempts to create and maintain settlements
where the institutions of municipal governance did not apply, the
privatization of state institutions, and the increasing immunity of
military forces to the rule of law--responded directly to earlier
radical claims. The reassertion of structures of privilege in the
late nineteenth century was thus not a reassertion of colonialism.
Rather, it "evolved from the innovations of the post-independence
decades" (p. 205). This claim and the evidence that Schaefer offers
to back it up call simplistic visions of Mexico's nineteenth century
into question and both validate and redirect historians' recent
insistence on the importance of its most neglected years and actors.

There are some things about this book that are jarring, in
particular, the lack of any real analysis of the era of the civil
wars. Schaefer is correct that it is difficult to study institutions
during a time when institutions were largely suspended, but this does
raise questions about his claims for continuity that remain
unanswered. It would be exciting to see historians delve into this
period with Schaefer's framework in mind. The book also raises
important questions, of course, about the next great change. What,
the reader will ask, made it possible to challenge the legitimacy of
the Porfirian state and what, if anything, may have remained of the
peculiar legal order or the nineteenth century after the revolution?
Schaefer's book poses a challenge to all historians of modern Mexico
to look beyond and through ruptures and to consider the significance
of continuities derived not from the persistence of the colonial
order but rather from the persistence of a particular popular vision
of liberal republican rule.

Citation: Karen Caplan. Review of Schaefer, Timo H., _Liberalism as
Utopia: The Rise and Fall of Legal Rule in Post-Colonial Mexico,
1820-1900_. H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. November, 2017.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=50429

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