Stauffer on Fowler, 'The Grammar of Civil War: A Mexican Case Study, 1857-61'

Will Fowler
Brian Stauffer

Will Fowler. The Grammar of Civil War: A Mexican Case Study, 1857-61. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2022. Illustrations. xv + 313 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4962-3046-1

Reviewed by Brian Stauffer (Texas General Land Office) Published on H-LatAm (March, 2023) Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)

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Will Fowler has spent his prolific career elucidating the political history of Mexico in the first half of the nineteenth century, with much of his work focusing on a single category of political discourse. Over the course of several monographs and a digital primary-source project of rare durability, he and his students have demonstrated the centrality of the pronunciamiento (a petition backed by threat of force) to the political culture of early Mexico, thereby revealing the logic animating a famously “chaotic” time period through careful aggregation and analysis. Fowler’s new book, though, takes roughly the opposite approach, using a single case to build a grand sociological model. The case is the War of the Reform (1857-61), a conflict that, if it has supplied evidence for larger arguments about popular engagement with national politics in works by Florencia Mallon (Peasant and Nation: The Making of Postcolonial Mexico and Peru [1995]), Guy P. C. Thomson and David G. LaFrance (Patriotism, Politics, and Popular Liberalism in Nineteenth-Century Mexico: Juan Francisco Lucas and the Puebla Sierra [2001]), Patrick J. McNamara (Sons of the Sierra: Juárez, Díaz, and the People of Ixtlán, Oaxaca, 1855-1920 [2010]), and others, has attracted less interest as a standalone topic. The model, as the title suggests, concerns civil war, a phenomenon whose origins, development, and conclusions can be conceived as a “grammar” with a discrete set of rules. To adapt the author’s literary metaphor, a grammar developed for the War of the Reform might fruitfully be used to analyze the “genre” of civil war across time and space.

Fowler dedicates the first chapter to fleshing out this grammar, a three-part model identifying the essential factors contributing to the outbreak of civil wars, their internal logics and dynamics of strategic and retributive violence (styled “the descent into hell”), and their various possible outcomes (p. 131). The model is sophisticated yet intuitive, accounting for both international and national contexts; encompassing structural, social, cultural, and political factors; and attending to questions of individual and group agency in the development and trajectory of civil war violence. Chapter 2 provides a succinct historical overview of the War of the Reform itself, a particularly vicious episode in the cycle of revolution, counterrevolution, and foreign intervention that attended the Mexican Reforma. The remaining three chapters return to the tripartite model, mining the War of the Reform for examples of the “grammar of origin, process, and outcome,” respectively (p. xi). Throughout, Fowler draws mainly on secondary literature but also makes effective use of archival evidence in some sections, such as chapter 4’s analysis of the “tit-for-tat” violence of reprisal that plagued the Guadalajara area after the city’s capture by liberal general José Santos Degollado in the fall of 1858 (p. 25). In accordance with recent treatments of Mexico’s nineteenth-century conflicts, the author characterizes the War of the Reform as “many civil wars all happening at the same time,” with local grievances and opportunism often trumping ideology and even partisan identity (pp. 220-21).

International influences and the intransigence of liberal and conservative leaders, who could not find a way out of the impasse over the fate of the controversial Constitution of 1857, prolonged the war, which was only (precariously) resolved by the victory of the liberal forces under acting president Benito Juárez in late 1860. True consolidation of the liberal state, of course, was postponed by the resurgence of intercommunal violence and foreign intervention in the 1860s and ’70s. To Fowler, the liberal hegemony of the final quarter of the century involved not only Porfirian pan o palo (bread or the stick) but also the creation and dissemination of a usable version of the recent past, from which Juárez emerged as an icon of patriotic constitutionalism and Mexican conservatives were relegated to the role of archvillain.

Whether historians of civil wars in other times and places will take up Fowler’s model remains to be seen. In any case, though, The Grammar of Civil War will certainly interest scholars of nineteenth-century Mexico; and its clarity and concision recommend it for both undergraduate and graduate classrooms in history and related fields, such as political science. Despite the high level of abstraction necessary for constructing such a sociological model of civil war, the author has frequently done an admirable job reaching down into the details of the conflict to capture local nuance. Nevertheless, he sometimes replicates the victorious liberals’ characterization of the Catholic Church and its faithful as backward-looking traditionalists, despite recent studies that have shown them to be far from monolithic in their engagement with Reforma liberalism and conservative monarchism. Indeed, religious concerns shaped patterns of local mobilization in a variety of (sometimes contradictory) ways throughout the nineteenth century; and they even colored Porfirio Díaz’s consolidation of power itself, since Catholic resistance and Díaz’s shrewd politics of conciliation provided the framework for a lasting truce on the “Religious Question.” These, however, are small quibbles with a work that represents a significant contribution to our understanding of a highly complex time and place.

Citation: Brian Stauffer. Review of Fowler, Will, The Grammar of Civil War: A Mexican Case Study, 1857-61. H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023. URL:

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