Schaefer on Sabato, 'Republics of the New World: The Revolutionary Political Experiment in Nineteenth-Century Latin America'

Hilda Sabato
Timo Schaefer

Hilda Sabato. Republics of the New World: The Revolutionary Political Experiment in Nineteenth-Century Latin America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018. 240 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-691-16144-0.

Reviewed by Timo Schaefer (Independent Scholar) Published on H-LatAm (October, 2018) Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)

Printable Version:

The countries of Latin America gained independence—through chance and narrow opportunism—when a small and privileged social class, taking advantage of the French occupation of Spain (1808-14), initiated a military conflict that would result in the end of Spanish rule on the Latin American continent. It is true that the independence wars were closely fought and involved significant parts of the region’s popular classes: Mexico’s even began as a priest-led social revolt. But by the time Mexico became independent that revolt had long been defeated, and the priests hunted down, excommunicated, and dispatched by firing squad. Across Latin America, it was American-born elites, the creoles, who controlled the armies that would ultimately triumph against the metropolis, and who would battle each other for control of the states that emerged in the wreckage of empire. For the poor and excluded majorities, independence merely exchanged one grasping elite with another.

This story—call it the story of postcolonial failure—is more familiar than it should be. Once the dominant interpretation of Latin American history in the nineteenth century, it is worth pausing over what made the story seem plausible. The independence wars in Latin America really did begin as reactions to imperial collapse. They really did erupt in societies that were diverse and hierarchical, and they ended up creating polities that were prone to fragmentation and riven by class and racial animosities. Perhaps as important, from a twentieth-century perspective—and especially a Cold War perspective—to describe the predatory nature of nineteenth-century politics in Latin America was to create an origin story. It helped twentieth-century researchers explain the poverty and authoritarian rule they were witnessing in their own time.

It is a story, though, that assumes both a deep continuity and a kind of cultural impermeability of structure. It assumes that Latin Americans before the wars of independence possessed a given set of values, interests, and political assumptions; then experienced traumatic ruptures, and experimented with unprecedented social alliances, during more than a decade of bloody warfare; and then picked up their lives with the old values, interests, and assumptions all intact. It assumes that creole elites but not native peasants were drawn to liberal political principles, and that national projects built on those principles were consequently limited and brittle. “[Simón] Bolívar and his comrades”—the political and military leaders of Latin America’s independence wars—“had removed the head of a patrimonial society but they had not created nations.”[1]

Few specialists now agree with this interpretation, which leans more heavily than is comfortable on the writings of conservative politicians—Lucas Alamán, Bolívar himself—from the period it sets out to explain. And yet the interpretation not merely persists, it flourishes. “In South America,” writes Jürgen Osterhammel in The Transformation of the World, one of the most ambitious and admired histories of the nineteenth-century world, “the political map changed little after independence, with its mosaic of weakly articulated states all more or less in search of nationhood.”[2] In The Birth of the Modern World—another global history of the nineteenth century—C. A. Bayly suggests that after independence, Latin Americans became attached less to new laws and ideas than to the war leaders, or caudillos, who had come to the fore during the independence struggles. Bayly summarizes the early years of Latin American nationhood by contrasting the new republics’ “wordy constitutions” with the oft-told story of Mexican General Antonio López de Santa Anna’s amputated leg: ceremonially interred when Santa Anna was president, dug up and destroyed by “an enraged mob” a few years later. In the new republics, Bayly seems to say, the fetishized leg of a vainglorious general was more important than so many constitutions.[3] Even in the field of Latin American studies, such ideas still enjoy surprising cachet. They appear in well-regarded studies—Paul Drake’s Between Tyranny and Anarchy: A History of Democracy in Latin America, 1800-2006 (2009), for example, or Miguel Angel Centeno’s Blood and Debt: War and the Nation-State in Latin America (2002)—that interpret the nineteenth century for scholars of politics and society. And they appear in textbooks—such as John Charles Chasteen’s popular Born in Blood and Fire: A Concise History of Latin America (fourth edition, 2016)—that introduce Latin American history to undergraduate students and general readers.

That the narrative of postcolonial failure should persist is of course not wholly surprising. It belongs to a familiar group of stories in which the Global South plays either laggard or victim to the historical leadership provided by Europe and the United States. The narrative also has a homegrown, Latin American pedigree that goes back at least to the end of the nineteenth century, when oligarchic governments and their supporters found it convenient to belittle the republican experiments they had recently replaced or abandoned. Lastly, while central elements of the story of postcolonial failure have now been refuted, a clear successor narrative has yet to emerge. In the last quarter century, historians have shown that popular actors often took part in—and in many cases helped shape—the public life of Latin America’s independent republics; that member of the creole elite actively sought those actors’ support for their policies and programs; and that the resulting alliances divided Latin American publics into political blocks that defined themselves by their relationship to competing ideas and ideologies. These findings are supported by too much evidence, coming from too many countries and regions, to be in serious dispute. But what further conclusions to draw from such findings, or how to arrange them into an analytical narrative, is not at all clear.

In anglophone scholarship, an ambitious attempt to forge a new narrative of nineteenth-century history in Latin America comes from revisionist studies of popular political culture. A first generation of such studies, beginning with Florencia Mallon’s foundational Peasant and Nation: The Making of Postcolonial Mexico and Peru (1995), chronicled the attraction of popular actors—peasants and workers, men and women, black and indigenous people—to liberal and anti-colonial ideologies.[4] The larger story was that these actors flocked to liberal political projects but were ultimately betrayed by their allies up the social scale, who, out of fear of the political energies they had unleashed, began assembling the repressive institutions that would so catch the eye of twentieth-century historians. But this story, as a second generation of revisionist studies has now pointed out, made little room for popular actors who valued colonial institutions—including courts of law and the Catholic Church—for their protective qualities, and who after independence involved themselves not in liberal but in conservative national projects.[5] Mallon also concluded that indigenous villagers were especially likely to support liberal national projects, while estate (hacienda) tenants often remained beholden to local authority figures. Yet other studies have since described staunchly conservative indigenous people and estate tenants who espoused radical liberal tenets.[6] Instead of a new narrative of Latin American history, what has emerged from recent scholarship on popular political culture has thus been a mosaic of sometimes contradictory stories rooted in particular local or regional contexts.


Hilda Sabato’s Republics of the New World is, to my knowledge, the first book-length attempt to step back and survey the mosaic of stories the last quarter century of scholarship on nineteenth-century Latin America has brought to light. That Sabato succeeds superbly, in an analysis that is both nuanced and captivating, and that gets by without once mentioning Santa Anna’s ridiculous leg, should give us hope that a new standard of writing and thinking about this period will finally find a wide audience. Sabato begins her story with what she describes as the fundamental innovation of Latin American politics in the nineteenth century: “the revolutionary decision of adopting popular sovereignty as the founding principle of the polity and as the only source of legitimate power” (p. 35). Given how little Latin America has figured in traditional histories of the Age of Revolutions, it is curious to note that the dominance this doctrine was to enjoy in the region may almost seem overdetermined. The idea of popular sovereignty in Latin America found inspiration not only in the natural-rights theory we associate with the French and US-American Revolutions but also in Spanish neoscholastic sources that imagined an “ancient constitution of the Spanish monarchy,” lately under attack from Bourbon absolutism (p. 27), and it was championed not only by insurgents in the region itself but also by the liberals who, between 1808 and 1813, tried to rule peninsular Spain in the name of its captive king while fighting the Napoleonic occupation. These diverse sources would push Latin America’s new nations to pioneer republican forms of government at a time when revolution had been defeated, and when monarchs once more ruled supreme, across continental Europe.

But the diversity of inspiration for the principle of popular sovereignty also contained the seeds of conflict. In the Spanish Empire, government had at least in principle been simple—the sovereign being one. What it should mean, by contrast, that sovereignty rested in a multitudinous “people” was never obvious. By analyzing competing notions of this crucial republican concept, Sabato is able to reject the narrative of postcolonial failure without minimizing the centrality of armed struggle to the political history of nineteenth-century Latin America.  She explores three fields of practice in which popular sovereignty came to be exercised and contested in postcolonial Latin America: elections, armed citizenship, and public opinion. None of these fields was precisely new, but all were transformed by the doctrine of popular sovereignty.

Elections, which in colonial times had been the prerogative of a small urban patriciate, associated with the strictly limited sphere of town politics, after independence became a critical venue for the exercise of citizenship. By nineteenth-century standards, the franchise in Latin America was impressively wide: “in most places, all free, nondependent, adult men were enfranchised. Exclusion was mainly associated with the lack of autonomy, a condition that was considered indispensable to ensure the freedom of choice on the part of the voter” (p. 53). Servants were thus excluded from the vote together with women and slaves. But male workers, as well as native and free black people, who would have been kept from the urns by the property restrictions of European or the racial restrictions of many US-American elections, were able to cast their votes.

But did elections actually matter? Sabato dismisses the notion that most voters participated in elections only at the behest of powerful patrons. Political clientelism existed—in Latin America no less than elsewhere—but so did political clubs, election campaigns, and a partisan press, all working hard to persuade, dazzle, bribe, or otherwise sway the electorate. As to whether elections could have been significant in an era of frequent coups and revolts, this is a question that misunderstands the relationship between bullets and ballots in postcolonial Latin America. In the nineteenth century, Sabato argues, elections and revolts were only rarely regarded as alternative pathways to power. Losers at the urns frequently challenged electoral outcomes they regarded as fraudulent, by force of arms if need be. But victory on the battlefield did not by itself confer legitimacy: it needed to be confirmed by popular vote, so that successful uprisings were usually followed by new elections. While elections were not often the final word in politics, they were regarded by all as the central events in the political cycle.

A close relationship between formal politics and armed revolt was in fact crucial to Latin American understandings of republican citizenship. Most postcolonial Latin American nations divided their military forces into a professional army and a civic militia, the latter composed of citizens-in-arms whose patriotic service was meant to shield the nation from the danger of tyranny. When government fell in the hands of would-be despots, defending the constitutional order was considered a civic duty. “You have offered and spontaneously provided [your help], just like the sons of Athens, Sparta, and Rome did in past heroic times,” a Colombian governor addressed the members of his provincial militia in 1854. “Let this be your war cry: Long live the Constitution! Long live the Republic!” (p. 107). The figure of the citizen-soldier has been attractive to revisionist historians of nineteenth-century Latin America, and for good reason. In the civic militias, popular sovereignty found its most unequivocal expression, as the people became living embodiments of the nation.

By involving popular actors so directly in the defense of the nation, however, Latin America’s postcolonial republics also fragmented control over the means of violence. Because professional armies were less concerned with tyranny than with political unrest, and because both professional and citizen armed forces were further divided by region and ideology, civil conflict in nineteenth-century Latin America became almost inevitable. With this argument, Sabato stands a key aspect of the narrative of postcolonial failure on its head. Violence, she suggests, became pervasive in the region as a result not of a lack but of a surfeit of citizen engagement with new ideas and political forms. But she also repeats a key dimension of the traditional narrative: in her account of the civic militias, extra-legal violence still rules the day. This focus on revolt and revolution helps her explain the instability of Latin American politics but makes for an incomplete analysis of armed citizenship. Left out of it completely is any recognition of the role that many militias played in local law enforcement, even though Latin Americans considered this role as no less critical to the preservation of the republican order than the defense against tyranny.

Public opinion is the subject of the last of Sabato’s thematic chapters. Formed in the press, on the streets, and in a proliferating web of voluntary associations, public opinion had a more oblique relation to popular sovereignty than did elections or armed citizenship. It was a crucial source of legitimacy for governments yet also stood apart from the direct exercise of power. This distance was important to the self-understanding of public intellectuals, who thought of themselves as embodying a sphere of “reason” and “dialogue among equals” in contrast to “the corruption of political life” (pp. 146, 161). In reality things were a bit messier. While some clubs and associations promoted apolitical identities, many others worked hard to influence political life. The press was highly politicized and only partially independent from governments, who exerted control through restrictive press laws and, even more, through subsidies and public subscriptions. Popular mobilizations, meanwhile, tended to be carefully planned partisan affairs, rather than the spontaneous expressions of popular will participants pretended to be enacting.

Still, public opinion was at least partially independent from politics, and Sabato argues that it became more so over time. For example, as the century progressed, nonpolitical items made up an increasing proportion of the total content in most newspapers. Such items could include news stories, “literary pieces..., commercial and social ads, and caricatures, among others” (p. 154). This growing autonomy and thematic pluralism probably explains why, of the institutions covered in this book, the press alone was able to flourish under the oligarchic regimes that throughout Latin America succeeded the democratic experiments of the early republican decades. In the last third of the nineteenth century, neither elections nor civic militias fared well, as governments either restricted the franchise or, as in Mexico, cracked down on the kinds of political rights that made elections meaningful, and either abolished the civic militias or put them “under the tight control of increasingly centralized standing armies” (p. 119). As Latin America entered the twentieth century, the ideal of popular sovereignty was on the wane even as the press was becoming a diverse and dynamic actor in public life.


In Republics of the New World, Sabato has engaged with—has summarized, digested, and condensed—an immense new literature on the political history of postcolonial Latin America. To have harmonized the findings of these studies, not only with each other but also with the durable part of previous generations of scholarship, is an achievement and a service. Specialists will appreciate, and will surely learn much from, the lengthy, multilingual bibliographies appended to each of the chapters. Scholars who wish to familiarize themselves with state-of-the-art historical knowledge on nineteenth-century Latin America will want to start by reading this book. Instructors will want to assign it to their students.

Does the book tell a story that might take the place of the dated narrative of postcolonial failure? While Sabato is not a heavy-handed narrator, and is, perhaps, more interested in analysis than storytelling, readers might detect two major plotlines running through the book. Both plotlines take as their point of departure the revolutionary decision to build Latin America’s postcolonial republics on the principle of popular sovereignty. The first story is one of tension and conflict. Popular sovereignty, Sabato points out, “was an abstraction that evoked, at the same time, the unitary character of the principle of sovereignty and the plurality of individuals voluntarily come together through the pactum societatis” (p. 177). It generated conflict because it might entail any number of different institutional arrangements, but also because nobody after independence had experience with reconciling the principle of political unity with that of social diversity and ideological pluralism.

Through this story of Latin America’s nineteenth century runs a thread of Hegelian tragedy: the century was riven by conflict between opposing positions, each of which could make equal claims to the principles of republican justice. This experience, Sabato points out, was not unique to Latin America. Republican regimes also had trouble establishing their authority in nineteenth-century Europe, and political conflict in the United States resulted in a bloodier civil war than any of the ones fought in Latin America. Collective violence in this era should thus be understood not as the abnormal condition of a marginal part of the world but rather as “deeply embedded” within the modern republican tradition, which Latin America helped pioneer (p. 189).

The book’s second story is about transformation. This is a story one might almost call comedic, in that it involves a cast of historical actors stumbling more or less blindly but, it is implied, with good intentions through the unintended consequences of their actions. If this story ultimately lacks the satisfying ending—the resolution of conflict—we associate with comedy, it still contains elements of renewal that put it in tension with the first story, which ends in decline and dissolution. An important part of this story takes place in the realm of public opinion, which became richer and more diverse even as elections and civic militias were restricted or abandoned. But Sabato argues that Latin American republicanism was permanently transformative not only in the realm of public opinion but also, and perhaps above all, in the realm of political identity.

Sabato here takes issue with what she describes as the tendency of “subaltern history” or “history from below”—works like Mallon’s Peasant and Nation—to exaggerate the autonomy of collective popular actors and to posit an “axiomatic opposition” of those actors “to the elites or the powerful.” She asks, “Why should we presume that the subaltern ... followed, by definition, their own collective agenda guided by their struggle against the established order” (p. 184)? Sabato argues that subaltern history fails to acknowledge the new attachments popular actors formed as a result of their political activities: their participation in political clubs, or their engagement with newspaper stories, or their service in the civic militias. According to this argument, it is unsurprising that subaltern historians have not been more successful at associating particular popular groups—indigenous villagers or estate tenants, for example—with fixed political or ideological positions, since the practice of politics complicated whatever identities people may have derived from their social and cultural backgrounds. The incorporation of popular actors into new political networks transformed the field of politics in Latin America and would be a permanent legacy of nineteenth-century republicanism.

I already noted that most of the republican practices described by Sabato began to wane in the 1870s; at the turn of the century, Latin America was dominated by centralizing oligarchies with strongly anti-liberal tendencies. Sabato explains this shift by referring to new attitudes toward the instability that had plagued most Latin American countries in the half century following independence. “A rising creed put forward a concept of order that favored stability and discipline, rather than the active mobilization typical of elections and revolutions of old” (p. 197). While this is a notably elegant explanation for a vexed historical puzzle, it is ultimately too simple to be able to stand on its own.

A more complete explanation for the rise of the fin-de-siècle oligarchies would have to explore the history of a dimension of politics that is strangely absent from Republics of the New World: it would have to explore the political and ideological content of elections, uprisings, and popular mobilizations. For in this book about nineteenth-century political conflict, ideologies like liberalism and conservatism, and issues like taxation, land privatization, or the relationship between church and state, receive at best cursory glosses. In a political history of the century of the abolition of slavery, the abolition of slavery merits barely a mention. It is a curious omission because these topics were so closely and obviously involved in the political practices—elections, armed citizenship, public opinion—that are Sabato’s subjects. Can we really understand why governments turned against the civic militias without exploring the militias’ ideological orientations? Can we understand public opinion in fin-de-siècle Latin America without knowing the political content of newspapers that were censored, or of those that were subsidized by the state?

In asking these questions, I may of course be wishing for a completeness that Sabato never intended: a book that fills such a deeply felt gap cannot meet all expectations. It is to be hoped that Republics of the New World will spark debate and competition, that it will spur other historians to also try their hands at the task of panoramic analysis and interpretation. For that endeavor, Sabato’s book now sets a very high standard.


[1]. Lester Langley, The Americas in the Age of Revolution, 1750-1850 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996), 251.

[2]. Jürgen Osterhammel, The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century, trans. Patrick Camiller (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 478.

[3]. C. A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World 1780-1914: Global Connections and Comparisons (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 147. As best as I can tell, Bayly, a historian of nineteenth-century India, wrote about Latin America after reading a single historical survey, Peter Bakewell’s A History of Latin America (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1997).

[4]. The literature on popular liberalism and anti-colonialism is quite large. Studies of note include Peter Guardino, Peasants, Politics, and the Formation of Mexico’s National State: Guerrero, 1800-1857 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996); Sarah Chambers, From Subjects to Citizens: Honor, Gender, and Politics in Arequipa, Peru, 1780-1854 (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999); and Marixa Lasso, Myths of Harmony: Race and Republicanism during the Age of Revolution, Colombia, 1795-1831 (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007).

[5]. Important studies include Cecilia Méndez, The Plebeian Republic: The Huanta Rebellion and the Making of the Peruvian State, 1820-1850 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005); Benjamin Smith, The Roots of Conservatism in Mexico: Catholicism, Society, and Politics in the Mixteca Baja, 1750-1962 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2012); and Marcela Echeverri, Indian and Slave Royalists in the Age of Revolution: Reform, Revolution, and Royalism in the Northern Andes, 1780-1825 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

[6]. On conservative indigenous people, see the books cited in the previous note. On liberal estate tenants, see John Tutino, “The Revolution in Mexican Independence: Insurgency and the Renegotiation of Property, Production, and Patriarchy in the Bajío, 1800-1855,” Hispanic American Historical Review 78, no. 3 (1988), 367-418. For a study of both, see James Sanders, Contentious Republicans: Popular Politics, Race, and Class in Nineteenth-Century Colombia (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).

Citation: Timo Schaefer. Review of Sabato, Hilda, Republics of the New World: The Revolutionary Political Experiment in Nineteenth-Century Latin America. H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. October, 2018. URL:

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