Conceiving Latin America: the laborious emergence of a Latin American self-awareness amid Euro-American and Pan-American identities A study of Mexico’s mid-19th Century foreign policy
di Frédéric Johansson
This study attempts to analyze the difficult emergence in Mexico during the 19th Century of the concept of “Latin-America” as a cultural and political unity differentiated from a Euro-American sphere as well as a Pan-American entity including the United States. In order to explain this, our analysis will put emphasis on Mexico’s Foreign Policy and the vision of the world this policy depicted, showing that Euro-American and Pan-American identities were much more operational concepts in terms of foreign policy than the emergent feeling of “brotherhood” with the other Latin Nations of the Americas.
Since the development of the “New Atlantic History” two decades ago (Bailyn 2005), scholars have made a renewed effort to bring a new insight to the history of this area through the adoption of a global Atlantic point of view. This geographical scale has been proposed as the best dimension for the study of different social, economical and cultural facts surpassing the national frontiers and linking the different territories of this Ocean. Our dear and regretted professor François-Xavier Guerra (2001) proposed along these lines the concept of “Euro-America” in order to describe and grasp the strong unity of this common cultural space with intense personal and intellectual relations.
Accordingly, our study adopts this historical framework in order to analyze the difficult emergence during the 19th Century of the concept of “Latin-America” as a cultural and political unity, through the survey of the foreign policy of one of its most eminent members, Mexico.
We consider indeed that the Atlantic scale permits us to understand better why a country such as Mexico, a country we hope being representative of many other Latin-American countries, had such a difficulties to conceive Latin America as a specific area different from its European original source and from the northern part of the Western Hemisphere. Our hypothesis consists in considering that the difficulty of thinking Latin America’s specificity through the 19th Century is partially due to the strength of alternative identities such as the Continental/Pan-American identity and the European/“Euro-American” identity. As the weltanschauung (conception of the world) inhabiting a part of the elites operate as a structuring framework for interpreting facts and guiding actions, representations play undeniably a major role in the configuration of foreign policy (Frank 2012). Therefore, these Pan-American and Euro-American identities seem to have been, in the eyes of Mexican political elites, consistent and adequate outlines where their country could find a place in a coherent vision of the world shaping Mexican foreign policy. They were thus, a major obstacle for the emergence of a consistent Latin American identity operational for international guidelines.
In order to substantiate this idea, our study will put emphasis on Mexico’s Foreign Policy in its broader sense along with Pierre Renouvin’s (1991) concept of “forces profondes” (profound forces). In line with the ideas of this major international affairs specialist, we consider here that, besides Mexico’s Government, we have also to take into account as major influential sources of the international course of action all the acts, writings and speeches of the elites interfering with international matters. Our sources for this purpose consist in the main Mexican historical archive “Archivo de la Nación” (AGN), as well as the files of the Secretary of Defense of Mexico (SEDENA) and the foreign French Ministry archive (MAE), complemented by contemporaneous Mexican newspapers and different Memories and speeches of main political figures of that era. The period considered here is limited to the middle of the 19th Century, just after Mexican defeat facing the United States in 1847 and before the French Intervention of 1862. A period where an important diplomatic activity surrounding Mexico took place and that happens to be also our main historical research concern (Johansson 2004, 2006, 2011, 2012).
Thanks to these different sources, we are going to observe here that, even though a concept of “brotherhood” tying Mexico and the new independent States of the former Spanish Empire exists, this link is elusive in its definition and inconsistent as an operational concept in terms of foreign policy, failing to differentiate clearly a Latin/Hispanic American area.
On the contrary, Mexico’s belonging to a Continental entity as well as a Euro-American sphere is more obvious in the eyes and actions of contemporaneous Mexican elites. This is paradoxically the result of the constant diplomatic and armed pressure of the European and North American Powers in quest of material advantages from a weak Mexican Government. However, it is at the same time the outcome of a strong common cultural identity.
An emergent Latin American identity
Michel Foucault (1971) underlined the fact that concepts and ideas do not pre-exist to the words that name them and therefore a concept that is not yet materialized by a word does not have a real existence. In this manner, the first referred mention of the concept of “Latin America” is found in the writings of the Colombian poet José María de Torres de Caicedo only in 1856 (Feres 2010). This author tried to popularize this idea thereafter, but apparently did not succeed in the case of Mexico as this concept is never mentioned in our sources during the period we study.
Still, Mexican politicians and journalists use other words in our archives in order to identify this area. They refer to the other countries of Latin America (except Brazil) as “Hispanic-American Republics” (Siglo XIX 1856b), the term Hispanic-American revealing all the common cultural, social and economical features that associate them, the term “Republic” distinguishing them at the same time from the Spanish authority from which they set apart. Other mentions refer to a link of “brotherhood” between these “sister Republics” (Ramírez 1856) born out of the same cultural and political legacy, and evolving in solidarity links. In global terms, we can infer from the different writings of Mexican elites that they consider the other Hispanic-American countries as “natural” friendly States, sharing the same history, culture and values. This common identity seems to be so evident that many times, these speeches and articles fall short in defining and substantiating the content of this unity, using regularly a discursive evidence mode. Most of them rather prefer to focus on the common daily problems that Mexico shares with these countries. Mexican newspapers in this way constantly publish news and articles referring to Guatemala, New Grenade (Colombia), Chile or Peru mentioning their political and socio-economical problems similar to the Mexican ones. Guatemala’s Concordat or New Grenade’s Constitution for example are constant references in the journalistic debate surrounding the anticlerical and constitutional debates in Mexico (Siglo XIX 1855g, 1855b, 1855a). In other words, an evident common situation made out of similar problems delineates a feeling of a common destiny. News from fellow countries of Central and South America are essentially mirrors of the mid-19th Century Mexican reality. They reflect the same problems such as the weakness of the State faced to constant revolutions and bankruptcy as well to ethnic and territorial divides, and a similar economical crisis since independence. They also nourish the same fervent debates source of discord such as the place of the powerful church and its privileges, or the Indian problematic. In this way, Latin America’s problems are considered as a mere continuation of Mexico’s ones and vice versa, in a common tragic fate during the 19th Century, delineating a specific area with common political characteristics.
This idea can also be substantiated by the way the sparse Latin American immigrants in Mexico are considered by their hosts. Not only did these “foreigners” many times succeed in business just as European and North-Americans residents did, but also, on the contrary to other nationalities, they were perfectly integrated at political and military levels just as if they were pure Mexicans. Some of these immigrants had indeed important responsibilities at a regional as well as national level as the following examples can demonstrate it 1.
Perhaps the best illustration of this is Felipe Neri del Barrio, which became in 1830 and for the three following decades the Ambassador of his native country Guatemala, but also turned out to be not only a prosperous businessman but remarkably a major politician being elected as a Mexican national deputy in 1835, 1846 and 1848. Many other personalities played a prominent role but this time only in Mexican affairs such as Spanish-Cubans Pedro Ampudia and Anastasio Parrodi. Both made their successful carrier in the Mexican Army obtaining the highest grades and being nominated at key positions as loyal Governors (Nuevo León, Yucatán, Tabasco for Ampudia and San Luis Potosí, Jalisco and Mexico City for Parrodi). They even occupied briefly the central functions of Supreme Commander of the Liberal Army in 1858 for Parrodi and Secretary of Defense in 1860 for Ampudia. Less eminent but still notable, we can find the Dominican Independence hero José de Nuñez de Cáceres repeatedly Senator of Tamaulipas during his Mexican exile (1832, 1850 and 1852). Similarly, the Guatemalan Joaquin García Granados was regularly elected national deputy for different States (Sinaloa in 1850, Tehuantepec in 1856 and Mexico’s Federal District in 1857). Other Latin Americans played informal but yet influential roles such as the Cuban journalist Pedro Santacilia exiled in Mexico and married to the daughter of President Benito Juárez, becoming one of his nearest friends and confidents. On the other side of the political spectrum we can find someone like the Colombian José Pablo Martínez del Río, not only one of Mexico’s most renowned obstetricians, keen businessman and member of the intellectual elite but also influential conservative strong supporter of Maximilian’s regime.
More remarkable is the complete political integration of some of these immigrants at a regional level far away from cosmopolitan Mexico City. One of the most striking examples is the one of Florencio Villareal, a Spanish-Cuban immigrant who was able to become the cacique of the State of Guerrero’s Costa Chica showing how this “foreigner” was perfectly capable of coping with the hard local traditional political conventions in one of the country’s most secluded and violent areas. More conventionally, many Latin Americans managed to occupy important functions in local administrations. For instance, the O’Horan family coming from Guatemala became quite influential in Yucatan’s society providing Governors (Agustin and Tomas Senior) as well as military officers (Gal Tomas O’Horan Junior fighting among conservative and Imperial ranks).
All these examples illustrate the sharp proximity between Mexican and Latin American elites that differentiate these immigrants from European and North-American ones. Perfectly integrated not only in social and economical terms but also political, they are a sort of “near abroad” that distinguishes them from the rest of the foreign persons living in Mexico who were not able (or better said did not want) to achieve a Mexican political/military carrier. This distinction is corroborated by the proposal made by the prominent politician Ignacio Ramírez in 1856 to the Constitutional Congress to give some political rights, such as the right of petition, to the residents coming from the other Hispanic American Republics (Ramírez 1856). Had this proposal been adopted, it would have created a two degrees legal status concerning foreign residents, setting apart Latin Americans from the other immigrants in a sort of symbolic middle position between Mexican Citizens and aliens.
A non-operational Latin American concept in Mexican foreign policy
Nevertheless, all these features conforming a Latin American cultural and political specificity in the eyes of Mexican elites seem to be quite inconsistent in terms of diplomacy. A simple analysis of Mexican foreign relations with the other Latin American nations shows a striking lack of diplomatic and commercial links. If we analyze Mexico’s diplomatic corps for instance, we can deduce that there clearly existed a reciprocal indifference between Mexico and the other “Sister” Republics. Mexico’s embassies in Latin America in the middle of the 19th Century were merely located in Colombia and Guatemala, completed by two Consulates in Valparaiso and Havana (AGN 1855). Moreover, these already meager legations were shut down in 1855 for Colombia and 1858 for Guatemala replaced by simple Consulates because of the permanent financial problems of the Mexican State (Siglo XIX 1855e, 1855f). Leaving consequently a complete diplomatic void in this area, this decision did not provoke any real debate in a Mexico submerged by its inner political turmoil. However, what could be only interpreted as a mere circumstantial event due to the State’s difficulties, is in reality a sign of the relative lack of concern of Mexico towards Latin America in comparison with Europe and the United States. During all these diplomatic budget shortcuts, it was evident that neither Washington’s embassy nor London, Paris and Madrid’s legations would be touched, the savings being operated in secondary diplomatic representations such as Berlin (closed in 1855) and Brussels (closed in 1856), Rome being temporarily closed for ideological reasons (1855). The maintained Consulates of New Orleans, Brownsville, Galveston and Higher California in the United States as well as the ones of Liverpool, Bordeaux, Le Havre, Barcelona, Cadiz, Genoa, Rome, Naples, Anvers, Amsterdam and Hamburg in Europe (AGN 1855), showed the enormous disequilibrium in terms of human and financial resources between those dedicated to Western Powers’ diplomacy and those derisory given to Latin America’s policy. This noticeable indifference from Mexican elites, seem to indicate that such a thing as a “Latin American policy” did not exist in Mexico at that time. Significantly, the other Latin American Nations shared this apathy, with only three countries being represented in Mexico: Guatemala (the ambassador is expelled in 1861) and Ecuador with Embassies, Chile having only a Consulate. The comparison with European and North American diplomatic representations is here again quite noteworthy, an embassy and three to five consulates covering the main Mexican harbors being the standard for the United States, Great Britain, France and Spain, in addition to the embassy of Prussia, the Apostolic Nuncio and the consulates of Belgium and Hamburg.
This lack of diplomatic relations between Mexico and its “natural friends” are of course the result of the breakup of commercial links between the territories of the Spanish Empire after Independence replaced by fragmentized links polarized by European Powers and the United States. They depict hence a normal diplomatic structure of economic and geopolitical peripheries without important relations between them and with no means to instigate them. Yet, it seems that in the mid-19th Century Mexico, there was not a real desire of building a truly Latin American diplomacy even at a symbolic level. This can be corroborated by the strong decline during this period of Mexico’s involvement in the Pan-American Congresses. These Congresses have been generally presented as the origin of the diplomatic integration of Latin America in search of a form of political unity and a military solidarity against Spanish ambitions (Inman 1965; Bosch 1991; Heredia 2007). Bolivar’s initial call in 1824 to form a political unity in the continent had indeed met a strong enthusiasm among Latin American elites generating the first Pan-American Congress of Panama in 1826 (Mc Kay 2008). Mexico shared at first this Confederal fervor, signing (but not ratifying) the “Treaty of Union, League, and Perpetual Confederation” of 1826 and inviting the participants to continue diplomatic negotiations in Tacubaya near Mexico City, which they eventually did, failing under Mexican patronage in 1828 to achieve any further step towards reinforced integration. Yet, during the thirties Mexico’s interest was still vivid as President Bustamante tried to sponsor a new Congress without success. However, the second Congress of 1847-1848 held in Lima clearly marks a distance between Mexico and South American countries. Of course, Mexico’s government at the end of a devastating war against the United States had neither time nor any money to send emissaries to this Congress. But the gathering of only Andin countries for the purpose of preventing a possible invasion of Ecuador by Spain (García Amador 1981) and in contrast showing no real solidarity with the already defeated Mexico was more than illustrative of this growing aloofness. The third Pan-American Conference of Santiago de Chile in 1856 motivated by the US threat in Galapagos Islands and assembling merely Chile, Peru and Ecuador received in Mexico only a brief debate among newspapers with no official stance from the Secretary of Relations (Siglo XIX 1856b). The only Mexican diplomatic involvement during this period concerned what is called the “Washington treaty” or “Treaty of alliance and confederation” proposed by the Ambassadors of Central American countries in Washington and signed by Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela in November 1856 (Inman 1965). This ambitious treaty tried to create a military alliance against aggressive filibustering generally coming from North America. Nonetheless, this treaty was never ratified by Mexico and did not arouse according to our sources any real enthusiasm, newspapers barely mentioning it (Siglo XIX 1856f) and President Comonfort’s administration making no official commentary.
These 1856 examples show perfectly all the ambiguity of Latin America as a “conceptual artifact” present in theory in the imaginaries of Mexican elites, but without any practical consequence in terms of diplomacy. In the speeches and articles, it had a promising future. Not only was this unity a way to prevent any imperialist dreams coming from Spain or the United States that threatened most of them, the common peripheral and dominated status being the starting point of a strong cohesion. It was also a way to promote trade and prosperity between these subjugated Nations through commercial agreements, shaking off here again informal domination from European and North American Powers. It was at last the consecration of “the fraternity of the Hispanic-American race” based in their common culture, past and ideologies (Siglo XIX 1856a, 1856e). At the same time, this aspiration towards integration seemed to be only a dream far away from any possible fulfillment. How could any commercial agreement create prosperity among countries with not only anemic trade links but also ruined economies in the middle of political anarchy? How any military alliance could exist between weak and insolvent countries having permanent frontier conflicts between them, furthermore incapable of controlling their turbulent militaries? Cruel reality seemed to destroy any possibility of making tangible the idea of Latin America as a political unity. In contrast, other alternative identities such as the Euro-American and Pan-American ones appear to have more consistency as they correspond to coherent cultural and political concepts materialized by a specific Mexican foreign policy.
A diplomacy polarized by Europe and the United States
Quite the opposite to Latin America, the preeminence of European and North American affairs before being a choice coming from a sense of cultural and political attachment, was in a first place a crude and harsh reality for Mexican authorities. Indeed, Mexico was during the 19th Century submitted to a permanent diplomatic and military threat coming from North American, Spanish, British and French Powers.
The main cause of this menace was originally the thorny payment of the foreign debt (Ludlow, Marichal 1998). In 1824 and 1827 Mexico had loaned important amounts of money to British financiers and this sum continuously grew as Mexico was unable to meet its commitments. Added to this, there were all the compensations imposed by Western diplomats to the Mexican Government concerning not only the money borrowed from foreign residents in Mexico, but also all kind of indemnities regarding physical and financial damages made to French, American, Spanish and British citizens during the difficult and unstable decades of independent life. Undeniably, Ambassadors were keen on compelling the Mexican Government to recognize all kinds of grievances and these could be quite unreasonable, illustrating the semi-colonial balance of power. A British ambassador could request 50 pesos in 1858 to the Government after being insulted and could as well obtain important indemnities with formal excuses in compensation of the disputed expulsion of one of its Mexican-origin consuls in Tepic, guilty of smuggling silver paste in collusion with the British navy (MAE 1858a). The American ambassador, as for him, could in 1859 impassively present a list of claims some of which concerned facts occurred in 1819 (AGN 1859). The Spanish authorities were able to obtain very important indemnities for the murder of two Spaniards by ordinary criminals in Chinconcuac in 1856 (AGN 1859-62a). At the side of these cumulative abuses many other genuine damages to foreigners occurred and even increased in intensity during the 1850’as the ideological discord between liberals and conservative deepened, degenerating into a ravaging civil war in 1858. During this chaotic and insecure period, not only many foreigners lost their lives and fortunes in the hands of criminal bands, but they were also confronted to the permanent quest for money coming from the two fighting factions in order to pay their armies. The forced loans including foreigners became a usual expedient and the robbery of stocks of silver owned partly by foreign residents by the main Chiefs of the Army in order to solve desperate situations turned out to be more and more common (Márquez 1859).
All this led not only to a permanent diplomatic tension, but also to a continuous increase of the amount claimed by Western Powers. The weak and penniless Mexican State had no other choice in order to accomplish his international financial obligations than to reserve for this purpose a bigger and bigger part of his main resource, the maritime customs. For example, in 1855 the Mexican finance secretary considered that 52% of the incomes of the customs were absorbed by the French, Spanish and British conventions, strangling the State’s budget (AGN 1855-56). This fragile financial condition was of course in the long run hazardous in such an unsteady country as Mexico. A revolution or even just a single important pronunciamiento, with the significant military expenses it provoked created an unsustainable financial situation making it indispensable to stop paying indemnities to Western Powers. We have estimated for the single year 1856 (a year with a stable liberal government) that the number of revolts in the country was approximately of 6 important pronunciamientos, 49 regional uprising and 38 frustrated plots 2. The years before were not at all more serene as the Ayutla’s revolution, begun in 1854, spread across the whole country against Santa Anna’s dictatorship forcing him to abandon power in 1855. The years after were even more violent as the conservative continued their rebellions against the liberals, their seizure of power in 1858 igniting the “three years” civil war until 1861. This constant warfare triggered as said the breakup of Conventions such as the 1856’s temporary suspension of the British and Spanish ones, nearly again in 1858 and 1859 and in 1861 the fatal adjournment of all of them as the Mexican State considered itself in state of bankruptcy. During all this period, tense diplomatic talks led by the ministry of finances tried to renegotiate the terms of these agreements in order to purge them from abusive demands of the past and to give some breathing space to the harassed Mexican Government. Facing these Mexican claims and actions interpreted as offensive, the Western Powers answered constantly with the gunboat policy in order to impose by force their point of view. In may 1856 just after the suspension of Spain’s convention, a Spanish squadron dropped anchor in front of Mexico’s main harbor (and main source of duties) Veracruz (Siglo XIX 1856c). The same happened in June and October 1858 and March 1859 with combined Spanish, French and British squadrons (AGN 1858). The 1861’ suspension became the official alleged reason for the French intervention of 1862, helped at first by British and Spanish troops, an intervention that became quickly a way to establish a new Monarchical regime in Mexico (Lecaillon 1994).
However, as this last example perfectly illustrates it, the foreign debt question was in reality a mere pretext concealing much bigger ambitions. Even if Spain’s desire of reconquest is largely a fantasy of Mexican elites and rather revealed the Spanish diplomatic will of playing again a significant role in world affairs with its aggressive “prestige policy” (Heredia 2007), the other Powers had indeed bold projects. Britain had already at that time managed to install its informal Empire in the whole Latin America, and Mexico was no exception to this. Combining cleverly the debt problem as an efficient means of pressure and the high scale smuggling of British products against silver paste or commercial farm-products, Britain was able to exert an economic dominance without rivals in this country (Platt 1968). Still, less interested by a direct political and military control, British diplomacy failed to contain French and North American aspirations during the period we study. Napoleon III had indeed caressed the idea of creating a “Latin Empire” with a European monarch at its head under French patronage, in order to build a durable barrier against Anglo-Saxon influence in Latin America (Gouttman 2007). Nourished in his dreams by constant favorable reports of the French Ambassador in Mexico Alexis de Gabriac (Diaz 1961) and by defeated Mexican conservatives convinced by Gabriac’s projects (Barker 1974), the French Emperor decided to put into operation his plans with the 1862 intervention managing to install temporarily Maximilian of Hapsburg as Emperor of the Mexicans. Concerning the United States, the threat was in a way more precise but all the same determined with strong territorial ambitions. After annexing in 1848 half of Mexican northern territory thanks to its victorious military campaigns, Washington sought to extend its possessions towards the rest of northern unpopulated Mexico with Lower California, Sonora and Chihuahua as main targets in accordance with the Manifest Destiny ideology that pretended that the US had the mission of civilizing and exploiting neglected “empty” America (García Cantú 1971). Another territorial objective was the control of the different Central American isthmuses, which became geopolitically essential to assure the fastest link between California and the Atlantic coast, the Mexican Isthmus of Tehuantepec becoming therefore a coveted land as well (Kluger 2007). These ambitions took sometimes an unofficial profile with filibustering expeditions planned in Californian harbors by singular characters such as the famous William Walker organizing in 1854 an expedition to Lower California, just as the picturesque French-American Napoleon Zerman did the year after, followed by Henry Crabb in 1856 this time in Sonora (Stout 2002). Other American capitalists tried to gain informal control over these zones through the purchase of commercial and territorial concessions made by the Mexican Government originally to Mexican Citizens, in Tehuantepec for example with a contract for the construction of a railway or in Sonora with extensive land grants. These initiatives were all private ones, but the US Government sought as well officially after the control of these areas (Kluger 2007). The intentions of the North American administration were unambiguous, clearly indicating in their speeches the territories they wanted (MAE 1858b). The North American diplomats in Mexico tried to realize these objectives through different proposals and negotiations. James Gadsden was able to purchase for ten million dollars the Mesilla valley in 1854, even though this territory was only a small part of what he offered to buy to Santa Anna’s avid government (Vázquez Mantecón 1986). One of his successors, John Forsyth, tried again in 1858 to offer some millions of pesos for the acquisition of Chihuahua and Sonora, trying to take advantage of the strong financial difficulties of the conservative government engaged in the civil war (MAE 1858b). Finally, it is his substitute on the liberal side, Robert Mac Lane, which will almost reach US territorial aims in 1859, with the signature of the Mac Lane-Ocampo agreement (AGN 1859-62b). This treaty signed by the liberal Government in Veracruz, gave to the United States the perpetual right of transit free of duties for goods and persons in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec as well as for two northern routes (Arizona-Guaymas and Rio Grande-Mazatlan), and above all added a dangerous right of military intervention in case of danger to the trade routes. What was clearly a semi-colonial protectorate over the coveted zones was supposed to cost 4 million dollars (of which two million would be kept by the US in order to pay indemnities to damages to its citizens) and give to the Juarez Government a powerful foreign ally in its inner struggle against the European-backed conservatives. Providentially, the US Senate refused to ratify this agreement as it contained theoretical reciprocal clauses in commercial and military assistance affairs, while the financial and diplomatic support to the liberals had already given decisive results. What could have been the end of real Mexican sovereignty, ended up as a Mexican brilliant diplomatic maneuver. Yet, it showed the constant defensive activity of Mexican diplomacy during this period, trying permanently to counter the dangerous ambitions of Western Powers. The magnitude of these threats naturally absorbed all the diplomatic energy of the different Mexican Governments explaining its constraint indifference to all other international matters, especially Latin American ones.
Alternative Euro-American and Pan-American identities
These perils coming from Europe and the United States, even though they gave a powerful impulse to Mexican nationalism they did not stimulate at all, as we have seen, a Latin American identity that failed to be considered as a cultural and political extension of this exacerbated patriotism. On the contrary, they promoted paradoxically alternatively Euro-American and Pan-American identities.
Indeed, facing the European threat, Mexican elites mobilized an identity speech linking Mexico to the United States in a Continental unity in order to give an intellectual coherence to its defensive foreign policy. In the heat of European “aggressions”, the articles and different papers of main political Mexican personalities (mainly liberals of course) referred in this way constantly to the opposition between the “New World”, the Western hemisphere, opposed to the threatening European “Old World”. These concepts had mainly a socio-political content as they depicted an American Continent formed out of Republican and Democratic Nations ruled by “the American principles of popular government” (Mariscal 1860) and where no other political regime was possible as these countries had no aristocracies and supposedly suffered in a less significant way of social inequalities (Monitor 1855a). They were therefore the eminent territories of progress and liberalism, the Promised Land for the providential application of enlightenment and revolutionary ideas coming from Europe. Meaningfully, this shared distinctiveness included not only the other “sister” Republics of Hispanic America but also the United States. This allegedly coherent and consistent bloc differed evidently from the old European authoritarian Monarchies with their unequal aristocratic and decaying societies, seeking to conquer and corrupt the pure Novel Continent. As the radical newspaper Monitor Republicano clearly enunciated it: “those who understand that there is a great barrier that opposes the ideas that must rule in America with those that can rule without difficulties in Europe, know that America has to be democratic” (Siglo XIX 1855c). This dichotomous vision of the Occidental World was, needless to say, a complementary discourse to the desires of the Mexican foreign policy to use the emerging Power of the United States to counter the European menace. Many addresses constantly mentioned the Monroe Doctrine and the fact that the United States would oppose an armed resistance to all project of establishing a monarchy in the Western Hemisphere and especially in their southern border (Cazarín 1851). Beyond the statements, many Secretaries of Relations tried to transform these wishes in acts and use the North American ambassador as a counterweight to the European pressure. It is mostly during the Three years civil war that Mexican Liberal diplomacy made use with ability of North American territorial ambitions in order to achieve US support consecrated by the diplomatic acknowledgement of Juarez Government and the Mac Lane-Ocampo treaty in 1859. This cooperation even led to a military assistance against not only the scanty Conservative navy captured by a North American sloop-of-war in 1860 3 but also Spanish and French boats patrolling near Veracruz, preventing any possible operations from their part (Bandera Roja 1860c). Attaining perfectly its goal, European Governments undeniably saw this collaboration as a major hindrance for their diplomatic and armed designs (MAE 1860a). This pro-United States policy not surprisingly suffered from strong criticism from many Mexican political personalities, mainly conservative naturally, accusing of treason all collaboration with such a dangerous pretended ally (Diario Oficial 1859). Therefore, all the oratory concerning this perilous collaboration was important in order to give it an ideological coherent substance. As the secretary of relations Melchor Ocampo said, commenting the Mac Lane-Ocampo treaty and linking admirably policy and identity: “in this fight of Mexico against its ancient oppressors, the union between Mexico and the United States is a challenge made to the world in order to bring new rules to a new Humanity by establishing democracy at its heart” (AGN 1859-62c).
This Pan-American identity was far from being a simple artificial rhetorical construction justifying a controversial foreign policy, without any substratum in the political imaginary of Mexico. On the contrary, it had strong and multi-secular roots in this country and in Latin America in general. The 16th and 17th Century Franciscan messianic message concerning the New World (Baudot 1977), as well as the 18th Century Jesuit glorification of the splendid destiny of America (Guerrero, Bermeo 2012), had conformed this “New World” ideology in Mexico. This mental picture was perfectly complementary with the Protestant Millennialism and emerging exceptionalism of the United States (Gandziarowski 2010, Madsen 1998), configuring in all the Western Hemisphere an “Americanism” basis of a rising nationalism. The independence wars waged by all the countries of the Continent with the same values only confirmed and solidified the unity of Latin and Anglo-Saxon Americas. Ancient revolted colony having chosen democratic and liberal institutions, the US was seen as a kind of alter ego of Mexico and the new “Sister” Republics (García de Arellano 1859). But it was a successful alter ego, on the contrary to Mexico and Latin America, that was able to find the keys of quick progress with political stability, strong immigration and flourishing industries and farming. Highly admired, this prosperous Nation showed the path towards happiness of all the Nations of the New World. This well articulated vision explains therefore why the different attempts to create a Latin American union had always a major problem with the exclusion of the United States and rather opted for Pan-American configurations as in 1826.
At the same time, the Pan-American concept found a stronger legitimacy among the Mexican political spheres as it could easily be articulated with Mexican Nationalism. The references to an opposition between a New and an Old World were in this manner many times accompanied by the traditional rejection of European “colonialism”. Journalists and politicians abundantly developed the “black legend” of Spanish domination in order to prevent any return to the past, describing the two centuries of Colonization as an obscurantist theocracy and a constant cruel despotism symbolized by “inquisition and pillory” (Siglo XIX 1855d, 1855i). Ignorance, superstition and intellectual and political backwardness were the only heritages this awkward period had left according to them, impeding the realization of the fortunate destiny of their country determined by Providence. Between the lines, it was also the so popular hate against the gachupines (Spaniards) living in independent Mexico that was manipulated in these speeches, the threat of returning to colonial times being embodied by those despised pitiless Spanish Landowners or those usurer merchants (Bandera Roja 1860b). The daily humiliations of the Mexican population in contact with these Spaniards and the nationalistic heritage of Independence, made out of these references efficient and intelligible messages conveyed to the population capable of strongly mobilizing it in case of Spanish military aggression as many foreign testimonies attest it (MAE 1860b). Less popular, the depreciatory terms of gabacho for the French and godeme for the British inherited from colonial times were sometimes mentioned in order to denounce the European peril in a widespread vocabulary (MAE 1858c). These features of Mexican Nationalism could easily tone with the Pan-American identity and the pro-United States policy. The fight against European ambitions meant the struggle against old-times Colonialism and the defense of the American democratic principles, naturally bringing about an “alliance between the two neighbors” described as “a common effort of freedom against despotism and theocratic domination” (Bandera Roja 1860a).
Quite the reverse, facing the North American threat Mexican elites mobilized a symmetrical identity speech linking this time Mexico and Europe. Developing a cultural and historical point of view, we see in the writings of many political eminences (conservative above all) arise the concept of a “Latin race” to which Mexico allegedly belonged in opposition to the “Anglo-Saxon race” embodied by the United States. Even though this notion was the premise of the future idea of Latin America, it was at that time a French concept relating strongly European and American Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries sharing supposedly cultural and racial affinities. French diplomat Michel Chevalier developed initially the notion during the 1830’ while he realized a diplomatic mission in Mexico and the United States, postulating that the American countries of “Latin race” could be precious allies for France in its presumed multi-secular clash against the “Anglo-Saxon” and “Teutonic” World (Chevalier 1837). Chimerical Napoleon III later adopted this theory giving form to his dream of a Latin Empire in Mexico sponsored by France and serving as a solid barrier against the growing and worrying expansion of the United States in America (Lecaillon 1994). These French conceptions were rapidly popularized in Mexico during the period we study and used many times in articles describing the clashes with the United States. For example a lynching of Mexicans in California were interpreted by a liberal newspaper as the sign of the will of the “Yankees […] to exterminate the Latin Race” (Siglo XIX 1855h). The maneuvers and pressures of North American Ambassadors were in the eyes of Mexican conservatives a symbol of their harmfulness as “enemies of the Latin race in the American Continent” with the clear “final purpose of exterminating it” (MAE 1860c).
If this concept of “Latin race” and the vision of the world it carried found so rapidly a place in the international imaginary of Mexican elites it was because it was strongly articulated to many basis of the Mexican National identity and was far from being just an artificially “imported” idea without grounds in the political sphere of the country. One of the aspects of this “Latin” identity was the Catholic religion that was the main element that united the ethnically and geographically diverse and divided Mexican population (Pesado 1855). Not only did the Catholic Church remain the only institution covering the whole territory with an articulated national structure much more efficient than the fragile independent State, but also its symbols such as the Virgin of Guadalupe were the core of the Mexican identity, its “moral strength” (Piña 1860). The anxiety of being dominated or even worse converted by Protestants played a significant role in the international vision of the population and was a major element of differentiation with the dangerous northern neighbor at the same time it served as a bond with Catholic Europe. Likewise, the elements configuring a cultural “Latin” identity such as the Castilian language and customs were underlined as the main components cementing the distinctiveness of the “Great Mexican Nation” facing the United States (Monitor 1856). Many writings highlighted in this way the vigor of family values, the “distinction and politeness” and the “sense of honor” but also the “violent temperament” that set Mexicans apart from North American habits made out of “superficiality, corruption and vulgarity (Diario Oficial 1858b, Cuevas 1861). Oversimplified speeches of the same nature opposed as well the Mexican “spirituality” and its “fruitful culture” against the North American materialism with their “fever for the dollar” and their obsessive idea that “they can buy everything with Gold” (Partido Conservador 1855). This materialism in fact explained “their ambition without limits to abduct the Americas” (Piña 1860). Such generalizations with their burlesque aspects were probably the continuation of the emergent popular hatred against the North Americans since the 1847 war. The violent language of a conservative newspaper proclaiming: “gringos and Barbarous Indians: the worst we can imagine” (Segura 1855) portrayed quite faithfully this nationalistic abhorrence of their neighbors after the past humiliations shared by a large segment of the population.
In contrast, the identification with Europe had strong roots in Mexico, and especially among the elite. Albeit the colonial past of the country and the popular anti-gachupín feeling we have mentioned, almost unanimously Europe was seen as the source of “civilization” in its broader sense. The intellectual references for example were permanently European, authors like Rousseau, Diderot, D’Alembert, Constant, Kant, Wattel, Sismondi, Balmes etc. being abundantly quoted as authoritative arguments. Their contemporary fellows from the other side of the Atlantic were read and passionately discussed as well, Victor Hugo, Guizot, Lamartine, Proudhon or Byron being priced or criticized in the intellectual circles. Source of historical, ideological and cultural references, Europe was also the standard of progress and wisdom for Mexico. The “universal march of progress” that Mexico tried to pursue following the path of the “lights of the Century” as so many speeches affirmed (Monitor 1855b), meant essentially that the goal of political and socio-economical development for the country was to catch up with Europe. This euro-centric vision of the world gave all its substance to this “Euro-American” identity to which the Mexicans identified themselves as a sort of “Extreme Occident” (Rouquié 1998). “Latin” America therefore, as Napoleon suggested, was just one of the two Hemispheres of the Latin World with a central place reserved to Europe.
Evidently, here again the use of this concept of “Latin” World was not innocent in terms of concrete international policy objectives. It aimed at seducing French diplomats, and especially Ambassador Alexis de Gabriac so eager of praises and ardent promoter of Napoleon ideas in Mexico, in order to exhort them to take the lead among European Powers and organize an efficient counter-weight to North American ambitions. For example, in 1858 after Buchanan’s speech clearly stating United States territorial goals in Mexico, the French ambassador reported being intensely solicited by the different Mexican influential personalities. According to him, “their eyes turned towards Europe and especially France after this speech, the Mexicans having read with great interest the Second Tome of the Works of the Emperor Napoleon III concerning the need of helping Mexico against the United States” (MAE 1858b). Facing the Mac Lane-Ocampo treaty with its dangerous territorial and military clauses, the different prominent conservatives immediately called for the support of France in order to “protect Mexico from the ambitions of the United States” (MAE 1859c). Thus, many particular letters addressed to the French Emperor, as well as the instructions of the Secretary of relations Muñoz Ledo to his contacts at the French court and the talks of President Miramón with Gabriac made it clear that they “wanted a European intervention […] in order to check the United States and as an act of civilization” (MAE 1859a, 1860d). Of course, just as the Liberals used the North American international support also for internal purposes in order to win the civil war, the conservatives tried to do the same thing. The North American threat, they argued, was after all only possible because of the weakness of the country torn apart by its ideological divisions. Even worse, the annexationist neighbors could count with privileged allies among the Mexican political sphere: the Liberal “traitors” admirers of the United States system and, willingly or not, demolishers of the religion and traditions of Mexico, responsible therefore of the social and political commotion leading to an easy seizure by the United States of the country (Diario Oficial 1858a). Consequently, the intervention of French and European diplomats and soldiers was not only directed against the United States but also and mainly against the Liberals.
Why choose France and not Great Britain or Spain? These two other Nations played an important diplomatic role, the Spanish Ambassador having the image of being the eminence grise of the conservative party implicated in many of their plots, and the depoliticized British Diplomats been seen as useful intermediaries between rivals. Nevertheless, probably Spanish open complicity was much more a burden than an advantage in the eyes of the fiercely anti-gachupín population, and Spain’s “power” facing the United States was not a guarantee of success. Great Britain, on their part, had a very ambiguous diplomatic position facing the US influence in Mexico at that time, alternatively fighting it in order to keep their supremacy and pessimistically accepting it as a fait accompli or as way to push the dislocation of this country through its excessive broadening (MAE 1859b, 1858d). Even worse, British Ambassadors constantly claimed the establishment in Mexico of the freedom of religion doggedly refused by Mexican conservatives, and this positioned them in the “Protestant” Anglo-Saxon Bloc to which the Euro-American Latin identity was supposedly opposed (MAE 1860e). France was therefore the best choice in terms of opportunities and ideological proximity, the French plans and ambitions matching with conservative views leading to the tragic French intervention of 1862.
Frédéric Johansson is a History and Political Sciences graduate of the University of Paris Panthéon-Sorbonne and the Institute of Political Studies of Strasburg. Specialist of Mexican History concerning the areas of international affairs and socio-political studies, he has published many articles referring to the Reform Period in Mexico, the premises of the Mexican Revolution and the 1968 movement.
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- All the biographical information developed here comes from a prosopographic study of the elites in Mexico during the Reforma period (1854-1862) that is part of my actual PHD research: Johansson F. Gouverner et réformer le chaos: conflits politiques, antagonismes de partis et projets de société à l’époque de la ‘Reforma’ au Mexique (1854-1860). [↩]
- Secretary of Defense of Mexico Historical Archive (SEDENA) exp. 5301 to 6878. [↩]
- This gave place to the Anton Lizardo historiographical controverse: Bulnes Francisco 1905 Juárez y las revoluciones de Ayutla y de Reforma, México, Murguía; Villaseñor y Villaseñor Alejandro 1962,Antón Lizardo, México, Jus [↩]