The use of the term “nation” in writings by Lucas Alamán and Mariano Otero

di Lara Semboloni


The construction of a State of national dimensions has been the subject of a number of studies addressing a horizon of variables, from the control of territory as a system of government till the uniformity of laws and public institutions with legitimacy besides legality. Ultimately talking about a “National State” presumes identifying its meaning, that becomes more complex when dealing with an entity in process of formation throughout the nineteenth century. The debate can be opened with key questions such as what people of the time understood by using the term “national”. This work shows the application of a methodology that allows to address that issue, among others, through the analysis of some writings by Lucas Alamán and Mariano Otero, authors that shared a historical juncture considered as a period of transition in which the entrance of an incipient modernity permeates all the social spheres and, thence, gives shape to concepts that eventually are formalized in words. On the other hand, the election of the subject of analysis, the term “nation”, obeys to the relevance assigned by a vast number of authors to the idea of nation itself, that involves a fundamental concept for modern society and that, however, has an imprecise connotation of its characteristics, since all the beliefs and values of a society are entangled in it.


Every concept is a product of its historical time and has, therefore, the property of mutation, of being dynamical. Hence, all humanistic studies require, as a sine-qua-non condition, the delimitation of the object of study in its chronological frame. The opportunity of assisting to the end of the State-Nation, or rather to its funeral, unveils the need of addressing the question of its origin and its construction, at the expense of, and above, a concept reminiscent of another era, in order to state questions whose answers could be helpful to understand the contemporary era. Among the cluster of relevant concepts that put a mark on it, that of nation is representative of western society: the nation, with its meaning, is distinctive of the historical-political “mutation” occurred during the nineteenth century, and keeps being such even in the twenty-first century. Transition to national States occurred with the evolution of general and abstract concepts, based on reason, that got to define the Power-State separated. In this context, the term nation would become the banner of liberal modernism in all its shapes throughout the nineteenth century.

The purpose of this work is to provide a methodological approach based on the use of the term nation in the development of a concrete historical context, summarized in the following question: what was the actual meaning of the term assigned by political actors that took part of the process of transition of New Spain into a Mexican State, in the nineteenth century, when they undertook the construction of a State-Nation? More than ten years ago, in La Jornada of march 19, 2001, doctor Enrique Florescano stated, with respect to the Mexican Republic, that “one of the obsessions of politicians of the nineteenth century was to establish the national State”. For him, “the construction of a State of national dimensions, with deterrent force in the large territory and a uniform system of laws and public institutions recognized by the people, instead of promoting balance between the center and the periphery, necessarily strengthened the federal system and reduced the participation of states and municipalities”. According to Horst Pietschmann (2003), the characteristics of a State-Nation arise from a historical process and thence it is necessary to determine those proto-state structures (social actors, institutions, symbols, etc.) that were the basis for the construction of a “separate power” aiming to monopolize physical and symbolic coercion. Using this perspective to analyze the previous statement of Florescano may contribute to understand how the Mexican State-Nation got far from its original project, thus yielding a federal system. The analysis of writings by authors representative of that time, taken as case studies, is done here on the basis of those assumptions.


The starting point is the idea that history is a burst of accidental and heterogeneous events, not a lineal and continuous process, approach proposed by Michel Foucault in the last century (Foucault 1983b). Contrary to the notion of origin as essence of the thing itself, Foucault highlights the concept of mutation and identifies it as the “historical beginning” (Foucault 1983b, 17), explores how discourses are produced and to that end he sets limits and defines the circumstances in which the former occurred. The conditions are given by two divergent elements: 1. the fundamental codes of a culture; and 2. the general order, that is, the framework obeyed by the general law (Foucault 1983b, 58). Between these two factors, a third one breaks through, that plays the role of intermediary, in which culture gets away from both, causing the initial transparency to be lost. It is in that “middle” region, previous to words, where changes are brewing, and this can be seen in the use of terms that, without modifying its external shape, shift its meaning due to the heterogeneous and accidental conditions in which the former occur. In order to identify the formation of objects of discourse, their rules of appearance are considered without any deductive system. The Foucault view states that ideas do not preexist in themselves, nor are the words born from them, but it is the discourse itself that gives shape and develops the ideas; this thesis is explained under the theory of mutations (Foucault 1983b), whereby it is assumed that it is not possible to talk about a concept without using the word that gives rise to it, which does not imply its non-existence, but just the impossibility of analyzing it. From that perspective this work seeks to compare the concept “nation” according to two authors that, even sharing the same period, belong to different generations. The selection of the writings object of analysis responds to the kind of issues addressed by both authors, and the relevance given by them to the term “nation”, revealed precisely by the number of appearances. Without claiming the scope of a more rigorous approach, which would require, for example, to establish in advance similarities in the extension and the literacy codes used in the texts, the paper aims at just assessing the scope of the method mentioned.

Cultural context of the term “nation”: What Nation is referred to?

The intellectual environment where Lucas Alamán and Mariano Otero live is recognized as a historical juncture of mutation and transformation. The first half of the nineteenth century assists to the entrance of political events that force a reinterpretation of ideas and concepts, which in turn originate a “new” political language concerning the identities. For many historians, the concepts of nation (Smith 1976) and nationalism make possible an analysis of the construction of Hispanic identity. The transit of Hispanic countries from territories belonging to a monarchy towards independent States introduces a shift of identities, that turns about an axis both ideal and real. In other words, the political-cultural elite seeks to create legitimizing institutes, and to do so it adopts preexistent discourses with different significants, product of collective wisdom and chance events. On the other side, the actual collectivity interprets concepts according to its models and experiences. In the same line of Pérez Vejo, the “nation” assumes, in front of other systems of collective identification, a legitimizing role of political power; that is, the “nation” is the only entity capable of legitimating the exercise of power within a definite framework (Pérez Vejo 1999, 103).

An intriguing example that shows the complex evolution of the referred concept can be found in the preparation of the articles that seek to define the “sovereignty” in three Constitutions of that period: the Constitution of Cádiz of 1812, the Constitution – and Acts – of Apatzingán of 1814, and that of 1824 (Zoraida Vázquez 1995).

In the first one: “Sovereignty resides essentially in the Nation, and therefore belongs to the latter the right to establish its own fundamental laws” (Constitution of Cádiz of 1812, Tit.1 De la nación española y de los españoles, ch.1 of La Nación Española, Art. 3).

In the second one: “Therefore, sovereignty resides originally in the people, and its exercise in the national representation composed by deputies elected by citizens under the way prescribed by the Constitution” (Constitutional Decree for the Freedom of Mexican America, sanctioned in Apatzingán on October 22, 1814, Art. 5).

The third one declares that: “Sovereignty resides radically and essentially in the Nation, and therefore belongs exclusively to the latter the right to adopt and establish through its representatives the way of government and further fundamental laws, considered more convenient for conservation and greater prosperity, modifying or changing them according to what can be more convenient”. (Constitutive Act of the Federation of 1824, January 31, 1824, Form of Government and Religion, article 3).

In the modern imaginary the term “nation” suffers a conceptual weakness that allows great flexibility in its perception at social, political and cultural spheres. (Pérez Vejo 1999, 10). This looseness results in an objective incapacity to define basic criteria to identifying and framing the ideas associated with that term. As a matter of fact, theoretical studies about the concept “nation” can be divided into two great groups: the first, identified with “empirical” theories, attempts to determining objective criteria; the second, exemplified by the “idealist” theories (Renan 1961; Anderson 1997), is founded on subjective criteria (Pérez Vejo 1999). Facing the inability to find the objective essence of nationality, empirical theories insert themselves in the group of idealist theories that, actually, recognize such impossibility, and conclude in the need of defining the idea of “nation” as an “act of faith”. José Ortega y Gasset defines the “nation” as “first, a project of total coexistence in a common enterprise; second, men’s assenting to that incentive project”. He introduces thus a key element, “a future project”, and shows how the idea rests on the historic future to be performed.

Finally, the watershed of modern era is marked by a differentiation between the cultural and political concepts of “nation”, from the moment it starts being regarded as the repository of the legitimacy of power and sovereignty, and not just as the project of an individual or group of people: it is an abstract, naturally preexistent, entity (Smith 1976), that has to be identified with a specific territory and is the source of all power. While in the ancien regime the “nation” had been configured as a solution between particularities and cosmopolitanism, exemplified by the Roman and Spanish empires, in the modern era the “nation” acquires features of a collective entity, tied to a territory, that produces the so-called “imagined community” (Anderson 1997), and that responds to a political project legitimized by history. This is the context in which the analysis of the writings by Alamán and Otero takes place.

Analysis of some writings by Lucas Alamán: use and repetition of the term “nation”

Lucas Alamán (1792-1853) (Mijangos, Gonzalez 2004; Bassoco 1945; Valadés 1977; Gonzalez Navarro 1952), representative of ultramontano conservatism, monarchical – towards the end of his career – and hispanist with a coherent political project (Brading 1973, 95), reveals himself in favor of an autocratic government in line with economic development. His formation and public and private life evidence a strong religious nature; Mariano Otero considers him the maximum expression of Mexican Clericalism. Next, three writings by Alamán are examined: the first and last chapters (titled respectively “State of New Spain in 1808” and “State of the country after Independence War”) of Historia de México, published in 5 volumes between 1849 and 1852; and the Exposition before the Chamber of Deputies of General Congress made by the attorney of the Duke of Terranova and Monteleone, on January 30, 1828.

It is necessary, in order to place in context the discursive codes used by the author, to take into account the recipient of the texts. Historia de México is made in such a way that it seeks to reach a broad and general public: it is a text with a “for-everyone” literary style. On the other hand, the “Exposition before the Chamber…” is intended to arrive to a specific audience, the Congress deputies, political forum that requires the use of technical language. In the following tables, the term “nation” has been numbered according to the order of appearance: number, and reference.

 a) “State of New Spain in 1808”, from Historia de México. Analysis

The extension of this chapter is 31 pages, and the term “nation” appears four times, which does not mean downplaying the concept. From the title it is clear that the subject is an analysis of a pre-Independence period, hence, all concepts reported belong to the ancienne regime. The author does not address the question of defining what a “nation” is; he rather uses the word as a known and acknowledged concept by readers. The context of its use reveals some of its features. First, “nation” identifies something already existent prior to Independence, and even before the Conquest (Table n. 1, Ref. 1), but he never takes the “nation” as naturally preexistent; it is rather the other way around: the “nation” is raised, as will be shown further ahead. He distinguishes “nation” from governance (Table n. 1, Ref. 2), which allows him to identify nations according to their governance. This is partially why he neglects the term “nation” and uses governance to identify the peoples concerned:

Within that empire [mexica] was nestled the aristocratic Republic of Tlaxcala, with small territory, with the exception of the North where it had the barbarian chichimecas as neighbors, always at war with Mexicans for defending their independence; national hate arising between both peoples caused by those continued hostilities (Alamán 1997, 90).

There are two additional terms that make possible the definition of the concept referred to by the author, thanks to some concrete features confirmed throughout the whole analysis. The concept “nation” involves the following elements: territorial (Table n. 1, Ref. 3), stationary and political institutions. Nomadic people, for example, can not be considered as nation. On the other hand, there is the Law, that regards a “nation” as a people with defined territory, regulated by laws, with political institutions that define a level of civilization. Unlike the previous ones, objective by their own nature, qualifying the level of development in this last item reflects the subjective nature of civilization, according to the author.

Alamán concludes that the indios were a different and separated “nation” (Table n. 1, Ref. 4) respect to the “other one” of the colonial period, and presents the requirements to be considered as such: own laws, own costumes and institutions, defined territory, own language and different customs. Quoted:

The laws had made of Indians a very privileged class and absolutely separate from other population […] They lived in separate villages […] of the Spanish, governed by themselves through municipalities called republics and retaining their language and peculiar costumes (Alamán 1997, 108-109-110).

It can be inferred, therefore, that the specificities inherent to the concept of “nation” according to Alamán are: territory, own legislation, institutions and language as objective elements; while customs and level of civilization belong to the cultural sphere and can be thus identified as subjective elements.

Table n.1 Citations in order of appearance in History of Mexico

“Estado de la Nueva España 1808” (Alamán 1997, 85-116)

Ref. n.


Citation in text

1 Antes de la conquista que los españoles hicieron […] el país se hallaba poblados por diversas naciones, que según sus historias, habían emigrado en distintas épocas (p. 89).
2 De estas varias naciones, la mexicana, gobernada bajo la forma de monarquía electiva era la más poderosa (p. 90).
3 Estas naciones ocupaban en su parte principal las llanuras más elevadas de la mesa central […]; las monarquías de Oaxaca y Michoacán se hallaban situada en el descenso de la cordillera […]; varios caciques independientes dominaban las costas de Jaliscos o Nueva Galicia, y quedaban también algunos otros que no habían sido sometidos al yugo mexicano […]. Estos eran los pueblos que por sus leyes, instituciones políticas y conocimientos en la astronomía y en las artes a una grado mas o menos elevado de civilización, especialmente los mexicanos […]. Todo el resto del país hacia el Norte estaba ocupado por tribus vagantes, en estados de completa barbarie (pp. 90-91).
4 Todo esto hacía de los indios una nación totalmente separada; ellos consideraban como extranjeros a lo que no eran ellos mismos (p. 110).


b) “State of the country after Independence” History of Mexico. Analysis

The extension of this chapter is 80 pages, and the term “nation” appears 57 times. The first appearance reveals how the feature “barbarians” (Table n. 2, Ref. 1) excludes the qualification of nation, confirming what stated before. In identifying “neighboring country” (Table n. 2, Ref. 2) it is evident how the element area (Table n. 2, Ref. 3) is inherent to the concept nation. Other features are discovered with respect to the historical development of Mexico. While in the first chapter the Hispanic “nation” was most mentioned, in this last chapter the post-Conquest and Independence periods are revealed: the author extends the concept of “nation” to other elements, such as race and religion. He talks about the white “nation” and the Catholic “nation” (Table n. 2, Ref. 4 and 5), even if the concept of “nation” does not include yet the biological and religious characteristics as indispensable.

The author maintains the uniqueness of each “nation” in language, customs and ancestors (Table n. 2, Ref. from 6 to 10; Ref. 30), and outlines a certain homogeneity among the members of a “nation” – “thus come to form a separate society, which never joins in the nation” (Table n. 2, Ref. 10 and 11). He ties the existence of a “nation” to its means of defense (Table n. 2, Ref. 12 and 13), and uses the word Republic, i.e., refers to the form of government, when he speaks of the Mexican “nation” contemporary to him. Thereafter, the use of “nation” presupposes the entry of modernity, and comes to juxtapose the concept of State, in the political-juridical sense, to the concept of “nation” (Table n. 2, Ref. 18), which thus identifies a political “nation”. It had been stressed before that the idea of “nation” was not assumed as existing, but rather as a concept under construction (Table n. 2, Ref. 15, 16, 17, 21, 31, 45, 46), and this thesis becomes a true milestone throughout this chapter: it is treated as a living entity, with birth, childhood, youth and decrepitude (Table n. 2, Ref. 14), a metaphor implying the comparison to an individual (Table n. 2, Ref. 33 and 34).

The author begins to connote the concept “nation” as a whole (Table n. 2, Ref. 40) with its essence, as an individual who has feelings and emotions (Table n. 2, Ref. 19, 20, 32, 35, 36, 49, 53), so that the nation is constituted by a single social body (Table n. 2, Ref. 22, 23 and 24). He criticizes those who have governed it, shows how those who rule are not the “nation” (Table n. 2, Ref. 25 and 26), and defines the conditions to be identified as such (Table n. 2, Ref. 28): “resources, the armed forces to defend it” (Table n. 2, Ref. 27), territory, race. He introduces history as “the judge of posterity” (Table n. 2, Ref. 29), seeks to define who should be assumed to be responsible for the “nation”, and considers that the President should (Table n. 2, Ref. 42). It is remarkable how the characteristics of homogeneity, which at the beginning of the text were diffuse, are now explicit (Table n. 2, Ref. 44).

Monitoring the term “nation” and its references reveals a change in its use over historical chronology, and shows how pre-Independence references adopt objective connotations, based on the “nation” as a concrete thing, except for the feature of civilization. However, in post-Independence mentions, the concept assumes different and abstract attributes and becomes an entity able to feel, to live independently of the other factors: it is a nation-state where political prevail over cultural conditions. It can be said that the concept is not yet well defined.

Table n. 2 Citations in order of appearance in History of Mexico

“Estado del país después de la independencia” (Alamán 1997, 267-348).

Ref. n.


Citation in text

1 vagando en el espacio intermedio las tribus bárbaras de los apaches, comanches y otras menos numerosas, que alternativamente hostilizaban a una y otra nación, con las cuales ambas hacían convenios o tratados que no tenían más duración que la que quería darles el capricho o el interés de los salvajes (p. 270)
2 hizo uso de la facultad que le reservó la ley de la colonización y prohibió que se avicendase dentro de ciertos límites los nativos de la “nación” limítrofes (p. 272).
3 para impedir que sus súbditos invadan los territorios de las naciones, vecinas (p. 274.). [Y por exclusión] que el exterminio de las tribus que no quieran sujetarse a una mansión fija (p. 275).
4 suplir a la renovación de capitales e individuos que la casta española recibía por los de aquella “nación” que se avecindaban en el país y aumentar la raza blanca [continua en 5ª referencia] (p. 277).
5 [sigue] se ha promovido el establecimiento de extranjeros de todas las naciones católicas (p. 277).
6 to 9 [Desde la 6ª hasta la 9ª referencia el autor detalla las peculiaridades de los individuos pertenecientes a las diferentes naciones con su adaptación al modo de vivir mexicano]. En cuantos a los extranjeros que han venido a establecerse en la parte poblada, los efectos han variado según el carácter peculiar de las naciones a que pertenecen: los ingleses, […] sin beneficio alguno de la nación: los alemanes y los norteamericanos …., los españoles y los franceses, […]. Los primeros [españoles], con las ventajas que da el idioma, la semejanza de costumbres y los antiguos recuerdos […]. Los franceses, entre los cuales deben comprenderse los pocos italianos […], es la “nación” [francés] que más simpatiza con los mexicanos […] (pp. 278-279).
10 constituyen tantas colonial independientes cuantas son las naciones que están en relaciones de comercio con la República (p. 279).
11 (p. 279).
12, 13 y como si una “nación” pudiera existir sin medios de defensa, se teme organizarlos, quedando la República expuesta a ser fácil presa, no ya de los ejércitos de una “nación” enemiga, sino de los aventureros que quieren invadirla (p. 298).
14 no hallando en México mexicano, y contemplando a una “nación” que ha llegado de la infancia a la decrepitud, sin haber disfrutado más que vislumbre de la lozanía de la edad juvenil (p. 299).
15 son en las naciones resultado de cálculos de prudencias (p. 300).
16 y esa misma prosperidad demuestra que era posible formar una “nación” independiente: mas por no alterar el curso de ella, hubiera sido necesario aprovechar todos los elementos que la habían producido (p. 301).
17 en ningún periodo de la existencia de las naciones que no se han formado con el género de instituciones (p. 301).
18 Estos peligros son mayores en gobiernos que deben su origen a la casualidad o a las intrigas de las elecciones periódicas, las cuales pueden elevar a la autoridad suprema de la “nación” o [termino de igualdad] de los Estados (p. 304).
19 pues, cuando un gobierno sin prestigio necesita en las mayores angustias de la nación (p. 315).
20 formando la guardia nacional que el marqués Lafayette llamaba la opinión armada de la nación, habrán de sostener unas instituciones que protejen su [de la nación] bienestar (p. 315).
21 ¿Por qué la existencia de esta “nación” es tan incierta? (p. 317).
22, 23 los elementos de la prosperidad de la “nación” existen y la “nación” como cuerpo social está en la miseria (p. 318).
24 las instituciones políticas de esta “nación” no son las que requieren para su prosperidad (p. 318).
25 y que México es una “nación” de tal manera anómala que no necesita un gobierno (p. 318).
26 provechosos para los que han ejercido el poder, pero ruinoso por la nación (p. 318).
27 los puntos más esénciale para la existencia de una nación. […], es preciso que trate de cancelar esta deuda, que es un cáncer que consume lentamente los recursos de la República, y es indispensable que esta cuente con una fuerza armada que la defienda y haga respetar (p. 319).
28 Estas son condiciones necesarias para toda “nación” que pretende merecer el nombre de tal, su territorio […] es una cuestión de vida o de muerte para la “nación” […] no se trata solamente de usurparle su territorio, sino de suplantar en él otra raza, sea exterminando la raza hispanoamericana, sea reduciéndose al estado humillante de extranjera en su propia tierra (p. 319).
29 de las demás naciones y de la historia que acusarán unánimes a la generación presente de la raza mexicana de indigna de ser “nación” y de haber aspirado a tan alto titulo sin los elementos ni el espíritu publico necesario para merecerlo (p. 320).
30 formando como en Guatemala otras tantas naciones cuantas eran las provincias de la capitanía general, todas débiles, todas sin nombres entre las demás (p. 320).
31 la existencia de México como “nación” independiente (p. 321)
32 y que remedie los males de la nación (p. 322).
33, 34 (p. 322).
35 los males que la “nación” mexicana sufre (p. 324).
36 un gobierno que pueda llenar las necesidades de la nación (p. 325).
40 lo que consigue la “nación” en general (p. 329).
42 Es menester que, como se ha hecho en la actual República Francesa, la responsabilidad recaiga sobre el Presidente y no sobre los ministros, los cuales deben ser responsables al presidente, así como éste debe serlo a la “nación”, y para que esta responsabilidad sea efectiva […],es menester establecer (p. 334).
44 se establecerá un orden de cosas adecuado al estado de la nación, simétrico y uniforme en todas sus partes, económico en sus gastos (p. 335).
45 por cuyo motivo una “nación” en que todo está por hacer, por haberse destruido todos (p. 340).
46 convendría que se nombrase una comisión que no excediese de tres o cinco individuos, encargada de constituir a la nación (p. 340).
49 puede hacer la felicidad de una nación (p. 344).
53 téngase éste por un crimen que la “nación” no perdonará jamás (p. 346).

c) Exposition before the Chamber of Deputies of General Congress made by the attorney of the Duke of Terranova and Monteleone, on January 30, 1828 in the text of Alamán, 119-159. Analysis

Alamán write this text as representative of the Duke of Terranova and Monteleone, in order to avoid confiscation of his property (Alamán 2000, 118). This is a legal and political argument, in which appears the concept “nation” as an abstract political entity, in line with modern and liberal currents of the early nineteenth century. The text length is 42 pages, and the word is repeated 12 times.

The “nation” here is an entity under construction whose existence is not ruled by any law of nature; it is a source of legitimation of political power and, in turn, is legitimized by it. It is the political project of a historical process. Independent Mexico is a new “nation” (Table n. 3, Ref. 9 and 10), completely different both to colonial “nation” and to pre-Hispanic “nation”. The difference between nation, form of government (Table n. 3, Ref. 1 and 3) and individual (Table n. 3, Ref. 2) is clearly stated. Thanks to the argument about who should collect the confiscated property, which concludes that it must be the “nation”, the source of the latter is made explicit according to its inherent characteristics, namely, language, customs, religion and race (Table n. 3, Ref. 5 and 6).

While there are few references to the concept of “nation” in this text, the analysis allows to define some of the connotations which Alamán relies on. It is clear the influence of the modern liberal current: although the author identifies himself with the conservative wing, he does not escape to the influence of the ideas already circulating in the environment, and given as beliefs. It is crystalline the difference in the use of the term in the references of pre Independence and post Independence, as is also clear that his concept of nation is not yet fully formed. When the entries appear in the contemporary circumstance, the concept is abstract and juxtaposed with State, with which he suggests a political “nation” that still mixes cultural features with great flexibility. The large number of references in the last chapter of History of Mexico, along with the date of its publication, 1853, are indicative of greater confidence in the subject and show the development of the concept itself. This seems to confirm Foucault’s theory, according to which the idea is formed when it becomes explicit and not vice versa.

Table n. 3 Citations in order of appearance in the text “Exposition before the Chamber of Deputies of General Congress made by the attorney of the Duke of Terranova and Monteleone”, on January 30, 1828, (Alamán 2000, 119-159)

Ref. n.


Citation in text

1 cualquiera sea la forma de su gobierno, la nación, se ha impuesto solemnemente en el acta constitutiva, articulo 30, la obligación sagrada de defenderla [la propiedad] (p. 122).
2 que el cuerpo legislativo dicte disposiciones que no pueden tener otra sentencia en causa entre la “nación” y un individuo (p. 122).
3 en el sistema que felizmente tiene adoptado la “nación” no habría más que citar el artículo 47 de la Constitución (p. 123).
5, 6 ¿quién ha de recoger el fruto de las propiedades así confiscadas? Se dice que a la nación. ¿Y con qué titulo? ¿Acaso la “nación” actual es la que fue despojada por los conquistadores? (p. 133).
9, 10 la “nación” actual, no es la mexicana que constituía al imperio de Moctezuma que haya reasumido sus derechos, sino una “nación” enteramente nueva diversa de aquella y formada principalmente por los efectos de la Conquista (p. 137).

Analysis on the Essay by Mariano Otero: use and reiteration of the term “nation”

Mariano Otero (Edmundo O’Gorman, 1986) is a moderate liberal who is actively involved in Mexican political life between 1824 and 1850. Promoter of a federal democratic republic, governed by representative institutions (Brading 1980, 101), and attached to the classical economic doctrine of the invisible and individualistic hand, he is a staunch opponent to the policy of Alamán.

The text under consideration, Essay on the true state of the social and political issue that stirs in the Mexican Republic, (Otero 1967), was published in 1842, in an edition of Ignacio Cumplido. The text uses the fall of the government of Bustamante to publicize the Plan de Jalisco of August 8, 1841, in which Mariano Paredes Arrillaga fights Bustamante. The Plan was not successful and the Bases de Tacubaya were adopted instead on September 28, 1841, which in turn led to the call for the Constitutional Convention in 1842. Otero provides an overview of the legal and political structure of the country, with an analysis of society and the method for making improvements; he is in favor of federation, individual freedoms and the reconquest of the territory of Texas. The essay is aimed at a specific audience, familiar with the technical jargon of judiciary, which denotes the jurist career of Otero, and provides a political-legal overview (Otero 1967) useful for the purposes of this analysis.

The length of the text is 90 pages and the term “nation” appears 132 times. The essay opens with the statement that the “nation” is in crisis (Table n. 4, Ref. 1), the people are not aware of the problems, and anarchy and despotism (Table n. 4, Ref. 2) delay the welfare of this nation (Table n. 4, Ref. 3). The connotation of the term “nation” is abstract, and refers to a separate entity, according to the liberal and modern ideas. This position is confirmed throughout the text, while is immediately evident the political use of the concept “nation”. Referring to his contemporary “nation”, the author adopts as synonyms Republic (Table n. 4, Ref. 4 and 9) or Homeland: “[…] believes that the future destiny of his homeland depends almost entirely on what is now done […] The truth is his guide, and the homeland is the sole purpose of their efforts” (Otero 1967, 8), as illustrated by the fact that, although Otero entitled a section “The fate of a nation”, in the text appear references only to the Republic and the Homeland. This is a close association, more than just an equivalence or equality of meanings, in the sense that “nation” contains the concept of Republic as a form of State. But the Republic is not the nation, as evidenced by the review of the Plan de Jalisco: “When it is agreed that to save the Republic there is no other competent authority, nor other power rather than that of the nation, do you want to delay indefinitely the meeting of their representatives?” (Table n. 4, Ref. 19).

The concept of “nation” of Otero implies an indivisible physical entity (Table n. 4, Ref. 7), as a unit gifted with free will (Table n. 4, Ref. 6), analog to an individual (Table n. 4, Ref. 38), in line with organicist theories: “the manner in which the genius of Cuvier completed with the principles of comparative anatomy, the organization of known beings” (Otero 1967, 27). The “nation” acts through bodies such as the government (Table n. 4, Ref. 102), and the territory (Table n. 4, Ref. 8) is essential to define the concept. That perception evokes the mother-child analogy quite clearly: “The nation, embroiled in a horrendous crisis, was about to perish or to suffer the odious foreign intervention, if her children […] not made an effort to save her” (Table n. 4, Ref. 9).

In this view, the “nation” is the mother of the children who make it up (Table n. 4, Ref. 10), and who in turn have to undergo as her subjects (Table n. 4, Ref. 75). This reference is noticeably reminiscent of the monarchical forms of the past, according to which the sovereignty to legitimize the power is attributed to the nation (Table n. 4, Ref. 10 and 12). This “nation” of Otero consists of “The families [who] gather in cities, cities [that] meet in districts, departments or states and these constitute the nations” (Table n. 4, Ref. 117). In this view predominates the territorial approach.

There is a peculiarity that stands out in the author’s conception with regard to “nation” as an indivisible entity. Each of the constituent parts are unable to exist on their own, but together they give shape to the nation. This means that even if not all parts agree necessarily with the same desire or interest, it is the majority (Table n. 4, Ref. 29) to express the national will (Table n. 4, Ref. 23). It is deduced that the majority, well defined by Otero as the middle class, defines the national attribute (Table n. 4, Ref. 46). That is, the professional and intellectual elite, which is prepared and understands the beneficial effects of progress, can promote the ideas that benefit the nation, and is, therefore, the holder of sovereignty (Table n 4, Ref. 66). It is ultimately clear that Otero’s concept of “nation” is free of the homogeneity that characterizes (Table n. 4, Ref. 47) its components. A “nation” has to build this homogeneity in the future by means of spreading the ideas of the educational system (Table n. 4, Ref. 42). It is, then, a goal to achieve in the development of a nation (Table n. 4, 99th Ref).

Another peculiarity is the difference Otero makes between the concepts of “nation” and national character: the national character does not presuppose a nation. This is evident at analyzing the situation of Indians as a working class belonging to the nation, defined not as a “nation”, but rather as people who have a national character different to the “nation” where they live: “Proletarian, rural dwellers. […] in this set some Indian peoples have retained their national character, and have been reduced to the same state of degradation” (Otero 1967, 37). It is worth asking at this point: will independent territory play a key role here, to attribute the quality of “nation” to a people?

The “nation” of Otero does not involve, explicitly, the natural preexistence of the concept, although it can not be looked either like a work in progress, with a precise origin in time. He talks about a “nation” witnessing historical events (Table n. 4, Ref. 16), in which the historian has to rediscover the role of the nation, not as creator but as lightening an existing situation (Table n. 4, Ref. 40). Otero conceived the contemporary Mexico as the transformation of a prior “nation” (Table n. 4, Ref. 132) into a new “nation”. While he does not define the origin of it, he takes it for existing. The difference between them is defined by the organization: the prior “nation” was not organized, the current one is. The origin underlying this new “nation” is the Independence, and the feature that gave organization to it is civilization (Table n. 4, Ref. 69), achieved thanks to the progress (Table n. 4, 97 and Ref. 105).

In the new concept of “nation”, civilization is an essential component, even considered as a universal law (Table n. 4, Ref. 70). It appears in this case the difference between the “nation” of the ancien regime and the new one, due to the factor civilization, although this distinction does not deny the existence of a “nation” without civilization:

and when I say that the “nation” stirs for acquiring a new form, and that by the almighty power of example, this form is to be given by the current state of civilized people, it is well understood that the Republic can not reach the state of civilization, without the various elements […] being changed into the form needed for the new state (Table n. 4, Ref. 71).

Otero makes a social analysis of the state of the Mexican Republic, especially regarding future actions to regain the territory lost to the Americans. Fully convinced of the republican form of government, he attempts to demonstrate the goodness and the need of federation in order to maintain the Mexican political organization because, according to him, the Republic can not have a single center due to both historical and geographical reasons such as its surface extension: 

did not imitate […] stupidly our parents. They, as Americans did, gave up to a universal law, a never denied law that was the work of nature, not of men. To have done otherwise, to have thought that on the vast expanse of our country a republic could be established with a single center, so that it received and communicated the action from all over, as radii go back and forth between circumference and center, would have meant being truly unaware of all our physical and moral relations, forgetting at the same time the past and the future (Otero 1967, 83.).

Throughout his argument and opinions, Otero makes an analysis of the nation, and shows how its ideas are daughters of the times, though not to be ignored are some conceptual inaccuracies from the past, such as the notions of subject or social structure.

Table n. 4 Citations in the text Essay on the true state of the social and political issue that stirs in the Mexican Republic, (Otero 1967, 7-94)

Ref. n.

Citation in text

1 que la “nación” pasa por una crisis terrible que fijaría sus destinos hasta ahora inciertos y vacilantes; y el pueblo no está al alcance de estos cálculos (p. 7).
2 algunos[…], contemplan a la “nación” como irremisiblemente condenada a todos los males con que la anarquía o el despotismo la quieran oprimir, y temblando por la suerte de los más caros y sacrosantos intereses de la República […], y que apenas nuestros nietos podrán gustar los frutos de los […] sacrificios que la “nación” ha hecho en treinta y dos años de infortunio (p. 7).
3 resultan entre otras muchas causas, ese silencio y esa apatía […] de la discusión de los más grandes intereses, privando así a la “nación” de las incalculables ventajas que sacara de la energía de la energía del espíritu público en esta época (p. 8).
4 La suerte de la “nación” no está decidida todavía Motivo de este escrito […] Si el que esto escribe creyera que el destino de la República esta irrevocablemente fijado […], hay elementos favorables y circunstancias en extremo propicia para la salvación de la República […] lejos de estar consumada la revolución que cambiara hace seis meses la faz de la República, nos hallamos, por el contrario ahora en su verdadera crisis (p. 8).
6 La “nación” independiente de toda voluntad individual estaba agitada: su estado era precario, y lo que existía no era duradero (p. 10).
7 Presentaban a la “nación” tristemente complicada en sus relaciones exteriores, humillada todavía con la ignominia de la guerra de Francia, usurpada una parte preciosa de su territorio, separados de la unidad nacional dos Departamentos (p. 10-11).
8 Sin que el gobierno tuviera recursos ni medios para hacer respetar el nombre de la “nación” en todo su territorio y en el exterior (p. 10-11).
9 Situación aparente de la “nación” en los primero días de Agosto de 1841. […] El 7 de Agosto último la República disfrutaba de una tranquilidad aparente (p. 9).
10 apelaban a la “nación” para que reuniendo a todos sus hijos y olvidando las antiguas querellas […], destituyese a los hombres que en el poder mostraban su incapacidad para regir a la República, […] y estableciera [la nación] de nuevo las leyes y las instituciones que los mexicanos quisiesen como más convenientes a la salvación de la Patria (p. 11).
12 solo sostenía el dogma incontestable de que a la voluntad soberana de la “nación” tocaba hacer todos estos arreglos, presentando en apoyo de este derecho y limitando su acción a destruir por entonces lo que estorbara el uso de ese derecho, y apoyar después la decisión del pueblo (pp. 11-12).
16 La nación, pues, conocía profundamente que en todo lo que había pasado no existía una solo época cuya restauración completa, sin variación alguna de hombres y de principios le conviniera, y existía un deseo universal del establecimiento de un orden de cosas nuevo, que aprovechando las ventajas de los pasados ensayos evitase sus inconvenientes (p. 12).
19 Inconvenientes de los artículos 2° y 4° del Plan de Jalisco, y juicio unánime de la mayoría de la “nación” acerca de estos inconvenientes (p. 14).
23 La inmensa mayoría de la “nación” que quería un cambio estuvo del todo acorde en cuanto a esos puntos. Así se vio entonces que por una especie de concierto prodigioso todas las opiniones individuales se fijaron en el riesgo de los artículos 2° y 4° del plan, y que el deseo de que tan grande amenaza desapareciera del patriótico proyecto en que se fijaban las esperanzas de la nación, fue el voto universal de todos los ciudadanos (p. 15).
29 porque el poder hiciera terminar aquella crisis en bien de la nación: la mayoría obstinada (p. 19).
38 Las naciones, como los individuos. Son más o menos ricas, según que los recursos con que cuentan les permiten, después de haber cubierto sus primeras necesidad, atender a las exigencias del lujo (p. 24).
40 el historiador profundo y analizador podrá reunir los asertos de la tradición y de la historia y completar los anales de esas naciones olvidadas (p. 27).
42 Las escuelas de instrucción primaria, que siendo el único manantial donde las clases numerosas de la sociedad toman sus ideas, ejercen la más decidida influencia sobre el carácter moral de un nación, estaban todas en manos (p. 30).
46 en una “nación” en la que las clases que pudieran llamarse altas no existían, o eran ya débiles (…), y en la que la clase baja estaba reducida a la última nulidad; la clase media que constituía el verdadero carácter de la población […], y en la que la clase se hallaban todas las profesiones que elevan la inteligencia, debía venir a ser el principal elemento de la sociedad, que encontraba en ella el verdadero germen del progreso, y el elemento político más natural y favorables que pudiera desearse para la futura constitución de la república (p. 35).
47 las clases mismas que se unieran para las independencias han estado desacordes en la manera de organizar a la nación, y dividida ésta en varias partes heterogéneas, no ha podido recibir todavía una forma en la que conciliándose los interese, presentase un conjunto lleno de unidad y de vida (p. 39).
66 En cuento a las primeras, una vez que se venía aparar de hecho en que la soberanía no residía en la mayoría de la “nación” sino en la punta de las bayonetas y en las bocas de los cañones, todas las cuestiones que debían tratarse por la “nación” se trataban en los campos de batalla (p. 53).
69 En efecto, la “nación” que nos dejaron los españoles, esta “nación” atrasada y miserable, débil e incoherente tal como antes la hemos analizado, mostrando la naturaleza de sus diversos elementos y las relaciones que tienen los unos con los otros, dígase lo que se quiera, no era una “nación” organizada, y ella se ha agitados indispensablemente por adquirir una forma organizada, pues que la que tienes es de mera transición, y recibe todos los días la acción de las causas que la destruyen (p. 54).
70 La civilización no es más que la expresión de esa ley de perfectibilidad […] y ella no es la ley de un pueblo, sino de la humanidad entera: por esto ha invadido a todas las naciones y sus pueblos […] (p. 54).
71 y cuando acabo de decir que la “nación” se agita por adquirir una nueva forma, y que por el poder omnipotente del ejemplo, esta forma es la que se dará el estado actual de los pueblos civilizados, se entiende muy bien que la República no puede llegar al estado de civilización, sin que los diversos elementos […] se cambien en la forma necesaria para ese nuevo estado (p. 55).
75 pero desde a robre seguridad que puede disfrutar el súbdito de una “nación” que no mira en las leyes nada que diga relación con su bienestar personal (p. 60).
97 hoy que nadie duda que el progreso es la primera necesidad de la nación, y que la libertad es el primer derecho y el más grande de los bienes (p. 73).
99 Importancia de ese espíritu de moderación u de ese estado de concierto en que están los intereses de la mayoría de la nación. […] la inmensa mayoría de la “nación” se encuentre hoy en la posibilidad de unir todos los intereses de sus hijos, para caminar sin tropiezo (p. 73).
102 la revolución proclamó también el acatamiento de la voluntad soberana de la “nación” sobre el establecimiento de la forma de gobierno, y reconoció autentica y expresamente que el órgano de esa voluntad no era otro que el actual Congreso Constituyentes: […] y la que excita hoy toda la atención de la República se resuelve con solo seguir (p. 74).
105 y la “nación” tendrá es constitución análoga a sus conocidas necesidades, y a las exigencias del progreso del Género humano (p. 75).
117 Las familias [que] se reúnen en ciudades, las ciudades [que] se reúnen en cantones, departamentos o estados y estos constituyen las naciones (p. 81).
132 Estos grandes desastres no serian todavía capaces de destruir a la nación. […] las instituciones consistían antes en las costumbres y hoy se fundan en las luces … En otro tiempo las revoluciones se reprimieron, porque en general procedían de las pasiones y no de las ideas; la pasión muere cono el cuerpo y la idea vive con la inteligencia, una pasión se reprime una idea no puede contenerse (p. 91).

Final Considerations

This analysis allows some methodological reflections that raise questions about the idea of “nation” in a specific conjuncture, with the limitation announced at the beginning of this paper on considering only one element of judgment, which can lead to distortions in final interpretations. The purpose has been to propose a re-interpretation, and a specific application, of the methodology adopted to deal with the analysis of an issue. How far do external events influence the generational ideas of the characters living the same historical moment? How to identify the differences, if any, between the ideas of the same historical period?

The approach used here shows how the Foucault-”middle region”, i.e. the level at which mutations in ideas occur, can be identified in the characteristics expressed by the authors when they want to connote a concept, in this case that of “nation”. It is clear how the container – the word – keeps unchanged, while its meaning is flexible. In this specific case, the difference in use is clear between the historical moments pre and post Independence. The comparison shows that Lucas Alamán uses the word in three different writings in the context of the same argument, the description of Mexican society, for a total of 73 times, while Mariano Otero uses it 132 times.

The first consideration, under the Foucault method whereby the incidence of the word is the creator of the idea, leads to suggest that the concept of “nation” is more finished in Mariano Otero than in Lucas Alamán. Even with this preliminary finding, the question remains: What nation are the two authors talking about? This leads to a second point: Does the word “nation” keep the same cultural value for the two authors throughout their writings or rather not?; How much does the “middle region” change in relation to the events?

It is striking in the case of Alamán the use of the word a total of 16 times regarding “Exposition …”, 1828, and the first chapter of his “History of Mexico”, 1849, against the 52 entries in the final chapter of the “History …”, written around 1852. This presupposes a more formed idea in the latter case than in the first two. But repetition is not enough by itself to highlight the cultural changes. The first chapter describes an ancient and pre-Independence society; the term nation appears only 4 times and is distinguished by the following features:

1. territory

2. form of government

3. Laws and Customs

4. civilization

5. language

In the “Exposition …” Alamán describes the contemporary post-Independence society, the word is mentioned 12 times and it has the following properties:

1. territory

2. form of government

3. Laws and Customs

4. civilization

5. language

6. race

7. religion

8. legitimation of power source

9. dynamism (nation building)

10. abstract entity

Clearly, the “middle region” has changed between the two writtings. This discrepancy is attributed to the external event of Independence, which uses the ideas of modernity to give different meanings to the word “nation” as a source of all power. Moreover, the limited use of the word brings to mind a concept still in construction, which maintains its original attributes set at the beginning of the essay, but adds, nonetheless, other connotations, result of new ideas, a fact that shows coexistence between two signifiers.

The final chapter of “History of Mexico”, last of the texts under review to be published, in which the Mexican post Independence society is analyzed, has the word “nation” 57 times. This implies a greater reliance on the same concept, characterized in this case by the features:

1. territory

2. form of government

3. Laws and Customs

4. civilization

5. language

6. race

7. religion

8. legitimation of power source

9. dynamism (nation building)

10. abstract entity

11. uniqueness

12. homogeneity

13. means of defense

14. nation-state

15. nation = individual (organicistic view).

The spectrum of connotations reveals a cultural change in the mid-region and evidences the steady inflow of modern concepts, something that is reflected in the mutation experienced by the concept of nation of Lucas Alamán throughout his life.

In Mariano Otero, the analysis focuses on a post Independence society; the 132 mentions of the term reveal a more solid formation of the concept “nation”. The characteristics he assigns to it are:

1. abstract entity

2. nation-state

3. mother-son (metaphor comparison between nation and individuals)

4. nation = individual (organicistic view)

5. nation = family-city-regions

6. territory

7. nation – expression of will

8. sovereign power

9. ahistorical nation

10. timeless

11. civilization / progress

The above features are clearly different from those attributed by Lucas Alamán. Despite dealing with the same word, the two authors use different connotations. The question arises: being the writings almost contemporary, Otero’s in 1842 and Alamán’s in 1849, what is leading the two authors to express ideas that seem to come from different cultures?

The results show evidence of a historical moment of strong mutations of ideas and beliefs, which is not at all new. In Alamán’s texts is identified the formation of the modern concept of nation regarding the historical development of past values of society, which, in his words, have “taken root among us” (Mijango Paul, “El pensamiento religioso de Lucas Alamán”, 76 note 58). While in the writing by Mariano Otero is already perceived the concept of “modern nation” as completely new, bearer of progress and rationality, expression of the historical future, without dwelling on the ideas and beliefs of the past. Finally, the Nation-State to be formalized in the positive law of the Constitution, would identify a concept carrying a coveted national project, but still missing. It is a nation that sees in its concepts the temporary elements, past and future, of its history. It is an objective reality that becomes timeless and their properties are immemorial and ahistorical. Here, the “nation” is a natural entity, detached from any individual will, and compared to a living organism that grows in a time and in a certain space, a changing historical entity but true to its essence.

The conclusion of this analysis is that the new ideas arising from the certainty of reason and the will of a shift towards the improvement of the public good, had the Nation-State, a single and abstract entity, as historical product, replacing a State-Nation system, in which the State participated as a form of government that exercised its authority over most nations, particular concrete entities from the liberal cultural model. This was just one of the results of the long historical process that led from the modern era to the era of positivist rationalism. 


Lara Semboloni. Researcher in History of Political Institutions, Political Sciences (RitaLeviMOntalcini Programm), SienaUniversity. Ph. D. degree in History by El Colegio de México, A.C., Mexico City. Degree in Political Sciences by the FlorenceUniversity “Cesare Alfieri”, Italia. Visiting Professor, Centro de Estudios Historicos, El Colegio de México, A.C. Member of Permanent Seminar “Formacion Politica de México, s. XVI-XX, Involved in a number of research projects as coordinator and researcher at graduation programs (Universidad Nacional Autónoma Mexicana, El Colegio de México). Specialized in political history, amongst her main works are: “La recepción del texto constitucional de Cádiz por las autoridades del virreinato de Perú”, Estudios en homenaje a Don Manuel Gutiérrez de Velasco, IIJ-UNAM, México, 2000; “Los orígenes del liberalismo novohispano y los primeros movimientos autonomistas del siglo XIX”, Anuario Mexicano de Historia del Derecho Vol. XV, 2003. “La Cacería de brujas en Coahuila, 1748-1751”. HISTORIA MEXICANA, 2004. “Los mandamientos virreinales, 1535-1595”, JAHRBUCH FÜR GESCHICHTE LATEINAMERIKAS, vol. 48, Wien, 2011.



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