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  • Mores and Democracy in Latin America
  • Enrique Krauze (bio)

In at least two passages in Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville draws illuminating comparison between the political life of the United States and that of Mexico. The Mexican people, blessed with rich soil and “not less fortunately situated” (I, 321) than the people of the United States, had copied the constitution and the federal system of their neighbors. Yet “although they had borrowed the letter of the law,” the Mexicans were unable to capture the spirit that had inspired it: “They were involved in ceaseless embarrassments by the mechanism of their dual government; the sovereignty of the states and that of the Union perpetually exceeded their respective privileges and came into collision; and to the present day, Mexico is alternately the victim of anarchy and the slave of military despotism” (I, 167).

Tocqueville was writing at the beginning of the 1830s, and his account of Mexico was accurate. Although Mexico’s imminent loss of Texas was already on the horizon because of the economic and cultural predominance of Anglo-Saxon immigrants, the natural situation, in terms of size and resources, was in fact comparable in the two countries. Mexico seemed to be “a horn of plenty,” particularly in its practically unexplored northern region, which a few years later, after the war of 1847, would fall into American hands. But in terms of human geography, the differences between the two national experiments were clear. The United States was a country of immigrants in perpetual movement from “the middle of Europe” to “the solitudes of the New World,” the promised land for 13 million hardworking people looking [End Page 18] toward the future (I, 292). Mexico, by contrast, was the sedentary home of eight million people—most of them native-born—with no sense of national identity and with no viable economic or political project. Mexico was a mosaic of numerous and diverse communities, villages, small towns, and autarchic haciendas whose vocation—except for certain urban elites—was to persevere within the deep historical matrix inherited from the seventeenth century.

The birth of the United States and the French Revolution had exerted a crucial influence on the outbreak of Mexico’s own struggle for independence, a cruel and bloody war that went on for ten years, only to end up in a monarchy with no possibility of legitimacy. Spain refused to send over a member of the royal family (as Portugal had done for Brazil). Soon thereafter, in 1824, the politically active Mexican elite created a federal republic founded on a constitution very similar to the U.S. Constitution, which Mexican liberals of the time judged as “one of the most perfect creations of the human spirit.” Nevertheless, as Tocqueville pointed out, the 1824 Constitution and similar ones in several Mexican states never became anything more than dead letters. Before its first decade of independent life ended, Mexico, like most of the countries of Spanish America and like Spain itself during most of the nineteenth century, had fallen into a scenario of volcanic politics: riots, military uprisings, and revolutions, each proposing a new constitution. The conservatives, who felt that the new nation should preserve to the greatest degree possible the Spanish matrix, proposed centralist laws and institutions, a protectionist economy, barriers to the immigration of peoples whose race or beliefs were alien to Spanish tradition, an international stance favoring the Catholic countries of Europe, close ties between Church and state in matters of education and faith, and a political system that would exalt the executive power over a weak, virtually nonexistent legislative body. The liberals, on the other hand, wanted a clean slate. Their model was the United States, and Democracy in America was part of their bedside reading.

The first Spanish translation of Tocqueville’s classic dates back to 1837. The central figures of mid-nineteenth-century Mexican liberalism (Crescencio Rejón, José Fernando Ramírez, and Mariano Otero) considered it “admirable” and quoted it frequently. They took from it the embryo of federal laws, individual rights, and republican practices (such as the supremacy of the Supreme Court in ruling on disputes between state and federal power) that would ultimately mature...