The Americas 58.3 (2002) 491-493
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Guy Thomson, in collaboration with David LaFrance, has written an important new book about popular liberalism in mid-nineteenth-century Mexico. Following up on previous work about "martial liberalism" among national guard units in the Puebla Sierra, here Thomson focuses on one local, Liberal leader - the Nahua General Juan Francisco Lucas (1834-1917). Lucas forms part of "a generation of regional National Guard commanders who achieved prominence during the protracted [End Page 491] period of civil and foreign conflicts between the American War and the revolution of Tuxtepec" (p. 3). In this sense, Thomson's argument that Lucas was the "key to the success of Puebla's Liberal Party" (p. xviii) has broad implications for our understanding of how and why Mexican Liberalism triumphed in the late nineteenth century.
This pioneering work pits itself against those historians (Brading, Sinkin, Guerra) who have not taken the Mexican Reform seriously as a moment of broad-based political and cultural transformation. It also seeks to contradict portrayals of serrano caudillos as strictly local and pre-modern. Instead, Thomson places his work alongside that of Mallon and Hernández Chávez in portraying the popular and consensual bases of the Liberal Reform. Unlike Mallon, however, the focus is not on the peasant community, but rather on the local military leader and his ability to marshal resources (men and supplies), mediate conflicts, and make regional and national alliances for the Liberal cause. And while Thomson's model of triumphant Liberalism is consensus-based, he argues that it was a "much more conflictual process than Hernández maintains" (p. xvi).
The book is exhaustively researched and very well-written. The opening chapters offer a general analysis of Lucas's background, his initiation into armed struggle, the area of the Sierra from which he hailed, and some of the economic, political, and ethnic issues that fueled support for the Liberals. Subsequent chapters take a more narrative approach, chronicling Lucas's military career and the alliances he forged through the Ayutla uprising, the Three Years' War, the resistance to the French and Austrians, and the rebellions of La Noria and Tuxtepec. In a final chapter, David LaFrance follows Lucas during the Mexican Revolution. Throughout the book, Thomson insists that Lucas was the key to Liberal victory, consistently supplying men and supplies for Liberal armies, mediating conflicts, and enforcing Constitutional Liberalism at the local level, especially in terms of implementing secular education, carrying out liberal land reform, insisting upon municipal autonomy and the right of citizens (especially Indians) to bear arms. As a Nahua leader with strong ties to non-Indian communities, Lucas acted as a bridge between local movements and broader regional and national struggles.
Although Thomson's military narrative underscores the centrality of "martial liberalism," his other argument about Lucas's "clear set of political principles" (p. 278) is not as clearly evidenced. While it may be that "the protection of [individual rights and guarantees] had always formed the basis of [Lucas's] authority" (p. 258), the focus on the battlefield allows little access to the bases of popular support for Lucas. The conflicts Thomson explores are "external" to Lucas's support base, and yet the "internal" conflicts would also seem to merit our attention. Thomson regularly refers to ethnic divisions within the Sierra, and yet Thomson does not address how Lucas could retain legitimacy among both Indians and non-Indians. How did Lucas's modernizing impulses as a member of a "small, incipient bourgeoisie" (p. 270) affect his standing among peasants? How did Lucas manage to gain support from communities both for and against the liberal land laws? What were the "traditional" [End Page 492] elements of Lucas's exercise of authority and how do they affect our understanding of his...