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The Americas 58.3 (2002) 501-502

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Republic of Capital: Buenos Aires and the Legal Transformation of the Atlantic World. By Jeremy Adelman. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999. Pp. x, 376. Illustration. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $55.00 cloth.

Princeton University History Professor Jeremy Adelman, author of an insightful comparative work on the economic development of Argentina and Canada and editor of anthologies on the history of Argentine labor and colonial legacies in Latin American history, offers us now what in his own words is "a political history of [Argentine] economics" (p. 2) between the late eighteenth century and the 1860s. Following on his early interest in the history of property relations, and engaging critically the theoretical body of research on economic history's "new institutionalism," Adelman makes a major contribution to understanding the relationship between private (property) rights, public authority (state formation), and the law in nineteenth-century trans-Atlantic societies.

Divided into three multi-chapter chronological sections (Age of Revolution, 1780s-1820s; Age of "Anarchy," 1820s-1850s; and Age of Order, 1850s-1860s), Adelman's book deals with three relatively autonomous but, as he puts it, mutually constitutive contexts or fields of social life: ideas, institutions, and interests. It explores the evolution of political ideas in the Río de la Plata region, from enlightened thought and romanticism to the ascent of liberal constitutionalism. It also discusses legal history and institutional changes, particularly constitutionalist developments, in a context of internecine confrontations and civil war. Finally, it addresses socioeconomic aspects, including local merchants' daily practices and legal disputes concerning the handling of debts, contracts, and money. All of these different issues are framed within the larger trans-Atlantic transformations facing Argentina at that time.

Adelman bases his research on an impressive array of archival material from Argentine and British repositories, an extensive collection of periodicals, and a considerable body of secondary works. He argues that, though full of contingencies and contradictions, the long process from imperial crisis and subsequent instability to the triumph of liberal statehood in Argentina was not random or directionless. At the same time, however, he refuses to make simple causal claims, embracing instead a "looser form of causality" (p. 4). To clarify the larger transformations described in his book, Adelman holds that the lines of causation linking the different contexts were issue-specific and changing or, in his words, "broader, blurred and curving" (p. 4). In any case, the book's narrative implies that political failures (the failure of liberalism, in particular) ultimately determined market-driven economic development into the late nineteenth century. It is as if for market forces and relations to prevail and be stabilized, democratic rights had to first be obliterated. This does not [End Page 501] mean that Argentina represented an exceptional case of "persistent liberal failure" (p. 12); rather, Adelman argues, it was an extreme instance of market formation under intense political strife.

Many valuable lessons, some more revisionist than others, can be learned from this well-crafted and tightly written book. For instance, it is clear from Adelman's work that, as others have demonstrated, late colonial Creole intellectuals were animated by a deep desire to avoid revolution. Rather than radical revolutionaries, they were instead advocates of reform as a way to chart a better path for economic relations between colonies and metropolis. Adelman also confirms that the new republican system emerging in Argentina and elsewhere resulted more from imperial collapse than from the willful design of antimonarchical elites. As the new leadership failed to create a set of successful institutions for public rule and the defense of private property, revolution soon gave way to civil war. A new order emerged in the late 1820s under the leadership of caudillo Juan Manuel de Rosas, who favored Buenos Aires's property holders and established a regime based on cronyism--namely, dispensing property rights to this region's merchants "and their landed cousins" (p. 132). As a result, the Rosas regime was characterized by endemic conflict with the provinces and the failure to transcend the archaic structure...


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