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Hispanic American Historical Review 83.4 (2003) 759-760
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El manto liberal: Los poderes de emergencia en México, 1821-1876. By José Antonio Aguilar Rivera. Doctrina Jurídica, no. 46. Mexico City: Instituto de Investigaciones Jurídicas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2001. Bibliography. xi, 287 pp. Paper.
The early national period in Mexico has often been characterized as tumultuous and unstable. Despite the great hopes harbored on the eve of independence in 1821, the following decades witnessed countless pronunciamientos, at least three major civil wars (1832, 1854-55, 1858-61), and four foreign interventions (1829, 1837-38, 1846-48, 1862-67). Mexico lost half of its territory to the United States and was occupied by a French expeditionary force that placed a Habsburg prince on its throne. The idealism of its more enlightened politicians was, as a result, understandably eroded, as their attempts to forge a lasting liberal constitutional framework failed time and again. The moderate politician Manuel Gómez Pedraza came to the conclusion that constitutions were nothing but pieces of paper written to be subsequently trampled and thrown away. The disenchantment of conservative ideologue and historian Lucas Alamán was expressed along similar lines when he came to the conclusion that Mexico's constitutions did not last because they simply did not conform to Mexico's customs and traditions. In the words of Santanista thinker José María Tornel, they were "exotic plants" that could not survive in the Mexican political climate. As became the view of the once-hombre de progreso José María Gutiérrez Estrada, Mexicans did not know how to govern themselves. They had tried every possible form a republic could take—it did not matter. All of their constitutions failed despite the good intentions of the liberal political class.
Aguilar Rivera's study is a welcome and provocative interpretation of this history of constitutional failure. In his mind, the failure must be attributed to the absence of emergency powers in the constitutions of 1812, 1824, 1836, and 1843. By not including a constitutional clause that could have enabled congress to grant the executive extraordinary powers in a time of crisis, the authors of Mexico's first constitutions tied the hands of government and forced it to adopt extraconstitutional (even anticonstitutional) authoritarian measures to survive. In so doing, the governments of the 1820s through the 1840s seriously undermined the prestige of their respective constitutions, showed them up to be impractical and unworkable, and, in turn, inspired their opponents to overthrow them via extraconstitutional means. Aguilar Rivera develops this interpretation by systematically analyzing the arguments that were used by the different liberal constituent congresses to prevent the inclusion of emergency powers in their charters. He then proves how inadequate such resolutions were in the light of the many crises that surfaced and the manner in which these were handled. As final proof, he attributes the success and appeal of the 1857 constitution to its inclusion of emergency powers. Benito Juárez may have presided over Mexico (whether on the run or from Mexico City) arbitrarily and with a certain degree of authoritarianism, but he did so constitutionally. [End Page 759] According to Aguilar Rivera, this meant that people were more prepared to fight for this constitution than others, because it worked—because Juárez was able to lead the country without recurring to extraconstitutional measures.
Aguilar Rivera is indeed persuasive in his subtle and paradoxical interpretation. There is no doubt either that this book will inspire a lively discussion in years to come over the extent to which the inclusion of emergency powers could have stabilized the early republican political system. While I cannot but help empathizing with all those nineteenth-century liberals who refused to include emergency powers in their constitutions because they feared (probably rightly) abuse, Aguilar Rivera's argument is difficult to ignore and must be read by anybody concerned with the constitutional history of Mexico and the Hispanic world.
University of St. Andrews