- The Vanguard of the Atlantic World: Creating Modernity, Nation, and Democracy in Nineteenth-Century Latin America by James E. Sanders
The Vanguard of the Atlantic World challenges the history of nineteenth-century politics and state building in Latin America by redirecting the scholarly gaze toward ideas and writers left out of the traditional political narratives. The recent historiography of Latin America has reevaluated the role of popular movements in the period’s turbulent politics, challenging the view that condemned the Latin American republics as oligarchies dominated by creole elites where the masses served only as cannon fodder. Historians have shifted the narrative by demonstrating that indigenous villagers, Afro-mestizos, urban artisans, and Argentine gauchos engaged in politics with an eye to advancing their interests in coherent and consistent ways.
While most of the literature on the subject has sought to identify the “popular” actors and their impact on state formation, James E. Sanders’s volume challenges the traditional framework from the perspective of intellectual history. Since later generations of Latin American thinkers discarded the vibrant ideological currents that mass politics of the period generated, historians have often ignored their importance. He proposes that during the middle decades of the nineteenth century, Latin Americans developed a distinct modernity that challenged the supremacy of Europe and the United States as the source of political models. Sanders coins the phrase American republican modernity to describe this form of liberalism, which consisted of a fervent faith in republicanism, a broad extension of citizenship to all adult (male) inhabitants, abolitionism, and a universalist bent that sought to break down racial and class barriers within societies and promote a sense of hemisphere-wide solidarity. (Sanders uses the term American in the broad continental sense, not as a reference to the United States.)
Adherents were firm believers in historical progress, but they saw it in political terms: republics, not the aristocratic monarchies of Old Europe, held the key to the future of civilization. In the words of Mexican President Benito Juárez, the nineteenth century would be “the first century of the pueblos” (84). They also held that progress must rest on a firm foundation of equality, since without it, inevitably, revolution would result. For these radicals, state formation had to proceed from the bottom, mobilizing an inclusive and democratic nation that incidentally made a virtue of necessity, since there was no state apparatus capable of disciplining the pueblo.
There was a dynamic international aspect to the emergence of Latin American political thought, in the sense that it developed as an alternative to what they saw as the failure of Europe. Sanders begins in Uruguay, where during the early 1840s a liberal political faction fighting for survival adopted the banner of republican liberty and used it to recruit an effective coalition of European immigrants (among them a large contingent of Italians under the leadership of Giuseppe Garibaldi) and freed slaves. The partisan [End Page 130] politics of Montevideo were not parlor debates within elite society; rather, they were fertile ground for the development of a new political idiom centered on republican institutions and liberty with mass appeal. The Uruguayan liberals adopted egalitarian abolitionist positions and a radical antimonarchist language and in doing so invited new actors onto the political stage.
Central to forging an American modernity was the idea that the republics of the new world represented the cutting edge of civilization. Their claim rested on two pillars. The first was that republicanism rooted in democratic participation represented a superior form of government that promised to lift up all citizens regardless of race or class. The second was a rejection of Imperialism and the wars that it spawned. War and popular mobilizations against imperialist ambitions played a key role in the development of this rebellious strain of republicanism in Mexico. Sanders argues that Mexican republicans developed their beliefs under the pressure of invasions, first in the US war of 1846–48 and later in the French intervention of...