- Democracy in Las Américas
"Here is a word that everyone pronounces, it is the favorite theme of every orator. There are not gatherings, nor meetings, nor discussions in which you do not hear . . . the word 'Democracy.' " Thus opined the politician and poet Vicente Paz in 1876, in the newspaper El Montañes, from the coastal Pacific town of Barbacoas, Colombia.1 Democracy, constantly invoked, was rarely defined in the political discourse of nineteenth-century Mexico and Colombia. Indeed, democracy was a contested term (along with republicanism, citizenship, liberty, equality, and liberalism), embraced by many liberals and rejected by some conservatives, interpreted quite differently by popular groups versus educated elites. This essay explores how the idea of democracy [End Page 374] was employed in the period from the 1840s to the 1870s, when the majority of the world's republics were in Spanish America, even if that region is almost always left out of world histories of democracy.2 I focus not on the great political theorists—such as Alberdi, Sarmiento, Alamán, or Bello—in writings geared to cultured audiences (often Europeans), but instead on how democracy appeared in the quotidian discourse of the broader public sphere.
If we shift our interests from how political thinkers and intellectuals defined democracy to how people made use of that concept in daily life, we also must shift our archival source base, from the canonical published books of the epoch, read by comparatively few (but easy to access for historians), to newspapers (and the political speeches printed therein), which had a wider circulation, often read aloud in public squares and taverns, and to popular petitions. In other words, we must shift from classic intellectual history to a cultural history of politics, from studying a tiny group of elite letrados to a public sphere that involved, if unequally, all classes of society.3 Changing our focus, both of geography (to include Spanish America) and of subjects (to include a broader public sphere), allows us to rethink the history of democracy and its importance and value, especially to subaltern actors.
How did "democracy" appear in the public sphere? In political speeches and newspaper essays it was mostly used as a synonym for republicanism (which was more frequently utilized) or combined with it as the "democratic republic," although at times the two were contrasted (and even seen as contradictory).4 Writers often did not bother to make distinctions. In 1868, La República celebrated the defeat of the French invasion of Mexico by noting how the pueblo had risen to fight against colonialism and monarchy, driven by "republican sentiment" to defend their "democratic" government.5 A popular almanac identified three types of government: "democratic," which involved elections, by the pueblo, of representatives; "aristocratic," or rule by the "privileged classes"; and monarchy.6 For this anonymous writer, democracy seemed synonymous with republicanism, as long as the pueblo, and not just the elite, were allowed to participate. In general, democracy was defined in opposition to monarchy, colonialism, and rule by the few over the many.
Indeed, the contrast of democracy with aristocracy and oligarchy was constantly articulated (Danielle Allen's essay in this forum reveals similar trends); it was one of the elements of democracy's rhetoric that the poor most invoked. Mexico's El Republicano in 1846 opposed the formation of a "detestable oligarchy" so that "our republic will be essentially [End Page 375] democratic."7 The paper argued that if citizenship was too restricted, by property or literacy, the "government then resembles more aristocracy than democracy."8
Conservatives, more than liberals, distinguished between "pure democracy," in which the mob dominated, and republicanism, in which representatives (preferably wealthy, educated, and white) ruled.9 They (and some elite liberals) equated social leveling, mob rule, and "savage democracy."10 Quite simply, democracy signified the unhealthy breakdown of class and racial barriers to political participation, especially the dangers of an "absurd" racial equality that many popular liberals thought democracy promised.11
What most concerned conservatives was not the strictly political meaning of democracy—say broader access to suffrage—but that democracy meant a transformation of society, as Jason Frank's essay on the postrevolutionary United...