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  • Revising History:Introduction to the Symposium on the Bicentennial of the Latin American Revolutions of Independence

Introduction to the symposium on the bicentennial of the Latin American revolutions of independence.


independence, Latin America, historiography, conceptual history, colonial order

The relevance of studying the history of ideas in Latin America hinges on one fundamental question: what distinguishing feature is specific to the local intellectual history and not merely a replication of ideas coming, particularly, from France? It is a critical question, since, if there is nothing peculiar to the history of Latin American ideas, the study of it would lack any relevance. The scheme of "models" and "deviation," elaborated by the Mexican historian Leopoldo Zea in El positivismo en México (1942), has heretofore provided the set-piece answer. According to this scheme, the basic task of local historians is to analyze how European ideas deviated from their original models and became contaminated with alien and even contradictory motifs, once transferred to the Latin American milieu.1 Basically, for the nineteenth century, which is the period that serves as the leading case, the postulate is that in Latin America, liberal ideas assumed a conservative and centralist character incompatible with the original, European model and more in tune with the region's highly stratified social milieu. The modern ideals of equality and individual freedom never could plunge their roots in the Latin American social soil. Borrowing Jürgen [End Page 65] Habermas's expression, the project of the Enlightenment was there fated to remain ever unfulfilled.

Latin America thus appears as a kind of anomaly deviating from the rational course of history. And, as is normally accepted, the roots of this deviation are in the "failed" or "incomplete" character of the revolutions of independence that changed the political system, establishing a modern, republican regime of government, without transforming traditional social and economic structures.2 This interpretation rests on a teleological matrix of thinking, which imagines the existence of an evolutionary pattern that the different regions should follow. In any case, from a methodological point of view, the scheme is problematic in that it fails to reach its goal of identifying what is specific to Latin American intellectual history. It is clear that conservatism and centralism are not less "European" (imported) ideas than liberalism and federalism. Actually, if we focus on ideas and models of thinking, we will be unable to find anything peculiar to local history, no idea that could be posited as a Latin American invention, which cannot be found in any other context. And, within the frameworks of the history of ideas, this has been a critical problem, for it would render irrelevant the study of the local intellectual history. It would reveal only local anomalies, pathological deviations from the rational pattern, with no relevance for intellectual history at large. Ultimately, the analyses of the local case would not pose any challenge that could serve to test the validity of the very theoretical frameworks within which studies in the field currently inscribe. If the local reality does not adjust itself to those frameworks, the problem would be in that local reality, not in the theories. They remain immune to historical findings in the region.

The bicentennial of the revolutions of independence in Latin America inspired a wave of new studies aimed at reconsidering critically the standard interpretation that the revolutions were the final outcome of a longstanding desire for self-determination.3 This wave was encouraged, in great measure, by the development of new approaches in which the conceptual [End Page 66] dimension of the historical process that led to independence plays a central role. These "revisionist" studies reveal why the explanation to the end of the colonial order in the Hispanic world and the emergence of new nations whose political systems were founded on a new (republican) principle of legitimacy raises a number of puzzling issues that invite an array of different interpretations and debates.

One basic dilemma that is revealed is connected to the issue of the ideological frameworks within which revolutionary processes took place; more precisely, how could the conceptual horizons that made revolutions of independence possible emerge in this traditionalist cultural context educated in the Catholic and authoritarian Spanish tradition? We must consider that the very existence of a system of government other than the monarchical was simply inconceivable at that time, not unlike how inconceivable a legitimate system of government other than the democratic-republican system is today. For most people, it was not only inconceivable, but also heretical. However, the point is that, in the course of a few years, what seemed inconceivable suddenly became real. More than twenty new nations emerged out the ruins of the old regime, and a whole continent faced the challenge of establishing a political system alien to the traditions according to which its population had lived for centuries.

The revolution of independence thus represented more than a political event; it entailed a truly cultural break. How was such a cultural break possible? What was its nature and what were its limits? What were its consequences in the intellectual, political, and social realms? The raising of these key questions represents the fundamental contribution of the recent "revisionist" literature. Thus posed, the traditional explanation founded on the topic of the "influence" of the ideas coming from France appears as clearly insufficient. Yet, if the raising of these questions represents a fundamental contribution, the answers essayed by this "revisionist" current are little innovative, relapsing into well-known kinds of explanations. Lastly, they remain tied to that very teleological pattern their authors intended to dislocate: the old motif "from tradition to modernity" (a version of "from mythos to logos").

In effect, the rejection of the nationalist perspective that sees the revolutions as the final realization of a deeply rooted desire for independence leads these revisionist authors to reject any connection between the revolutions and preceding developments in the region. They were, for those authors, the result of a series of unpredictable happenings, like the abdications of Bayonne and the royal vacancy. The two years from 1808 to 1810 would be the "crucial years," according to François-Xavier Guerra, that [End Page 67] produced a radical shift opening the horizon to that which had been unthinkable.

These revisionist interpretations thus seek to underline the contingent nature of the process leading to the revolutions of independence, in which a number of unpredictable circumstances, like the royal abdications, were determinant. Yet, as they reveal how the revolutions represented such deep cultural transformation, they render that very explanation clearly insufficient. Certainly, such a cultural break could not have been produced so suddenly, in the course of mere months. As a matter of fact, similar dynastic crises had already occurred in the past—for instance, during the War of Succession (1701–1713)—but nobody in the region intended at that moment to break ties with the crown. Certainly, something had occurred in the interim, a shift of a political-conceptual order, which enabled events that a century earlier had no consequence now to result in the collapse of a tricentennial political system.

In order to make sense of the revolutions of independence, and Latin American political-intellectual history at large, we must dislocate the scheme of "models" and "deviations." And, for this, it is necessary to critically undermine the teleological assumptions on which it rests, the view of the "ideal types" as perfectly rational and self-consistent systems of thinking. As we will see in this dossier, the study of current debates on the revolutions of independence in Latin America provides critical distance from that interpretive scheme. The problems and dilemmas that the revolutionaries found in their attempt to establish new nations based on a republican system of government cannot be reduced to merely an ill-comprehension or impossible realization in the practice of an ideal model, as a consequence of the persistence of a traditionalist culture. Rather, the kind of dilemmas they faced were intrinsic to the very process of political modernization. In this fashion, these studies shed new light not only on this particular case but also on the nature of the transformation that was then taking place in the larger Atlantic world. Analysis of how the process of political modernization evolved in that specific context would thus reveal problems that, rather than expressing a merely local anomaly—a series of "deviations" of the putative models—are inherent to the "models" themselves and help us to critically reconsider them.

The present symposium intends to provide an overview, inevitably partial and selective, but at least representative of the main trends in current research on the revolutions of independence in Latin America, exposing [End Page 68] from different perspectives the diversity and complexity of the issues at stake.

The series begins with an article by Jeremy Adelman that revisits the link between revolution and nation. As Adelman has argued since at least 2008, until recently, this link was naturalized in historiography; however, as he shows, there is no necessary relation between the concepts. The territorial ground for the process of political modernization was not pre-established, and, in some senses, for Adelman, the empires provided a more adequate basis for it. As a matter of fact, empires were more flexible and sheltered a plurality of legal and institutional settings within a single system. The issue that this argument raises, and which Adelman's work addresses, is how to connect the histories of revolution and of nations once we accept that they are not bound by basic internal logics. Ultimately, what is at stake here is a concept of sovereignty, whose nature and content initially did not entail a definite territorial dimension or a unified institutional system. This was a later development, the result of a rather intricate set of circumstances and of the ultimate failure of the empires to adapt to the reforms that they themselves had set into motion.

The next contribution, by Francisco Ortega, elaborates on a closely related issue—that is, the nature of the colonial condition of Spanish possessions in America. Drawing upon methods elaborated in the field of conceptual history, he analyzes how the colonial condition underwent a fundamental transformation over the course of the eighteenth century. This leads him to transcend perspectives that have focused exclusively on the meaning of the concept of "colony" in jurisprudence and to analyze the changing ways it was used by agents. During the period in question, the concept of colony never had a negative connotation in legal terms—that is, it designated simply the translation of a part of the population beyond its original territory—but changing conditions in the system of power imposed by the Bourbons radically redefined colonial status. Even if the legal status of Spain's overseas possessions did not change, centralization policies introduced fundamental asymmetries in the relations between the center and the periphery of the empire. Colonial status was, in actual practice, redefined. As Ortega shows, conceptual history provides key insights into the changing nature of colonial status, which are telling in relation to the reconfiguration of the world system and the imperial regimes of the time.

Gabriel Entin's work examines another fundamental aspect of the process that led to the end of the colonial system in the region: the republican tradition in the context of the Catholic monarchy. As he shows, the concept of "republic" occupied a central place in the political language of [End Page 69] the old regime. The kingdom was actually understood as a "republic," and, although that notion did not necessarily entail the idea of a community of free agents, it was closely associated, in some uses of the term, with self-government by local communities. Entin thus shows that the republican concept, far from being a secular concept incompatible with the theological frameworks within which the Spanish monarchy was inscribed, formed an integral and constitutive part of it, and this forces us to revise the currently common view in intellectual history of the concept of "republics" and "republicanism." Finally, this allows Entin to reframe the problem of the relationship between revolutionary discourse and the Spanish political tradition.

Elías Palti focuses on this latter problem and analyzes how Latin American historiography has addressed the issue of "the ideological origins of the revolutions of independence." As he shows, that very formulation of the topic already implies a number of assumptions proper to the tradition of the history of ideas. Thus it inevitably leads to simplifications and anachronistic conceptual transpositions. Tulio Halperin Donghi's work offers a model of a very different approach to the issue, one which reveals the limitations of the history of ideas and the problems it faces in its attempt to account for the kind of conceptual processes here at stake. In Palti's view, Halperin Donghi's method paves the way for a much more comprehensive picture of that process, and, more specifically, allows us to grasp the basic paradox at its heart. This illuminates how a series of meaningful torsions that occurred within traditional languages would eventually provide the ideological framework for a result incompatible with those languages, and indeed inconceivable within them. This paradox forces us to break with the frameworks of the history of ideas and the set of antinomies intrinsic to them, such as that between "tradition" and "modernity"—as if these were two homogeneous and static wholes.

Federica Morelli approaches the conceptual and political problems raised by the massive presence of the so-called free people of color at the dawn of the colonial system and on the verge of revolution. The ambiguous social status of this increasingly important part of the local population dislocated the classificatory frameworks of the time, introducing an anomaly within them. This population eluded established social categories. The point is that, as recent studies have shown, this sector played a role within the revolutions of independence, helping to shape the notions of citizenship that emerged from them. As Morelli argues, the presence of this ambiguous social sector exemplifies the complexity of the society that these new [End Page 70] nations inherited from the colonial past. This complexity, normally obliterated by historiography, sheds light on fundamental aspects of the republican systems established after independence.

Finally, João Paulo Pimenta surveys the historiography of independence in Brazil in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Brazil is a particular case in the context of Latin America, with a separate historiographical tradition. Traditionally, the persistence after independence of the monarchical regime and the slavery system has led Brazilian historians to emphasize continuities between the colony and independent Brazil. However, in recent years, historians have been reconsidering that image of secular stability. Pimenta emphasizes the importance of conceptual history in this process of historiographical revision and marks those points at which considering specific intellectual contexts allows us to dislocate that image of homogeneity—thus contributing to a better understanding of the series of transformations that independence brought about in Brazil and which remained hidden under the formal preservation of the monarchical system.

As a whole, the papers gathered here reveal the complexity and manifold nature of the revolutions of independence and the emergence of new nations in Latin America. This symposium thus presents to the nonspecialist reader an overview of the kinds of issues currently at stake in Latin American historiography. These new—let us call them "postrevisionist"—perspectives allow us to redefine the revolutions of independence in the region as intrinsic parts of the broader process of the reconfiguration of the system of international relations that occurred at the end of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century. Not incidentally, in a short period of time, all the imperial systems of the era, with a remarkable synchronicity, collapsed. The Latin American case served, then, as a huge laboratory for the formation of new nations founded on a new (republican) basis of political legitimacy. Seen in this light, Latin American intellectual history ceases to seem like an anomaly, of merely local relevance, and gains status as a constituent part of the Atlantic world, whose study may serve to test some of the theories and concepts currently at work in the field and, eventually, to revise them. [End Page 71]

Elías Palti
Universidad de Buenos Aires


1. Leopoldo Zea, El positivismo en México (Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 1943).

2. This concept was more firmly established among the Marxist interpretations of the revolutions of independence, which initially questioned the romantic, nationalist historiography of them proper to the nineteenth century. For a detailed review of this "first revisionism," see Elías Palti, "¿De la tradición a la modernidad? Revisionismo e historia político-conceptual de las revoluciones de Independencia," in Independencia y revolución: Pasado, presente y futuro, coord. Gustavo Leyva, Francis Brian Connaughton, Rodrigo Díaz Cruz, Néstor García Canclini, and Carlos Illades (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica / Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, 2010), 174–90.

3. François-Xavier Guerra, Modernidad e independencias: Ensayos sobre las revoluciones hispánicas (Mexico City: Mapfre / Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1993).

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