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Lucas Alamán and the History of Mexico

Eric Van Young

Lucas Alamán (1792–1853) was one of the most eminent statesmen of nineteenth-century Mexico, and in the opinion of many the author of the greatest history of Mexico’s independence movement. His public career was played out against the chaotic backdrop of the early republican period, often called the Age of Santa Anna after the perennial president General Antonio López de Santa Anna. He has often been labeled nineteenth-century Mexico’s greatest reactionary political figure, generally portrayed as one of the bêtes noires of Mexican history—for his ideas, his writings, his public pronouncements, his policies, and his actions while in power. One contemporary referred to him as “a Metternich among Indians” (perhaps “a Machiavelli among Mestizos” is more apt), invoking the person of the Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich, the architect of the post-Napoleonic European reaction. But I have come to believe that Alamán was less a reactionary, perhaps, than a nostalgic, and that he was primarily a conservative modernizer.

The bill of particulars against Alamán justifying the reactionary label on the order of such figures as Metternich or Joseph de Maistre is long, although much of it can be qualified or even explained away. Among many other charges was his authoritarian style as chief government minister in 1830–1832, which included the ruthless jailing of political opponents of the regime and the suppression of critical newspapers. His alleged central involvement in the judicial murder in 1831 of the independence hero and president Vicente Guerrero, a man of color and populist tendencies, was another putative crime, one of the gravest, ascribed to his reactionary politics. He was briefly involved in a plot to reintroduce monarchy into republican Mexico in the mid-1840s. And he was a staunch supporter of the Mexican Catholic Church, anathema to Mexican liberals, and a keen defender of many aspects of the Spanish colonial order. To cap it all off, his magisterial five-volume history (1849–1852) of the Mexican independence struggle, written in the last years of his life, condemned most of the heroes of the struggle, including Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, the father of Mexican independence, as leaders of a bandit horde aiming to rob the wealthy of their property and to slaughter as many white Mexicans as they could.

But Lucas Alamán was first and foremost a conservative modernizer who sought to bring newly independent Mexico into the North Atlantic world of the young United States, France, and above all Britain. He was prepared to work within the framework of republican institutions for most of his career and only publicly contemplated a return to monarchy in some desperation, as national political life descended more and more into anarchy just before the debacle of the Mexican-American War. It is true that throughout his public career he favored a strong centralized government (as opposed to the extreme federalism espoused by many liberals) and a very limited electoral democracy, and would have been happy with a British-style constitutional monarchy had a monarchy really been a viable option in the early republican era. But his true north was always the economic development of the country, for which he believed the unconditional predicate to be political stability. An important thinker in political economy, himself trained as a mining engineer and from a family background wedded to Mexico’s venerable silver-mining industry, Alamán began arguing forcefully in the 1830s, well ahead of the curve of educated opinion, that the country should industrialize and pull away from its centuries-long dependence on silver. As chief minister in the national government in the early 1830s he established a famous government development bank to jump-start the textile industry as the spear-point of industrialization. And where Mexican independence from Spain was concerned, while condemning the manner of its achievement, he often acknowledged that national independence had been a natural occurrence, comparing it to the individuation of children from parents.

Alamán’s idealization of the colonial period was affectively nostalgic rather than politically reactionary. All his life he sought to compensate for the status loss suffered by his family, which had been part of the colony’s silver aristocracy and lost all its money in a series of economic reverses. His personal family drama projected itself onto his policies while in power, measures to ensure political stability and national economic diversification as paths to modernization. The pursuit of these goals in a post-silver age (although silver was to rise again later in the nineteenth century, it never resumed such a dominant role in the economy as during the colonial era) shaped Mexico’s emergence as an independent nation for the half-century after his death in 1853. Much of what Alamán advocated would be realized by the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz (1876–1911). In effecting the tradeoff Alamán had sought, the suppression of political liberty in exchange for economic development, the Diaz regime accelerated Mexico’s modernization but provoked a decade of armed political upheaval (1910–1921) whose violence Alamán would have condemned as unequivocally as he had that of the independence movement of exactly a century earlier.  

Eric Van Young is Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus at the University of California, San Diego. He is the author of several books, including The Other Rebellion, which was awarded the Bolton-Johnson Prize by the Conference on Latin American History.

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