The Mexicanization of American Politics: The Transnational Reconstruction of Authority in the Postbellum United States

Friday, January 6, 2012: 2:50 PM
Miami Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Gregory P. Downs, City College of New York
This paper analyzes the popular post-bellum language of “Mexicanization.”  At key moments of crisis, editors and politicians in the post-war United States used open-ended comparisons of the United States and Mexico to raise questions about the interrelationship between Western, Southern, and urban violence, the stability of the nation, and the limits of American exceptionalism.  This discourse grew from the careful wartime work of Mexican Liberals, especially diplomat Matías Romero, who promoted US-Mexico analogies to bolster the Liberal cause during contemporaneous United States and Mexican civil wars.  After the wars’ conclusions, United States politicians quickly found the comparison useful to explain their own dilemmas.  Surveying the violence of the South and West, Republicans compared its instigators to Mexican warlords and proposed a common solution to instability on both sides of the Rio Grande: a nation capable of restoring authority on the periphery.  Democrats, in turn, used Mexican suspension of elections to compare American Reconstruction to dictatorship; to them Mexico proved the problem of too much authority at the center.  Intellectuals, especially during the 1876-1877 Hayes-Tilden crisis, worried through this discourse that the United States had lost the cultural affinities necessary for stability.  All placed the country’s stability at Reconstruction’s center.

The discourse opens up several new perspectives upon Reconstruction and what one editor called the broader “disturbing tendencies” of the Civil War.  By centering discussion on the perilously unstable American state, this discourse explored the deep, practical limitations on government actors.  It also provides a contemporary framework for new scholarly efforts to connect stories of West and South by placing both in a global test of republican stability in the face of internal and external threats.  Additionally this transnational practice—at once politically oriented and comparative—suggests ways that scholars might construct transnational approaches that center around, rather than exclude, politics.