RECAP: “Republics of the New World,” Zoom Colloquium with Dr. Hilda Sabato

What follows is a brief synopsis of Dr. Sabato’s opening remarks for her October 23 talk, during which she provided an overview of her recent Princeton University Press monograph, Republics of the New World: The Revolutionary Political Experiment in Nineteenth-Century Latin America. To hear the extended Q&A that followed, click here.

Though a spate of wars of independence broke Spain’s colonial foothold in Latin America in the early 19th century, it would take decades of nation building for the map we know today to be consolidated. As Dr. Hilda Sabato, Head Researcher at Argentina’s National Scientific & Technical Research Council, explained, the reason for this was the radical political experiment in which the former colonies engaged. After liberating themselves from Spanish rule, the burgeoning nations of Latin America faced a dilemma of regime options that was familiar in the 19th-century world of Atlantic revolutions: constitutional monarchy or republicanism? But whereas so many of their counterparts opted for the former, Latin America embraced popular sovereignty on a scale unseen outside of the U.S.

Of course, the boldness of this adventure in self-government required acts of political revisualization of immense magnitude. Specifically, and as Dr. Sabato argues in Republics of the New World, in order to make popular sovereignty an operational principle, not only would the relationship between the people and the government have to be redefined, but the very notion of the people themselves—who was and who wasn’t included in the polity—would have to be invented. As in all cases of republican experimentation, widely extending citizenship in Latin America was central to this act of invention. Through integrating large (if also largely male) sections of the population into political life, regimes were able to gain legitimacy through elections by the people, even as broader, at times compromising consequences emanated out from this turn toward representative government. As far as these broader consequences go, even if the elections weren’t necessarily democratic in our sense of the word—participation was channeled through a system of hierarchies, Dr. Sabato noted—expanding the electorate nonetheless meant on the one hand that those seeking power had to involve the people in the political process; the few had to resort and appeal to the many. Prestige thus became a factor not of social status but rather of a form political capital that was measured by the popular opinion of the polity and that crossed and to some degree collapsed spaces of belonging and exclusion. On the flipside, rivalries between the few and their followers immediately began to emerge. Turbulence animated politics, territorial boundaries fell under contest, and governance became a somewhat ephemeral concept, shaped by a civic rhetoric that shifted as different sectors of the polity were mobilized at different times, by different people, for different reasons.

Ultimately, the 19th-century Latin American state became de-centralized as a result of recurrent instability.  Dr. Sabato emphasized, however, that this was decidedly not an outcome that reflected some failure on the part of the developing nations to “play the game of republicanism.” Quite on the contrary, this was the result of their abiding by the game’s rules. Instability was, that is, the natural byproduct of republican inclusivity, and the difficulty that these nations faced in legitimating regimes was not unique to the region. Few attempted republics lasted long into the 19th century, and the fact that this wasn’t the case in Latin America—the fact that the central tenets of a new order were ultimately embraced—can be attributed to an insistence on trying multiple ways to tame uncertainty.