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The first American nation rose after 1776, fighting to reject British rule and preserve slavery. For decades, it struggled with internal divisions while searching for a profitable economy—until British industry created a soaring demand for cotton that U.S. southern planters met by expanding plantations worked by enslaved laborers onto lands taken from native peoples and, in Texas, from Mexico. Amid wars after 1808, new industries rose in the Northeast, depending on southern cotton while competing with British industries. Meanwhile, farmers pushed across the Mississippi basin, raising staples to feed northeastern cities, southern plantations, and European peoples. New dynamism came with rising contradictions; expansions of slavery challenged republican ideals and disrupted sectional political balances. War with Mexico in the 1840s deepened conflicts, culminating in the devastating Civil War of the 1860s, which ended slavery and reunited a nation that became a continental empire within global capitalism.

Becoming Mexico: The Conflictive Search for a North American Nation

New Spain produced rising flows of silver to become a dynamic center of global trades in the eighteenth century, socially stable as polarities deepened. Napoleon’s 1808 Spanish invasion cracked imperial sovereignty; in 1810 political and popular insurgencies exploded in the Bajío, the leading region of silver, manufacturing, and commercial cultivation. They endured for a decade, collapsed silver capitalism, and led to the end of Spanish rule when counterinsurgent armies proclaimed a Mexican monarchy in 1821. Mexican’s searched to become a nation while facing a broken commercial economy, legacies of Cádiz liberalism, and armies expecting to rule. Debates about economic possibilities and conflicts over central rule and provincial rights generated decades of instability, marked by the secession of Texas to protect cotton and slavery, then the war in which the United States took Mexico’s North from Texas to California. Mexico’s fall from the heights of silver capitalism enabled the U.S. rise within industrial capitalism.

The Republic of Guatemala: Stitching Together a New Country

In the eighteenth century, Guatemala named a kingdom from Chiapas to Costa Rica. By the 1840s it was a republic of much smaller territory, struggling to integrate diverse regions and communities into a stable whole. Always distant from silver capitalism, Guatemalan merchants prospered in the eighteenth century by exporting indigo from regions that would break away to become El Salvador; in the nineteenth century growers and traders turned to cochineal, a red dye earlier monopolized by Mixtecs in Oaxaca, Mexico. Never prospering in global trades before 1870, Guatemalans negotiated relations among Hispanic traders, landlords, and officials in the capital, indigenous communities that ruled production and political life in the Western Highlands, and mixed (ladino) growers who found earnings in cochineal after independence. After experimenting with liberalism in the 1830s, a fragile integration set in under strongman Rafael Carrera by the 1840s, defining a nation still searching for prosperity while struggling with ethnic differences.

From One Patria, Two Nations in the Andean Heartland

The Andean heartland around Cuzco centered the historic Inca empire. It extended to include Potosí as silver rose to fuel global trades after 1550. The regions remained integrated in Spain’s empire until reformers facing a slow revival of silver in the eighteenth century split them in the 1770s, keeping Cuzco tied to Lima while linking Potosí to Buenos Aires. The great uprisings of the 1780s extended across the new boundary, encompassing the heartland in conflict. When imperial struggles and uncertainties spread after 1808, the powerful hesitated due to fear of new popular risings—until outside armies led by Bolivar in the 1820s forced liberations that led to long debates about whether the heartland should be one nation or two. Trials of union gave way to separation between Peru and Bolivia in the 1840s as both searched for commercial prosperity that might fill empty treasuries.

Indigenous Independence in Spanish South America

While nations struggled to find political stability and commercial prosperity, native peoples within their borders and beyond claimed new independence. Inside Peru and Bolivia, natives consolidated production on the land and led regional trades. Beyond the nations’ fragile powers, the Chiriguano of lowland Bolivia and diverse Mapuche of the Argentine interior ruled extensive regions—the former dealing with a new generation of missionaries, the latter sustaining mounted forces and mobile livestock economies, and both profiting in trade with Hispanic peoples, who rarely found positions of strength. The chapter details rarely seen ways of independence as natives kept Hispanic states and peoples at bay. An epilogue notes parallels across the Americas: the autonomies claimed by former slaves in Haiti; those pressed by indigenous communities within a struggling Mexican nation; and the independence asserted by the Comanche in North America, pressing Mexicans south and holding the United States to the east for decades after 1810.

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