Brian Hamnett’s previous books have been noted for their practical and multidimensional approach to Mexican history, along with their tendency to uncover fundamental explanations before the rest of the historiography does. Returning in this volume to one of his original interests, the state of Oaxaca, Hamnett brings into full play his preference for unromantic explanations in this political study of the remarkable career of Benito Juárez, foremost nineteenth-century liberal, leader of the Reforma, restorer of the republic, and president from 1858 to 1872. This book joins Sebastian Balfour’s Castro (1990) as the second volume about a Latin American political leader in Longman’s noteworthy Profiles in Power series. Because this is a necessarily diffuse and complex story, and because Hamnett bases much of his argument on archival sources, the book will be seen more as an original synthesis than as a classroom text.
The primary theme is to demystify a central figure in Mexican political mythology. Hamnett’s emphasis, that Juárez was “essentially a pragmatist, increasingly dedicated to the survival of the state and the discovery of the most practical means of administering it” (p. xiii), will perhaps disappoint those who want their historical figures to adhere to stereotypes. For historians trying to guide students through the welter of speculation that so often replaces solid research in explaining nineteenth-century Mexican history, however, it will be a welcome reality check.
Taking his cue from Guillermo Prieto’s dictum about nineteenth-century Mexican liberalism (“the works remain incomplete, but the prefaces are divine”), Hamnett explains Juárez’ achievements as those of the practical administrator who understood that no amount of ideological brilliance would suffice if the state itself were destroyed by its enemies. This was the meaning of Juárez’ early career as governor of Oaxaca (as well as the reason historians find him so difficult to categorize). Trusting no one, cooperating with whatever faction was needed at any moment, Juárez’ gifts were political rather than intellectual.
Defining the issues of constitutionalism and regionalism as the twin keys to nineteenth-century politics before the Porfiriato, Hamnett makes clear that the survival of the republic, under the circumstances of the day, was everything. That was the simple but gargantuan measure of Juárez’ achievement. Applied to a historical figure usually cloaked in such clouds of sentimentality that he is entirely obscured, such an approach should be very satisfying to the tastes of modern scholarship.
As a historian whose earlier works include pathbreaking studies of Mexican regionalism, Hamnett puts the regional base of Mexican political life at the forefront. All factions, ideologies, and political constructs were constantly changing during this period. Hamnett therefore urges readers not to oversystematize Mexican liberalism, but to examine it at the provincial level to see its true nature. Liberalism had many faces; as its leading figure, Juárez, despite the depth of his commitment, did not even trust other liberals. Nor should he have; in his later years, after 1867, according to Hamnett, one of his principal obstacles was the Liberal Party itself. Liberal factionalism, moreover, convinced Juárez that no one but he could be trusted with the direction of the revolution.
In the end, it is Juárez’ sheer will that most impresses the reader. Hamnett convincingly demonstrates that the real man, even if the reader never quite warms to him, is not only more interesting but more important than the mythical one.