This intriguing and challenging book is a sociology of nineteenth-century Mexican politics, focusing on the nature of “public morality.” Its basic argument is that in the absence of a modern state in the sense of Max Weber’s rational and legal domination, politics was based on private interests and loyalties, group and corporate mores, and a weak state constantly forced to negotiate with intermediaries to maintain authority. Political control was possible only through informal mechanisms, not through the enforcement of formal legislation. Fernando Escalante Gonzalbo arges that this political culture was neither immoral nor chaotic; rather, it created its own order and norms of conduct, and thereby constituted its own public morality.

To develop this thesis, Escalante draws on the testimony of well-known nineteenth-century intellectuals and politicians, both liberal and conservative, as well as a wide range of recent works. He is particularly attracted to Laurens B. Perry’s study of “machine politics” during the Restored Republic. Following a general introduction on “public morality and political order,” the book proceeds with topical chapters on the norms of conduct and political practice of rural communities, haciendas, church, and army, along with others on the power of intermediaries, the system of reciprocity, citizenship, corruption, and public life. Thus the book constitutes a revealing and comprehensive analysis of practical politics and an implicit caution against moral judgment of the system from the liberal, democratic perspective. The book’s challenge is twofold: its picture of nineteenth-century politics is static, and the ideas it examines (particularly liberal ideas) emerge as insignificant.

In developing his argument, Escalante cites evidence at random from the 1820s to the 1880s. Not only do we get little sense of political change in the nineteenth century, but a certain cultural determinism pervades the study. Nineteenth-century patterns of political behavior had deep colonial and peninsular roots. Moreover, though Escalante explicitly avoids commentary on twentieth-century politics, in at least two places (pp. 50, 293) he clearly implies that the patterns he describes still prevail. Independence, Reforma, and revolution lose their importance as eras of political transformation, though the static picture is complicated by Escalante’s assertion that independence brought the collapse of the state.

Escalante’s title, Imaginary Citizens, signals the second challenge. In the absence of the citizens envisioned by liberal theorists, idealized civic morality (as opposed to functional public morality) could not develop. Though Escalante regards liberal ideas (however defined) as ineffective in shaping the Mexican polity, he does acknowledge that the political order he identifies “is nourished by the corporate tradition of Spanish political thought” (p. 137). The nineteenth-century liberals are well represented in Escalante’s study as critics of existing practice, but not as advocates of change. To understand the postindependence political process, must we not recognize the interaction between the enduring patterns of political behavior that Escalante probes so effectively and the liberal visions, complex and often contradictory as they were? Must we not acknowledge the impact, for example, of the anticorporate thought of José María Luis Mora, the democratic ideas of Ponciano Arriaga, Ignacio Ramírez, and Francisco I. Madero, and even the historical constitutionalism of Justo Sierra and his fellow científicos (including Emilio Rabasa)? Though Escalante’s study is a sobering corrective to the often idealized view of the Mexican liberal tradition, that tradition did and does have substance, both in the nineteenth century and today.