Reynaldo Sordo Cedeño’s book should be read as a companion volume to Michael P. Costeloe’s Central Republic in Mexico, 1835–1846: “Hombres de Bien” in the Age of Santa Anna (1993). Whereas Costeloe’s work is a comprehensive account of the centralist decade, Sordo Cedeño’s study examines the role of Mexico’s national congresses in the establishment, evolution, and demise of the centralist republic created by the Constitution of 1836 (commonly known as the Siete Leyes).
Sordo Cedeño challenges conventional historical wisdom in regard to the period 1833-1841. He demonstrates that General Antonio López de Santa Anna did not orchestrate the transition from federalism to centralism in 1935, and that the church and the army played an insignificant role in this process. Sordo Cedeño shows how a minority of legislators skillfully outmaneuvered their political opponents and capitalized on various circumstances to establish centralism. The Siete Leyes were designed to empower the upper echelons of the middle class (hombres de bien), thereby removing the threat of social chaos and guaranteeing progress and order in Mexico.
Sordo Cedeño is clearly sympathetic toward the efforts of Mexico’s legislators. But their well-meaning endeavors could not halt the erosion of popular support for the Siete Leyes brought on by the country’s economic problems, diplomatic pitfalls, and longstanding political rivalries, as well as the charter’s inherent weaknesses. Sordo Cedeño explains how these difficulties allowed the military to regain its political influence between 1838 and 1841. In the end, Santa Anna dismantled the Siete Leyes and established a personalistic dictatorship in 1843.
Historians who desire to supplement Donald F. Stevens’ recent categorization of the country’s nineteenth-century political groups (The Origins of Instability in Early Republican Mexico, 1991) will find this volume helpful. Sordo Cedeño illustrates the areas of disagreement and collaboration among the various factions, and his analysis includes groups Stevens overlooks, such as Santa Anna’s supporters. In addition, the quantitative analysis of the congressmen’s ages, professions, political experiences, and other characteristics and the statistical breakdown pertaining to the formulation of the Siete Leyes (chapters 3 and 5) will aid future scholars interested in researching this period.
Despite its merits, the book also has shortcomings. Sordo Cedeño’s dense narrative sometimes overwhelms the reader with detail and obscures the author’s best insights and novel interpretations. A consideration of the years before 1833 would have increased the volume’s appeal for nonspecialists. Likewise, Sordo Cedeño’s contention that President Anastasio Bustamante’s vacillating conduct contributed to centralism’s demise deserves additional analysis. Finally, the author pays scant attention to other scholarly publications on nineteenth-century Mexican history that might have added perspective to his work; articles by Costeloe and David Walker, as well as books by Nancy Barker and Barbara A. Tenenbaum come to mind. These reservations, however, should not detract from the book’s significance. Sordo Cedeño’s well-researched volume should be read by anyone interested in understanding the factors responsible for generating much of the political turmoil that afflicted early republican Mexico.