Conference Imminent! Liberalism in the Americas goes to Leicester

It’s been a while since the project blog was updated, but rest assured that project elves have been beavering away in the background all this time! Our partners at the British Library have been working with the project research assistant, Sarah Backhouse, ISA lecturer Matthew Hill, and the team at ULCC on the digital library, which will be hitting metaphorical online shelves very soon. In my new post at the University of Leicester, I have also been overseeing the development of the digital library and spreading the Liberalism in the Americas excitement to the East Midlands!

Partly to celebrate the culmination of the digital library, and to further develop several themes that have emerged from previous project events, I will be convening a 2-day conference at the University of Leicester on “Liberalism in the Americas: Popular, Gendered and Global Perspectives” on 4 and 5 July 2013. Above all, like our previous events series, the conference seeks to explore the contested ways in which liberal ideas and practices were accepted, adapted, translated, and rejected in different local, regional, national, and international contexts. Following the transnational and comparative aims of the project as a whole, the conference programme includes speakers working on different parts of Latin America, North America and the Atlantic World. Our two plenary speakers also represent the transnational and comparative dimensions of the conference: Dr Nicholas Guyatt (University of York), will be speaking on “‘The High Ground of Humanity’: Liberal Understandings of Racial Removal in the Nineteenth-Century Americas” and Dr Gabriel Paquette (Johns Hopkins University), will be talking “Liberals and Liberalism in the Early Nineteenth-century Iberian Atlantic World.”

I hope you’ll be able to join us for this exciting conference programme, and the culmination of 2 years work on the Liberalism in the Americas project.

Thanks to the continued generous sponsorship of the Institute for the Study of the Americas, the registration fee is heavily subsidised and an absolute bargain! Further details, and the online registration system, can be found here. Places are limited, and the deadline for registration is 16 June, so don’t delay in reserving your place!

As always, any questions – just contact me!

Commodity Histories Workshop, 6-7 September

I recently presented a paper about the Liberalism in the Americas project at a workshop at the Open University entitled, ‘AHRC Commodity Histories Project: Networking Workshop 1. Designing a Collaborative Research Web Space: Aims, Plans and Challenges of the Commodity Histories Project’. This workshop was part of a larger AHRC-funded project, Commodity Histories: An Online Space for Collaborative Research, which itself grew out of a collaborative network, Commodities of Empire, led by Dr Sandip Hazareesingh of the Open University and Dr Jonathan Curry-Machado and Professor Jean Stubbs, both Associate Fellows at the Institute for the Study of the Americas.

The workshop brought together digital humanities experts, people leading various kinds of digitisation projects, and those with experience of creating and participating in virtual collaborative research spaces. The aim was to share experiences and discuss challenges in the establishment, maintenance, and success of these digital enterprises to support the development of the Commodity Histories project.

My paper, ‘Liberalism in the Americas: Building an International Network, Digital Library, and Virtual Research Community‘, focused on how to engage the wider academic community in digital projects, and how the Liberalism project, and several other digital projects underway at ISA, have sought to incorporate feedback from projected users of the resources into their design. This helped to stimulate some broader discussion about the merits of different methods of obtaining this feedback. In the early stages of the Liberalism project, we sought advice from our Steering Committee and Advisory Groups - all experts in the field – about which thematic topics, types of documents, and regions of the Americas should be prioritised in the construction of our digital library. So this was very much an expert-led consultation process. Our workshop and lecture series helped to provide additional ongoing feedback from scholars on the content of the digital resources during the academic year 2012-13, and these events also went some way towards incorporating the views of a broader spectrum of potential users of the library, including graduate students.

However, Dr Matthew Alan Hill, who leads the digital project Atlantic Archive: US-UK Relations in an Age of Global War, 1939-1945 at the Institute for the Study of the Americas, took a more open and democratic approach in garnering feedback on the development of his resources. Through an online survey, which is currently open on the Atlantic Archive research hub, anyone can give their views on what themes and document types should be prioritised for the next phase of digitisation. This method has the advantage of casting the net wider in terms of the range of users that would potentially provide feedback for shaping the content of digital resources.

The Commodity Histories workshop participants agreed that considerations of audience were paramount in making the decision as to appropriate methods of feedback and engagement. The Atlantic Archive project, for instance, aims to serve the needs of history school teachers and pupils, as well as undergraduates, graduate students, and scholars working in the field. Due to the vast majority of the documents in the Liberalism in the Americas Digital Archive being available only in the Spanish language, UK secondary schools were not considered a realistic audience for these resources. Consequently, seeking feedback from a more limited audience of graduate students and more advanced scholars seemed quite appropriate in the case of the Liberalism resources. But clearly both approaches could have strengths and weaknesses.

Please do share your thoughts below in the comments section!

Victor Bulmer-Thomas, “Freedom to Trade, Free Trade and Laissez-Faire: Latin American Approaches to Economic Liberalism in the Nineteenth Century”.

ISA welcomed a distinguished guest to conclude our Liberalism in the Americas 2011-2012 lecture series, on 6 June 2012: Professor Victor Bulmer-Thomas, currently a Visiting Professorial Fellow at ISA, delivered a fascinating lecture on “Freedom to Trade, Free Trade and Laissez-Faire: Latin American Approaches to Economic Liberalism in the Nineteenth Century.” A video recording of the lecture and ensuing discussion is available to view on our youtube channel, and the full text of Professor Bulmer-Thomas’s article can be downloaded from the Liberalism in the Americas Collection in SAS-Space, our institutional repository. We thank the Economic History Society and the Society for Latin American Studies for sponsoring this lecture, which also acted as a plenary for our workshop on Economic Liberalism in the Americas that took place earlier in the day.

Bulmer-Thomas’s lecture gave a broad-ranging overview and interpretation of Latin American approaches to international trade in the long nineteenth-century. He argued that “unrestricted free trade was seen as a distant goal by all but the most ideologically committed liberals and economic policy focused on much more limited objectives”. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the key objective was “freedom to trade” with any international partner, as opposed to the mercantilist system of the Spanish and Portuguese empires that restricted the number of ports open to trade, excluded the participation of foreign shipping, restricted intra-colonial trade, and granted royal trading monopolies. Between the 1770s and the 1820s, the colonial governments opened more ports to international trade, granted permission for colonial ports to trade with neutral ships, and lost the ability to enforce imperial monopolies. After independence, the newly independent states, as well as the remaining Spanish colonies of Cuba and Puerto Rico, operated under the “freedom to trade” principle, but stopped short of “free trade”, since commercial concessions were often extracted by trading partners, and tariffs and export duties were often high on the Latin American side of the exchange.

By the mid-to-late nineteenth century, however, a form of “free trade”, where partner trading countries ceased to enforce discrimatory policies on Latin American goods, had become the norm. Bulmer-Thomas explained that in the aftermath of independence, when the need for international recognition and international debts were high, important trading partners, including Great Britain, France,and Portugal, were able to extract special trade privileges from Latin American countries. But their ability to extract such concessions diminished as the nineteenth century progressed, especially as the international weight of the United States increased and affected the direction of trade policy. Again, this stopped short of being “laissez-faire”, since both Latin American countries and many of their trading partners continued to make considerable use of tariffs. Indeed many of the newly independent countries in Latin America raised tariffs from the levels that had operated while they were part of the Portuguese and Spanish empires: the disruption to economic infrastructure and fiscal systems caused by the independence wars meant that taxes on trade were often a vital source of revenue. Alejandra Irigoin’s paper in the Economic Liberalism in the Americas workshop that preceded Bulmer-Thomas’s lecture further suggested that many countries within Latin America had to rely on trade-based taxes because attempts to shift to a fiscal system based on direct taxation in the 1820s had failed.

Bulmer-Thomas concluded his lecture by considering other aspects of economic liberalism that our previous workshop had also considered, especially regarding the development – or not – of factor markets in labour, land and capital. In these areas, there was a degree of debate regarding the preferable level of state involvement in shaping land, labour, and capital markets as the best means of creating economic growth and development, although these debates did not always neatly fall along liberal and non-liberal lines. Bulmer-Thomas then answered a range of questions on the contradictions within economic liberalism; the liberal Vs illiberal nature of tariffs and contraband trading; the role of internal barriers to trade within federal states; the relationship between coerced labour and market forces; and the importance of commodities to Latin American economies.

You can listen to Bulmer-Thomas’s thoughts on these issues, as well as the lecture itself, on our youtube channel, and you can download the text of his talk in our Liberalism in the Americas SAS-Space collection. Please also join the discussion in the comments section below!

Economic Liberalism: Workshop

Our series of workshops that have been exploring major historiographical themes in the comparative history of liberalism in the Americas came to a close on 6 June 2012, with a vibrant session on Economic Liberalism in the Americas in Senate House, London. We were extremely pleased to have the support of the Economic History Society and the Society for Latin American Studies in holding this event, and the associated public lecture by Prof. Victor Bulmer-Thomas also on 6 June 2012.

Written working papers were submitted by four paper presenters in advance of the workshop for registered participants to read, and a fifth paper was briefly introduced during the workshop, in order to devote maximum possible time to discussion. Our commentators, Prof. Rosemary Thorp and Prof. Alan Knight, both from St Antony’s College, Oxford, opened discussion in the two panels with some critical comments and feedback on the papers, and some broader, thought-provoking observations on the theme of economic liberalism. In particular, the papers and discussion focused on the often problematic relationship between economic liberalism and political liberalism and made some comparative observations about the impact of liberalism and neo-liberalism in the Americas. The programme can be downloaded here.

Much of the discussion also centred on clarifying exactly what economic liberalism means in different policy arenas, from banking and monetary policies, to principles of taxation, property laws, internal and external trading systems, and labour issues. In reaching some conclusions, areas for further research were also identified, including the relationship between fiscal policy, credit networks, and land speculation in the early American republic and how liberal economic policy affected the relationship of states and markets with respect to urban centres, urban consumers, urban property and urban planning across the region. More generally, it was noted that future studies of liberalism should endeavour to bring economic and political developments and perspectives together, as well as employing a geographically sensitive analysis.

For further details, please download the full conference report, and consult some of the working papers presented during the workshop in our Liberalism in the Americas collection in SAS-space.

Matthew Butler, “Revolutionary Religion? Liberalism and Catholicism in Post-Revolutionary Mexico.”

Dr Matthew Butler (University of Texas, Austin) continued our lecture series on 18 April 2012, with a fascinating examination of radical religious movements in Mexico during the period of political, economic and socio-cultural upheaval after the Mexican Revolution in the early twentieth century. Having joined our group for the earlier workshop on Liberalism and Religion: Secularisation and the Public Sphere in the Americas, Butler discussed his new work on the schismatic religious movement led by Father Pérez in the 1920s and its relationship to the transformed place of liberalism within Mexican political cultures in the post-revolutionary era. You can watch the full lecture and ensuing discussion session on our youtube channel.

Connecting his lecture to our previous discussions in the workshop, Butler began by explaining that constitutional Catholicism and Church reform movements had long been an integral part of Mexican religious identity at both elite and popular levels of society. Although there had been considerable conflict between more radical liberal governments and the Catholic Church in the nineteenth century – over issues of Church property and clerical fueros in particular – many liberal administrations had adopted more co-operative relationships with the Church and the majority of the population continued to identify strongly with Catholicism in many areas, and the revolutionary governments’ policies towards the Church provoked a violent reaction from Church supporters, known as the Cristero War or the Cristiada (1926-29).

The “schismatic” movement that Butler explored in most of his lecture represented a combined agenda of popular Catholicism, agrarianism, popular liberalism, and anti-clericalism and was centred in the rural regions of Guerrero, Puebla, Chiapas, Veracruz and Tlaxcala during the mid to late 1920s. The anti-clerical aspect of the schismatic body, known as the Mexican Catholic and Apostolic Church, represented not a rejection of religion but a reformulation, being primarily directed against Ultramontanism, seeking to eradicate corruption and abuse of hierarchical authority from the Mexican Church, and creating a more interactive, mutually beneficial relationship between the clergy and their flock.

Not only was the schismatic church an attempt to build a more patriotic and abuse-free church to serve the Mexican people and nation, but the movement also acted to sacralise some aspects of the Revolutionary reform agenda – particularly regarding agrarian reform and social engineering projects seeking to improve the living conditions of the Mexican peasantry and to structure the moral universe of the ordinary population around ideals of citizenship, virtue and patriotism. Butler emphasised that the schismatic church had vibrant popular support in local communities, which strongly shaped how the schismatic church operated at local level. This was partly due to the schismatic body being able to step into the vacuum left by the suspension of official Catholic Church services from 1926, when the episcopate effectively announced a clerical strike in protest against Plutarco Elías Calles’ policies against the Church. But the support for the schismatic church also emanated from the synergy with particular local concerns and with the broader agrarian, community autonomy, and popular religion agendas that were widespread in the areas where the schism took hold. Later in the lecture, Butler explored in considerable detail how this schism impacted at different local levels, comparatively examining communities to the north of Mexico City in the valleys of Texcoco and Teotihuacan and rural areas in the Sierra Norte del Puebla and around Veracruz to the south.

You can listen to the full recording of Butler’s lecture on our youtube channel - and please leave us your thoughts in the comments section below.