Klaus Gallo, The Development of Laicism in Argentina, 1810-1827: The Case of Juan C. Lafinur

Completing the project’s first wave of events, on 1 November 2011 Professor Klaus Gallo, from the Universidad Torcuato di Tella in Buenos Aires, Argentina, delivered a fascinating lecture on the rise of laicist and secularising agendas during Argentina’s first wave of liberal and republican reforms in the early nineteenth century. You can watch a recording of the lecture here. Having recently completed a biography of Bernardino Rivadavia (1780-1845), Professor Gallo focused his presentation on the era of Rivadavia’s reformist experiment in the province of Buenos Aires, when freedom of the press was expanded, universal male suffrage was introduced, the Universidad de Buenos Aires was founded, convents were closed, and other reforms were aimed towards reducing the political and social role of the Catholic Church.

In addition to summarising the heated debates that took place in the Buenos Aires press regarding secularisation, Gallo focused particular attention on the enigmatic figure of Juan Crisóstomo Lafinur (1797-1824), who pioneered a philosophy of teaching geared towards reducing the influence of the Catholic Church in university education and produced a series of controversial plays and performances at civic festivals that aimed to spread laicist and secularist messages to the broader public. In general, Gallo’s lecture indicated that the dramatic plays of the period are an under-researched resource for understanding how political debates were framed and how these debates engaged, or attempted to engage, broader public opinion. By exploring the case of Lafinur’s life and work in more detail, Gallo revealed the potential of theatrical performances to reveal the connections between political discourse and popular culture.

Along the way, we were introduced to the colourful character of Lafinur himself who seemed to have an uncanny knack for upsetting and antagonising clerical authorities and anti-reformist scholars at every turn. Lafinur’s departure from Buenos Aires for Mendoza, precisely at the point when Rivadavia – and the reformist agenda with which Lafinur had such affinity – came to power in Buenos Aires yielded a particularly amusing anecdote: Lafinur reportedly fell (even further) out of favour with the head of the School of Philosophy at the university, when he was discovered playing the guitar instead of teaching his scheduled class, and the resulting fall-out may help to account for his abrupt relocation to Mendoza. Unfortunately, Lafinur’s provocative antics were prematurely cut short when he died as a result of injuries incurred in a horseriding accident in his mid-twenties.

It would be interesting to hear about similar characters engaged in promoting secularist and laicist agendas in other regions and countries in the Americas. So please let us know in the comments section if you have any interesting examples of laicist mavericks like Lafinur? Equally, has any detailed work been done on the role of dramatic plays in extending political debates into popular culture in early republican Mexico, Peru, or other parts of the Americas? Are there other under-research media that could offer similar insights to those discussed by Professor Gallo? Let us know in the comments section!


Greg Grandin, The Liberal Traditions in the Americas

On 31 October 2011, we were thrilled to inaugurate our Liberalism in the Americas lecture series, with a presentation by the esteemed Professor of History at New York University, Gregory Grandin. Giving an overview of the early stages of a project on Greater America and the idea of American exceptionalism, Grandin outlined a comparative framework for understanding the historical evolution of how sovereignty and rights, and the relationship between the two, were understood and applied differently in the US and Latin America. You can watch a recording of the lecture here.

Grandin’s lecture made several powerful arguments, centred within a comparative framework of interpretation in which US history was marked by an “interventionist-individual rights complex” and Latin American history by a “sovereignty-social rights complex”. In terms of a contrasting approach to the issue of rights, specifically in relation to indigenous groups and enslaved peoples, Grandin suggested that in nineteenth century Latin America there was much greater emphasis on the role of the state in moulding virtuous citizens than in the US and that social rights were consequently more important than in the US, where the natural and inalienable rights of the individual were paramount. Moreover, Grandin suggested that these differing positions on rights and citizenship were related to the relative balance and overlap between liberalism and republicanism in Latin America and the US, particularly in terms of the conceived relationship between individualism and the common good.

In the US, Grandin argued, the concept of the inalienable rights of the individual, particularly regarding property, was strongly connected to the development of an expansionist and interventionist concept of sovereignty. As expansion into the western territories had been predicated in terms of indigenous societies being too “immature” to exercise effective dominion over the territories in which they resided, so too did the US often view “immature” Latin American states as having failed to exercise effective sovereignty over all the territories within their borders (a notable example being the annexation of large swathes of formerly Mexican territory following the Mexican-American War of 1846-48).

Nineteenth century Latin American jurists and diplomats, meanwhile, developed a concept of sovereignty as absolute and inviolable, which had its basis in an overall interpretation of international law that stressed principles of non-aggression, multilateralism, confederation, and solidarity. The relationship between this concept of sovereignty and Latin America’s emphasis on social (as opposed to individual) rights, was less clear in Grandin’s argument than had been his explanation of the US’s interventionist-individual rights complex: this question was raised by Professor Alan Knight, and subsequently discussed in some detail, during the question and answer session following Grandin’s presentation.  In clarifying this aspect of his argument, Grandin suggested that even if the relationship between concepts of rights and sovereignty in Latin America was not as “mutually constitutive” as in the US case, comparing the trajectories of both rights and sovereignty in Latin America and the US was vital, as this comparison revealed a very neglected history: how Latin America had an important role in “socialising and containing US liberalism and US diplomacy”.  By persistently challenging US ideology, diplomacy, foreign policy, and so on, in direct debate and confrontation, and by enacting alternative models of sovereignty, property rights, and social rights, Latin America had an enduring influence on the US. In particular, Grandin stressed the increased importance that multilateral action took on the world stage during the 20th century and the strong contributions of Latin American rights charters to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Grandin’s comparative framework of analysis yielded, therefore, several very interesting insights into hemispheric debates about some key aspects of liberalism, and the ways in which those debates played out in social and political terms, which is one of the core aims of the Liberalism in the Americas project.  His paper also raised some questions to which we hope to return as the project’s series of events continues: the overlaps and boundaries between liberalism and republicanism; the relationship between religion and liberalism; the social history of liberalism; and the changing currency of different aspects of liberalism over time.

Did you see the presentation, or watch the video? Tell us what you think about Grandin’s framework of Latin America’s “sovereignty-social rights complex” Vs the US “interventionist-individual rights complex”, and how this relates to the history of liberalism in the region. We’d love to hear your thoughts, so please leave your comments below and let’s extend the fascinating discussion that Grandin’s paper started further!

And, finally, you might have noticed (and been puzzled by) several references made by Gregory Grandin to “Alan’s”, “Joanna’s” and others’ presentations during his talk: he was referring to the presentations made during a research workshop, “Liberalism in the Americas: What is to be Done?” which was held earlier in the day on 31 October. Key aspects of the workshop are discussed in another blog post, and you can read the papers presented at the workshop here.