Scratching the Surface of “Everyday Forms of State Formation”

f-muralThe book of related articles, Everyday Forms of State Formation, Revolution and the Negotiation of Rule in Modern Mexico, is the result of a scholarly conference on the relationship between popular cultures in Mexico and the post-Revolutionary Mexican State’s hegemonic project. The complex variety and nuance often overlooked when addressing such large concepts like state, culture, hegemony and revolution are not ignored by the authors who contributed to this body of work, but are instead recognized and interrogated. After years of incomplete historical interpretation, the participants of the conference sought to understand the connection between these concepts and the actual experience of the Mexican Revolution.

The Mexican Revolution has been described by populist historians as a monolithic event, the sublime convergence of popular demands for bread and liberty. The Mexican revoutionary state’s hegemonic project was demonstrated by the state-sponsored education programs and support of muralists promoting an image of a unified and successful revolutionary experience in Mexico. In 1968 the massacre of students and protesters in Tlatelolco dispelled the illusion of the institutionalized revolutions. Many historians abandoned the grand narrative of the Revolution in favor of smaller, regional studies of specific events and experiences. These studies were limited in scope in and application, but safe from the death drop to the disillusion experienced by the intellectuals who watched their revoltutionary government disappear earnest student revolutionaries on the eve of the ’68 Olympics.

In contrast, Everyday Forms of State Formation supplies a theoretical toolkit in the first section of the text with which to understand the interplay between state formation, popular consciousness and the hegemonic process in post-Revolutionary Mexico, while also serving to explain historical processes. The theoretical articles contextualize the central concepts by analyzing other, non-Mexicanist studies of the relationships between revolution, hegemony, popular cultures and the state by other historians, including Gramsci, Scott , and Corrigan and Sayer. The work of these historians helped Mexicanists explain the inherent contradictions and limitations involved in applying any one model to understand popular culture in Mexico, the State’s hegemonic project or the revolutionary experience.

The second section provides empirical studies that both illustrate and problematize the multi-faceted and paradoxical relationships between the Mexican people and the state by examining regional and thematic revolutionary experiences. For example, the articles addressing agrarian reform by Mallon and Nugent and Alonso exemplify the historical underpinnings and hegemonic process involved in ejido and the inadequacy of simplistic interpretations of popular demands or elite motivations either or both may be hidden by liberal terminology or sarcasm.

The third section of the text reprises the theoretical concepts in light of the complicated and significant evidence. Thus armed with theory and evidence, the reader can question whether the state exists by “by defining the boundaries of the possible” (375) for individuals who, for varying reasons and to different degrees, consent to “(live) the lie” (374) and, ultimately, whether hegemony is a “problematic, contested, political process of domination and struggle” (358) that is inherently fragile and constantly changing.

This approach succeeds because of the pointed questions that the articles address in their own unique ways. I have summarized, and perhaps simplified, the questions addressed by the authors here in the interest of clarity and brevity: How cohesive, necessary, or confining are hegemonic projects and how do they change with practical application? How do popular mobilizations, expectations and demands influence hegemonic projects? How did the post-revolutionary State negotiate with local experiences, values and practices in order to maintain both political equilibrium and a degree of popular consent? None of the articles claim to answer every question, or even offer one answer that can be applied as a generalization to simplify the Mexican Revolution. However, taken together, this collection of articles gives the academic community a place from which to begin a sensible investigation of the meaning and legacy of the Mexican Revolution.

© Copyright 2008

Feather Crawford Freed

Marian Apparitions and Popular Catholicism in Nineteenth-Century Europe


During the nineteenth-century the philosophy of the Enlightenment introduced new concepts  that challenged traditional European thinking. The regicide and Terror of the French Revolution profoundly threatened the position of elites throughout Europe, and the republican ideology and secularization institutionalized by the Revolution undermined the authority of both the aristocracy and the Catholic Church. Yet instead of becoming a death-bed concern or fanatical pursuit, popular Catholicism remained a powerful social and cultural force that bound people together in communities of consensibility and spiritual meaning. The Catholic Church remained an active political agent, involved in state-formation, and representatives of the Church interacted with newly empowered government bodies, shaping policy along with the religious worldview of ordinary Catholics. The cultural significance of popular Catholicism became manifest in a surge of devotion to the Virgin Mary and wave of Marian apparitions reported in Catholic communities across Europe during this time of popular upheaval.

This paper will address the historical treatment of Marian apparitions by David Blackbourn, Jonathon Sperber, and Michael Carroll.[1] The works of Blackbourn and Sperber discuss German Catholicism explicitly. In many ways, the experiences of the German people exemplified the social trends listed above, with the pressures of industrialization, the expansionist Prussian state, and the mid-century religious revival. Blackbourn writes about the apparitions that were reported in a small German village, analyzing both micro and macro influences and consequences of the apparitions at Marpingen. Sperber addresses the form and function of German Catholicism during the nineteenth century. Lastly, Carroll attempts to expose the origins of Marian devotion, not specifically in the German lands, but instead within the human psyche. This variety of treatments of Marian devotion demonstrates three distinctly different historiographical approaches toward creating a more complete understanding of the powerful resonance of popular Catholicism.


In his book, Marpingen, Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in a Nineteenth-Century German Village David Blackbourn examines the Marian apparitions reported by three young German girls in 1876. [2], Blackbourn argues that the larger social, economic, and political pressures of the Kulturkampf, the depression of the 1870s, and the aggressive centralization and expansion of the state interacted with the discreet details of the personal lives of the visionaries, culminating in a phenomenon that was at once specific to the Marpingen community and indicative of broad European trends. Blackbourn approaches his subject with empathy and respect, drawing his evidence from a variety of sources in order to uncover the historical forces at play as well as the experiences of the people involved in the dramatic incident.

Marian apparitions are a fascinating reminder of the power of popular religion and the subject of several historical investigations beyond what is addressed in this paper. Blackbourn refers to historical and psychological analysis of Marian apparitions contributed by Michael Carroll in his book, The Cult of the Virgin Mary and the solid background of social history provided by Jonathon Sperber in his book, Popular Catholicism in Nineteenth-Century Germany, and both works are discussed in detail below. Other treatments of Marian apparitions are often religious and reverential in approach, such as the recent work by Cheryl Porte, Pontmain, Prophecy and Protest or, at the other end of the short spectrum, anti-clerical in tone, like Nicholas Perry and Loreto Echeverria’s book, Under the Heel of Mary.[5] [6] In Marpingen, Blackbourn has successfully avoided either moralistic stance, neither embracing nor dismissing the spiritual significance of such incidents in the lives of nineteenth-century Catholics. Combining a variety of details about the visions themselves with a solid historical interpretation of nineteenth-century Germany, he explores many angles of the apparitions with curiosity and integrity.

Blackbourn’s methodology reflects his meticulous research as well as his ability to weave his theory and evidence together into a compelling story of both historical and personal importance. He divides his book into three parts, addressing first the social, political and economic background to popular material insecurity and Marian devotion. In the second part of Marpingen, Blackbourn investigates the apparitions themselves and finally, in the last section he addresses the legacy of the events. This style of organization allows him to address a variety of perspectives with evidence culled from both official and anecdotal sources.

In the first section of his book, Blackbourn begins by examining the trends and patterns of nineteenth-century Marian devotion. He positions the events at Marpingen within a context of epidemics, famine and political upheaval to illustrate the popular desire for an accessible intercessor in the face of hardship and uncertainty. For many Catholic Germans, Mary symbolized piety and comfort, and “her message that plenty could be restored by faith and repentance was a source of hope.”[7] The secular legacy of the French Revolution and the state-building reaction to the Napoleonic Wars had disrupted the hierarchies and institutions of many Catholic communities and resulted in “the first great wave a visions in modern Europe.” [8] In the 1860s and 1870s, the Marian apparitions reported in German and Italian communities occurred against the backdrop of war and insecurity that accompanied the creation of the Italian and German states. Blackbourn convincingly ties Marian devotions and vision to popular fears, not just of war and scarcity, but of a tangible loss of traditional systems of social organization, particularly the authority of the church. Blackbourn supports his position by calling on examples of Marin apparitions in Lourdes, Pontmain, La Salette and Tuscany and other locations that experienced similar threats to tradition.

Blackbourn shifts his analysis to the transformation taking place in German villages, blending the larger trends across region with details specific to Marpingen. He describes the changes in village demographics and the significance of industrialization, modernization, emigration, capitalism and the centralization of state power to prove that Marpingen was a “community fundamentally transformed in the nineteenth century.” [9] Social hierarchies were disrupted, collective land use was restricted and popular religion was standardized, marginalized or politicized. The Kulturkampf institutionalized the struggle between the Catholic Church and the state, while a religious revival among Catholic increasingly emphasized Marian devotion. Blackbourn argues that Marpingen was especially vulnerable to these social, political and economic forces as it was located on the boarder, had been “caught up in a dizzy reel of territorial exchanges and treaties”[10], had rapidly become a mining community in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, and had recently welcomed a new priest, Jakob Neurenther, himself a devotee to Mary and indicative of a “large-scale religious revival.” [11]

Blackbourn then steps back from Marpingen to examine the larger forces at play in greater detail. He explains the scope and impact of the depression of 1873, the implications of the German unification and the tensions between agriculture and industry, between the Catholic Church and the state, between liberals and the state and between liberals and the Catholic Church. He provides tables showing migration statistics and the convictions of priests who were caught performing mass illegally. Seeming almost perfunctory, this section of the book is less impressive then his more personal analysis of the visionaries and their community, and Sperber gives a much deeper analysis of this subject that will be discussed later in this paper.

In the second part of his book, Blackbourn investigates the backgrounds and experiences of the visionaries themselves, Margaretha Kunz, Katherina Hubertus and Susanna Leist. The Marpingen apparitions received wide public recognition, became the object of state intervention and interrogation and a formal investigation by the Catholic Church. Blackbourn uses interrogation transcripts, media reports, court records, personal letters and clerical accounts to flesh out his interpretation of the events. He reveals the personal details of the girls’ lives to show how their claims fit with their earlier experiences of loss, illness and deprivation. He points out the similarities between Margaretha Kunz, who he identifies as the ringleader, and Bernadette Soubrous, the visionary at Lourdes, who experienced many of the same personal losses and deprivations that colored Margaretha’s childhood. He then demonstrates the powerful role played by pilgrimages and miracle cures in the popular imagination, concluding, “the apparitions obviously tapped a source of intense spiritual hunger among Germans.” [12] He also points out the disconnect between the official Church disapproval of the apparitions and the enthusiastic involvement of the local priest, demonstrating the disarray of the Catholic hierarchy.

The apparitions at Marpingen, and the ensuing legal debacle exposed, not only the division within the Catholic Church over popular piety, but also the repressive nature of the Prussian state and, ultimately, the limits of its hegemonic project. After two weeks of military occupation, the harsh interrogation of children, and a blatantly disingenuous investigation, there was no evidence of fraud or instigation of public disorder. Indeed Blackbourn argues that the ultimate consequence of the official investigation of the apparitions at Marpingen was a well-deserved contempt of the Prussian authorities and their destructive and repressive tactics. The limits of their power were exposed, as were the limits of the reach of the Church, and “the tacit support of local officials for the apparitions was most telling, and frustrating to higher authority.” [13]

Blackbourn then turns from the religious and political reactions to the apparitions to the tensions between popular Catholicism and liberal ideology, demonstrating the diverse worldviews held by the German public. Speaking in the language of the natural sciences of a “brave new world of progress… (working toward) a society of citizens” [14] underpinned by Darwinian theory, many German liberals were uncomfortable with the mystical superstition they saw at the core of Marian devotion.

The “red thread”of modernity and the problematic interactions between the forces of change and the proponents of tradition acquire new depth and complexity in Blackbourn’s analysis of the apparitions at Marpingen. [15] The failure of the Catholic Church to subdue or absorb popular religious movements and the inability of the Prussian state to repress and punish such movements demonstrate the diverse and contradictory currents of modernity and popular sentiment in Marpingen during the 1870s, but also speak to the underpinnings of Marian devotion in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Visions of the Virgin Mary have continued in Germany, between the two World Wars, during the 1930s and the Cold War, supporting Blackbourn’s argument that apparitions occur during “times of political and social stress” [16], yet his caution that these material trends do not suffice when analyzing Marian apparitions is significant because the personal lives and experiences of the visionaries themselves, and the communities in which they live, are crucial pieces of the story.

Popular Catholicism in Nineteenth-Century Germany

In his book Popular Catholicism in Nineteenth-century Germany,[17] Jonathon Sperber examines the forces that shaped popular Catholicism in the German land of North Rhine-Westphalia between the years 1830 and 1880, and the role the Catholic Church played in this time of profound change. Sperber argues that the Prussian state was unsuccessful in subsuming popular Catholicism because of the dynamic and flexible nature of the Catholic Church in Germany, and because of its ability to incorporate popular movements and sentiments into a fundamentally counterrevolutionary agenda. Sperber also agues that the church-state struggle Kulturkampf was not the origin of Catholic conservatism in Germany, but instead merely an exacerbating factor. Sperber supports his thesis by exposing the ways the Catholic Church encouraged new religious associations and Marian devotion, restructured pilgrimages, and accommodated the Prussian state while rejecting the ideologies of socialism and liberalism.

Sperber approaches his project as a social historian primarily concerned with economic policies and social trends instigated by politicians and church officials and reflected by archival records kept by the church and state, such as census records, religious association membership and election results. While not delving into the popular experience directly, Sperber provides insight into the relationship between popular movements and political and religious rhetoric. While the reader may be left wondering how German Catholics of this era perceived their social identity or personal agency, Sperber compensates for his top-down treatment of his subject with his deftly nuanced analysis of the Catholic Church’s interaction with both internal and external forces.

Against the backdrop of the secularization and economic change of the Vormarz period of the early nineteenth century, Sperber describes a Church losing control of its congregants. With the replacement of a guild-based economy with a capitalist system came new opportunities for sinfulness. Restrictions on marriage were loosened, and the clergy feared the sexual promiscuity that could potentially result. Formerly collective forest land was privatized, and this transformed previously innocent acts like hunting and wood-cutting into crimes. Sperber provides tables showing the demographic changes[18] that imply the social upheaval experienced by German people increasingly uprooted, and suffering from the “disruption and disunity, decay of traditional practices”[19] The Catholic Church was itself experiencing the winds of change with a growing division between the traditional ultramontane clergy and the clerical “hermesians”[20], influenced by enlightenment ideology.

Once he has established the defensive posture of the Catholic Church in Germany in the early part of the eighteenth century, Sperber explains the conservative nature of the clerical reaction to secular trends in the decades leading up to the Kulturkampf. He describes how the Catholic Church changed the nature of festivals and missions from popular, and occasionally bawdy, celebrations into “a powerful political force, diverting popular attention away from secular, social and political action, encouraging a passive acceptance of existing conditions”[21] (58) Another part of the Catholic Church’s conservative project involved the encouragement of Marian devotion. Sperber illustrates this focus on Marian devotion with a table showing the increasing number of pilgrimages devoted to the veneration of Mary, and the complimentary embrace of chastity.[22] New religious associations, Marian Sodalities in particular, reflected the conservative tendencies Sperber observes, as they were run by an increasingly centralized clergy, a change from their previous leadership of laymen. Sperber provides another table, this time demonstrating the decline in illegitimate births[23] to prove the conservative movement of the clergy was manifested in popular behavior. He notes that this growing conservatism both predated and anticipated the Christian Social movement, and was welcomed by different groups, explaining, “For the Catholic upper class, as well as the Prussian authorities, the counterrevolutionary and socially pacifying efforts of the religious revival were visible and most welcome” [24]

Sperber then traces the role the religious revival of the 1850s played in the politicization of German Catholics. According to Sperber’s analysis, “if the political impetus for the Christian Social movement came from the need to counter social agitation, the movement’s organizational form was an outgrowth of the sodalities, congregations, and related Catholic organizations which had developed in the industrial areas after mid-century.”[25]

Having established the conservative nature of the German Catholic Church well before the Kulturkampf, Sperber investigates the struggle between the Prussian state and the Catholic Church. The May Laws, the expulsion of the Jesuits and the prosecution of priests performing illegal Mass were indeed, in Sperber’s opinion, exacerbating factors that led to the hardening of the Catholic Church’s conservative ideology, yet it was the rejection of liberalism, not the expansion of the Prussian state that served as the primary motivation. To further illustrate his point, Sperber uses the rhetoric of politically active Catholic Chaplains, such as Chaplain Laaf, who told an appreciative audience that, “The enemy of religion is liberalism, whose faith is disbelief and whose mother is the revolution”and Chaplain Schunks who proclaimed “he who shakes the alter topples the throne.”[27] [26] Sperber also emphasized the contentious relationship between the clergy and members of liberal, hermesian Freemason Lodges, viewed by many church officials as epitomizing “satanic subversion”[28] and threatening the traditional order with conspiracy and revolution.

Although dry intone and replete with impersonal tables and social analysis, Popular Catholicism in Nineteenth-Century Germany successfully conveys the conservative nature of the Catholic Church, and the integral role that Marian devotion played in the popular acceptance of that conservatism. While affected by Prussian state-building, Sperber shows that the politicization of German Catholicism originated in a visceral reaction against liberal ideals, decades before the punitive measures of the Kulturkampf.

The Cult of the Virgin Mary

In his book, The Cult of the Virgin Mary, Michael Carroll investigates the historical, sociological, and psychological origins of Marian devotion. [29] He argues that Marian devotion is a unique phenomenon because it is based on the adulation of an asexual mother, that it has explicit historical origins in fifth-century Rome, and it is more common in certain geographical regions than others due to specific ecological and psychological factors. Carroll defines Marian devotion as an immensely popular cult that is often neglected by scholars, even those seeking to explain the division between Catholics and Protestants or explore the sociology of cults like Scientology. In order to uncover the origins of such a powerful popular movement, Carroll investigates the aspects of Marian devotion that make it exceptional in history, and claims that this process will lead to a more complete understanding of early Christianity and the greater human experience.

Carroll contextualizes his approach within both historical and psychological treatments of Marian devotion. The work of historian Guy Swanson[30] connected Marian devotion to agricultural societies with certain political systems, while the structuralist approach of Edmund Leach[31] revealed links between an emphasis on the intercessory role of Mary and patronage, a social organization that concentrates the power in the hands of a few inaccessible rulers. Carroll also uses Carl Jung’s[32] theories of a mother archetype that exists within the human unconscious and manifests itself as goddess worship and Marian devotion. For the purposes of this paper, Carroll’s analysis provides a useful foil for Blackbourn’s cultural approach to the apparitions at Marpingen and Sperber’s social approach to nineteenth-century German Catholicism because it focuses on origins of Marian devotion that are completely independent of nineteenth-century German experiences.

Carroll builds his book around three fundamental questions: why is Mary both a virgin and a mother when other goddess cults celebrate the obvious connection between sexuality and maternity; why does Marian devotion develop in the fifth century, at the same time as the crucifixion symbolism; and why does Marian devotion originally take hold most strongly in Spain and Southern Italy? Carroll answers each question in turn, using a combination of historical interpretation and Freudian psychoanalysis.

Freudian analysis is the primary tool in Carroll’s kit as he constructs answers to his first and third questions. The devotion to a manifestation of a sexless mother derives from an unconscious need to disguise children’s infantile desires for incestuous relationships with their parents. According to Carroll’s analysis, a child’s sexual desire for the parent of the opposite gender is more common in families that have female authority figures due to the father’s need to be away, seeking sustenance. This “father ineffective family”[33] was a common feature of life in Spain and Southern Italy, due to a combination of harsh ecological and social factors.

Carroll then seeks the fifth-century origins of Marian devotion within the context of the “great transformation” of Christianity “from a middle-class movement to one that incorporated people from all levels of Roman Society.” [34] Carroll argues that Marian devotion was the result of a calculated and successful attempt to integrate peasants into the Christian religion by allowing popular goddess devotion to be transformed into Marian devotion. Carroll also argues that the masochism associated with repressed sexual desires can be seen in the disassociation of Mary with all elements of sexuality, and is also reflected by the fifth-century focus on the crucifixion and the torture of Christ, as well as the celebration of celibacy, or “symbolic castration.” [35] These devotional developments within early Christendom are set against the growing material inequity in fifth-century Rome.

Carroll then tests his theories by applying them to several Marian apparitions. Having established the theories that Marian devotion originates most often in marginalized agricultural communities in need of an sympathetic intercessor, and in ‘father-ineffective-families’ that display both Freudian desires and material needs, Carroll seeks to prove them with evidence from Lourdes, Pontmain, Fatima, and other apparition sites. While his theoretical analysis had been fascinating, if generalized, the weakness of Carroll’s argument is exposed in this empirical section of his book. He spends many pages distinguishing between illusions and hallucinations and defining visionaries as either primary or secondary, while neither distinction proves particularly insightful. Once he finishes categorizing the visionaries and their visions, Carroll seeks the origins of their experiences. Many deceased people have been academically resurrected and psychoanalyzed, and Carroll attempts to do just that to several of the visionaries. The basic premise of applying Freudian techniques to historical questions is problematic. How can a historian simultaneously provide a voice to long-dead individuals and then apply psychoanalysis to the individual the historian himself has constructed?

Ultimately contributing the observation that the French visionaries of the nineteenth century were most likely “prompted by unconscious infantile memories”[36] that were activated by recent events, Carroll’s analysis does not actually augment the reader’s understanding of either the personal or historical origins of the visionaries’ dramatic experiences. However, Carroll does establish the importance of apparitions in Marian devotion, the role of imitation in apparition stories and the interaction between popular religion and social upheaval through his comparison of a variety of Marian apparitions. Unfortunately he relies almost exclusively on Freudian theory for his analysis, and the reader is reminded that once a historical argument becomes defined by the belief in a theory that all humans are shaped by the repression of their sexual desires for their parent, then that theory loses all usefulness as an analytical tool.


Today Marian devotion continues to play a powerful role in the human experience. The image of the Virgin Mary inspires pilgrimages, news stories and bidding wars on E-Bay. Perhaps the origins of such devotion are to be found in a combination of historical, economic, social, and psychological factors, or maybe they are as elusive as a satisfying academic definition of the human soul. This paper does not attempted to locate or interpret the meaning of this devotion, but does, hopefully, provide an analysis of some of the scholarly treatment of this phenomenon.

[1] Blackbourn, David. Marpingen. New York: Vintage Books, 1993; Sperber, Jonathon. Popular Catholicism in Nineteenth-Century Germany. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984; Carroll, Michael. The Cult of the Virgin Mary. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1986.

[2] Blackbourn, David. Marpingen. New York: Vintage Books. 1993.

[3] Carroll, Michael. The Cult of the Virgin Mary. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1986.

[4] Sperber, Jonathon. Popular Catholicism in Nineteenth-Century Germany. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1984.

[5] Porte, Cheryl. Pontain, Prophecy, and Protest. New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc..2005

[6] Perry, Nicholas & Echeverria, Loreto. Under the Heel of Mary. London and New York: Routledge. 1988

[7] Blackbourn, David. Marpingen. New York: Vintage Books. 1993. Pg. 19

[8] Ibid. Pg. 20

[9] Ibid. Pg 44

[10] Ibid. Pg. 58

[11] Ibid. Pg. 70

[12] Ibid. Pg. 141

[13] Ibid. Pg. 233

[14] Ibid. Pg. 256

[15] Ibid. Pg. 374

[16] Ibid. Pg. 327

[17] Sperber, Jonathon. Popular Catholicism in Nineteenth-Century Germany. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1984

[18] Sperber, Jonathon. Popular Catholicism in Nineteenth-Century Germany. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1984. Pg 41

[19] Ibid. Pg 277

[20] Ibid. Pg. 22

[21] Ibid. Pg. 58

[22] Ibid. Pg. 66 & 67

[23] Ibid. Pg. 93

[24] Ibid. Pg. 92

[25] Ibid. Pg. 179 & 180

[26] Ibid. Pg. 216

[27] Ibid. Pg. 217

[28] Ibid. Pg. 218

[29] Carroll, Michael. The Cult of the Virgin Mary. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1986.

[30] Swanson, Guy. Religion and Regime. Anne Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 1967

[31] Leach, Edmund. “Virgin Birth.” In Genesis and Myth and other Essays. London : Jonathan Cape. 1969

[32]Jung, Carl. Four Archetypes: Mother, Rebirth, Spirit, Trickster. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1970

[33] Carroll, Michael. The Cult of the Virgin Mary. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1986. Pg. 50

[34]Ibid. Pg. 80

[35]Ibid. Pg. 86

[36] Ibid. Pg. 80

© Feather Crawford Freed

All Rights Reserved

Joel Poinsett: Agent of Empire, Patron of Science



During the Eighteenth Century, European technological advances, nation-building agendas and philosophical debates combined to produce an era of expedition and state-sponsored social and scientific classification. Harry Liebersohn identifies the years between 1750 and 1850 as a “distinctive era” in overseas-exploration, scientific ethnography, and the development of the human sciences.[1] This paper will examine this “distinctive era” and the transition within it from exploration to anthropology, as people tried to reconcile their philosophical and religious beliefs with evidence of unimagined human variety. This transition was complex, and took different forms in Europe and North America, and themes inherent to each will be addressed below. In order enrich the interpretation of this era, this paper will also profile the career contributions of American traveler, diplomat, and politician, Joel Poinsett, at first peripherally, as the paper discusses European exploration, and then as more of a central figure, as anthropology in the United States becomes the primary focus. During the early 1800s, Poinsett moved in the same European social circles with some of the first naturalists and travelers to explore the Pacific Islands. He explored Mexico in the early 1820s and published both popular and official descriptions of the new nation. During the 1830s and 1840s, Poinsett worked as both  the US Secretary of War, and a patron of the human sciences, and was involved in the foundation of the organization that would become The Smithsonian Institute.

Poinsett’s career reflects the complexities that distinguish this era. As travel accounts became foundational to ethnographic and anthropological sciences, his career turned from exploration to scientific patronage and institution-building. As questions of human nature became fundamental to definitions of republicanism, natural rights, and national identity, Poinsett went to Mexico, as both a liberal influence, and imperial investigator. As explanations for human variation became integral to debates over race, slavery and American Exceptionalism, Poinsett published an article defining innate differences between civilized people and barbarians, and, as Secretary of War, carried out widespread Indian removal.

Several books will underpin this paper, both primary and secondary accounts of this age of expedition, categorization, and conquest. Harry Liebersohn’s rich account of the relationship between travel and culture, The Traveler’s World, Europe to the Pacific, will provide the philosophic and historic foundation for the discussion. Mexico Otherwise, Modern Mexico in the Eyes of Foreign Observers, edited by Jurgen Buchenau, will illustrate the position of Mexico during this era, and will provide the context for a comparison of Poinsett’s two books about Mexico, Notes on Mexico in the Autumn of 1822 and his Unpublished Report on the Present Political State of Mexico. A Social History of Anthropology in the United States, by Thomas C. Patterson will provide the basis for interpretation of the last section of the paper, as attention is directed toward the United States, and the national and racial debates specific to the young republic – debates originating, in part, from the accounts of Europeans naturalists.


Liebersohn examines several high-profile European naturalists and explorers in The Traveler’s World. He argues for the significance of networks of global travelers and European scholars who influenced state policy and informed conceptions of empire and race. He profiles the experiences of: Philbert Commerson, on the 1766-1769 voyage to Tahiti with Louis de Bougainville; George Forster, on the 1772-1775 voyage with Captain Cook, also to Tahiti; and, finally, Adelbert von Chamisso on the 1815-1818 voyage to the Hawaiian Islands aboard the Russian vessel the “Rurik”. Liebersohn discusses the accounts written by these men, integrating their stories into a well developed historical interpretation of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanual Kant and others, and the far-flung implications of the cultural exchange intrinsic to colonialism. Liebersohn pays serious attention to the networks of relationships between the naturalists, the political intentions and conditions of the states that sponsor their expeditions, the Pacific Islanders that they encounter, and the community of philosophers and scholars who used their travel accounts to construct and support their theories on human nature.

Liebersohn argues that the eighteenth-century concepts of “Natural Man” had both “revolutionary and conservative implications”[2], and that the age of Enlightenment paradoxically provided “both tools for global domination and ideas of human dignity”[3]. Armed with both curiosity and technology, European expeditions exposed native cultures to a wide reading public curious about human difference, and a community of scholars eager for evidence of people living in a natural state. Rousseau, arguably the most influential philosopher in pre-Revolutionary Europe, looked to the uncorrupted “savage” as natural egalitarians, as a critique of the detrimental effects of society and artificiality. Other scholars looked for evidence of human difference in order to justify ideas of racial hierarchy and inferiority. Information gathered by naturalists was ultimately applied to state-building projects during this time of colonial expansion.

Liebersohn emphasizes the interactive and reciprocal relationships between travelers and philosophers in Europe at this time. Rousseau used travel accounts of naturalists to show how “savages” lived close to nature in an original state[4] , and demanded more data from travelers such as Commerson and Forster. Denis Diderot was also closely involved with Bougainville’s Tahitian expedition, and relied on the descriptions of Tahitian people and customs to demonstrate his theories of utopian utilitarianism. The Pacific Islands were home to unfamiliar people, unlike the indigenous of North and South America, and surprising in their customs and social structures. Tahiti and Hawaii became theoretical laboratories for philosophers’ debates over human nature, and cites of interrogation and construction for self-conscience and expanding nation-states.

A central issue of philosophical debate was the definition of humanity. Kant’s Definition of the Concept of the Human Race[5], articulated a monogenist philosophy, a belief that there was only one single human species, and he sought to “reconcile the visible diversity of human appearance with the underlying unity of human nature”[6]. The counter position was polygenism, the belief that there were several human species or races, each with innate abilities and limitations.

The debate over the singularity or plurality of humans species informed travelers as they compiled their evidence and accounts differently at different times, interacting with political trends of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Language of “noble savages” and “natural egalitarians” complemented language of equality and fraternity prevalent during the time of the French Revolution. These Rousseauian terms are evident in Commerson’s account of Tahiti, in which he described the “ideal republic” constructed by a race of people separate from and superior to Europeans.

During his expedition, Forster investigated Tahitian social divisions and discovered hierarchies that do not fit his ideal of equality and virtue. Influenced by Diderot and Rousseau, Forster wrote of the inevitability of republican virtue being subsumed by the concentration of power and moral decay.[7] His accounts of the island reflect a personal transition from idealization to disdain, and reflect a larger change in the perception of non-European people and their societies by European states.

Chamisso, the third naturalist Liebersohn profiles, moved in the post-Revolutionary Parisian circles of Romantics and salons. Seasoned by the danger of popular mobilization of the Terror and the repression of the Napoleonic Wars, Chamisso focuses less on ideas of equality and more on manifestations of liberty. Conscious of the naturalists’ tendency to imprint their accounts with their own personal and philosophical bias, Chamisso sought to only “present the strange land and the strange people.”[8] Chamisso’s voyage aboard the Rurik also had more explicitly nationalistic intentions, as it was pursuing both economic and imperial goals for the Russian Empire, as well as providing passage and support for scientific research. This intersection of the interests of science and state during expeditions was to become more prominent during the Nineteenth Century.

Chamisso’s European social circles of republicans and travelers during the early 1800s included a young Joel Poinsett. Both men were known to associate with writer and republican, Germaine de Stael in Coppet, during her exile from France, and to attend her controversial salons during Napoleon’s reign[9]. Poinsett traveled across Europe and Asia during the first decade of the Nineteenth Century, and spent time with many Europeans advocating intellectual and geographical exploration, like Goethe and Tsar Alexander,[10] during a time when new ideas about government and citizenship interacted with accounts of contact with distant native populations. Although there is a lack of available material written by Poinsett during this time, his subsequent actions and interactions illustrate a practical combination of abstract and concrete aspects of travel and politics.

After returning to the United State and serving in the South Carolina state government, Poinsett traveled again. During the 1810s, Poinsett spent several years in South America, exploring, spreading republican ideology and attempting to foment revolution against Spain.[11] His story illustrates the transition from idealized depictions of foreign lands to official reports of imperialistic concern in 1822, as he wrote a traveler’s account of Mexico, while acting as an investigative agent of the United States government[12].


Mexico has been the object of foreign observations since the early 1800s. Mexico Otherwise examines the content and impact of traveler’s accounts of Mexican people, culture and politics. Employing concepts of Orientalism, developed by Edward Said, and applying it to the literary and intellectual treatment of Mexico, Buchenau argues that travel accounts of Mexico have not only constructed international perceptions of Mexico and Mexican people, but also influenced memory and meaning within Mexico. Buchenau argues powerful nations saw Mexico as a “single undifferentiated other”, just as colonial powers saw India. Traveler and foreign observer accounts of Mexico helped “invent categories”, creating “an essentialist discourse that subsumed a wealth of cultural difference.”[13] Buchenau features excerpts from many foreign observer accounts of Mexican culture, environments and people. The first two traveler’s accounts of this vast land, Alexander von Humboldt and Joel Poinsett illustrate both Orientalist themes, and the implications and implementations of the human sciences in new North American republics.

Alexander von Humboldt’s work in New Spain, over a decade before the Spanish colony gained independence as the Mexican nation, set the standard for cultural interrogation for the nineteenth century. Humboldt’s work also embodied the interaction between science and politics “at a cultural moment defined by revolutionary transformations in European society and politics.”[14] Friends with Forster, Goethe and de Stael, von Humboldt did not limit his activities to botanical or language research, but also wrote essays on the limits of state formation. After he returned from exploring the Spanish colonies in North and South America in 1804, Humboldt exchanged letters and ideas with Simon Bolivar, hero of Latin American Independence.[15] This shift from the empirical to the political reflects the power of ideas such as republicanism and nationalism, and the way ideas and theories travel between cultures, facilitated by state-sponsored expeditions and personal connections[16].

Humboldt’s Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain, discussed themes of race, gender and ethnicity in the Spanish colony, and drew the attention of European governments and businessmen to the region. Paternalistic in tone, Humboldt depicted an “unequal struggle between nations far advanced in arts and others in the very lowest degree of civilization.” His sympathy for the “unfortunate race of Aztec”, that he perceived to be in a “state of degradation”, is evident in his account. Humboldt sought a model that would reconcile the poverty of the indigenous people with the evidence of their pre-conquest social, political, and scientific accomplishments. In his effort to remove blame from indigenous people for their “degradation”, Humboldt urges readers not to judge them from their “miserable remains.”[17] Yet, as Buchenau argues, this laid the foundation for the “essentialist discourse” that obscured the variety of the inhabitants of New Spain, and subsequently Mexico, “under single categories such as ‘Mexican’ or ‘Indian.'”[18]

The year after Mexico achieved independence, Poinsett came to the country as the appointed emissary on a special mission for President Monroe.[19] Traveling as both an explorer and agent, Poinsett’s accounts of this journey display a naturalist’s interest in botany, a statesman’s ideas of republican-style government, and an imperialist’s eye for detail. The two accounts he wrote about his 1822 trip to Mexico parallel each other, they both documented the same expedition, but appealed to different audiences. Notes on Mexico was patterned after other popular travel accounts of the era, mixing a description of Mexican landscape with observations of the people and customs Poinsett encountered. Very different in perspective than the idealistic accounts of Commerson, or the Romantic investigations of Chamisso, Poinsett identified with the Mexican Creoles, whose “good natural talents”distinguished them from the indigenous population and their “indolence…blind submission… (and)…abject misery.”[21] He used evidence of beggars in Mexico City as evidence of Mexico’s intermediate level of civilization, beyond subsistence existence, and able to provide charity to a vagrant population.[22] Poinsett included an historical sketch of the country, lauding the astronomy, architecture, and technological innovations accomplished by the indigenous people before Spanish conquest, and rued the circumstances that exterminated the indigenous priests and left only the lower classes and “oppressed and degraded people alone to represent the former Mexican.”[23]

Poinsett’s Notes on Mexico also discussed the political state of the Mexican government, and woven into his botanical and cultural descriptions were some indications that he is a government agent, responsible for a political report. However, The Present Political State of Mexico, prepared for the US Secretary of State was unambiguous in intent. Poinsett was in Mexico as the nation briefly became an empire under Emperor Iturbide. His report included transcripts of speeches by the Emperor, and organized reports on census data, economic information, military preparedness, and resource estimation.[24] Not for public consumption, Poinsett’s report exposed Mexico in a different way – instead of revealing unique elements of the people’s environment, culture, or language to avid readers, Poinsett initiated a relationship between Mexico and the Unites States colored by opportunism, expansionism, and suspicion. Remembered in the US as the man who introduced the poinsettia, Poinsett left a negative impression on many Mexicans, many of whom remembered him as an imperialist, with a disrespectful interest in procuring Mexico’s northern states[25].

The United States of America

Poinsett’s expedition to Mexico was part of a larger trend in the history of the United States, during the years of the New Republic, as the U.S. applied the philosophical debate over the definition of the human species and the meaning of human diversity, to American ideas of Manifest Destiny and race. Thomas C. Patterson’s book, A Social History of Anthropology in the United States, examines the purpose and meaning in the development of anthropology in the U.S. Patterson explores the origins of anthropology in European traveler’s accounts and the philosophical debates of Rousseau, Kant and others, and identifies two different ways anthropology and other human sciences have been used by individuals and states. Supporters of social hierarchy used travel accounts to justify conquest and repression, seeing history as, “a series of progressive changes…from the original, primitive condition to more advances, diversified circumstances,” and, “the conquest of nature, material improvement, and increasing modernity as motors driving these changes.”[26] Critics of imperialism argue that, “egalitarian relations and practices which exist in cultures on the margins exhibit what is essential to the human condition – an essence that is lost or deformed during the civilizing process,” and consider the human sciences complicit in “the genocidal and ethnocidal practices of the imperial states.”[27] The fundamental tension between Rousseauian views of nature, and hierarchical and expansionist visions of empire manifest in the political and social conditions of the New Republic. Patterson defines the era of the New Republic as the years between the American Revolution and Reconstruction, following the American Civil War. Patterson identifies three main purposes of anthropology in the U.S. at this time. The developing science was used to help construct a national identity for Americans, inform U.S. territorial expansion and justify the institution of slavery in the American South.[28]

American national identity after the Revolutionary War was elemental to political stability, economic viability, and cultural cohesion, in a country with a skeptical European audience. England, France Russia and Spain had territorial interests in North America, and the scholars and political leaders in the United States were often defensive to Old World scorn. Scholars like French naturalist Comte Buffon theorized that the new world continents were geologically immature and hostile, producing only “scattered savages”, [29]that were, as a race, evidence of New World inferiority. This dispersion in turn cast doubt on the strength and potential of the Unites States, and the new nation’s ability to qualify for foreign loans. Thomas Jefferson rebutted claims that the United States was destined for political failure due to the innate weakness of the land and inferiority of the native inhabitants by employing a monogenist argument. Thomas Jefferson founded the American Philosophical Society, and aggressively rejected idea that Native Americans were a different race from white Americans, and in 1784 encouraged intermarriage between White and Native Americans in order to facilitate the integration of the two cultures. [30] Jefferson’s ideas of the unity of the human species did not extend to women of Americans of African descent however, illustrating ways ideologies were often applied self-consciously to construct national identity and build political legitimacy.

Territorial expansion in the New Republic was closely connected to the construction of an American national identity. Party to the pursuit of an expanding boarder, anthropologists and other scholars engaged in the debate over inherent land rights and the nature of property and ownership. The theories on men’s natural rights to property were of both theoretical and practical interest at this time. Ever conscience of a critical international audience, anthropologists in service to the government sought philosophical justification for taking territory from native inhabitants. According to Patterson, scholars and politicians used John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. Locke located a person’s right to ownership of their property within the labor that person expends on the land, therefore Native American had no right to the lands they occupied because they did not change and develop the land. This concept was codified in 1823 by Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshell’s brief “Johnson and Graham’s Lesee V. McIntosh.”[31] This relationship between law and philosophy concretizes understanding of the practical aspects of the human sciences.

Theories and conversations about race and manifest destiny were an important characteristic of the New Republic, argues Patterson, becoming an “increasingly prominent feature of everyday discourse during the 1830s and 1840s.[32]” Polygenists, like Benjamin Rush and James Madison based their justification of African slavery and colonization, and Indian removal on racial difference arguing that Blacks and native Americans were “fixed at lower stages of development.[33]” American Exceptionalism and Anglo-Saxon superiority were underpinned by men like physician and scholar, Samuel Morton, who distinguished and defined races according to cranial capacities and stages of civilization.[34]

Poinsett, as both a US politician and patron of science, contributed to both the discussion and the application of the definition of the human race. After returning to Mexico as an ambassador of the US in 1825, Poinsett spent almost five years deeply involved in the politics of the country, until the Mexican President Vicente Guerrero requested his recall in 1829.[35] Upon his return to the United States, Poinsett supported the unionist cause against the Nullification Movement, and entered the gentlemen’s debate over the definition of humanity.

In 1834, Poinsett published a paper on anthropology, An Inquiry into the Received Opinions of Philosophers and Historians on the Natural Progress of the Human Race from Barbarism to Civilization. Poinsett’s paper defended his nation’s strength and virility. Addressing Buffon directly, Poinsett claimed the natives of his country were not weak due to any environmental flaws, but because of their “habits and pursuits” and the “innate passion in the breast of the Savage,” that loves warfare and rejects agriculture.[36] Using polygenist rhetoric of multiple human species, and “immutable conditions,” Poinsett rebutted Buffon’s attacks on US potential.[37] He wrote of the “white and noble race” of Anglo-Saxons, and the racial hierarchy that supported American constructions of national identity, white superiority, and manifest destiny. The Algonquins, claimed Poinsett, did not respond adequately to missionaries and education, and he wrote, “they do not advance towards a state of civilization, but retain their ancient habits, language, and customs, and are every day more depraved, indigent, and insignificant.”[38] By denying the civilization of Indian tribespeople, Poinsett laid the philosophical groundwork for Indian removal, in much the same way as Locke’s Second Treatise of Government had in decades past.

In 1837, Poinsett became the Secretary of War and directed the Seminole War and Indian removal west of the Mississippi.[39] He also supported scientific exploration, ensuring the presence of naturalists in the US Exploring Expedition. As a US Senator in 1840, Poinsett was a founding member of The National Institute for the Promotion of Science, an organization funded by the Smithson grant, and precursor of the Smithsonian Institute.[40] At the first anniversary of the organization, Poinsett urged his audience patronize science and support the Institution, asking, “Will we expose ourselves to be denied our just title of a moral, religious, intelligent, and enlightened people by refusing to inscribe the United States of America among the names of the civilized nations of the earth which will be found engraved upon the columns of this magnificent temple?”[41]

Poinsett, with his political career and his patronage of science, and his time as a philosopher, explorer, ambassador and agent, embodies themes inherent to the “distinctive era” of travel and science. His writings and official activity emphasize the relationship analyzed by Liebersohn in The Traveler’s World, between travelers and philosophers, and travelers and their patron states, particularly because he acts as each of these three members of the relationship during his life.


The debate over nature and nurture had powerful implications during this time of exploration and expansion. The search for an explanation for human difference inspired both philosophy and political policy, in Europe and North America, as nations sought the definition of the human species and justification for racial and social hierarchy. Colonial States and new republics used travel accounts and the developing discipline of anthropology to support their national identities and territorial agendas. Individual agency interacted with state-building projects, as theories of natural man and innate abilities defined the rights of humans to maintain their culture and territory. Taking different forms in Europe and North America, this debate continues to have profound implications in society today, as questions of race and human variety inform discussions of human potential.

© Copyright 2008

Feather Crawford Freed

[1] Porter, Theodore, Ross, Dorothy, ed, The Modern Social Sciences vol 7, Cambridge University Press. 2003

[2] Liebersohn, Harry, A Traveler’s World, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2006, pg 4

[3] Ibid pg 6

[4] Liebersohn, Harry, A Traveler’s World, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2006, pg 16

[5] Ibid pg 203

[6] Ibid pg 200

[7] Liebersohn, The Traveler’s World, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2006, pg. 50

[8] Ibid pg 71

[9] Liebersohn, Harry, The Traveler’s World, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2006. pg 60

Rippy, Fred, Joel Poinsett, Versatile American, pg 16

[10] Ibid pg 25-26

Krumpelmann, John T., The South Central Bulletin, “Duke Berhnhard of Save-Weimer”

[11] Rippy, Fred, Joel Poinsee, Versatile American, pg 39-41

[12] Dyer, George B; Charlotte L Dyer, “The Beginnings of a United States Strategic Intelligence System in Latin America, 1809-1826”, Military Affairs, 14, 2, 1950

[13] Buchenau, Mexico Otherwise, Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2005, pg 3

[14] Liebersohn, A Traveler’s World, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2006, pg 208

[15] Rippy, Fred. J, “Alexander von Humboldt and Simon Bolivar”, The American Historical Review, 52, 4, 1947

[16] Benedict Anderson provides a compelling analytical modal for understanding nationalism during this time in his influential book Imagined Communities, describing the ideology as transatlantically mobile. David Livingston’s article, “Traveling Theory and the Spaces for Scientific Encounter”, explores the mobility of Darwinian Theory, further illustrating the exchange of ideas.

[17] Buchenau, Mexico Otherwise, Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2005, pg 20

[18] Ibid pg 3

[19] Ibid pg 29

[20] Poinsett, Joel, Notes on Mexico, New York; London: Praeger, 1969, pg 119

[21] Ibid pg 120

[22] Ibid pg 203

[23] Ibid pg 248

[24] Poinsett/Smith pg vii-vii, Report on the Present Political State of Mexico

[25] L. Smith Lee, editor and introducer of Poinsett’s report, The Present Political State of Mexico, describes, on pages viii-ix, a rumored meeting between Poinsett and Emperor Iturbide’s supporter, Azcarante, during which Poinsett communicated the United States plan to “absorb all Texas, New Mexico, and Upper California, and parts of Lower California, Sonora, Coahuila, and New Leon.”

[26] Patterson, A Social History of Anthropology in the United States, pg 1

[27] Ibid pg 2

[28] Ibid pg 4

[29] Ibid pg8

[30] Patterson, A Social History of Anthropology in the United States, pg 9

[31] Patterson, A Social History of Anthropology in the United States, pg 8

[32] Ibid pg 17

[33] Ibid pg 17

[34] Ibid pg 19

[35] Flores Caballero presents a thorough description of Poinsett’s interference in Mexican politics in his book, Counterrevolution. I am currently working on an interpretation of the historical events in Mexico between 1825 and 1830.

[36] Poinsett, Joel, Inquiry into the Received Opinions of Philosophers and Historians, on the Natural Progress of the Human Race from Barbarism to Civilization, Charleston, SC: JS Burges, 1834, pg 19

[37] Ibid pg 13

[38] Ibid pg 41

[39] Bell, William Garner. Secretaries of War pg 48

[40] website

[41] Poinsett, Joel, Discourse on the Objects and Importance of The National Promotion of Science, Washington: P Force Printer, 1841

Southwest to Whom? An Analysis of the Historiography of the American West

f-sw The American Southwest – the title hints at the meaning, history and mental imagry attached to the region by inhabitants and observers. The “Southwest” is not southwest of Mexico City, so the geographic nature of its designation implies its conquest by the United States in 1848, as if the American nation’s sovereignty over the region could change the spatial position of the land and the people that occupied it. Popular American conceptions of the American West have underpinned this proprietary definition of the Southwest, but the historical treatments of the region, its people, and its place within the larger narrative of human experience have changed over the last few decades. The American Southwest was once defined by American historians as part of the rewards of Manifest Destiny, and its incorporation into the nation was explained as the implementation of God’s plan for the Anglo-Saxon race. Frederick Jackson Turner announced the closing of the frontier in 1893, and the academic investigation of the western region of the United States languished, as Americans tended to view the West as a completed process of frontier settlement. This paper will examine the development of the historiographical treatment of the Southwest over the last three decades, and show how the New Western history and investigations into issues of national identity revitalized the field. Once seen as a cultural artifact or a Hollywood backdrop, the history of the Southwest has become a dynamic exploration of continuity and variety, conquest and exchange, and culture and identity. Once defined by its relationship to the conquering metropole, the Southwest is increasingly understood through its relationship to its environment and the experiences of its population.

Turner had characterized the American West in terms of its significance as a frontier between expanding civilization and shrinking savagery. Once Turner determined that the process of the frontier had been ended through white settlement, the study of the American West, and its subregions like the Southwest, foundered. Many historians in the later part of the twentieth century avoided analyzing the American West, but produced important works on regional, ethnic and gender history that were set within the western region. This resulted in significant scholarship on the experiences of minority groups that had been subsumed by the frontier narrative.

Albert Camarillo became part of what he described as “the new social history that has focused on heretofore excluded from traditional historic studies.”[1] His book on the experiences of Mexican-Americans, or Chicanos, in Santa Barbara and Southern California was part of a larger academic effort to reclaim the history of Chicano communities from obscurity. Although he did not necessarily consider his work part of Western history, he did endeavor to establish the continuity of the Chicano historical experiences after 1848. Camarillo disproved the perception that Chicanos lost their historical grounding as they transitioned from Mexicans to Americans. By demonstrating the political and economic displacement of Chicanos in California, and illustrating the development of barrios and their relationship to the dominant Anglo-American culture, Camarillo exposed a part of Western history that had nothing to do with the Turnarian closing of the frontier. Camarillo used economic, demographic and social data to articulate the vibrant, dynamic history of Chicano people in Southern California, and the larger history of capitalist development in the West, and by doing so established a useful model for understanding Hispanic displacement in the Southwest. He integrated the Chicano experience into the exploitive and racialized economic system that enabled the incorporation of the American West, and in many ways anticipated the goals of the of the New Western historians that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s.

Historians like Patricia Limerick and Donald Worster also pursued themes of continuity in the West, although not through exclusive focus on the social history of underrepresented, minority groups. Instead, these historians of the New West revitalized the field by connecting their analysis of the West to the lives and interactions of the diverse inhabitants, and the economic and social consequences of the western geography and extreme environment. With these approaches they were able to directly contribute to the understanding of the Southwest, by establishing frameworks that connected an understanding of the West and its subregions to the interrogation of the history of the people that lived there and the events and conditions they experienced.

Instead of viewing the region of the West only in relation to the course of white settlement, Patricia Limerick rejected Turner’s thesis and defined the West as a geographic location, not an idea, in her 1987 ground-breaking work Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West.[2] Her decision to define the West as a region freed the study of the West from the “conceptual fog” that she determined prevented Western historians from engaging in relevant interpretation and debate.[3] This allowed her to integrate Chicano, or Mexican-American, history, and the work of social historians like Camarillo, into a larger narrative of conquest and continuity. Limerick focused on the variety and interactions of western inhabitants by seeing the west as a meeting ground of different groups of people. Limerick recognized that the Southwest was a contested borderland and a diverse common ground. In Limerick’s book, the conquest of the Southwest, so often seen from the perspectives of the victors in western narratives, was reoriented and made to show the experiences of the people living in the contested area and subjected to the “Anglo-American talent to change overnight from being intruders to being legitimate residents and, conversely to turn the natives into “foreigners.””[4] By weaving the biographies and social histories into a synthesis treatment of the American West, Limerick was able to build on the historiographical innovations of the 1960s and 1970s, but she also helped redefine the field of Western history and redirect it in ways that contributed to the understanding of the Southwest.

A couple of years before Patricia Limerick published Legacy of Conquest, Donald Worster established continuity and conquest within Western history in his book, Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity and the Growth of the American West, by connecting the arid environment of the Southwest to the economic inequality and instrumentalism that developed in the region. Worster also rejected Turner’s frontier thesis, and like Limerick chose to define the perspective of his work according to the reality of the land itself, not the general direction of the movement of white settlement. He, however, focused his analysis of the region on the way the technological advances in irrigation and riparian manipulation arose in response to the arid conditions of the Southwest.. He explained how the distinct demands of arid environments historically resulted in the development of “hydraulic societies,” but that the domination of nature in the arid regions of the American West went further than previous irrigation-based empires.[5] Pursuing a policy of “total use for greater wealth,” an alliance of capitalists, politicians and regulators constructed an economic and political structure that favored the accumulation of wealth, property and power in the hands of relatively few people.[6] Worster warned of the anti-democratic and ultimately anti-life implications of the Capitalist State, and urged his readers to accommodate nature instead of subduing it. Through his analysis of the powerful economic structures that enabled the accumulation of capital, Worster also exposed the social and economic constraints experienced by the inhabitants of the Southwest. He not only highlighted the importance of the region, and advocated wise stewardship of nature, but also recommended a re-examination of nature’s relationship to human history.

In 1994, work on the American West was published in The Oxford History of the American West, and the wealth and diversity of historical studies brought together in the book illustrate the multiple subjects, perspectives and processes involved in western history.[8] The complex history of the Southwest was featured within the Heritage section, and the article by David Weber, The Spanish-Mexican Rim, describes the Spanish influence on the region. Weber explored the interaction between native Southwesterners and Spanish, and the role that the northern portion of the Spanish American empire played in the international competitions between Spain and France. Weber followed the story through the emergence of the Mexican Empire in 1821, and its subsequent decades as a republic, and rejected the earlier interpretations that “dismissed the long Spanish-Mexican tenure in the region as a time of despotism, religious intolerance, and economic stagnation,”[9] He instead integrated the Spanish heritage of the Southwest into an analysis of the West, reminding his readers of the significance of the continuity of the history of the region. Outside of the artificial constraints of the modern boundaries of nation-states, Weber conducted an analysis that connected the Spanish-Mexican heritage to Native American and colonial history.

Cultural historians like Matt Garcia built upon the foundations of the New Western history in attempts to uncover more about the experiences and contributions of Mexican-Americans within American history. In his 2001 book, A World of its Own: Race, Labor and Citrus in the Making of Greater Los Angeles, 1900-1970, Garcia specifically investigated the political culture of Mexican-American citrus-workers.[10] By merging analyses of Chicano cultural and community development, in a way that struck an “appropriate balance between space, time, and social being,” Garcia sought to answer certain questions about the history of the Chicano population of the suburbs around Los Angeles.[11] Garcia’s main query was the explanation for the lack of labor activism within Chicano communities of the San Gabriel-San Bernardino Valley. Garcia characterized Mexican-American laborers in Los Angeles as active agents engaged in less obvious forms of resistance, which they expressed through their popular culture and community cohesion. Garcia tapped into the work of social historians, like Camarillo, to show the material conditions of Chicano laborers, the racism that manifested in a dual-wage system, sub-standard living conditions, and second class status, and the “barrioization” movement that consolidated the Chicano population within enclaves.[12] Garcia used the frameworks of theorists like Edward Soja and Antonio Gramsci in order to uncover other forms of political activity within Chicano communities, and the ways geographic and cultural choices allowed Chicanos to engage in counter-hegemonic activity in response to the discrimination they faced in Los Angeles. Garcia connected theatre and dancehall culture to political activism and intercultural exchange, recognizing alternative ways Chicanos had to critique and change Los Angeles society. Garcia’s book was the product of his own extensive scholarship and oral interviews, but was also a part of the growing scholarship that was re-examining the history of the West, the experiences of the inhabitants of western communities and the relationship different groups of western inhabitants had to dominant Anglo-American culture and their own natural environment. While part of the growing scholarship on cultural history, Garcia’s book also signified the dynamic potential of New Western history, once released from the ethnocentric constraints of the Turner Thesis.

Like Chicano political culture, southwestern national identity is another complex subject that cannot be successfully explained through Turner’s frontier process. An understanding of Anglo-American national identity can benefit from an understanding of the place of the frontier within popular culture, and the idea that the American West signified the historic “struggle with the wilderness [that] turned Europeans into Americans.”[13] However, this perspective obscures the identities of nonwhite inhabitants of the West. Andres Resendez’s 2005 book, Changing National Identities of the Frontier: Texas and New Mexico, 1800-1850, examined the identity choices of Tejanos, Nuevomexicanos, Mexicans, and Americans in the Southwest in the first half of the nineteenth century. The region transitioned from the periphery of the Spanish empire, to the northern states of Mexico, and ultimately into the American Southwest, and the people that lived on the borderland faced stark choices between Mexican and American national identity. Resendez found that identity choices of people living on the frontier did not derive from inherent identification with either national project, but instead grew out of “situational” logic, as Southwesterners were buffeted by the forces of the American economy and coerced by the Mexican state.[14]

Resendez used evidence of Mexican state-formation, southwestern market choices, cross-cultural marriages, ethnic literature, and violent resistance to explore the forces that influenced identity choices among Southwesterners. He integrated history of the Spanish heritage in the region, and the nation’s colonial legacy, with a rich variety of frontier inhabitant experiences to explain the construction of national identity on the Mexican-America border. He treated the Southwest as a region and an idea in order to understand the ways its inhabitants understood themselves and navigated their positions to competing national claims. Examining an era of changes and choices, Resendez also showed the continuity of the Southwest through his decision to treat the region as a discrete location, with a rich past and a dynamic cultural heritage that included the contributions of many cultures.

The historiographical scholarship on the American Southwest has progressed over the last few decades, and culminated in the kind of sophisticated analysis of heritage, culture and identity exemplified by historians such as David Weber, Matt Garcia and Andres Resendez. Yet these kinds of interpretive works would not have been possible without the contributions of Chicano and New Western historians. The “conceptual fog” that so worried Patricia Limerick was lifted from the study of the American Southwest and other western regions, and the ensuing analysis has given insight into the previously obscured lives of southwestern residents. Not only freed from the limitations set by Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis, studies of the Southwest have uncovered evidence of widespread personal agency and political culture among Mexican Americans, re-examined connections between human history and ecology, and recognized the importance of identity and continuity in a contested region shaped by conquest.

© Feather Crawford Freed 2008

All Rights Reserved

[1] Albert Camarillo, Chicanos in a Changing Society: From Mexican Pueblos to American Barrios in Santa Barbara and Southern California, 1848-1930 (Cambridge, Massachusetts, London: Harvard University Press, 1979), pg 2.

[2] Patricia Limerick, Legacy of Conquest : The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York and

London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987).

[3] Limerick, pg 24.

[4] Limerick, pg 239.

[5] Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity and the Growth of the American West (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), pg7.

[6] Worster, pg 262.

[7] William Cronan, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Making of the Great West (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991)

[8] Clyde Milner, ed., The Oxford History of Western History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

[9] David Weber, “The Spanish-Mexican Rim,” The Oxford History of Western History, pg 73.

[10] Matt Garcia, A World of its Own: Race Citrus, and Labor in the Making of Greater Los Angeles (Chapel

Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

[11] Garcia, pg 5.

[12] Camarillo, pg 53.

[13] Limerick, pg.20

[14] Andres Resendez, Changing National Identities on the Frontier: Texas and New Mexico, 1800-1850, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

Lynn Hunt’s Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution

f-liberty In her work Politics, Culture and Class in the French Revolution, Lynn Hunt examined the transformation of political culture in France during the last decades of the eighteenth century. In Part I of her book, Hunt argued that the origin and legacy of the French Revolution are fundamentally political because the failed political culture of the ancien regime precipitated its fall, and the political culture developed by revolutionaries dynamically articulated the collective intentions and expectations of revolutionaries while also giving rise to a democratic republican tradition that remains the political standard of many nations to this day. Hunt argued for this thesis by illustrating how the idea of “politics” changed from an abstract concept often reserved for social elites to ponder, into a tangible, compelling force that infused the daily life of thousands with potency and significance. Hunt defined political culture as the “values, expectations and implicit rules that expressed and shaped the collective intent and actions,” and used this definition as a lens through which to examine the symbolism, ritual, and innovation of the revolutionaries in France and the impact that revolutionary tradition had on the larger world community. (10)

Hunt’s analysis was an elaboration on, and in some cases a rebuttal of, previous interpretations of the origins and outcomes of the French Revolution. Marxist, Revisionist and Modernist scholars tended to ignore the political culture of the revolutionaries and focused instead on the social implications, be they class struggle, status anxiety, or the eventual equality of subjects; yet according to Hunt the revolution transformed politics, but largely left social and economic realities unchanged . Hunt did not disregard previous scholarship; instead she builds her argument upon the assumptions, fallacies, and brilliance of other scholars, making particular use of Mona Ozouf’s work on revolutionary festivals and Maurice Agulhon’s study of revolutionary seals and statues.

In order to convincingly portray the collective intent and expectations that motivated and united the revolutionaries, Hunt used the symbolic practices, rhetorical cohesion and political mobilization of the lower classes as evidence. Hunt recounted the proliferation of liberty trees, festivals, pamphlets, signs, republican catechisms, and tri-color cockades, revealing the vast numbers of such symbols. Once the scope of such popular imagery was established, Hunt concluded that these symbolic practices reflected and shaped the politicization of the French people. Hunt contextualized abstract concepts such as the “mythic present” and other revolutionary ideology within the Enlightenment ideals and conspiratorial threats that bound the revolutionaries together. She cited rhetoric found in speeches, plays, periodicals and instructional books. Hunt used the reorganization and renaming of temporal and special terms, the repetition of meaningful words such as nation, constitution, and patrie, and the usage of revolutionary talking points as evidence to prove the revolutionaries were intent on remaking society while disavowing the past. The very massive amount of words printed, published and spoken about politics during that time persuasively communicated the proliferation of rhetoric, and Hunt used that proliferation to demonstrate the common belief that words could have power and that powerful words could change mankind. The evidence of the politicization of the lower classes was found in the sheer volume of French people involved in elections, political clubs, festivals, marches and publications. Hunt tied this evidence of politicization to her thesis by stating that this level of fervent political involvement was entirely new and accompanied by the belief that politics was “an instrument for reshaping human nature” (49).

In her examination of the political culture of the French Revolution, Lynn Hunt used a rhetorical style that was at once practical and provocative. Her ability to tie abstract concepts to the details of daily life in Revolutionary France gave her narrative powerful credibility and her confident writing style was both convincing and compelling. While a testament to careful scholarship, Politics, Culture and Class in the French Revolution, carried with it no obvious underlying valuational, moral or political point but instead provided insightful analysis founded in meticulous research.

© Feather Crawford Freed

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A Study of Subaltern Studies

f-indiaArticles by the historians and social theorists Ranajit Guha, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Vinay Bahl, Florencia Mallon and others, examine the origin, development, and potential of Subaltern Studies within the academic community. The selected works discussed below address the social and economic implications of this post-colonial approach to historical interpretation. Introduced in India by historian Ranajit Guha in the early 1980s, Subaltern Studies departs from both colonial and Marxist interpretations of the popular experience of the Indian people under colonial domination, seeking to recognize the agency and purpose embedded in their insurgency and resistance.

In Selected Subaltern Studies, Guha enumerates the dangers and limitations of the historiography of colonial India and suggests a new way to read official and administrative colonial archive records. His treatment of institutionalized colonial dishonesty is dynamic and successful as he offers analytical tools that enable historians to ‘read against the grain’ as they cull colonial archives, and recognize the “code of pacification” (Guha 59) that obscures the power and intent of subaltern insurgency. Using concepts of hegemony and resistance first articulated by Antonio Gramsci, Guha makes a profound contribution to the academic effort to separate the historian’s perspective from that of the state.

In his article Subaltern Studies and Postcolonial Historiography, Chakrabarty explains Subaltern Studies’ radical departure from Marxist historiography and offers a reasonable defense of Subaltern Studies in the face of recent criticism. Chakrabarty lists Subaltern Studies points of departure from previous historical interpretations of power and agency: (a) power is multi-dimensional and separate from capital (b) power bases exist outside of the center-periphery paradigm (c) the nation state is not the best basis for definitions of political activity. With the foundation for Subalternists’ perception of power and agency specified, the reader comprehends the radical paradigm shift represented by this new interpretation. If peasants are not backward and ‘pre-political’, but instead active agent in their own political destiny, experiencing “dominance without hegemony” (Chakrabarty 21) and consciously inverting colonial codes of behavior and destroying colonial symbols of power, then their previously dismissed forms of resistance gain legitimacy. The weakness in this approach stems from the types of archival sources available to scholars looking for evidence that the Subaltern was the “maker of his own destiny” (Chakrabarty 22). Often at a loss for written transcripts of Subaltern experience such as diaries or letters, Subalternists must look at the actions of the Subalterns to access the “collective imagination inherent in the practices of peasant rebellion” (Chakrabarty 23). When historians interpret the actions of a wide swathe of largely illiterate individuals and define their intentions and experiences, they run the risks of producing scholarship rife with assumption, projection, and ultimately, elitism.

Marxist historian Bahl offers criticisms of Subaltern Studies in her article Situating and Rethinking Subaltern Studies for Writing Working Class History that point out the archival limitations mentioned above, as well as many other issues. Concerned with the abandonment of the Marxist paradigm, Bahl attacks the academic origins and social implications of Subaltern Studies. For example, Bahl points to the Western influences apparent in Subaltern Studies and questions the legitimacy of an approach that at once rejects Western historiography and relies on Western tools of historical interpretation such as postmodernism in order to replace examination of class consciousness with inquiry into the production of meaning. This argument is not compelling, as it implies academic integrity somehow follows from an ethnocentric censorship of ideas. Concerns with the social implications of Subaltern Studies are more convincing, as the world situation reflects many of the fears articulated by Bahl. The replacement of the ideas of class consciousness and struggle with the focus on identity and ‘difference’ provide the language that enables academics, economists and politicians to ignore the material reality of the poor and its underlying causes, and to abandon the struggle against exploitation and inequality.

Bahl, and Arif Derlik, offer a more nuanced and profound critique of Subaltern Studies in the introduction to the book, History after the Three Worlds. They voice fears that Postmodernism, Multiculturalism and Sublternism will be but tools in the hands of dominant social and economic powers, tools with which they will render indigenous cultures more manageable and profitable. The article, The Promise and Dilemma of Subaltern Studies, by Florencia Mallon, is a provocative addition to this debate, as it credits the advent of Subaltern Studies for providing alternatives to Eurocentric historiography, while acknowledging the contradictions within Subaltern Studies, for example the way it minimizes issues such as gender, and within subalterns themselves, as they are often both the dominators and the dominated.

© Feather Crawford Freed
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James Welch’s Fools Crow


The Pikuni people of James Welch’s novel Fools Crow were motivated by a number of interrelated and often complementary priorities, among them personal honor, collective strength, spiritual harmony and power, family relationships, and individual desires. Often, an individual’s pursuit of a good life improved the community’s fortune and status. The collective Pikuni society, in turn, valued the community’s long-term health and viability, and the happiness of individual tribal members. Fools Crow best characterized this symbiotic relationship with his dual quest for personal fulfillment and tribal survival. Other times, individual desires were at odds with good of the larger community, as were those of Kills-too-close-to-the-lake, or dangerous to the existence to the Pikuni people, as was the case with Fast Horse. Using these three examples, this paper will examine the ways personal values and motivations intersected with the greater good of the Pikuni society, and probe more deeply into what it meant for a Pikuni to live a good life at this time.

White Man’s Dog’s desires for status, wealth, and family matched his tribe’s need for accomplished men with strong medicine that was evident through their success as warriors, hunters, and husbands. White Man’s Dog’s desire for horses and a lodge of his own led him on a warrior’s path, and exaggerated tales of his bravery during the raid on the Crow brought honor and prestige to the Lone Eaters and White Man’s Dog, and transformed him into Fools Crow. Fools Crow did not need to lose his own identity to that of the Lone Eaters, but instead worked within the social space of the tribe to achieve personal and collective satisfaction. For example, he rejected his father’s choice of Little Bird Woman as a wife, even though the marriage would have benefited his family, and added to the status of the Lone Eaters, and instead pursed the emotional and physical attraction he felt for Red Paint. However, his marriage to Red Paint was also a union of his own personal desires and the greater good, he was able to marry for love while also supporting Yellow Kidney’s family, and the integrity of the tribal collective. A vital aspect to Fools Crow’s conception of a good life was his growing spiritual power and understanding, and his medicine contributed to the tribe, both as a practical augmentation of the Lone Eaters’ prestige, and as a conduit of warning and wisdom that could prevent the extinction of the tribe. Fools Crow recognized how his own choices and values merged with the needs and motivations of his tribe. As he searched for Fast Horse, he understood the appeal of individualism, of finding his identity and happiness outside of the layers of responsibility he had to his tribe, but he continued to find his personal satisfaction within his pursuit of the greater good of his people.

Kills-too-close-to-the-lake could not find her personal satisfaction within her ability to contribute to the strength, status, or health of the Lone Eaters. As a third wife, she had fewer opportunities to improve her position than did Fools Crow, and far less space in her family or tribe to find a way to live a good life. Perhaps motherhood would have bought her happiness and allowed her to satisfy her needs and desires, while also benefiting Pikuni society. Instead Kills-too-close-to-the-lake experienced a destructive kind of loneliness that prompted her to seek emotional and physical connection with her husband’s sons. Her choices were at odds with the motivations of Pikuni society, and instead of building the next generation, she risked the disgrace of Rides-at-the-door, and the potential divisions this could foster within the tribe. However, Kill-too-close-to-the-lake’s self-centered choices were understood by her husband as a reflection of his own failings as a spouse and tribal elder who sought to display his wealth by taking a third wife. Ultimately, Kills-to-close-to-the-lake was given a second chance to return to her family and seek both personal happiness and a position within her community, illustrating the ability of Pikuni society to negotiate the tension between individual and collective priorities.

Fast Horse chose to engage in behavior that endangered Pikuni society. His violence against whites threatened the safety of his people, his rejection of Pikuni values deprived the Lone Eaters of a warrior and husband, and his life with Owl Child deeply hurt the people who loved him. His inability to integrate his desires for individual acclaim and personal pride into a community-oriented set of motivations and values manifested during the raid on the Crows, when his vision undermined the confidence of the war party and his boasting compromised the safety of Yellow Kidney. After he left the Lone Eaters, Fast Horse lived a life without accountability, as Fools Crow had imagined, yet his values and choices remained linked to his Pikuni community. His hatred of whites sprang from his need to resist the threat that the Napikwans posed to future generations of Pikuni people, and he shared this motivation with other Pikunis, Like Mountain Chief. Fast Horse did not reject the Pikuni understanding of a good life as much as he reflected the growing powerlessness of Pikuni people to live a good life in the face of massacres, diseases, and settlements. He recognized the harm that could come to the Lone Eaters as a result of his actions, but there was no tribal mechanism in place to bridge this chasm and bring him back into the community. The love, family and friendship that Fools Crow offered Fast Horse could not mend the damage Fast Horse’s destructive choices had wrought.

In many ways, the cleavage between Fast Horse and the Lone Eaters reflected the divisions within the larger Pikuni society in the wake of white encroachment. The congruous relationship between the motivations of Pikuni society and the values of individual Pikuni people was not fragile, as shown by Fools Crow’s transformation and growth, and Kills-too-close-to-the-lake’s second chance at a good life. Yet the balance between the individual and the collective was ultimately compromised by the invasion of the “seizers”, and the opportunities for Pikuni people to combine community responsibility with personal satisfaction in order to achieve a good life were diminished and complicated, but not destroyed. Fools Crow demonstrated the ability of individual Pikunis to pursue survival as an expression of both self and collective, and provided hope that the intricate system of Pikuni values and motivations would survive.

© Feather Crawford Freed
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