A vintage illustration of a steam train crossing a bridge over a river with a town and mountains in the background, surrounded by lush greenery.

Orizaba (desde el puente de Paso del Toro) (1877) by Casimiro Castro. From Album of the Mexican Railway. Courtesy of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas


Reconstructed hemisphere

In the 19th century, civil wars tore apart the US, Mexico and Argentina. Then came democracy’s fight against reaction

by Evan C Rothera + BIO

Orizaba (desde el puente de Paso del Toro) (1877) by Casimiro Castro. From Album of the Mexican Railway. Courtesy of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas

Contrary to popular belief, Europe was not the locus of democracy and republicanism in the 19th century. That honour belonged to the Americas. The Western Hemisphere contained the vast majority of the world’s functioning republics. People looked to the Americas, not to Europe, when they thought about democracy and republicanism. They scrutinised the United States and the nations of Latin America, both to highlight the virtues of democracy and republicanism as well as to sneer at their vices.

European liberals and many members of the middle and lower classes saw in the Americas models to emulate and progress to cheer. They praised the nations of the Americas and ardently hoped they would succeed and vindicate republicanism as a model of government. In contrast, European royals, aristocrats and reactionaries grew nervous when they heard people praising the Americas, because they knew republicanism undermined their power and control. Thus, they frequently derided democracy and republicanism as unstable, tumultuous and messy. They believed most republics were not far away from collapse at any given moment.

Interestingly, they were not entirely wrong about American republics in the sense that these nations were sometimes unstable and riven by internal conflicts about the contours and limits of citizenship and suffrage. Furthermore, American nations experienced severe and concerted internal challenges. Most of them endured a civil war or multiple civil wars. After the wars ended, each country then faced a period of reconstruction, when the victors of that particular violent conflict faced the challenges of putting the country back together. This included enacting their particular visions of the future and pacifying insurgencies.

Also contrary to popular belief, reconstruction was not a phenomenon that occurred exclusively in the US, but, rather, one that took place throughout the Americas as the victors attempted to knit the sinews of shattered nations back together. Traditionally defined, the period of Reconstruction (with an upper-case R) took place in the US from 1863-77. During these years, Republicans passed three constitutional amendments that ended slavery, granted citizenship to African Americans, and mandated that the right to vote could not be abridged on the basis of colour. Republican governments, voted into power by coalitions of African American and white voters, attempted to remake the southern states. However, angry, embittered white ex-rebels utilised voter fraud, social and economic coercion and paramilitary violence to overthrow these governments, a process they called ‘redeeming’ their states from Republican rule.

The historiography of Reconstruction in the US, not to mention current discussions of Reconstruction in the US, often tends toward myopia. Much of the attention to Reconstruction today concerns whether the US is living through another iteration of Reconstruction. Historians of Reconstruction have largely written about this period as if the rest of the world did not exist.

In contrast, adopting a broad gaze and thinking about reconstructions (with a lower-case r) throughout the Western Hemisphere illuminates some of the many similarities and parallels, often hidden or overlooked, among the US and the nations of Latin America. The US together with Mexico, Argentina and other Latin American nations all experienced civil wars and, subsequently, periods of reconstruction where the victors had to figure out how to put shattered nations back together. They happened throughout the Americas and were not unique or particular to one country. The wave of civil wars and reconstructions that took place in the 19th-century Western Hemisphere were part of a hemispheric trend that pitted democracy and republicanism against the forces of reaction. Examples from the US, Mexico and Argentina illustrate that reconstructions truly were an American (hemispheric) phenomenon.

The victors in many American countries sought to enact programmes of internal improvement during their respective reconstructions. What would be called infrastructural development today, they included building canals, roads, railroads and stringing telegraph wires. One scholar described the government projects under the Argentine president Domingo F Sarmiento as a ‘crescendo of works initiated and pursued’. Sarmiento founded a military college, erected a national observatory, and funded the construction of hundreds of miles of roads and railroad lines and 3,000 miles of telegraph wires.

Huamantla (Tomado desde el Puente de Sn Lucas) (1877) by Casimiro Castro

Republicans during the US Civil War created what one scholar called the blueprint for modern America, which included the Legal Tender Act (25 February 1862); the Homestead Act (20 May 1862); the Pacific Railway Act (1 July 1862); and the Morrill Land Grant College Act (2 July 1862). The US railroad grid expanded tremendously, and, by the end of the 1860s, the first transcontinental railroads linked the eastern and western coasts of the country. Reconstructed governments in the southern states offered deals to lure railroads to their states, expanded educational access and spending, and attempted to create social services infrastructure. Mexico also saw expansion in the country’s total railroad miles. People from the US worked with Mexicans to build railroads and develop the country’s infrastructure. The governments of presidents Benito Juárez, Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada and, later, Porfirio Díaz, like Sarmiento in Argentina and Republicans in the US, feverishly constructed roads and other internal improvements.

Many countries throughout the hemisphere increased the miles of telegraph wires, roads and railroads; these developments did not just occur in the US, Mexico and Argentina. Throughout the hemisphere, ambitious infrastructure projects linked hinterlands and peripheries to cores, revolutionizing life for many farmers who sought to transport their goods to urban centres. Furthermore, internal improvements played a vital role in knitting the sinews of countries together and helped conquer space.

Educating formerly enslaved people who had been kept illiterate would help erase some of the legacies of slavery

Internal improvements also reduced the size of people’s worlds and helped them feel more interconnected, just as various forms of social media have done in a more pronounced way over the past generation. Roads, railroads and telegraph wires helped strengthen governments and reduced the possibility of future rebellions by facilitating the movement of troops to areas in rebellion. The US Civil War had demonstrated that railroads held tremendous potential for moving larger bodies of troops quickly, and governments throughout the Americas took note. Infrastructure, in other words, played a key role in the visions of victorious liberals and in the ways they sought to reconstruct their nations.

Education, another type of internal improvement, also received a great deal of attention from the victors. As president of Argentina, Sarmiento did a great deal to develop his country’s educational system, a project that had occupied his attention for decades, using some ideas and concepts he’d encountered on his journeys to the US. Republicans in the US and liberals in Mexico also emphasised the importance of education. For Republicans and other liberal-minded reformers, educating formerly enslaved people, whom their enslavers had sought to keep illiterate, would help erase some of the legacies of slavery. In Mexico, liberals also sought to develop the country’s education infrastructure and decrease illiteracy rates.

Liberal policymakers across the Americas understood that an educated citizenry is the only solid basis for a functional government and one of the best bulwarks against tyranny. Education could have a coercive or disciplinary effect, as some scholars have argued, but many people saw the importance of education and clamoured for more schools, teachers and funding. In the US, for example, African Americans demanded education, and many people supported this aspiration, because they understood that African Americans would serve as a counterweight to the rebels and help Republicans win political power in many states. Policymakers considered education a critical component of their country’s reconstructions and a way to strengthen the nations that emerged from the crucible of civil wars.

Critically, some of the policies and reforms that the victors pursued had profoundly negative effects. For example, liberal statesmen in the US and Mexico deliberately undermined communal landholding by Indigenous people. In many respects, this was part of a much broader process of trying to force Indigenous people to assimilate. That said, expropriating land also opened up avenues of gain for middle-class landholders and speculators, while undermining one of the key bases of Indigenous life. In the US, the same national state that was relatively unwilling to be too draconian when it came to the southern states found no problem using coercive force to subdue Native Americans in the western states and territories. In Argentina, la Conquista del Desierto (the Conquest of the Desert) saw similar policies of removal, dispossession and conquest enacted against Indigenous people. State-sponsored campaigns against Indigenous people predated reconstructions and continued after they ended but were also part of reconstructions in many American nations.

Victorious liberal policymakers considered themselves part of what one newspaper called ‘the great liberal party of the world’. This phrase referred to a group of Atlantic-world liberals in many different countries, including the United Kingdom, France, the US, Mexico and Argentina, who worked to enact a broad array of ideas and policies, some of which gained the approbation of their contemporaries, others of which did not. The discontented throughout the Americas, a group that included the vanquished from each conflict as well as a growing number of the victors, became increasingly angry and bitter about the ways that their worlds were changing. They did not like how the policies of the victorious liberals fuelled these changes. Consequently, they took matters into their own hands and embraced violence as a strategy to undo or roll back reconstructions. Indeed, the discontented took up violence to turn back the clock, resist the new worlds that the victors attempted to create during their reconstructions, and win power for themselves.

Although people often believe that the surrender of armies means the end of violence, this was not always the case in the Americas. Violence often did not end with the surrender of the enemy forces. In the US, for example, after the surrender of rebel armies led by Robert E Lee, Joseph E Johnston and Stand Watie, former rebels returned home, but they did not suddenly embrace peace. Instead, many of them quickly adopted violence as a strategy to win the peace following the war they lost. This violence took various forms. It ranged from individual attacks against African Americans and their white Republican allies to larger-scale violent episodes by paramilitary groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Furthermore, especially as Reconstruction continued in the US, the vanquished and their allies launched more and more audacious assaults against local and state governments and officials, which eventually resulted in the overthrow of duly-elected governments in the southern states. This wave of violence has led recent scholars to contend that there was a war against Reconstruction, a continuation of the US Civil War by somewhat different means.

In Mexico, the War of the Reform (1857-61) resulted in the triumph of the liberal government under Juárez, but this vicious civil war did not end with the liberal victory. Juárez suspended debt payments; the UK, Spain and France intervened in Mexico; and France, determined to recreate the New World empire it had lost several generations before, committed military force to overthrow Juárez’s government (at this point, the UK and Spain, who just wanted to get paid, withdrew).

Mexican conservatives, who had fought the liberals for years, allied with the French. They played a critical role in helping the French take control of Mexico and in persuading the Austrian archduke Ferdinand Maximilian to take the throne of a new Mexican empire. Although it seemed for a moment like civil war had ended in 1861, in reality, it had entered a new phase that did not end until the defeat of Maximilian and his conservative collaborators in 1867. Even after the war ended, violence continued in Mexico, although, unlike the US, this violence often took place between groups of victorious liberals. The conservatives, who had been almost irrevocably tainted by their collaboration with the French and Maximilian functionally ceased to be a coherent political party. But this did not make Mexico any more peaceful. Different claimants to state and local offices often attempted to take possession of them by force. Porfirio Díaz, one of the liberal heroes of the French Intervention, tried to overthrow the national government on multiple occasions and succeeded in doing so in 1876-77. While not a member of the vanquished, Díaz, one of the discontented victors, embraced violence to win power.

Portrait of Porfirio Díaz, 19th century. Courtesy of INAH, Mexico

In Argentina, the triumph of the forces of Buenos Aires over those of the Argentine Confederation at the battle of Pavón in 1861 did not end the violence of the decades-long Wars of Unification. Many gauchos and caudillos in the interior resented and resisted the new federal government based in Buenos Aires. Consequently, the federal government launched pacification campaigns into the Argentine interior. These campaigns could be brutal. Sarmiento, then governor of the Province of San Juan was accused of ordering the assassination of El Chacho, one of the most prominent leaders. Furthermore, violence continued long after the pacification campaign ended. Case in point, the former president of the Argentine Confederation, Justo José de Urquiza, retired to the province of Entre Ríos after the battle of Pavón, and the federal government left him alone. Urquiza ran for president in 1868 but lost to Sarmiento. Several years later, Urquiza was assassinated by some of his former allies who had become disgusted with his increasingly warm relationship with the national government. In sum, the vanquished, as well as the victors, often continued fighting long after civil wars had ended.

Mexico enacted the most draconian policies against the vanquished in their civil war

The victors faced two important decisions regarding violence. First, whether executions following civil wars were a good idea. Second, what to do with people who rebelled during reconstructions. As regards the first question, Andrew Johnson, who became president of the US following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, was famous for saying that ‘treason must be made odious and traitors must be punished and impoverished.’ These sentiments notwithstanding, Johnson followed a very lenient course and pardoned many rebels. Henry Wirz, the commandant of the infamous civil war prison Andersonville was hanged for war crimes, but leading rebel generals were not.

Argentina’s civil war had been prolonged and brutal, but the victors at Pavón did not hang their enemies wholesale. There was a tacit agreement, for example, to let Urquiza retire to Entre Ríos. Even El Chacho, had he been willing to stop his rebellions, could have lived out his days in relative peace. In Mexico, Juárez’s forces captured Maximilian after the siege of Querétaro. Europeans and some people in the US begged Juárez not to execute Maximilian in order to demonstrate that Mexicans could be merciful and show clemency to their enemies. Juárez was unconvinced by these arguments and believed Maximilian had to be executed as a lesson to anyone who sought to violate Mexico’s sovereignty and overthrow democratically elected governments.

The Execution of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico (1867) by Édouard Manet. Courtesy of the Ny Carlsberg Glypotec, Copenhagen/Wikipedia

Maximilian was executed along with generals Miguel Miramón and Tomás Mejía. Long-time Juárez foe and imperial collaborator Santiago Vidaurri was also executed. Mexico thus enacted the most draconian policies against the vanquished in their civil war, but it is worth noting that Mexico’s course was hardly sanguinary. The US senator Benjamin F Wade of Ohio thought Johnson should execute about a baker’s dozen of the rebels, and Mexico was nowhere near as draconian as Wade’s (lenient) suggestion.

For those people who took up violence during reconstructions, national governments faced decisions about how they should be punished, if at all. Up to a certain point, national governments in the US, Mexico and Argentina proved that they could put down rebellions and suppress violence. In the US, for example, after securing legislation from Congress, the president Ulysses S Grant broke the back of the Ku Klux Klan in South Carolina.

In Argentina, when disaffected former associates assassinated Urquiza, Sarmiento sent an army to pursue and defeat them. Several years later, when the former president Bartolomé Mitre led a rebellion after he lost the presidential election of 1874, the government responded forcefully to put down the rebellion. In Mexico, the government frequently intervened to stop electoral violence at the state and local levels. When Díaz began a rebellion after he lost the presidential election of 1871, the government moved to suppress it.

The liberal dreams of policymakers did not survive the violence of the discontented

The problem came when leaders began to enact policies of amnesty, which allowed failed rebels to go home unpunished. Grant broke the back of the Klan, to be sure, but other paramilitary groups took its place, and Republicans began to grow less and less willing to intervene in the southern states.

In the aftermath of the 1874 rebellion in Argentina, the government did punish some of the perpetrators, but very leniently. When Juárez died in 1872, Díaz’s rebellion was still raging. Juárez’s successor, Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada, issued an amnesty proclamation that ended the rebellion, but Díaz was allowed to retire to his hacienda and plan his next revolt. In other words, amnesty often gave rebels another chance to perfect a revolution. Díaz succeeded in 1876-77 and so did rebels throughout the southern states in the US. The problem here is that, while nations could and did exercise a monopoly on coercive force, they eventually began to turn to amnesties or to refuse to intervene in violent episodes. Failed rebels thus became emboldened to try again.

By the 1880s, many nations throughout the Americas embraced a similar path to order, one that fetishised stability and involved the disenfranchisement of large sectors of the population. In the US, Republicans allowed former rebels to run their states and focused on winning elections at the national level. This eventually led to the institution of Jim Crow segregation and the disenfranchisement of the vast majority of African Americans in the southern states. In Mexico, Díaz’s rebellion in 1876-77 succeeded and placed him in the presidency. Díaz proceeded to rule Mexico for decades, until the eruption of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. In Argentina, a conservative order rose to power in 1880 and governed the country until the liberalisation of the suffrage in the 1910s. In sum, the liberal dreams of many of the policymakers discussed in this essay did not survive the violence of the discontented, and governments chose order and stability, at the expense of many people’s rights.

On 6 January 2021, a mob stormed the US Capitol. The US Representative Mike Gallagher labelled the events of that day as ‘banana republic crap’. The former president George W Bush called what happened ‘a sickening and heartbreaking sight’ and declared that ‘this is how election results are disputed in a banana republic.’ There is, of course, a certain irony in using the term ‘banana republic’ to describe what happened on 6 January 2021. After all, the United Fruit Company and the US played a major role in creating so-called ‘banana republics’ in Latin America during the late 19th and 20th centuries. Furthermore, the term ‘banana republic’ draws a sharp line between the US and other nations in the hemisphere. Banana republics, the people who invoke the phrase contend, behave in such a manner; the US does not. ‘Banana republic crap’ is a pungent denunciation, but it obscures more than it reveals. Despite the tendency to argue that the events of 6 January had never happened before in the US and were more akin to the behaviour of banana republics, overthrowing governments occurred with alarming regularity during Reconstruction.

Reconstruction occurred in the US and reconstructions occurred throughout the Western Hemisphere in the 19th century. It is critical to understand that the first was part and parcel of a broader hemispheric process, one that many nations in the Americas experienced. Although the US often likes to see itself as separate or apart from the rest of the hemisphere (hence, ‘banana republic crap’), the country is nevertheless part of the history of the hemisphere and Reconstruction is one component of that broader history. In enacting their visions for their nations after civil wars, liberals in the US, Mexico and Argentina emphasised internal improvement as well as education. Both were part of a broader programme to reduce violence and ensure that civil wars did not occur again. However, the vanquished, and some discontented victors, rebelled against the policies the victors enacted. Thus, strategies designed to reduce violence often created more violence as people took up arms to overthrow governments.

Democracy and republicanism are fragile, constantly under siege by the forces of reaction. Recent years have underlined some of the fragility of democracy, both in the US and elsewhere. Nations throughout the Americas can and should learn important lessons from thinking about how their histories fit into broader Americans trends.