'The people of South America are the most ignorant, the most bigoted, the most superstitious of all the Roman Catholics in Christendom,' John Adams, the second American president, wrote in 1815. The notion that they could form a 'confederation of free governments', as the Venezuelan revolutionary Francisco de Miranda had proposed, was as 'absurd as similar plans would be to establish democracies among the birds, beasts and fishes'. Until recently, scholars pretty much agreed. The region had plenty of liberals, but a category that includes both Miranda - who corresponded with Thomas Paine, participated in the American and French Revolutions and led Venezuela's break from Spain - and Porfirio Díaz, Mexico's strongman for around 30 years at the turn of the 20th century, is as volatile as the politics that the term 'liberalism' seeks to explain. Historians tended to think that liberalism, which had no roots in the continent, masked a colonial legacy of patrimonial royalism and Catholic monism which produced authoritarians like Díaz and utopians like Miranda, a knight errant, Adams wrote, 'as delirious as his immortal countryman, the ancient hero of La Mancha'.
LRB 22 October 2009 | PDF Download