(This is an expanded version of an article that appeared
in the October 18-24, 1997 issue of the COLONY REPORTER)
In 19th century Mexico, most of the intellectuals were firmly on the liberal side. The scholar-scientist Melchor Ocampo, the law professor Santos Degollado, the historian- essayist Justo Sierra, the poet Guillermo Prieto, the towering Benito Juárez — all were influenced by the views of the English utilitarians (“the greatest good for the greatest number”) or the ideals of the French and American revolutions. The right, on the other hand, was the natural preserve of anti-progressive large landowners, reactionary clergy and military men anxious to retain their privileges — none of these elements known for intellectual prowess.
An exception to this pattern of bright liberal-dumb conservative was Lucas Alamán, a conspicuously intellectual defender of the status quo who stood out like a bird of brilliant plumage among a host of drably feathered Bishops, hacienda owners and (except for their uniforms) Generals.
Alamán, born in Guanajuato, derived from a wealthy mining family that had been accepted into the Spanish nobility. His Spanish títle, which he retained until Mexican independence, was Marquis of San Clemente. As a youth, he studied chemistry and mineralogy in Germany and chemistry and natural sciences in Paris. Despite this high-tech background, it was as a historian that Alamán would achieve his greatest distinction. His life spanned such momentous events as the struggle for independence and the war with the United States. He died four years before the outbreak of the Reform War (1857-60), when the liberals, led by Benito Juárez, defeated their conservative foes after the most savage internar bloodletting in Mexico’s history.
Though Alamán accepted the idea of an independent Mexico (he was unhappy with liberal influences that he saw creeping into Spain), he preferred a monarchical form of government and would dearly have enjoyed functioning as minister in a monarchy ruled by a Bourbon prince. Since this was not a popular option in Mexico, Alamán resigned himself to serving a republican government. But throughout his life he never let up in his efforts to make conservative principles prevail. In 1846, the year the war with the United States began, Mexico’s president was General Mariano Paredes Arillaga, a Catholic conservative. Paredes, who looked to Alamán for intellectual direction, declared that “we seek a strong, stable power which can protect society; but to protect that society we do not want either the despotic dictatorship or the degrading yoke of the orator.”
Though the words are those of Paredes, there is little doubt that the “ventriloquist” was Alamán. Paredes’s declaration paved the way for Alamán to publicly revive the Plan de Iguala, one that would set up a Mexican monarchy with a European prince on the throne.
If Alamán believed that an imported European ruler would block U.S. expansionist designs, he was too late. Hostilities broke out in April of 1846 and early American victories in northern Mexico resulted in the fall of Paredes. To Alamán’s consternation, Paredes was replaced as president by Santa Anna, who had no fixed ideological convictions. Even worse for Alamán was the choice of Valentín Gómez Farías, an outspoken liberal, as vice-president.
Where many conservatives are hostile to the idea of big government, Alamán was a classic Hamiltonian in his conviction that a strong executive should act as an engine of economic progress. Serving as Minister of the Interior and Foreign Affairs in the rightist government of General Anastasio Bustamante, Alamán reflected Hamilton’s advocacy of a strong central bank by organizing the powerful Banco de Avio. Through this institution he was able to create textile industries in Celaya and Orizaba, improve cattle raising and favorably renegotiate Mexico’s debt with European creditors. Alamán’s creative initiatives in the textile field are dramatically apparent from these figures: in 1838, factories produced 63,000 pounds of yarn and in 1884 over 10 million. Figures for bolts of cloth in the same installations are 45,000 in 1837 and 656,000 in 1845.
Though the Bustamante government made economic progress and rendered Mexico virtually bandit free, its repressive attitude toward civil liberties outraged many liberals. Taking advantage of their discontent, that supreme opportunist Antonio López de Santa Anna overthrew Bustamante in 1832. Santa Anna’s defeat at San Jacinto (and the disgraceful treaty he signed) caused his overthrow in 1836 and the return of Bustamante from England to rule as military dictator. Remaining prominent in government throughout these shifts of power, Alamán warned against the growing power of the United States and attempted to set up a bloc of Latin American nations to resist U.S. expansion.
Alamán blamed Mexico’s defeat in the ensuing war on the liberals, declaring that “(they) have brought us nothing but one appalling disaster after another.” Eternally favoring a European prince to reign over Mexico, he recommended in early 1853 that Santa Anna rule as military dictator until a claimant could be found to accept the throne. Though Alamán was too clever to have any illusions about the vainglorious Santa Anna, he believed he could control him and curb his extravagance. But Alamán died June 2 and within a year the free-spending Santa Anna had looted the Treasury and reduced Mexico to bankruptcy.
Along with his career as a public man, Alamán drew widespread admiration for his historical writing, the latter combining a wealth of research and analysis with a clear, lapidary style. Among his best-known works are “History of Mexico” (1849-52) and “Dissertation on the History of the Mexican Republic” (1844-49). Multiple dates are given because Alamán was popular enough a writer to have these works serialized in “Mexico Independiente,” a leading newspaper of his day. Alamán also wrote a celebrated essay on the “Causes of Decadence in New Spain” and, harking back to his earlier intellectual formation, a “Report on Mining.” The report was a cornucopia of useful information on an area he knew perhaps better than any other.
Not content to limit his cultural activity to writíng, Alamán used his position as a public official to found the General Record of the Nation, the Museum of Antiquities and the Natural History Museum.
In his day and among later historiaras, many were appalled by what they perceived as the elitism of Alamán. But none ever questioned his integrity or intelligence.