Latin American independence has spawned tens of thousands of books, articles, novels, plays, films, songs, statues, and public commemorations. Such a prodigious output is a testament to the romance and power of the era, but it is also indicative of the degree to which the meaning of independence remains contested. Was independence merely the substitution of a creole elite for a foreign one, a nonevent that left the essential power structure unchanged? Or was it a sincere attempt to reimagine the relationship between the governors and the governed, to invite previously excluded elements into the national body and create something new? Was it fundamentally liberal or conservative? Was it inspired by revolutionary ideas, or was it the result of internal social and economic tensions? Despite two centuries of serious research, and just as much political polemicizing, the events and personalities of Latin American independence remain the subject of passionate debate, with very little resolution. The earliest histories of independence were created by participants who wrote memoirs as an extension of their statecraft. The subsequent generation of 19th-century historians published massive, multivolume histories to legitimize their own political agendas. In the 20th century, the independence era was reinterpreted according to new political ideologies. Marxist historians characterized the creole elites as a collaborator class who served global capital. Underdevelopment theorists saw it as the era in which the cycle of systemic poverty began. Nationalists lauded great military heroes and stressed the patriotic actions of the armed forces and failures of the civilian politicians. By the 1970s, a new generation of social historians began to study the experiences of women, indigenous people, and slaves. The most significant recent directions in research have been fourfold. First, scholars now see it as a period of transition rather than a distinct break. It has become common to consider independence through the lens of a much longer time frame, typically something like 1750–1850. Second, there has been a shift away from the study of great heroes and military or diplomatic events toward an examination of the lived experience and contributions of real people. Third, the independence movements are now considered part of trends that characterized the broader Atlantic World. Finally, there is renewed emphasis on independence as an internal struggle within the Spanish Empire, pitting liberals against traditionalists on both sides of the Atlantic.
Not surprisingly, general overviews of Latin American independence have tended to take a bird’s-eye view of events. Because the major events spanned three continents over several decades, authors have found it easiest and most comprehensible to write their accounts from the perspective of a disintegrating empire that resulted in triumphantly emerging nation-states. It remains an almost insuperable challenge to write a general history that is able to depict the chronological sweep of public, political events while at the same time providing a sense of the tremendous variation in regional, class, ethnic, and gendered experiences. Since its appearance in 1973, the most widely cited general history remains Lynch 1986, which offers a clear, straightforward narrative account of the military and political events. Since that time, others have revisited the challenge of writing a comprehensive account in ways that reflect emerging interpretations. In the 1980s, as military regimes throughout Spanish America gave way to civilian governments and a vibrant democratic Spain reasserted itself in the wake of Franco’s demise, scholars started to emphasize the ancient roots of Spanish liberalism. In this vein, Costeloe 1986 and Rodríguez O. 1998 emphasize the many strong reformist agendas within the Spanish Empire, thus complicating the tendency to see colonists as liberal heroes and imperial administrators as reactionary villains. Kinsbruner 1994 adds a more overtly political slant by characterizing independence as a civil war with a significant element of class struggle. Langley 1996 is particularly concerned with the nature of leadership in the context of Atlantic revolutions. The more recent accounts by Voss 2002 and Chasteen 2008 have gone further than the rest by treating the daily experiences of common folk as a central concern rather than something merely added in for colorful human interest.
Chasteen, John Charles. Americanos: Latin America’s Struggle for Independence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Fast-paced, dramatic account of the events of Latin American independence by a historian adept at blending scholarship with storytelling. Chasteen focuses on the creation of a new sense of American-ness and emphasizes heroic personalities.
Costeloe, Michael P. Response to Revolution: Imperial Spain and the Spanish American Revolutions, 1810–1840. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Finds that the Spanish public was more concerned with events closer to home than with the disintegration of the larger empire. Focused mainly on the period after 1814, the book treats the various plans for military counterattacks, the rollback of constitutional concessions previously made by the Regency, the state of the press and public opinion, and the financing of the imperial system in its final years.
Kinsbruner, Jay. Independence in Spanish America: Civil Wars, Revolutions and Underdevelopment. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994.
Brief, readable history of independence that casts it as an anticolonial struggle that descended into intensely partisan civil wars. Integration of the new states into a global capitalist economy has meant that Latin America is caught in a cycle of failed leadership, predatory elites, internal rebellions, and underdeveloped economies.
Langley, Lester D. The Americas in the Age of Revolution, 1750–1850. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1996.
Historian of US foreign policy in Latin America draws connections among the American Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, and the Spanish American independence movements. Places emphasis on the colonial dynamic, race relations, counterrevolution, leadership styles, and the militarization of society to explain the different trajectories and outcomes of the three interrelated events.
Lynch, John. The Spanish American Revolutions, 1808–1826. 2d rev. ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1986.
The standard English-language account of independence since it first appeared in 1973, revised and updated. Offers a narrative overview of the continental process through a series of chapters organized chronologically, with a focus on various national theaters at the center of the broad sweep of events at a particular moment.
Rodríguez O., Jaime E. The Independence of Spanish America. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
A vigorous interpretation of Spanish American independence that undercuts the traditional view of independence as a series of grand battles led by national heroes. Was at the forefront of the new historiographical trend toward viewing popular participation, representative government, and cultural continuity as the major characteristics of the era’s events. Emphasizes independence as a process fully grounded in the notion of liberty and freedom in which people of all races and classes participated.
Voss, Stuart F. Latin America in the Middle Period: 1750–1929. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2002.
Follows a historiographical trend that has become common in the writing of revolutionary history elsewhere to take a longue durée (long-term) approach to the study of a revolutionary event by emphasizing its continuity rather than the abruptness of a dramatic break. Highly readable overview balances the high politics of the era with a significant number of examples of slower shifts in the cultural, economic, and social life of the populace.
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