Book Review

The “Catholic” Tradition of Political Sovereignty

Raúl Coronado, A World Not to Come: A History of Latino Writing and Print Culture (Harvard University Press, 2013) 555 pages.

(The previous entries for the roundtable can be found using the following links: Lilian Calles Barger’s introduction here, Philip Lorenz’s critique here, and Tamar Herzog’s analysis here.)

Review by Ralph Bauer, University of Maryland

As (literary) historians of the Iberian world are acutely aware, there has been a long-standing bias in the historico-philosophical discourse of modernity—from Hegel to Marx to Habermas—that has seen the intellectual, political, and social developments of northern Europe and of Anglo America as paradigmatic. Any (literary) histories that did not follow the examples set by Northern Europe’s movements—from medieval Scholasticism to Renaissance Humanism, the Protestant Reformation, and Enlightenment rationalism; from monarchy to republic and liberal democracy; and from feudalism to mercantilism and economic liberalism—inevitably appeared as ‘backward’ or ‘lagging behind’ in a historical teleology that permitted only one path into modernity. By charting an alternative path into modernity that emphasizes the importance of distinctly Catholic philosophical traditions of political sovereignty, Raúl Coronado makes an important contribution to our understanding of the Latino and Latin American archive.

While focused on the nineteenth century, the book ambitiously reaches back deeply into the sixteenth century by drawing on seminal historical scholarship by Quentin Skinner and others on the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, in particular the latter’s roots in the Neo-Thomism (or Neo-Scholasticism) of the Jesuits. Whereas the Protestant emphasis on grace favored the rise of a theory of the divine rights of kings in northern Europe during the Early Modern period, the Catholic-Thomist emphasis on natural law favored a concept of sovereignty that derives its philosophical legitimacy from the assent of the people. And whereas the former ultimately leads to a Modern (Lockean) political philosophy that champions appropriative individualism, the latter leads to a communitarian understanding of political sovereignty that still informs Latino writing in the nineteenth century. The conflict between these two traditions comes to a head, in Coronado’s account, when Spain is herself overrun by this ‘northern’ tradition of legitimating political sovereignty—first with the ascendancy of the (French) Bourbon dynasty to the Spanish throne in the early eighteenth century; and finally when Spain is invaded by Napoleon in 1808, leaving Spanish Americans as the only torch-bearers of the “Catholic” tradition of political sovereignty. Thus, from this point of view, the push for independence was less a conflict between Latin American nationalism and Spanish imperialism as it was a conflict between two different philosophical traditions of conceptualizing sovereignty—the Habsburgs’ “quasi-federalist approach to ruling” on the one hand, and the Bourbons’ “Enlightened absolutism” on the other (5).

In its laudable attempt to redeem the importance of the Catholic Scholastic tradition for the history of Latin American and Latino modernity, the book occasionally runs the risk of constructing a schematic binary between what Coronado calls the “north Atlantic tradition” on the one hand and the “Catholic thought” (11) of the Spanish (American) tradition in political philosophy on the other—a binary that can lead to an overly monolithic sense of each of those traditions. Although Coronado briefly acknowledges that the north Atlantic tradition “contained just as powerful critiques of individualism” as did the Catholic tradition (231), the important role played in the Anglo American political tradition not only by Lockean liberalism but also by Classical Republicanism should not be underestimated, especially in the late seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries. (Indeed, the very word “individualism” does not enter the English language until the nineteenth century, and then usually in a pejorative sense). While this point does no great harm to Coronado’s aworldnotocomeargument—after all, his subject matter is Latino writing in the nineteenth century, the century when individualism indeed prevails over Classical Republicanism in the United States—more problematic is his rather monolithic understanding of what he calls “the Spanish Catholic” tradition of political philosophy, which seems to conflate such diverse and often conflicting traditions as the medieval Castilian legal codes, Neo-Thomist natural law, and Habsburg composite monarchism.

While it is true that the Bourbons in Spain (who are seen here as the exponents of a northern Atlantic absolutist tradition) generally attempted to reduce the power of the church in the Spanish Empire—and that they expelled the Jesuits from the New World in part because they were unsympathetic to the Order’s insistence on a natural law tradition that denied the divine rights of kings—the Bourbons, while “foreigners” to Spaniards and influenced by French Enlightenment philosophy, were not Protestants (as Coronado knows, of course). Conversely, the Habsburgs, who are seen here as the champions of a Spanish Catholic-Thomist political philosophy, were neither “Spaniards” nor friends of local self-government and popular sovereignty. Known as “Los Austrias” (the Austrians), they had arrived in Spain with the ascension of Charles I (Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire) to the throne of Spain in 1516 and were regarded as “foreigners” by the Spaniards no less than the Bourbons who came after them some 180 years later. The Habsburgs absolutely claimed that their rule was sanctioned by divine right, and Charles (who spoke no Spanish when arriving in Spain in 1516, from France) moved swiftly to crush the so-called Comunero Revolt, the resistance of the Spanish municipalities against the Habsburgs policies of political centralization and imperial consolidation. When the Habsburgs attempted to centralize imperial administrative authority over the Americas with the New Laws of 1542, they attempted to reverse an earlier policy followed by the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabelle of Castile, that had largely been informed by the medieval Iberian legal tradition of the feudal fueros taking shape in the context of the reconquista, the re-conquest of the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors that was concluded in 1492—the year of Columbus’s discovery of America that also saw the expulsion of the Jews from Spain (though not, as Coronado has it [5], of the Moors). The Habsburgs’ attack on the encomienda, the neo-feudal institution that the conquerors of America claimed by right of the medieval precedent of reconquista, and the attempts to curb the autonomies of the local cabildos through the royal audiencia and the imperial office of the viceroy, was a constant source of conflict that sometimes spun out of control and even led to civil war in Peru during the 1540s. Thus, the “quasi-federalist” structure of the Spanish Empire was not a reflection of “Habsburg” political philosophy (which was entirely absolutist) but rather the result of intra-imperial conflict, negotiation, and compromise with the realities on the ground of having to govern a trans-oceanic empire.

The Neoscholastic natural law philosophy of the Dominicans and Jesuits in the so-called School of Salamanca—the political and theological writings of Francisco de Vitoria, Domingo de Soto, Luis de Molina, and Francisco Suárez—played an important role in these political negotiations, as they were, at times, conveniently coopted by the Habsburg crown in its attempts to curtail the neo-feudal forms of sovereignty claimed by the conquerors and their American-born descendants, as derived from the medieval feudal codes of the Iberian peninsula. But the Neo-Thomism of the School of Salamanca was not, in the sixteenth century, universally embraced, and especially not among the conquerors in the Americas—precisely because it insisted that Christians had no more right to dominion than did (Native American) pagans. The political philosophy of the conquest and the claims to dominion in America by any European were therefore always more beholden to Franciscan Nominalism and Erasmian (or Christian) Humanism than they were to Thomism. While Neoscholastic natural law philosophy, especially as synthesized by the Jesuits, would indeed become an important element in an evolving sense of local creole patriotism in the Americas during the seventeenth century, it was hardly the only tradition from which Spanish and Spanish Americans in the nineteenth century could draw when pushing toward political independence from Spain. Especially for the rise of a local patriotism during the viceregal era, similarly important were Franciscan Nominalism, Spanish Humanism, and the medieval Castilian legal tradition (especially the Siete Partidas) in conceptualizing the relationships between Spanish American conquerors and creoles to Spanish imperial administration on the one hand and to America’s indigenous communities on the other.

The conflation under the placeholder “Catholic thought” of these very diverse and often conflicting traditions to which nineteenth-century Spanish Americans were heirs sometimes has serious consequences in Coronado’s readings of the primary texts. One example occurs in Chapter Six, which offers an exegesis of a Texan revolutionary broadsheet, probably written by José Álvarez de Toledo, who calls on his fellow Mexicans to “shake off the barbarous and offensive yoke with which for the space of almost 300 years the most insolent despotism has ignominiously oppressed you” (qtd. 220). Coronado interprets this as a call “to return” to the world of “the political principles of the Habsburg dynasty” (221), when the reference to “330 years” of oppression should have left no doubt that the period of Habsburg rule in America (inaugurated in 1519) is seen by the author of the pamphlet as an integral part of a long legacy of colonial oppression from which an independent Spanish America will finally emerge.  What informs this revolutionary broadsheet is not the “political principles of the Habsburg dynasty” but rather a tradition of creole political counter-discourse to Spanish imperial administration that reaches back to the sixteenth-century political and philosophical debates about the rights of conquest. This tradition is re-framed here in a nineteenth-century nationalist context by the pamphlet’s address of the readers as the “illustrious sons of the famous Motesuma”: independence will end a three-hundred-year old parenthesis in Mexico’s history as a Spanish viceroyalty and return sovereignty to the (creole) heirs of an indigenous claim to which Habsburg viceroys were as foreign as were those of the Bourbons. In other words, the revolutionary rhetoric of the pamphlet (albeit anachronistic) invokes here a distinctly creole form of local patriotism and mythology in which (white) Mexicans become the spiritual heirs not of the Habsburgs but rather of the Mexica (Aztecs). It was in the construction of this creole patriotic mythology in which Jesuit Neo-Thomism and Hermeticist syncretism—especially the invention of the cults of Quetzalcoatl and the Virgin of Guadalupe—would play such an important role. But it was a tradition that did not begin with Fray Servando Teresa de Mier during Bourbon rule in the late eighteenth century (51) but rather had deep roots in the history of creole patriotism during the rule of the Habsburgs in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Despite these caveats there can be no doubt that A World Not to Come is an important milestone in literary scholarship that opens up an enormous field of study—one that will connect the (still relatively little known) Latino nineteenth century not only to the (much better-known) Latino archive of the post-Civil Rights era of the United States but also to the world of colonial Latin American and Early Modern Spanish studies. Especially in its meticulous archival recovery of a rich array of little known and little-remembered sources—ranging from manuscripts to pamphlets, and printed books—as well as in its ambitious attempt to read those sources within the longue durée of Spanish (American) politico-philosophical traditions, Coronado’s book makes an important contribution to the historiography of Latino writing in the United States, of Latin American writing in the western hemisphere during the nineteenth century, and of Western modernity more broadly.


Ralph Bauer is the associate professor of English at University of Maryland specializing in the literatures and cultures of the early Americas, comparative literature, the history of science, as well as hemispheric American and early modern Atlantic studies. He is the general editor of the Early Americas Digital Archive. He has also taught at Yale University, New York University, the Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, and the University of Tuebingen. He is currently serving as Director of Graduate Studies at Maryland.