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(Trans)American History across Borders

Arrest of Padre Martínez at Mission San Luis Obispo in 1831. Alexander Harmer, San Luis Obispo Tribune. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I am often asked why a historian from France would study the history of California. Indeed, France and California seem very far apart, not only physically but also historically. Chance has played a part in my trajectory. Still, I would like to make the case that there are sound academic arguments that can lead a French historian to be a good California historian. On one level, distance allows for more detachment from national narratives, but national historiographical culture and training play an important part as well.[1]

In large part, my approach to California history has been shaped by my training in political history. For a long time, “old-fashioned” political history had been about rulers and governments who won elections. During my studies in France, I found that political history could be very different, looking at representations and practices of the people from a bottom-up anthropological and sociological perspective. This was particularly evident in the work of Maurice Agulhon, who studied political practices and representation in a village in Southern France. He observed what he called a “process of politicization”: how common people in the countryside related to the new way of doing politics after the French revolution and how they participated in nation and state building. He studied how the multitude of peasants in the countryside became interested in national politics and articulated their local problems with larger narratives offered, for example, by political parties. This made the many political upheavals in nineteenth-century France clearer.[2] I found this approach to political history so interesting and useful because it allowed me to go beyond a nonsensical catalog of revolutions and understand the rationale behind them. It also was a way to understand politics and political history not only from the perspectives and narratives of elites, like elected officials, but from the point of view of ordinary people who lived through this period of great changes and with a look at particular sociabilities like social clubs and fireside gatherings. This perspective later helped me to make sense of Mexican California’s unstable political history and to push back against nineteenth-century historian Hubert Howe Bancroft’s argument that all the municipal conflicts and revolutions, to his mind, made clear that Californians were not “ready” for self-government.[3] Agulhon’s concept of politicization and later works from other scholars proved that, in fact, these conflicts were a sign that the Californians understood they had a say in politics and had access to new tools, arguments, and practices to do so.[4] I found out later that this concept of politicization was used for other European histories as well, in particular for Italy as in Gilles Pecout’s seminar at the Ecole normale supérieure in Paris.[5]

Drawing of a worker who is setting down a gun in favor of placing a vote into an urn labeled "Suffrage universe; [universal suffrage]"

Politicization studies focus on the evolution of political practices after the revolutions. Louis Marie Bosredon: Le vote ou le fusil [The vote or the gun], 1848. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

As I continued my studies, I had the opportunity to follow François-Xavier Guerra’s class at the Sorbonne on the history of Latin America during the Age of the Revolutions. Guerra did not speak of “politicization” but instead used the concept of “political imaginaries.”[6] It allowed him to describe ways a given society could collectively frame its social and political organization. He used the plural because he knew that even at a precise moment, especially during crises, there were rival visions of how society should be organized. Along with the concept of politicization, this helped me understand why regular people might have reacted the way they did when they were confronted with new situations, as they consistently were during the many revolutions of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. As a student, it gave some order to an apparently disorderly situation, which I appreciated as it helped me make some sense of what I had to learn. As a wannabe researcher this opened new, more diverse perspectives about the nineteenth century. This was when I started research for my master’s thesis: it was about the political imaginary of one of the leaders of the first republic in Spain, a federalist called Francisco Pi i Margall. My master’s thesis led me to become interested in federalism and to see it as a way for the old regime communities that had been seen as natural (los pueblos in Spanish) to adapt to the new realities of a government based on popular sovereignty and citizenship. Even though my research was based on Spain, Pi i Margall’s thoughts on federalism were fed by his observations of the Americas—North America, as a model, and South America and the Caribbean, as a way to repair a Spanish monarchy broken by the independences or independentist movements.

Alta California became part of Mexico when Mexico declared its independence from Spain. Solemne y Pacífica Entrada del Exército de las Tres Garantías en la Capital de México el Día 27 de Septiembre del Memorable Año de 1821. Museo Nacional de Historia, Mexico. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

All this got me ready to address California from the south. I had the opportunity to spend one year in Los Angeles as a TA for French courses at UCLA. I was told beforehand that going to Southern California was a bit like going to Latin America. I quickly realized that, in fact, California had indeed been a part of “Latin America” before 1848, something of a blind spot in Europe (and apparently in America as well). I was fascinated both by the potential that the political events from the 1760s to the 1860s—settlement and colonization by the Spanish, revolutionary wars, independence, upheavals of Mexican state and nation building as a federation, Mexican-American war and annexation, double civil war—could offer in terms of a study of politicization and political imaginaries and also by how the Spanish and Mexican periods of the territory seemed mostly unaddressed within and from the historiography that I had been trained in, especially on Latin America. This became my dissertation proposal when I came back to France, and it turned into a Ph.D. thesis, then an article, and finally a book.[7]

Monterey was the capital of Alta California during the Spanish and Mexican periods. Joseph Warren Revere’s illustration of Monterey, California from his 1849 book, A Tour of Duty in California. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I brought the concepts of politicization and political imaginary that I had been trained in to that study, but found that they were not easily translatable to the American historiographical conversation, where “political” or “civic cultures” were more in use.[8] Since I started in 2007, some works have appeared that have taken up this work, perhaps most notably the book and articles by the late Louise Pubols.[9] Starting from a political culture and gender perspective, she focused on the de la Guerra family from Santa Barbara as evidence of the patriarchal nature of power, even during the national republican period, and explained political upheavals through generational change. To further understand this history from the bottom up that my training had primed me to see, I use official records and private correspondence from archives in Mexico City and California to understand how Mexican independence and state making were not only adopted but actively adapted in California. Mexico had really taken the territory of Alta California in the process of early nation and state building as an empire and later as a federal republic. What I show is that participation was not passive: the Californians had their own perspective on what to do and how to use the new political tools, representations, and practices that came with Mexican independence.

The military fort of Santa Barbara, where De la Guerra was commander. From Alfred Robinson, Life in California (c. 1839), 41. California Historical Society Collection, 1860–1960 (USC Libraries Special Collections, Los Angeles). Via Wikimedia Commons.

A better understanding of this history of active participation also allows comparisons with the early United States. Indeed, historians of the early national period have shown that the nineteenth century had its upheavals that helped build a larger civic body. While, from a Tocquevillian point of view, this movement had been less revolutionary than in Europe or Latin America, there were intense moments of mobilization (and arguably, even wars) to accomplish it. In my work on Mexico and California, I show the ambiguities inherent to the nation-building effort, which was by design postcolonial—meaning both vocal against the colonial period and inheriting colonial aspects, especially in a territory that had so recently been included in the project of Spanish colonization. I hope this work contributes to understanding the United States of today as the result of several colonial and national histories.

Emmanuelle Perez Tisserant is an assistant professor in modern history with the University of Toulouse, France (Framespa is her center of research). She is the author of a book on the history of Mexican California, Nuestra California, Une histoire politique de la Californie mexicaine, de Zorro à la ruée vers l’or (Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2023).


[1] This is a perspective already addressed by some colleagues in Nicolas Barreyre, Michael Heale, Stephen Tuck, and Cécile Vidal, eds., Historians across Borders: Writing American History in a Global Age (2014). I also comment on the challenges of writing in three historiographical contexts in Emmanuelle Perez, “Entre Mexique et États-Unis, la Californie dans une perspective hémisphérique (1815-1850). Le défi des frontières historiographiques au sein de la thèse,” Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos (June 11, 2013), https://doi.org/10.4000/nuevomundo.65622.

[2] Maurice Agulhon, The Republic in the Village: The People of the Var from the French Revolution to the Second Republic (1982).

[3] Hubert Howe Bancroft, The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft, vol. XX: History of California, vol. III, 1824–1840 (1885).

[4] Laurent Bourquin and Philippe Hamon, La politisation: conflits et construction du politique depuis le Moyen Âge (2010).

[5] Gilles Pécout, “Les Campagnes dans l’évolution socio-politique de l’Europe (1830-fin des années 1920),” Histoire & Sociétés Rurales, 23 (March 2005), 11–64.

[6] François-Xavier Guerra, Modernidad e independencias : ensayos sobre las revoluciones hispánicas (1992).

[7] Emmanuelle Perez Tisserant, Nuestra California: Une histoire politique de la Californie mexicaine. De Zorro à la ruée vers l’or (2023).

[8] Mary P. Ryan, Civic Wars: Democracy and Public Life in the American City During the Nineteenth Century (1997); Todd Estes, The Jay Treaty Debate, Public Opinion, and the Evolution of Early American Political Culture (2006).

[9] Louise Pubols, The Father of All: The de la Guerra Family, Power, and Patriarchy in Mexican California (2009).

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