Society and Culture in the First
Half of the Nineteenth Century
It is ironic, yet understandable, that historians seeking to understand how a people lived often rely upon the accounts of foreign travelers. That which is commonplace to a local inhabitant is often colorful or unique to a foreigner. The young Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville related to the citizens of the United States much that they did not know about themselves, and a series of perceptive visitors to Mexico during the first half of the nineteenth century did the same for its people. While their analyses often reflected their own prejudices, their commentaries are invaluable. One has only to disregard their chauvinism and naïvely antiseptic view of the world to read these accounts with pleasure and profit.
The Mexican Wars for Independence, although small in comparison with other world conflicts, nevertheless took their toll. Accurate casualty figures do not exist, but reliable estimates suggest that a half a million deaths, or about one-twelfth of Mexico’s population, is not an exaggeration. The battles left tens of thousands of orphans, widows, cripples, and infirm. The dislocations occasioned by war were not quickly overcome. Impending engagements caused civilians to flee, shopkeepers to close their doors, mothers to pull their children out of school, and those who could afford it to hoard supplies. Many who left a town or city did not return, and families were permanently separated. Several years after the wars ended visitors to Veracruz reported desolate, grass-grown streets and a generally ruinous appearance. Mexico’s rate of population growth, which was rapid prior to 1810, leveled off dramatically for the next twenty years.
Although recovery was slow, change in the prevailing social structure was even slower. Reading the accounts of travelers from the late