From the In Memoriam column of the May 2009 issue of Perspectives on History

In Memoriam: Charles Adams Hale

Eric Van Young, May 2009

Historian of Mexican political thought

With the death of Charles Adams Hale, historians of Mexico in this country, in Mexico, and abroad, and the guild of Latin American historians more generally, have lost one of their very best and most recognized practitioners. “Charlie,” as we all knew him, died in Seattle on September 29, 2008, at the age of 78. Those of us in the field privileged to count him a friend received in the mail copies of his last book, Emilio Rabasa and the Survival of Porfirian Liberalism (Stanford Univ. Press, 2008), either a few days before, or in my own case after, learning of his death. We are all saddened at the loss, not just because Charlie Hale was a first-rate scholar, but because he was an admirable human being, qualities that do not always go together.

Born in Minneapolis, Hale earned his BA degree at Amherst College in 1951, then an MA at the University of Minnesota the next year. Following his marriage to Lenore Rice (the couple were eventually to have four children) and a Fulbright year in Strasbourg, the Hales moved to New York where in 1957 he obtained his doctorate at Columbia University under the directorship of the legendary leftist historian Frank Tannenbaum. His doctoral dissertation, “The Problem of Independence in Mexican Thought, 1821–53,” although never published as such, formed the basis for much of his first monograph, published a decade later. Brief teaching stints at the University of North Carolina, Lehigh University, and Amherst College preceded his appointment in the history department at the University of Iowa, where he remained until retirement in 1998.

Charles Hale proudly bore the title of historian of political thought throughout his long career, publishing three major monographs, two edited or co-edited volumes, and about 20 essays. But his work was characterized neither by the abstractness or tunnel vision sometimes found in this style of history, nor by being a partisan or paladin of the classical liberalism whose changes he traced through a century of Mexican history. His analysis of 19th- and early 20th-century political thought was always deep, nuanced, and balanced, but never turgid; ever broad and contextualized but never diluted; and written with both a crispness of style and an unpretentiousness that reflected the man himself.

Hale’s first book, the initial part of what came to be a triptych on Mexican political thought, was Mexican Liberalism in the Age of Mora, 1821–53 (Yale Univ. Press, 1968; Spanish edition 1972, with over a dozen subsequent printings). This work traced the history of liberal thought in Mexican political life through the first three chaotic decades of the young republic by focusing on the career and thought of the moderate liberal priest, politician, journalist, and historian José María Luis Mora (1794–1850), one of the major public intellectuals of the period. The book dealt with the ways in which classical Atlantic liberalism—comprised by the rule of law, the rights of individuals, the retraction of the state from public life, economic development, etc.—was adapted by Mexican thinkers to a decolonized, ethnically diverse young republic whose social composition and political culture could not have been more different than the societies in which liberal doctrines originally flowered. One of the particular virtues of the work, however, was the way in which Hale demonstrated that Mexican liberalism and Mexican conservatism intertwined with each other, were mutually constitutive, and struggled up the same trellis, that of Mexican nationalism. Mexican Liberalism has attained the status of a classic work indispensable for understanding Mexican political life up to the mid-19th century and beyond, winning for its Spanish edition the Fray Bernardino de Sahagún prize in Mexico.

The second work in Charles Hale’s expansive triptych on Mexican liberalism, The Transformation of Liberalism in Late 19th-Century Mexico (Princeton Univ. Press, 1989; Spanish edition, 2002), took the story into the 35-year dictatorship (1876–1911) of Porfirio Díaz, which immediately preceded the great Revolution of 1910. In this work Hale demonstrated that under the banner of “order and progress,” Positivist intellectuals and politicians confected a policy of stability and economic development under the sign of converging liberal and conservative thinking. The book garnered the Bolton Prize of the Conference on Latin American History for the best work published in English that year. In the meantime, other highly prestigious honors were accruing to Charles Hale, among them the Order of the Aztec Eagle from the Mexican Government, and election as a corresponding member of the Mexican Academy of History.

Hale’s final work, Emilio Rabasa, completed at the very end of his life, returned to the genre of the political biography cum intellectual history in a study of an important Mexican jurist, politician, diplomat, novelist, journalist, and historian whose life spanned the Porfirian era, the Revolution of 1910, and the halting national reconstruction that followed in the 1920s. An advocate of the scientific politics of late liberal thought, Rabasa retained conservative attitudes regarding the capacity of Mexico’s indigenous population to modernize, but sought to build checks against a resurgent dictatorship through juridical institutions.

Charles Hale was a gentle, modest, down-to-earth, deeply humane man completely lacking in the narcissism that so often seems a professional deformation of academics. Soft-spoken, thoughtful, and with a wide-ranging intellectual curiosity, he had the ability to listen intently and to make one feel that he cared about what his interlocutor was saying. He was extremely generous to younger colleagues, a quality of which I was myself the beneficiary when he invited me to air my thoughts on one of the arch-conservatives of the age of Mora at a conference in his honor at the University of Iowa several years ago. He will be greatly missed not only by those who felt his intellectual influence through his work, but also by those who had the good fortune to know him. The Hale family suggests that colleagues and friends may wish to make donations in his name for the establishment of a memorial scholarship for the advanced study of Mexican history (Latin American Studies Association, 416 Bellefield Hall, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA 15260).

—Eric Van Young
University of California at San Diego