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Restrepo, José Manuel, and the Emergence of Colombian Political Culture

Roger Davis, "José Manuel Restrepo and the Emergence of Colombian Political Culture,"Reprinted with permission from Platte Valley Review, 17:2 (Spring, 1989), 5-13.

To those observers of the Latin American historical experience José Manuel Restrepo is a familiar figure, recognized as Colombia's first great historian of the national era. As the author of the Historia de la Revolución de la República(1) and the Historia de la Nueva Granada.(2) Restrepo laid the historiographical foundation for the study of the evolution of the Colombian nation. His histories of the revolution and the first half century of Colombian experiments in statecraft are acknowledged as a masterful presentation of early nineteenth century Colombian political culture. David Bushnell ranks the Historia de la Revolución highly, describing it as authoritative on all matters it takes up.(3)
Javier López Ocampo in his study of the historiography and bibliography of early nineteenth-century Colombia describes Restrepo's work as fundamental to any analysis of the era of independence.(4)

For all of his ability as an historian, José Manuel Restrepo was more than simply an observer of his own era. He was also a participant in the affairs of government and politics. From his first appointment to political office in 1810 at twenty-nine years of age, until his final retirement from public life in 1861, Restrepo held more than a dozen different administrative positions in both the legislative and executive branches of government, at both the state and federal level, and within both federalist and unitary frameworks. At various times he served as Secretary of the Provincial Junta of Antioquía, Deputy to the Federation of the United Provinces, Secretary of Justice of Antioquía, and Deputy to the Convention of Cúcuta, which promulgated the 1821 constitution of Gran Colombia, a document which Restrepo helped to write. He served the new national government as Secretary of Interior and Foreign Relations, Director of the Tobacco Monopoly, Director of the Treasury and, finally, Director of the National Mint. For most of his life Restrepo labored not only as an active historian but as a highly respected administrator, polemicist, and politician, participating in the top ranks of government alongside the Liberator, Simón Bolívar, and Vice-President Francisco de Paula Santander.

Restrepo kept a complete diary during his lifetime, logging the events of his era with historical intent. His Diario Político y Militar serves as a basis for his historical works.(5) He also produced an abbreviated autobiography discussing his childhood and early years to 1819.(6) Restrepo's histories, diary, and autobiography are, however, more than either a detached historical narration of the flow of events or an account of personal triumph and failure. Through his own words and deeds Restrepo contributed to the formulation of the politics of his era, which he then critiqued in his writings. His personal experience and his criticisms and conclusions, presented in an historical voice, combine to provide a valuable insight into the evolution of Colombian political culture.

Born in Envigado, Antioquía, in 1781, José Manuel Restrepo spent most of the eighty-two years of his life on Colombian soil, usually in Bogotá. The most notable break was his forced exile during the Spanish re-conquest from 1816 to 1818, during which period of time he visited Jamaica and, briefly, the United States. Restrepo was a hardworking and serious person with a constant historical perspective which demanded that he refer to himself in the third person, even in his autobiography. Described by a friend who knew him in his later years, Restrepo was tall and thin with pallid skin. He had blond hair when he was young, chestnut brown hair in his mature years, and white hair in old age. He had an eagle-like face, a large erect nose, a regular mouth, and bearded chin. He was an austere man who always dressed in blacks and greys.(7) Restrepo received degrees in both canon and civil law and by 1810 had established himself in business in Medellín.(8) Soon thereafter the shock waves from the Napoleanic invasion of Spain disrupted Restrepo's plans for a life as a country lawyer and propelled him along a different route.

In July, 1810, the cabildo of Bogotá seized authority from the Viceroy and issued a call for a congress of provincial representatives. By October, a provincial junta for Antioquía was organized with Restrepo as its Secretary. Restrepo was then chosen to represent his province at Bogotá, and he arrived in that city in February, 1811.(9)

Federalism quickly surfaced as the dominant political philosophy. Restrepo noted that for the majority of the representatives, the federal government of the United States symbolized a political utopia. Restrepo was no exception; at this time he also endorsed federalist principles. As Secretary to the Antioquía junta, he had urged the junta of Zaragoza to adopt federalism, and as a representative in congress he signed a message to the junta of Santa Marta, also urging the federalist formula.(10)

The work of the Congress was interrupted in September, 1811, by the revolt of Antonio Nariño, the president of Cundinamarca province. Nariño declared for a centralist government and forced the Congress to flee Bogotá. The Congress resettled at Ibaqué but remained in an agitated and confused state. Quarrels and contradictions erupted and Restrepo lost his faith in the ability of the Congress. He resigned his position and retired to private life.(11)

After a short period of inactivity, Restrepo returned to public service, accepting an appointment as Antioquía's Secretary of Law and Justice. Little had changed, however, to dispel Restrepo's pessimism. The two governors under whom he served, Corral and Tejada, he found to be corrupt and petty, and when provincial civil war erupted over the location of the governor's residency, Restrepo resigned in disgust. No longer did federalism have a magic appeal, and Restrepo concluded that such a system brought only anarchy and chaos. Restrepo carried this disenchantment and dislike of federalism with him for the rest of his life.(12)

The Spanish recaptured the viceroyalty in 1815, ending the "patria boba" (1810-1815) and forcing Restrepo into exile. After an arduous journey in the mountains, Restrepo reached the port of Santa Marta and, disguised as an English sailor, escaped to Kingston, Jamaica. In 1818, Restrepo's wife managed to secure amnesty for him and he returned to Colombia. A year later, Restrepo was again involved in the establishment for the new nation.(13)

In 1819, Patriot forces under Colonel José María Córdova recaptured the province of Antioquía. By order of Simón Bolívar, Córdova served as the military head of the province and Restrepo was appointed civilian governor. As governor, Restrepo organized local cabildos, established public rents and organized a civilian administration.(14) Restrepo now held that a strong central government and bold leadership was the only hope for Colombia's future. In a letter to Francisco de Paula Santander, he offered the opinion that until peace was secured, military men should command the nation. Despite his chosen profession, Restrepo now distrusted the idealism of intellectuals and lawyers and cautioned Santander that "... men of this profession are not destined to fulfill our political revolution."(15) The one man who did seem capable of fulfilling the revolution was Bolívar. Restrepo held great faith in the Liberator and was resolved to help Bolívar carry out his plans. Restrepo demonstrated his loyalty in 1820 by executing an unpopular order by Bolívar which freed one thousand slaves to serve in the patriot army.(16)

In 1821 a Constitutional Congress was held at Rosario de Cúcuta to establish a foundation for the new republic of Colombia. José Manuel Restrepo attended the Convention as a representative of Antioquía.(17) Within the course of the Congress, Restrepo was elected to serve a term as president of the Congress(18) and participated in the writing of the Constitution of 1821.(19) Bolívar was elected to the presidency of Colombia, and Santander was chosen to be vice-president. José Manuel Restrepo was chosen by Santander to become the Secretary of Interior.(20) In 1826, Restrepo was given added responsibility by his concurrent appointment as Secretary of Foreign Relations.(21) He fulfilled the duties of both of these posts until 1830.

Restrepo has been described during this decade as a convinced liberal who knew how to temper his principles with common sense.(22) Restrepo never returned to the principles of federalism, but he did advocate liberal social reforms.

At the Congress of Cúcuta, Restrepo spoke out in opposition to plans for a constitutional monarchy.(23) He called for such church reforms as using the Bishop's funds to finance the army(24) and suggested to Santander that the government print pamphlets to counteract the superstitious dogma of the Church.(25) He recognized the need for public education and directed congressional legislation toward that end.(26) As Secretary of Interior., Restrepo repeated this message, reporting to the 1824 Congress that an educated public was the keystone to the success of the nation.(27) He also proposed a bill in 1826 which would return the dowries of nuns to their families rather than to the Church.(28)

Restrepo did endorse some liberal principles, but his primary concern was law and order. As early as 1819 he wrote in a letter to Bolívar that the prime objective should be to establish a strong, stable government " . . . leaving for more tranquil times the establishment of liberal principles."(29) Within the final years of the 1820's, Restrepo recognized ominous signs of chaos which would disrupt the nation.

In his Diario Restrepo complained that the military was becoming too large, while declining in stature. He noted that by 1826 the number of generals had tripled and that the ranks of colonels had swollen from eighty to two hundred. Concluding that increased political ambitions corresponded to the increased figures, Restrepo now designated the military as a cancer on the nation.(30) With the Paéz revolt in 1826 and the attempted assassination of Bolívar in 1828, Restrepo shifted his attention from liberal reform to a concern for law and order. Although Restrepo had condemned a constitutional monarchy at Cúcuta, and had echoed that sentiment in 1826 when referring to San Martín's monarchical scheme, by 1829 he felt events warranted a stronger central government.(31)

Restrepo and the other secretaries of the Council of State developed a plan for a constitutional monarchy. Bolívar was to wear the crown of Colombia until his death, at which time a royal family of Europe would be selected to reign over Colombia and carry on the monarchy. The British and French were both consulted, as was the United States. The plan, fanciful at best, finally evaporated with Bolívar's refusal to cooperate.(32)

During the remainder of his life, from 1830 to 1863, Restrepo witnessed the birth and development of formal political parties in Colombia. Pro- and anti-Bolivarian factions had developed in the late twenties. With the Ocana convention of 1830 and Bolívar's death in 1831, political factionalism accelerated. The Conservatives, former Bolívar supporters, opposed a divided Liberal party. The Liberal "moderados" were content to work within the system while the "exaltados" demanded federalism and reform.(33) These divisions took on more formal aspects in the 1840's. The Liberals, out of power, organized themselves into the "Democratic Society," opposing the government, the Church, and the Conservatives. Internally the Liberals remained divided between the moderate "draconians" and the radical "golgotas." The Conservatives similarly organized, forming their ranks into the "Popular Society" supporting the Church and conservative government.(34)

Restrepo's reaction to these developments was a move to legalism.(35) Although by now sympathetically conservative, Restrepo became convinced that none of the political factions were truly concerned with the good of the nation. Still an ardent critic of the federal form of government, Restrepo published a series of articles in 1852 and 1853 highlighting the weaknesses of such a political formula for New Granada.(36) In this regard, he condemned both parties for allowing the national drift to federalism, which he concluded would bring disaster to the nation in the form of selfish political designs. Recording his dismay in his diary, he wrote that "To promote such anarchy is not patriotic, nor politic and such a plan dishonors whichever party seeks it and brings it about."(37) Restrepo lamented that the sacrifices of the past were being forgotten and complained that the national parties offered only "a mixture of indirection and little direction."(38) He sorrowfully observed that political divisions had reached even into families with the father of one opinion, the mother of a different opinion, and even the children divided between Conservative and Liberal.(39) Restrepo decided to remain aloof from party politics. He established as his maxim, "To be on the side of legitimate government even when those who exercise it are not political friends."(40)

Restrepo held to his conviction and, despite the political agitation around him, he survived in national office through eleven different administrations and five changes of the Constitution. After his resignation as Secretary of Interior and Secretary of Foreign Relations, Restrepo remained in government as Director of the Treasury of Bogotá. As the years and administrations passed, Restrepo served in various posts. In 1832 he traveled to Ecuador as part of a peace negotiating board. The following year he was named Director of the National Academy and Director General of Public Instruction. In 1839 Restrepo was designated the Director of National Credit, and in 1844 he was appointed Director of the National Mint, a post he held until his retirement from public service in 1861. On April 1, 1863, José Manuel Restrepo died at his home in Ríonegro, Antioquía, at the age of 82.(41)

During his fifty-one years of public service and political activity, Restrepo observed the gradual emergence of Colombia's polarized Liberal-Conservative party framework, which is the hallmark of Colombian political culture. Restrepo found little merit in the increasingly extreme political divisions. He correctly observed that the political distinctions cut so deeply into the social fabric as to divide families. He also perceived that the division of the parties could translate into a routine cycle of rebellion at the expense of the laws of the nation, the lives of the citizenry, and a stable political future.(42) As a foe of federalism, a supporter of Bolívar, and a government official, Restrepo contributed to the evolution of Colombian political culture. As an observer and critic, he foresaw its inherent dangers.


1. (Bensanzon, 1858) 7 vols.

2. (Bogotá, 1952, 1963) 2 vols.

3. The Santander Regime in Gran Colombia (Westport , 1971), p. 366.

4. Historiografía y Bibliografía de la Emancipación del Nuevo Reino de Granada (Tunja, 1969), p. 205.

5. (Bogotá, 1954), 4 vols.

6. Autobiografía (Bogotá, 1957).

7. Restrepo Saénz, José María. "Discurso al ser recibido como miembro de número de la Academía Nacional de Historia, el 25 de Marzo de 1915, " Boletín de Historia and Antigüedades. II, 109, (May, 1915), 7.

8. Restrepo, Autobiografía, p. 10.

9. Ibid., pp. 12, 13.

10. Ibid., p. 13; Luis Martínez Delgado, El Periodismo en la Nueva Granada 1810-1811 (Bogotá, 1960), p. 309; Sergio Elias Ortiz, Nuevo Reino de Granada: El Virreynato (Bogotá, 1970), p. 293.

11. Restrepo, Autobiografía, pp. 13, 14.

12. Ibid., pp. 15, 16, 17.

13. Ibid., pp. 20, 30.

14. Ibid., p. 30.

15. Carta inedita del D. José Manuel Restrepo de Archivo de General Santander, " Boletín de Historia y Antiqüedades, III, n. 25 (Jan. 1905), 106.

16. Restrepo, Autobiografía, p. 33.

17. José María Restrepo Saénz, Gobernadores de Antioquía (Bogotá, 1970), p. 63.

18. Banco de la República, Congreso de Cúcuta, 1821: Libro de Actas (Bogotá, 1971), p. 256.

19. Restrepo Saénz, Gobernadores de Antioquía, p. 34.

20. Restrepo, Autobiografía, p. 34.

21. Restrepo Saénz, Gobernadores de Antioquía, p. 67.

22. Bushnell, Santander Regime, p. 22.

23. Congreso de Cúcuta, p. 62.

24. Ibid., p. 261.

25. Ernesto Restrepo Tirado, ed., Archivo Santander (Bogotá, 1914), VI, 121.

26. Congreso de Cúcuta, p. 265.

27. Restrepo Tirado, Archivo Santander, VI, p. 147.

28. Bushnell, Santander Regime, p. 226.

29. José Manuel Groot, Historia Eclesiástica y Civil de la Nueva Granada (Caracas, 1941), III, 19.

30. Restrepo, Diario, II, p. 71.

31. Ibid., I, p. 300.

32. Ibid., II, pp. 20, 26; Restrepo, Autoboigrafía, p. 37.

33. Restrepo, Diario, II, p. 196.

34. Ibid., IV, p. 292.

35. Rafael Gómez Hoyos, "José Manuel Restrepo, Fundador de la República y Padre de la Historia Moderna," Boletín de Historia y Antiqüedades, L, 50 (April, 1963), p. 211.

36. El Pasatiempo, Nos. 79, 80, 81, 82, pp. 235, 245, 256, 266, Nov-Dec, 1852, Jan. 1853. Pseud. "Fabio"

37. Restrepo, Diario, IV, 683.

38. Ibid., 399; Restrepo, Autobiografía, p. 44.

39. Restrepo, Autobiografía, p. 52.

40. Ibid., p. 40.

41. Ibid., p. 38; Restrepo Saénz, Goberdadores de Antioquía, pp. 76, 77, 78, 83, 102.

42. Restrepo, Nueva Granada, II, 404.