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
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,
20. Restrepo, Autobiografía, p. 34.
21. Restrepo Saénz, Gobernadores de Antioquía,
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.
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.