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Precarious Time, Morality,

and the Republic

New Granada, 1818–1853
Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Bogotá

Spanish American countries exhibited during the nineteenth century many
of the features Koselleck associated with the Sattelzeit, the transitioning pe-
riod into our contemporaneity. However, the region’s history was marked by
social instability and political upheaval, and contemporaries referred to such
experiences of time as precarious. In this article I explore the connection
between this precarious time and the emergence of the sociopolitical concept
of morality in New Granada (present-day Colombia) during the first thir-
ty-five years of the republic (1818–1853). I focus on two conceptual moments
as exemplified by the reflections put forth by Simón Bolívar (1783–1830),
military and political leader of the independence period, and José Eusebio
Caro (1817–1853), publicist, poet, and political ideologue of the Conserva-
tive Party.

Simón Bolívar, Colombia, José Eusebio Caro, experience of time, moral,
morality, New Granada, Republicanism

“Oh Time! Only God knows your dark secret.”

—José Eusebio Caro, “La bendición nupcial”1

The Precarious Texture of a New Historical Time

According to nineteenth-century historian José Manuel Restrepo, “[w]ith the

exception of a few noteworthy events and disturbances, there had been almost
no memorable events in the Viceroyalty of New Granada [roughly present-day
Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador] during its years of existence.”2 Restrepo, like

1. José Eusebio Caro, “La bendición nupcial” (1843), in Obras escogidas en prosa y verso:
Publicadas e inéditas, Rafael Pombo, ed. (Bogotá: El Tradicionalista, 1873), 47.
2. Historia de la revolución de la República de Colombia en la América Meridional (Be-
sanzón: Imprenta de José Jacquin, 1858), 1, 44. All translations are mine unless otherwise

Contributions to the History of Concepts Volume 11, Issue 2, Winter 2016: 85–109
doi:10.3167/choc.2016.110206 ISSN 1807-9326 (Print), ISSN 1874-656X (Online)
Francisco A. Ortega

other mid-nineteenth-century observers, contrasted the quiet and peaceful pe-

riod of the viceroyalty with the chaotic and fast-paced world whirling around
them. The church reigned in all areas of social life, authorities were despotic
but distant, and progress “was slow, though effective in all areas of civilization,
sciences and literature.”3 According to them, the sense of stability associated
with this mildly benevolent despotism changed irrevocably after August 1808.
In February of that year Napoleon invaded Spain and forced the abdica-
tion of Charles IV and his son Ferdinand VII. Napoleon crowned his brother
Joseph I while Ferdinand, imprisoned by Napoleon in Valençay, was widely
regarded the legitimate king. After the initial shock, a general insurrection
took place against the invasion and, in due course, against Spanish authorities,
which many viewed as complicit with the invaders. When news reached New
Granada, a full-fledged war had broken out in the peninsula and a political
revolution—which culminated in the 1812 Cadiz Constitution—had begun
to transform all orders of political and social life. The unexpected news sowed
the colonies with apprehension and shattered the self-perceived durability of
existing political and social arrangements.4 Spanish American patriots de-
clared their outrage at the French invasion and proffered their devotion to Fer-
dinand VII. It was not, as nationalistic historiographies claim, the opportunity
pro-independence patriotic forces were eagerly awaiting to launch their final
attack on so-called Spanish despotism. However, the throne’s vacancy and the
difficulties faced by royalist authorities to institute a legitimate government
detonated a severe crisis of legitimacy that led to calls for municipal govern-
ment on both sides of the Atlantic. Novel sociopolitical vocabularies—made
up of concepts such as republic, constitution, citizenship, liberty, and equal-
ity—served to re-elaborate past experiences in radically unexpected directions
while shaping the emergence of collective identities.5

3. Ibid. For other prominent historians who shared a view of preindependence life as
peaceful and quiet, see José María Vergara y Vergara, Historia de la literatura en Nueva
Granada (Bogotá: Echeverria Hermanos, 1867); José Manuel Groot, Historia eclesiástica y
civil de Nueva Granada, escrita sobre documentos auténticos, 3 vols. (Bogotá: Impr. á cargo
de F. Mantilla, 1869–1870).
4. Due to the collapse of the Spanish government and the widespread confusion, news of
Bonaparte’s invasion only arrived in New Granada in August of that year, when the frigate’s
commander Juan José Llorente delivered a complete account of the events in Cartagena. See
José Manuel Restrepo, Historia de la Revolución de la República de Colombia (Paris: Librería
Americana, 1827), 106.
5. For a systematic study of the emergence of a lexicon associated with constitutionalism
and republicanism in the region, see the two-volume Diccionario político y social del mundo
iberoamericano (Madrid: Centro de Estudios Políticos y Constitucionales, 2009 and 2014),
coordinated by Javier Fernández-Sebastián. For the New Granada región, see Francisco
A. Ortega Martínez and Yobenj Aucardo Chicangana-Bayona, eds., Conceptos fundamen-

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Precarious Time, Morality, and the Republic

Events and news seemed to follow each other at dizzying speeds, and pro-
tagonists—both royalists and patriots—claimed to be living through the most
unusual of times. There were signs heralding a new collective experience of
the present: the proliferation of calls to hold extraordinary meetings at city
councils (cabildos extraordinarios); the reference to local infighting as “our
revolution” (understood as the occurrence of unexpected events effecting a
break with the past); the widespread perception of innovations in all areas
of social and political life; and a generalized sense of uncertainty and crisis.6
On 10 August 1809, Spanish American patriots in Quito organized a govern-
ing junta and declared autonomy from Spain, but two months later Spanish
authorities brutally suppressed it. The news spread like wildfire, and remon-
strations against Spanish despotism were heard in Bogotá, Caracas, and other
cities. Other juntas popped up throughout the region, and by the end of 1811
Caracas and Cartagena had declared absolute independence. By then events
were perceived as pregnant with fecund possibilities but also as unexpected,
random, and even threatening; they were embraced by some with great excite-
ment while others feared them as divisive and threatening.
Public discourse gained importance as the vehicle to address the com-
motions and inspire and conceive futures that could not have been imagined
before. The press registered the novelty: citizens now “fluctuate in an Ocean
of unconnected ideas, inexperienced, and lacking foundations” and called for
“our Franklins and our Washingtons to spread the lights and fix our incon-
stancy and uncertainty.”7 Nevertheless, publicists were impatient, as words no
longer signified clearly, and vented their frustration at the difficulty in express-
ing the scope of ongoing political transformations. Revolutionary patriot Jorge
Tadeo Lozano wrote in his “Fragments of a Genuine Dictionary” that “there
is nothing that tarnishes our intellectual eyeglass, as the equivocal meaning
of words; unfortunately such is the disorder that is now seen in this area, we
run the risk of experiencing the same catastrophe suffered by the builders of

tales de la cultura política de la Independencia (Bogotá: Universidad Nacional de Colombia,

2012). For the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century reconceptualization of the past
and the relation between Spain and Spanish America as “colonial,” see Francisco A. Ortega,
“Ni nación ni parte integral ‘Colonia,’ de vocablo a concepto en el siglo XVIII iberoameri-
cano,” Prismas 15, no. 1 (2011): 11–29.
6. The reading of the period’s newspapers, letters, chronicles, and travelers’ accounts
bears this interpretation. It should be clarified that with the exception of those clerical sec-
tors closer to Ferdinand’s absolutism, the actors of the moment shun apocalyptic language.
For an overview of church attitudes in New Granada, see Ana María Bidegaín, “La ex-
presión de corrientes en la Iglesia neogranadina ante el proceso de reformas borbónicas y la
emancipación política (1750–1821),” in Historia del cristianismo en Colombia: Corrientes y
diversidad (Bogotá: Taurus, 2004), 266–284.
7. “Prospecto,” Diario Político de Santafé de Bogotá, 27 August 1810, 1.

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Francisco A. Ortega

Babel’s Tower.”8 Words had not just become imprecise or confusing; they had
become public arenas of dispute; they were wielded as weapons to carry out
a “more dangerous war than the one conducted with bayonets and canons.”9
According to Antonio Nariño, another passionate revolutionary, publicists
in Spain spoke of “brotherhood, equality, or integral parts,” all of them pur-
porting to signify a new relation between the peninsula and its colonies, but,
warned Nariño, those words were but “bait for your credulity.” In reality
Spanish Americans “could not pronounce the word freedom without being
insurgents.” There is one dictionary, he claimed, for Spaniards and another
for Spanish Americans:

In the former, words such as freedom and independence are virtuous; in the
latter, they are evidence of crime and insurrection; in the former, conquest is
Bonaparte’s weightiest offence; in the latter, it is an expression of Ferdinand
and Isabella’s glory; in the former, freedom of commerce is the right of the
Nation; in the latter, a sign of ingratitude against four traders in Cadiz.10

As the conflict between monarchists and republicans intensified, and broad

popular sectors mobilized in support of each party, a spirited process of po-
liticization, ideologization, and democratization took place.11 Another publi-
cist denounced the “anger, dementia, and recklessness [that] have exalted the
fancy of a few people to a high point of fanaticism.” People now roamed the
streets “armed with blades and threatening defenseless peaceful citizens.”12
As in Babel, political reasoning was no longer possible. Words could lib-
erate or disguise oppression; they could construct an orderly moral world or
disseminate anarchy and chaos. The perceived acceleration of time seemed
to have rendered social existence fragile, while the new political culture not
only mirrored it but also further contributed to its precariousness. Years later
memoirists still recalled the impetus of the revolution, before which “many
monuments of the past had fallen and many more threatened to fall, and the

8. Jorge Tadeo Lozano, “Fragmentos de un diccionario genuino,” in El Anteojo de Larga

Vista, vol. 2 (Bogotá: En la Imprenta del Estado, 1814), 1.
9. Antonio Nariño, Suplemento a la Bagatela, vol. 5, 11 August 1811, 19.
10. Ibid.
11. The categories are drawn from Reinhardt Koselleck’s “Einleitung,” in Geschichtliche
Grundbegriffe, vol. 1 (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1972), xiii–xxviii. For studies that demon-
strate the rapid appropriation of republicanism in Colombia, see Marixa Lasso, Myths of
Harmony: Race and Republicanism During the Age of Revolution, Colombia 1795–1831
(Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007); James E. Sanders, Contentious Re-
publicans: Popular Politics, Race, and Class in Nineteenth-Century Colombia (Durham, NC:
Duke University Press, 2004).
12. El Orejón ingenuo, 1.

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Precarious Time, Morality, and the Republic

fundamental principles of society ran the risk of being undercut.”13 Such pre-
sentiment of the untethering of social experience motivated plentiful reflec-
tions. Some authors refuted the thesis and appealed to a time of restoration.
Soon after the Spanish reconquest of New Granada in 1816, a royalist clergy-
man recalled in Bogotá’s cathedral the “horrific scenes of a dreadful and fatal
revolution, spreading like an electrical fire to burn most of our Americas.”14
These scenes, claimed the priest, “reveal to us a spectacle worthy of eternal
memory, so that our sons and successors are warned and forewarned of the in-
finite evils that, as a mighty whirlwind, have shaken and pushed us to the edge
of the abyss.”15 A momentary act of madness, the revolution had not affected
the capacity of the past to guide mankind in the present; men merely refused
to abide by it. The archbishop of Caracas, Narciso Coll y Prat, suggested in his
1818 report to King Ferdinand VII that “all things … have their time: there is a
time for speaking, and a time to remain silent.” For the archbishop those who
ignore their time and act without observing its circumstances “are useless to
the Church of God who, only in due time, sent his only son to teach the secrets
of the Divinity, and unite the peoples of the earth under one belief; harmful
to the State, whose destruction or preservation relies on time; unfit for pub-
lic business, and unfit for domestic business, for both of them are regulated
by time.”16 Coll y Prat’s passage purported to explain his behavior during the
revolution, when he, a fierce royalist, apparently collaborated with insurgents.
He claimed he was operating under the changing appearance of human events
but acted in accordance with the eternal “law of the Lord.”17 His reflection
referenced the third section of the book of Ecclesiastes—“There is a time for
everything, / and a season for every activity under the heavens”—a popular
biblical book of wisdom that speaks against vanity and the frailty of human
experience. For Coll y Prat the genre of history preserves and reproduces time

13. Ángel Cuervo and Rufino Cuervo, Vida de Rufino Cuervo y Noticias de su época, vol.
2 (Paris: A. Roger y F. Chernoviz, 1892), 286–287.
14. Antonio de León, Discurso político moral 1816 sobre la obediencia debida a los reyes y
males infinitos de la Insurrección de los pueblos (Santa fe, New Granada: Imprenta de Bruno
Espinosa, 1816), 3.
15. Ibid., 3.
16. Narciso Coll y Prat, “Exposición que al Rey de 1818,” Memoriales sobre la indepen-
dencia de Venezuela (Caracas: Academia Nacional de la Historia, 1960), 111. Thanks to
Alexander Chaparro for bringing this passage to my attention. For Venezuela, see Francisco
José Virtuoso, La crisis de la catolicidad en los inicios republicanos de Venezuela (1810–1813)
(Caracas: Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, 2001).
17. Ibid., 112. Coll y Prat continues: “What would become of the Province of Venezuela,
my Lord, if I had not worked in these circumstances, under the command of the insurgents
and, subsequently, under the command of those who administered it under the name of
Your Royal Highness?”

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Francisco A. Ortega

(conservadora y reproducidora del tiempo), eventually revealing the truth of

what happened.18
Others accepted that the revolution had inaugurated a new historical ex-
perience. They even accepted uncertainty as the inevitable consequence of an
evanescing order and the hurried advent of a still unrealized new order.19 They
embraced the republican form, yet they thought its institutional design re-
mained incomplete, and credited it with a high level of volatility. For, if the
republic seemed to make possible the realization of human freedom in a novel
way, it lacked the anchoring or fixed point of the monarchy. In addition, many
republicans suspected the moral standing of their countrymen. Simón Bolívar
asserted, “I have very little confidence in the morals of our fellow citizens.”20
According to him, they lived under the “triple yoke of ignorance, tyranny, and
vice.”21 In sum, the collective experience of the new republics was perceived as
It is not surprising that in the midst of such instability the concept of mo-
rality offered some consolation. This is not the occasion to recover the com-
plex conceptual histories of moral and morality. Suffice to say that prior to
the eighteenth century Scientia moralis was a central piece of a specialized
philosophical and theological vocabulary used by theologians and clergyman
to inquire into and preach about appetitive acts within the established bounds
of the scripture and authorized tradition. Morals and morality were thus an-
cillary to the workings of divine grace in individual human souls by providing
a “clarifying simplification of Scripture … and a clarifying generalization of
pastoral experience brought back under … the whole of theology.”23 By the

18. Coll y Prat, “Exposición de 1818,” 112.

19. For a conceptual history of the term “order” in the region, see the entry by Daniel Guti-
érrez Ardila in the second volume of the Diccionario político y social del mundo iberoameri-
cano, “Orden” (Madrid: Centro de Estudios Políticos y Constitucionales, 2014), 2:129–141.
20. In “Carta a Guillermo White,” 26 May 1820, Simón Bolívar, Obras completas (Bogotá:
Ecoe, 1979), 1:438. Franz Hensel Riveros identified the main recurring themes of this as-
sociation in his Vicios, virtudes y educación moral en la construcción de la República, 1821–
1852 (Bogotá: Ediciones Uniandes, 2006).
21. An Address of Bolívar at the Congress of Angostura (February 15, 1819). Reprint Or-
dered by the Government of the United States of Venezuela, to Commemorate the Centennial
of the Opening of the Congress, trans. by Francisco Yanes (Washington, DC: Byron S. Adams,
1919), 20.
22. Javier Fernández-Sebastián and Fabio Wasserman have recently called attention to
the intriguing nature of this historical experience. See Fernández-Sebastián, “Historia, his-
toriografía, historicidad: Conciencia histórica y cambio conceptual,” in Europa del sur y
América latina: Perspectivas historiográficas, Manuel Suárez Cortina, ed. (Madrid: Biblio-
teca Nueva, 2014), 25–64; Fabio Wasserman, Entre Clio y la Polis: Conocimiento histórico y
representaciones del pasado en el Río de La Plata (1830–1860) (Buenos Aires: Teseo, 2008).
23. See Mark D. Jordan, “Ideals of Scientia moralis and the Invention of the Summa

90 contributions to the history of concepts

Precarious Time, Morality, and the Republic

eighteenth century the concept gained currency outside specialized theolog-

ical registers as Iberian reformism was driven by expanding notions of civic
virtue and patriotic public engagement. Morality, understood as “that which
concerns customs and human behavior” and which constitutes “the art of liv-
ing well,” remained inflected by religion but its semantic field was enriched
by political and scientific developments.24 During the political revolutions,
the concept leapt from mostly clerical, stoic, and theological registers onto
broader social, political, and constitutional arenas. Most significantly, the con-
cept underwent a process of temporalization as morality sought to be less a
prescriptive doctrine and more “the science of customs,” which, for the author
of an 1824 manual of ethics used at a local university, “is defined as a practical
science that directs human acts to honesty.”25
Morality thus became the concept that could address the relationship be-
tween normative orders—customs, law, religion, civilization—at a moment in
which the perceived cause of the region’s anomie had to do with the noncorre-
spondence between these normative orders. A popular tract on morality asked
“what would be of men without rules leading their actions? Take away moral-
ity and politics will be nothing but an infamous art” leading to war, arbitrari-
ness, and chaos.26 Fernando Peñalver, contributor to the pro-independence
newspaper El Correo del Orinoco (1818–1822), described the dialectics at the
heart of republican life in Spanish America: “The thermometer of freedom is
civilization and manners; as the latter improve and the former is advanced,
freedom progresses accordingly.” To ignore such dialectics exposed “the re-
public to confusion and anarchy.”27 The decline of the moralizing function of
the past—that is to say, the emergence of a new field of experience that impov-
erished the capacity of the past to guide the present—coincided with the insti-
tutionalization of a moralizing power in society through public education, the
promotion of enlightened public opinion, a hereditary chamber or the fourth
power, and a lifetime presidency.
theologiae,” in Aquinas’s Moral Theory: Essays in Honor of Norman Kretzmann, Scott Mac-
Donald and Eleonore Stump, eds. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007), 97. As an
extension, morality was central to the interpretation of the law.
24. In Esteban Terreros y Pandos, Diccionario castellano con las voces de ciencias y artes
y sus correspondientes en las tres lenguas francesa, latina e italiana, vol. 2 (Madrid: Viuda de
Ibarra, 1787). 
25. The author develops this definition: “It is a science because from certain principles
anyone can deduce certain conclusions … It is practical because it does not lie in the mere
contemplation of its object, but it gives us rules to direct our actions. Finally, we say that it
directs the acts toward honesty because such is its main aim.” Cuervo and Cuervo, Vida de
Rufino Cuervo, 290.
26. Rafael María Vásquez, Catecismo de moral para el uso de los cursantes de filosofía del
Colejio de San Bartolomé (Bogotá: Imprenta de R. Lora, 1832), v.
27. Correo del Orinoco (Angostura), 24 July 1819, 134.

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Francisco A. Ortega

In what follows I explore the relation between such precarious temporality

and the appearance of morality as a key sociopolitical concept in constitu-
tional and political settings during the nineteenth century. I focus exclusively
on two thinkers—Simón Bolívar and José Eusebio Caro—highly influential
in the development of an authoritarian conception of politics. Their appeal
to the concept of morality cannot be understood as a vestige of nonmodern
or colonial conditions and attitudes. Rather, it constitutes a powerful attempt
to bring under control the fundamental sense of precariousness that had be-
come the predominant mode of experience of social life under the republic.
Undoubtedly, there were other voices—both liberal and conservative, elite and
popular—whose public interventions should be examined if we are to provide
a full characterization of this fundamental sociopolitical concept. However,
as an entry point, the history I sketch in the following pages provides enough
evidence of its potency and centrality.

The Moral Constitution of the Republic and the Fourth Power

By late 1818, Bolívar convened the Congress of Angostura with the objective
of designing a well-balanced constitution for the new republic.28 In his inaugu-
ral speech, he proposed an institutional design that could combine republican
liberty and legal equality with an effective moralization of society. This was
especially necessary because “[o]ur moral constitution had not attained yet the
necessary consistency to reap the benefits of a government entirely represen-
tative.”29 Due to this collective unpreparedness, “[m]orals and enlightenment
[must be] the poles of a republic; morals and enlightenment are our prime
necessities.”30 Along with the classical tenants of representative government,
Bolívar proposed the creation of a hereditary senate and a fourth power that
functioned as a “moral branch of government.” With regard to the latter, Bolí-
var said:

Let us take from Athens her Areopagus, and the guardians of customs and
laws; let us take from Rome her censors and domestic tribunals; and form-
ing a holy alliance of those useful [moral] institutions, let us revive on earth
the idea of a people which is not contented with being free and strong, but
wants also to be virtuous. Let us take from Sparta her austere institutions,

28. The Congress of Angostura, composed by delegates from Venezuela and New Granada,
congregated in the midst of the Independence War. Delegates agreed to meet again, when
circumstances permitted greater representation, and draft the constitution. The Congress
met again in Cucuta in 1821 and drafted the Constitution of the Republic of Colombia.
29. An Address of Bolívar at the Congress of Angostura, 24.
30. Ibid., 34.

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Precarious Time, Morality, and the Republic

and forming with these three springs a fountain of virtues, let us give our
republic a fourth power, having jurisdiction over childhood and the heart of
men, public spirit, good customs and republican morals.31

The Areopagus consisted of two chambers of twenty people each, appointed

from among those with the best public reputation in the republic, one of which
was “responsible for the physical and moral education of children, from birth
to the age of twelve years old”32 so “that it may purify whatever is corrupt in the
republic,” and the other to oversee public behavior so that it may “denounce
ingratitude, selfishness, coldness of love for the country, idleness, negligence
of the citizens.”33
The fourth moral power enjoyed full and independent authority, and its ju-
risdiction did not consist of preventing but censoring.34 Thus, the moral power
was directed to public opinion and sought to punish with opprobrium and in-
famy while rewarding civic virtues with honors and glory. The government’s
printing press offered the means to broadcast its decisions. Such opinions
would constitute “the books of virtue and vice” that “the people [would consult]
for their elections, the executives for their decisions and the judges for their tri-
als.”35 Its sole function was to moralize society by creating a new consciousness
among the citizenry of that which was proper and improper in public conduct.
Anticipating criticism, Bolívar reasoned that “[s]uch an institution, no
matter how chimerical it may appear, is infinitely more feasible than others
that ancient and modern legislators have established, much less useful to
human kind.”36 Nonetheless, the Colombian Congress regarded the proposal
“of great difficulty for its establishment and during the present times practi-
cally impossible.”37 As it became clear in the ensuing public debates, objections

31. Ibid., 35.

32. First article in “El proyecto para instituir un Poder Moral” (February 1819), in Simón
Bolívar, Doctrina del Libertador, Manuel Pérez Vila, ed., 3rd ed. (Caracas: Biblioteca Aya-
cucho, 2009), 151. For a broad discussion of Bolívar’s role in Angostura, see Pedro Grases,
ed., El Libertador y la Constitución de Angostura de 1819: Prólogo de Tomás Polanco (Cara-
cas: Banco Hipotecario de Crédito Urbano, 1970).
33. An Address of Bolívar at the Congress of Angostura, 35.
34. For Bolívar the “jurisdiction of such Court, a truly holy tribunal, shall be … advisory
only in what refers to penalties and punishment.” An Address of Bolívar at the Congress
of Angostura, 35. For a useful juridical analysis of the relation between law, morality, and
justice during the late colonial period, see Victor Tau Anzoátegui, “Órdenes normativos y
prácticas socio-jurídicas: La justicia,” Nueva historia de la Nación Argentina, vol. 2 (Buenos
Aires: Planeta, 1999), 283–316.
35. An Address of Bolívar at the Congress of Angostura, 35.
36. Ibid.
37. “Proyecto de Constitución para la República de Venezuela, formado por el Jefe Su-
premo, y presentado al segundo Congreso Constituyente para su examen,” in El Liberta-

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Francisco A. Ortega

were raised against its rigorous nature, its religious undertones, and the fear
that it would turn into a despotic institution.38 An early critic recalled Ben-
jamin Constant’s distinction of the two freedoms and pointed out that our
modern liberties are not Rome’s.39 Today we require, above all, “[i]ndividual
security, personal guarantee, incompatible with the inquiries and investiga-
tions of the censors of Rome.”40 The critic singled out the unrealistic, intrusive,
and potentially abusive elements of the proposal. According to these critics the
Areopagus encroached on modern civil liberties, undermined representative
government, and exhibited very little regard for the distinction between pri-
vate and public.
Though Bolívar claimed he brought the institution of the moral power
from the “depths of obscure antiquity,” it is not difficult to see important affin-
ities with another of Constant’s contemporaneous formulation.41 In 1815 Con-
stant proposed in his Principes de politique the idea of a fourth power whose
main function was to moderate the relations among the executive, the legisla-
tive, and the judicial.42 For Constant, the fourth power was the attribute that,
in a constitutional monarchy, distinguished the powers of the king from those
of the executive. Divested of all practical functions, the royal or neutral power
remained distant from political struggles and became disinterested, so that
it could surveil and conciliate among the other public powers. Furthermore,

dor y la Constitución de Angostura de 1819 (Caracas: Publicaciones del Congreso, 1969),

197–198. See the edifying discussion by Tomás Straka in Las alas de Icaro: Indagación sobre
ética y ciudadanía en Venezuela (1800–1830) (Caracas: Universidad Católica de Venezu-
ela, 2005), 57–100; Jaime Urueña Cervera, Bolívar republicano: Fundamentos ideológicos e
históricos de su pensamiento político (Bogotá: Ediciones Aura, 2004), 183–244.
38. See, for instance, “Sobre el Areópago colombiano,” El Fósforo (Popayán, 1819). See
also the defense of the project penned by José Rafael Arboleda, “Poder moral,” El Fósforo
(Popayán, 1819); Simón Bolívar, “Carta a José Rafael Arboleda” (1823), in Bolívar, Obras
completas, 2:179–180.
39. “Sobre el Areópago colombiano,” El Fósforo (Popayán, 1819). Constant’s speech at the
Athénée Royal in Paris is known as De la liberté des Anciens comparée à celle des Modernes
(1819), originally published in Benjamin Constant, Collection complète des ouvrages publiés
sur le governement représentatif et la constitution actuelle, ou Cours de politique constitution-
nelle (Paris: Béchet aîné, 1820), 238–274. For a study concerning the uses Bolívar makes
of Constant, see Carolina Guerrero, Republicanismo y liberalismo en Bolívar (1819–1830):
Usos de Constant por el padre fundador (Caracas: Universidad Central de Venezuela, 2005).
40. “Sobre el Areópago colombiano,” El Fósforo (Popayán, 1819), 107–108.
41. An Address of Bolívar at the Congress of Angostura, 36.
42. Constant’s neutral power appeared in the Spanish translation Curso de política con-
stitucional (chapters 2–3, pages 60–79), translated by Manuel Antonio López. The Curso
was published in Salamanca in 1821 and combined Constant’s Principes de politique (1815)
and Cours de politique constitutionnelle (Paris, 1818–1820). For a discussion of Constant’s
proposal, see Marcel Gauchet, “Liberalism’s Lucid Illusion,” in The Cambridge Companion
to Constant, Helena Rosenblatt, ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 23–46.

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since embodied by the king—the fixed feature of the monarchy—this fourth

power was the guarantor of stability within the political system.
Bolívar found Constant’s formulation suitable. A few years later, as the
Republic of Bolivia was created, he proposed the creation of a neutral power
in the figure of a president for life:

In our Constitution the President of the Republic becomes like the sun—
firmly set in the center and giving life to the universe. This supreme authority
must be perpetual because systems without hierarchies [such as democracy]
require more than others a fixed point around which magistrates and cit-
izens, men and things, revolve. Give me a fixed point, said a philosopher
from antiquity, and I will move the world. For Bolivia, this fixed point is the
President for life. Therein lies our entire order.43

Furthermore, both Bolívar’s moral power and Constant’s neutral power are of
a higher order than the three classical public powers; as Marcel Gauchet has
referred to them, they are metapowers, hierarchically superior, supplementary
powers that mediate between the sovereign people and its delegate powers.44
The need for these powers arises as a consequence of the apparent flimsiness of
representative institutions. As Bolívar wrote in 1828, when the authority “has
to look outside its own resources, and rely on others who should be subjected,”
it incurs a great contradiction because government must strive “to be the cen-
ter and the house of force” while accepting that the “origin of its movement
does not correspond to it.”45
However, whereas Constant’s neutral power moderated the excesses in-
herent to the political system, Bolívar´s moral power “is not concerned with
politics except in its relations with morality”; it concentrated on “acts consti-
tuting habits or customs,” its object of attention was “every political or social
body that could be demoralized,” and its objective was “to correct breaches
of custom.”46 Therefore, the moral branch of government went beyond poli-
tics and law insofar as its scope of action was not just “what may violate the
Constitution, but also whatever should infringe on public respect”; not just
what “is repugnant to customs but that which weakens them as well.”47 Bolí-
var’s proposal signaled a shift from the established language of individual citi-
zenship and republican virtues toward a sustained concern with private social

43. Proyecto de Constitución para la República de Bolivia y Discurso del Libertador (Lima:
Alejandro Valdés, 1826), 7.
44. Marcel Gauchet, La Révolution des pouvoirs: La souveraineté, le peuple et la représen-
tation, 1789–1799 (Paris: Gallimard, 1995), 273–274.
45. “A los representantes del pueblo en la Convención Nacional,” April 1828, in Bolívar,
Doctrina del Libertador, 311.
46. “El proyecto para instituir un Poder Moral,” 151.
47. An Address of Bolívar at the Congress of Angostura, 35.

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customs. As a moderating power of society, it is not properly a political insti-

tution but one in charge of preparing citizens for political life; not properly a
legal institution but one of preparing the grounds of laws: “[G]ood morals …
are the pillars of the law.”48
Bolívar’s moral power was more akin to the various censorial powers elab-
orated during the revolutionary period.49 Censorial institutions, like Bolívar’s
fourth power, sought to oversee public behavior of citizens and public officers.
However, the Areopagus went beyond the public realm and sought to mold
private virtues in the belief they constitute grounds on which any civility and
conviviality is possible in Colombia. Finally, censorial powers do not comprise
a theory of natural inequality; instead, Bolívar’s moral power reflects his con-
viction that “[i]f the principle of political equality is generally acknowledged
… nature has made men unequal as regards genius, temperament, strength
and characteristics.”50 The only guarantee that it will not be abusive is its own
righteousness, the righteousness of a group of men that believe they are chosen
to lead the country. As Bolívar confided in 1820, the rigors of such an institu-
tion can and should be endured because “men can be governed by the sever-
est precepts. History demonstrates that men will submit to whatever a skillful
legislator intends of them, and whatever a strong magistrate applies to them.”51
Even though the 1819 Congress rejected Bolívar’s project, he never aban-
doned the idea of institutionalizing the moral and moderating powers as the
means to anchor postrevolutionary republican society. For his 1826 “Mes-
sage to the Bolivian Congress” in which he recommended a constitution for
the new country, he discarded the Areopagus and adopted a third hereditary
chamber (in addition to a popular chamber and the one set aside for the no-
bles or patricians). The chamber of censors was intended to oversee “morality,
science, arts, instruction and the printing press.” Like the Areopagus, it would
be in charge of convicting to “eternal opprobrium” criminals while granting
public honors to illustrious citizens.52
48. Ibid., 20.
49. In particular, as Urueña Cervera has pointed out, it bears a striking resemblance to
the censorial institution proposed by the Italian revolutionary jurist Mario Pagano for the
1799 Constitution of Naples. See Jaime Urueña Cervera, “Nápoles en el primer constitu-
cionalismo bolivariano,” Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos [Online], Colloques, January 2006,
http://nuevomundo.revues.org/1495 (accessed 22 June 2016). See also Anthony Pagden,
“Francesco Mario Pagano’s ‘Republic of Virtue’: Naples 1799,” in The Invention of the Mod-
ern Republic, Biancamaria Fontana, ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994),
139–153. Due to historical connections between the Spanish Empire and Naples and, not
least, to Bolívar’s visit to Rome in 1805, it is likely he had access to the political literature of
the region and, most concretely, to Pagano’s writings.
50. An Address of Bolívar at the Congress of Angostura, 25.
51. In “Carta a Guillermo White,” 26 May 1820, in Bolívar, Obras completas, 1:442.
52. Proyecto de Constitución para la República de Bolivia, 6.

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When Bolívar returned to Colombia he found a deeply divided country

on the brink of civil war. In his 1828 message to the delegates, convened to
reform the 1821 Constitution, he diagnosed: “Our government is essentially
ill-constituted.”53 Once again such a precarious constitution had as much to do
with the foibles of republican institutions as with Colombians’ lack of virtue.
As impatient military officials claimed in the midst of the crisis, “the founding
fathers of the revolution believed too much in the political principles and in
the people, and all was lost.”54 With anguish he beseeched: “Legislators … !
I call on you, with infinite prayers, to give us inexorable laws!”55 Inexorable
laws are precisely the opposite of what Montesquieu had recommended. In
Bolívar’s interjection, it is not laws that should adapt to customs; rather, laws
should shape customs. Such shaping is the moral effect of power. It requires
strong authority, for “without power there is no virtue; and without virtue the
republic perishes.”56 That is why governing in Spanish America is the art of ad-
ministering the moralizing power; that is what prevents these countries from
“rush[ing] into a stormy sea.”57
Bolívar’s pleas were not heeded. The acrimonious debates that followed
impeded a constitutional solution and led to Bolívar’s dictatorship (1828–
1830). By then Bolívar had reconsidered his initial reticence to draw religion
into politics, and noting that “the moral development of man is the first ob-
jective of the Legislator,” he sought to create a new covenant with the church.58
However, it was already too late for Colombia, and in 1830 it fragmented into
the republics of Venezuela, New Granada (including Panama), and Ecuador.

Morality: From Constitutional Institution to a Scientific Law

Bolívar’s effort to provide an institutional place for the fourth power illus-
trates the emergence of morality as an important sociopolitical concept of the
postrevolutionary period. The collapse of the Republic of Colombia in 1830

53. Bolívar, “A los representantes del pueblo, en la Convención nacional” (1828), in Bolí-
var, Doctrina del Libertador, 310.
54. “División del Magdalena del Ejercito de Colombia dirije una exposición a la gran
Convención de Ocaña sobre reformas constitucionales … ,” Cartagena, 25 February 1828.
In Germán Carrera Damas, ed., Materiales para el estudio de la cuestión agraria en Venezu-
ela, 1800–1830, vol. 1 (Caracas: Universidad Central de Venezuela, 1964), document 299,
p. 499; emphasis added.
55. Bolívar, “A los representantes del Pueblo,” 263.
56. Ibid., 263.
57. Ibid., 310.
58. Proyecto de Constitución para la República de Bolivia, 15. For a detailed discussion,
see Guillermo Aveledo, “Republicanismo y Religión en Simón Bolívar (1812–1830),” Re-
vista de Investigaciones en Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades UKU PACHA 11, no. 18 (2014).

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and the creation of the Republic of New Granada provided a new opportu-
nity for the development of strong, stable institutions that could reconcile lib-
erty with an orderly republic. The Constitution of 1832 rejected the idea of a
moral power and posited instead the preeminence of education as the main
public instrument to moralize the masses and ensure civility.59 The relative
peacefulness of the transition, the ability of the civilian faction to control the
military, and subsequent fair elections aroused, once again, a general sense
of optimism. A few years later, José Eusebio Caro (1817–1853), conservative
political philosopher, journalist, and poet from the Republic of New Granada,
reminisced about the decade:

In 1839 we were at peace; then society thrived, was animated, everything

moved, everyone spoke, no one was afraid … there were newspapers, new
societies were created, schools flourished, instruction became general, peo-
ple began to leave their state of tutelage and understand their freedoms …
Yes; freedom … was beginning to be popular, to gain credit and to flourish.60

Much of this was due to the fact that education “broadened its coverage, be-
came more reflective, more appropriate, and more accessible and easy,” as
enlightenment, according to Caro, trickled down to the inferior classes and
social progress seemed possible.61 As Caro wrote:

Everything in society began to march on more steadily and acquired a more

democratic and uniform aspect: the tailors and shoemakers began to wear
jackets and boots, which before they barely knew how to do for others; their
wives began to dress decently. And one often could see ruana-wearing men
reading a notice in a corner, or reading a sign in front of a workshop.62

Such peaceful advancement rendered caudillos (regional strongman or supre-

mos) and the military unnecessary: “[T]he idea already seemed odious that
bayonets would be taken as necessary for the preservation of order and the sup-

59. Francisco de Paula Santander, the elected president of New Granada, reinstated the
ambitious 1826 education law he had drafted as vice president of Colombia. The law sought
to educate citizens along intellectual, physical, and moral lines. See Jesús Alberto Echeverry
Sánchez, Santander y la instrucción pública, 1819–1840 (Bogotá: Foro Nacional por Colom-
bia, 1989).
60. José Eusebio Caro, El Granadino, 16 September 1842. For the intellectual background
of José Eusebio Caro, see Jaime Jaramillo Uribe, El pensamiento colombiano en el siglo XIX
(Mexico City and Bogotá: Alfaomega-CESO, 2001); Robert Henry Davis, “Acosta, Caro and
Lleras: Three Essayists and Their Views of New Granada’s National Problems, 1832–1853”
(PhD diss., Vanderbilt University, 1969). See also Simón Aljure Chalela, José Eusebio Caro:
Bibliografía (Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1967).
61. Caro, El Granadino, 16 September 1842.
62. Ibid. A ruana is a Colombian woolen covering resembling a poncho.

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port of the laws.”63 In addition to political tranquility and democratic advance-

ment, Caro recalled a decade of prosperity and material progress. According
to him, “[c]ommerce had received an impulse hitherto unknown: it became
easier for New Granadans to travel to London than it had been to go to Jamaica.
National wealth made increasingly rapid progress,” public employees were paid,
and the nation had begun to amortize its crippling international debt.64
Caro’s depiction of the late 1830s is colored by subsequent events, most
significantly the devastating War of the Supremes (1839–1842). Notwithstand-
ing his nostalgia, it is relatively true that most members of the elite had reasons
to be optimistic about the prospects of New Granada.65 His early writings are
the result of such a relatively calm environment. His engagement with Jeremy
Bentham, Jean Baptiste Say, and Charles Comte—from whom he learned a
new way of observing the social universe even though he rejected their conclu-
sions—provided him with a scientific language to pursue his research into mo-
rality. Like many in his generation, he sought to write a “science of morality”
that acknowledged the vertiginous social transformations of the world and his
surroundings, and for which a deontological formulation seemed anachronis-
tic.66 Such science morality, he claimed in his 1836 Social Mechanics or Theory
of Human Movement Considered in Its Nature, Its Effects and Its Causes, is “not
a collection of precepts, not a declamation against vices, nor against bad hab-
its”; rather, it is a “science of observation” that purports to “observe the facts,
observe their causes, see the affiliation between these facts and causes, observe
their effects, observe the affiliation between facts and these effects.”67 In Social
63. Ibid.
64. Ibid.
65. Caro’s optimism was shared by people across the political spectrum. See, for in-
stance, Francisco de Paula Santander, “Mensaje al Congreso, al finalizar su Administración”
(1837), in Oscar Delgado, ed., Antología política: Francisco de Paula Santander y Vicente
Azuero, Biblioteca Básica Colombiana 45 (Bogotá: Instituto Colombiano de Cultura, 1981),
163–166; José María Samper, Apuntamientos para la historia política i social de la Nueva
Granada: Desde 1810, i especialmente de la administración del 7 de marzo (Bogotá: Imprenta
del Neogranadino, 1853).
66. Some of the best-known authors who produced manuals and treaties on the science
of morality were Rufino Cuervo, Tratado de ética (ca. 1826); Rafael María Vázquez, Cate-
cismo de moral para el uso de los cursantes de filosofía del Colejio de San Bartolomé … (1832);
José María de Pando, Pensamientos y apuntes sobre moral y política (1837); Justo Arose-
mena, Apuntamientos para la introducción á las ciencias morales y políticas, por un jóven
americano (1840); Anonymous, El hombre de bien: Preceptos de moral privada, economía
doméstica, pensamientos morales sobre el trabajo, educación física y moral de la infancia
(Bogotá, 1841); Manuel Ancízar, Lecciones de psicología y moral (1845 and 1851); Justo
Arosemena, Principios de moral política, redactados en un Catecismo i varios artículos suel-
tos (1849); and Manuel María Madiedo, Teoría social (1852).
67. José Eusebio Caro, Mecánica social o teoría del movimiento humano, considerado en su
naturaleza, en sus efectos y en sus causas (Bogotá: Instituto Caro y Cuervo, 2002) 239–240.

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Mechanics there are no rewards or punishments, and “the reader will find not a
single maxim about what actions should or should not be executed.”68
Instead, his science of morality undertook “[t]he description of actions in
the most general sense; the general description of the effects of each of these
actions, [and] … the analytical description of these facts,” with the goal of
arriving at a scientific understanding of the workings of human actions upon
each other and the collective.69 Chief among motivators was his perception
that New Granada was a society inhabited by “a huge pile of men in ceaseless
movement.” 70 Caro is indeed a thinker of movement: “Movement is life.”71 The
essay aimed to develop a science to calculate and classify human movement:

Let us go from the end of any city—Bogotá, for instance—to the other: let us
go from the Convent of San Diego to the new wares factory … In the most re-
mote streets, in the loneliest and marginal districts, it is difficult that one day
goes by, one hour, half an hour, a quarter of an hour goes by without a mov-
ing figure animating the scene, without man endowing the scene with life.72

The founding principle of social existence is its dynamic character: “[A]bso-

lute immobility is impossible: it is impossible for the individuals, impossible
for society. A non-moving society … is not society, it is the cemetery.”73 Move-
ment diversifies society and is constitutive of all social movements, and not
just between one moving individual and another but within society, as Caro
understood difference to be the root of all movement:

Humans of all species, of all sexes, all ages, all conditions; white, Indian,
black, young, old, children, women, artisans, beggars, soldiers, monks, mer-
chants; humans of all faces, of all dresses, all sizes; men on foot, men on
horseback; in troops or separated, located in front or at the back, follow-
ing each other or merely meeting each other; all these humans, all this mad
whirl of humans, obstruct the exits and entrances, swarm the gates, stores
and street pavements; and cast from their bosom a sort of hoarse roar, similar
to that produced by the thick bubbling that bumps and jostles in a boiling
cauldron: they all move.74

68. Ibid., 247.

69. Ibid., 236–237.
70. Ibid., 124. I have examined Caro’s philosophical writings as intellectual responses to
the precarious temporality accompanying the establishment of the republican system in
Francisco A. Ortega Martínez, “República, tiempo incierto y moral en la primera mitad del
siglo XIX neogranadino,” Almanack, no. 10 (2015): 335–349.
71. Caro, Mecánica social, 133.
72. Ibid., 124.
73. Ibid., 133.
74. Ibid., 126.

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Diversity is necessarily constitutive of the social body, the result of movement:

“[I]n social science, like in electricity, the theorem is true: the forces of the
same species reject each other: those of different species attract each other.”75
Industry and technology involve transformations in the material and
moral nature that are felt on a global scale. In a contemporary text Caro writes
that “the actions of large cities are felt throughout the world. The actions of
London are felt in Bogotá, Lima, Canton [Guangzhou], Beijing.”76 According
to Caro:

In such actions, two elements enter in mathematical relation: mass and dis-
tance. In the moral world … the political strength of the cities must conquer
by means of time the obstacles of distance, … the nature of the terrain, bad
roads, the lack of vehicles, the diversity of languages, etc. But (and note this
well) the steamboat and the progresses of navigation and railways tend to
make barriers disappear … and lead us to near instantaneousness.77

New Granada’s progress had to be understood in a global magnitude, even as it

challenged the moral foundations of life in common. Caro’s social mechanics
sought a scientific law.
The claim to approach morality as a positive science is not unrelated to
other projects in the Americas and Europe. Jeremy Bentham, for instance,
tried something similar in 1780 when he penned An Introduction to the Prin-
ciples of Morals and Legislation.78 Similarly, Charles Comte, French lawyer and
political writer, “introduced into the study of morality and law those methods
that safely and quickly have advanced all natural sciences.”79 Comte, whose

75. Ibid., 155. Caro adds that all movement carries within itself the “vestiges of other
peoples’ indefatigable actions”; it bears the trace of another man’s action. Ibid., 134.
76. José Eusebio Caro, “Mecánica social: Algunas observaciones,” in Pombo, Obras es-
cogidas en prosa y verso, 201.
77. Ibid.
78. Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1780),
reprinted with corrections in 1823. In 1821 Toribio Núñez translated the book and pub-
lished it in Salamanca as Principios de la ciencia social ó de las ciencias morales y políticas
(Salamanca: Imprenta Nueva, por don Bernardo Martin, 1821). By 1835, as Caro worked
on his Mecánica social, Toribio published a compendium of Bentham’s work under the title
Ciencia social según los principios de Bentham (Madrid: Imprenta Real, 1835).
79. Charles Comte, Traite de legislation, ou exposition des lois generales suivant lesquelles
les peuples prosperent (Paris: A. Sautelet, 1826), 5. I quote from the 1836 Spanish translation
that Caro might have owned, Tratado de lejislación ó Esposición de las leyes jenerales con
arreglo a las cuales prosperan, decaen o se estancan los pueblos (Barcelona: Imprenta de don
Antonio Bergnes, 1836), 3. Carlos Gélvez Higuera has shed light on the relationship of Caro
with Comte. See Carlos Rubén Gélvez Higuera, “José Eusebio Caro y La mecánica social:
El liberalismo de un conservador” (PhD diss., Universidad Nacional de Colombia, 2011),
32–34. I stand corrected by his observations.

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systematizing Caro admired, presupposed that everything in the physical and

moral realms was subjected to laws. Accordingly, the goal of moral science was
to uncover and expose the general laws under which the peoples of the world
thrived, declined, or stagnated. Any argument that would deduce them a priori
from some abstract axiom is a chimera. The young Caro shared with Comte
the ideal that the science of morality identified a method that moved away
from polemics into the indisputable realm of scientific law and thus offered
the possibility—or so he seemed to think—of stabilizing republican society.
Caro’s position in favor of moral scientific laws openly critiques Bentham’s
position, for whom the moral value of social acts corresponds to their social
utility. The very fact that Bentham could only pass moral judgment after the
action had taken place meant that any event could be evaluated at some point
as beneficial and at another as harmful. Therefore, for Caro the principle of
utility “is an uncertain rule, because it makes morality consist in the results,
and the results are contingent, which also makes contingent and uncertain the
morality attributed to them.”80 Such uncertainty transforms the social body
into a turf of violent clashes and leads to anarchy or despotism, or to state
it in the terms we have been pursuing, it is responsible for the worsening of
the sense of precariousness distinctive of the republican experience in Spanish

Morality and Civilization: In Search of a Supreme Principle

In Social Mechanics Caro sought to ground moral principles in the incon-

trovertible sphere of scientific reasoning. And this happened as political life
flourished in the public sphere, as it became the stage on which life in com-
mon was produced through conflict and polemics, and as the last vestiges of
the transcendent foundations of authority vanished. The War of the Supremes
(1839–1842), the first national conflict since the wars of independence and
one of the most devastating in the nineteenth century, revealed the incon-
sequentiality of such an attempt. The war was initiated as a religious dispute
arising from the government’s decision to suppress a few minor convents in
the south but soon gave way to the action of caudillos (regional strongman or
supremos), who mobilized popular groups, especially indigenous and slaves,
against the centralist regime. A fierce civil war followed that threatened to
fragment the country. The conservative regime won the war, though the
peace achieved was precarious and the consequences were nefarious. Caro
described them thus:

80. José Eusebio Caro, “Sobre el principio utilitario,” El Granadino, no. 14, 23 October
1842; emphasis in original.

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The revolution came and everything disappeared, like smoke … Wealth dis-
sipated, bankruptcies multiplied, professions were interrupted, the bloom-
ing youth was mown during the war, schools and colleges closed, everyone
became a soldier, the country was militarized, the Republic became an im-
mense barrack. During the war all progress ceased … ; and, after victory, the
holy cause of liberty was almost discredited and our national pride … has
been lost entirely.81

War left in its wake rampant crime, lack of respect, and constant social unrest.
In contrast with earlier prospects, New Granadans now faced “extreme public
and private misery. Government, unable to provide for ordinary expenses, was
reduced to request a loan of one hundred to two hundred thousand pesos,
offering to pay interest of up to 2 percent monthly.”82
In a letter to the president published in a prominent newspaper, Caro de-
scribed the country as a den of thieves who appealed to demagogy to achieve
their selfish goals. Caro, who fought alongside government troops, blamed the
war on power-hungry firebrands who manipulated people by inflating their
aspirations. Such callous disregard for the public good threatened the political
system and led to riots and civil unrest. But these demagogues had been suc-
cessful because of the general state of immorality of New Granadans. For Caro,
it was clear that as long as society remained ignorant, politics was vulnerable
to agitators and destined to destabilize the country. Once again, the image
of an unhinged society haunted commentators. Minister of Interior Lino de
Pombo pleaded in 1843 to “throw the anchor down to stop this damned revo-
lutionary voyage in which we embarked thirty years ago.”83
In such conditions scientific moral laws could not moor Spanish Amer-
ican republics. These societies were not only in movement; they also sat on
flimsy bases. In fact, argued Caro, New Granada was still in a state of gesta-
tion, “not yet even an embryo because it still finds itself in a chaotic state; just
beginning to organize.”84 A rigorous description of such an embryonic state
would not find an immovable principle. Furthermore, fighting for survival and
civilization—or rather, for the survival of civilization—required more than
the undaunted truths of science. In a well-known essay published in 1842,
Caro corrected himself and insisted that morality was not a science but a fun-
damental principle: “In true sciences, such as natural sciences and political
economy, one studies facts that can be observed in isolation, and the more
one collects observations, the more sciences advance.” Unlike them, in mo-

81. José Eusebio Caro, El Granadino, 16 September 1842.

82. Cuervo, Vida de Rufino Cuervo, 361.
83. Letter from Lino de Pombo to Ancizar, 3 November 1843. In Archivo Central
Histórico, Universidad Nacional de Colombia.
84. Caro, “Mecánica social: Algunas observaciones,” 201.

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rality “one does not study facts but searches for a prior principle that qualifies
them.”85 Caro’s abandonment of scientific certainty forced him to declare that
there is “no more moral doctrine than the Gospel nor more moral law than
the Decalogue.”86
For Caro there were only two remedies, “either to withdraw from the dem-
ocratic government or these societies must acquire the public and private vir-
tues necessary to cope with freedom.”87 However, to withdraw from democracy
does not seem feasible: “[R]eason finds that monarchy … [and aristocracy] are
terribly inconvenient.”88 The monarchical “government is too lavish, too expen-
sive, and particularly fatal for countries that are new, poor and depopulated.”89
Furthermore, democracy is inevitable; all of the “peoples of the world move,
in a more or less regulated movement, more or less accelerated, toward dem-
ocratic freedom”; such “unstoppable movement naturally happens” through
trade, navigation, and printing.90 It is an expectation that cannot be denied. In
fact, the moral task of any government is to institute democracy:
To gradually call the people who have never exercised sovereignty into its ex-
ercise; to set up institutions that could teach them how to proceed; to put on
their hands the instruments so that they learn how to handle it; to shape their
customs and provide them with action; to strengthen their religious principle
… ; to place in the hands of the majority the real, truthful, permanent and
prevailing power, which today is found nowhere, and whose lack has led us
to anarchy.91

But, as we have seen, democracy is difficult and dangerous. Let us briefly re-
call Bolívar’s view of the republic as institutionally unfinished and Colombians
as ill-prepared citizens. For him morality was a precondition for political life
and hence the Areopagus. In 1845 Caro produced a similar diagnosis: “[I]n
Spanish America … public powers lack something that forces us to appoint
swordsmen as presidents.”92 By then the fourth moral power was no longer

85. Caro, “Sobre el principio utilitario.”

86. José Eusebio Caro, “Sobre los principios generales de organización social que convi-
ene adoptar en la nueva constitución de la República,” El Granadino, no. 18, 27 November
87. José Eusebio Caro, “La cuestión moral,” La Civilización, no. 2, 16 August 1849.
88. Ibid.
89. Ibid.
90. Ibid.
91. José Eusebio Caro, “Fundar una sólida democracia …” (1846). Reprinted in Antología
del pensamiento conservador en Colombia, 2 vols., Roberto Herrera Soto, ed. (Bogotá: Insti-
tuto Colombiano de Cultura, 1982), 1:170.
92. Draft of an editorial for El Granadino, no. 22. The issue was scheduled to appear in
April of 1845, but the newspaper closed before it was printed. See Pombo, Obras escogidas
en prosa y verso, xx; emphasis added.

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plausible, but the problem remained. Republican institutions were precarious

and, when executed by ill-prepared citizens, turned anarchical. In a republic
“the root of evil is very deep; it lies in the deafening fury of envy [and] in the
temptations afforded by ambition [that] relentlessly blow and excite the hearts
of men.” Echoing Guizot and Tocqueville, Caro wrote that “democracy” fans
the passions “producing dissolving actions” in which “government becomes
prey and public morality the field devastated by combat.”93 Delegates working
on the 1843 constitutional reform sought to create the instruments to limit
these excesses: they strengthened the executive, curbed regional power, and
restricted popular participation.94
After 1847 the country spiraled again into intense conflict. Conservative
president Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera initiated a number of liberalizing
measures, but most importantly, the opposition, now calling themselves Lib-
erals, sought to energize their constituency by promoting popular democratic
societies. These societies were originally conceived as electoral instruments
to promote liberal candidates, but they soon became sites of popular empow-
erment and platforms for a new kind of popular republicanism.95 With them
politics changed radically and, from the perspective of Conservatives, only for
the worse. Democratic empowerment led artisans to challenge standing social
arrangements and demand political reforms. Conservatives rejected their rad-
icalized language and their ever more daring actions in favor of democratic
reforms and against property and privilege. Political elites felt such challenges
were uncalled for and once again attributed such exaggerated pretensions to
agitators and the inveterate ignorance of the people, their degraded or unpre-
pared state.
After losing the 1849 elections to liberal José Hilario López (1849–1853),
Conservatives realized they had to organize their electoral bases and inter-
vene in the rapidly expanding public sphere. Philosophical tracts and scientific
demonstrations were not appropriate or efficacious. Public disputes required
skillful acts of persuasion able to convince those who might be disinclined to
accept the argument. Caro moved away from philosophical essays and became
a passionate public polemist. In the aftermath of the 1849 election, Caro, to-
gether with Mariano Ospina Rodríguez (1805–1885), a Conservative lawyer
and journalist from the province of Antioquia, founded the newspaper La Civ-
ilización (1849–1851). The newspaper catalyzed the opposition and offered a
consistent Conservative program for years to come.
93. Ibid.
94. Caro offered his views on the constitutional reforms in “Sobre los principios generales.”
95. For the emergence of democratic societies and a new kind of popular republican-
ism, see Margarita Pacheco, La fiesta liberal en Cali (Cali: Ediciones Universidad del Valle,
1992); James Sanders, Contentious Republicans: Popular Politics, Race, and Class in Nine-
teenth-Century Colombia (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).

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The newspaper explained in its first issues that it sought to “promote and
defend the civilization in New Granada and the whole of South America.”
Caro defined civilization as “the ensemble of all kinds of resources that hu-
mans have accumulated for their perfection and happiness.”96 According to
him the means available to civilization are instruction, wealth, and morality.
Of the three, morality stands out as the only one that is absolute. One could
be more or less wealthy or more or less educated, but a rich and educated man
can still be a Robespierre or Marat. “This man will be a barbarian and of the
worst kind.”97 An enlightened nation, like France at the end of the eighteenth
century, sunk into chaos and anarchy. There was no intermediate state in mo-
rality. People are moral or immoral, and this condition determines the true
state of a civilized nation.98 Only morality offered New Granadans the guar-
antee to advance on the path toward material, social, and political progress.
Thus, only the work of morality, the constant working on domestic virtues, as
a supplement to government and a requirement for citizenship, smoothed the
path toward civilization. As Caro argued, morality “strengthens instincts of
sociability, founds wealth and well-being, condemns slavery and oppression;
proscribes tyranny and violence; sows the seeds and favors the growth of all
If Liberals—or Reds, as Conservatives called them—agitated for politi-
cal enfranchisement, Caro and his comrades insisted that the dispute was
not political but moral. As Caro claimed, by adopting the republican form,
the political question was already solved: “[E]njoying, as we enjoy universal
FREEDOM, under a republican constitution, the question cannot be other
than the MORAL ISSUE, that is, the question of how the parties use FREE-
DOM.”100 Consequently, for Caro “[t]he big question … is how to moralize the
people,” how to prepare them for the political institutions they have adopted.101
It is a specifically Spanish American concern, since in countries like England
or the United States political disagreements were made possible because of the
prevailing moral consensus among the members of these societies. Instead,
Caro writes, the observer “finds that what separates political parties in Vene-
zuela and New Granada” is not a matter of opinion on how to proceed within
established institutions; here the dispute itself “is the moral issue, the question
of public policy, the question of the means ambition may legitimately utilize
[in order to achieve its goals], the personal animosities that have as source

96. José Eusebio Caro, “¿Qué es la civilización?” La Civilización, no. 1, 9 August 1849.
97. Caro, “La cuestión moral.”
98. Ibid.
99. Caro, “¿Qué es la civilización?”
100. Caro, “La polémica de los rojos,” La Civilización, no. 7, 20 September 1849.
101. Caro, “La cuestión moral.”

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and motive the moral question.”102 Therefore, “the struggle is between security
and violence, order and disorder, the peaceful and loyal government against
mutiny and uprisings. The struggle is between voting with words and voting
with daggers.”103
The fiery language fashioned asymmetrical counterconcepts: “The oppo-
site of civilization and morality is immorality and barbarism.” Such language
did not seek nor admit moderation; it sought the annihilation of the other: the
end of the “Red Party.” As stated by Caro, the political existence of the Lib-
eral Party “is incompatible with freedom, with order, peace; and this fight will
continue, because the Conservative Party is as immortal as morality itself, and
the Red Party should disappear as crime and license.”104 Political parties were
above all moral forces that either acted in favor of order and self-preservation
or became agents of anarchy and disintegration. Clearly, more than political
conflicts, what took place in New Granada was a civilizational confrontation.
The editors of La Civilización proposed three strategies to moralize soci-
ety: strong repressive government, mandatory education, and reliance on the
church to reach all sectors of society. “To govern, to preach, to educate: here
it is the means, the power, the very weaponry of civilization.”105 Accordingly,
a republican democratic government must be ready to permanently repress
evil through the application of material punishment to crime.106 Furthermore,
authorities have to take into account that man is weak, eminently corruptible,
and inclined to vice; he needs to be led, even forced to comply. From this point
of view, repression is a defense of the possibility of justice and is justice at the
same time. Because, as Caro writes, “without God and without moral repres-
sion, what is left for the ignorant multitude?”107
However, repression alone is despotism. That is why strong authority
should be combined with a mandate to extend elementary public popular edu-
cation nationwide.108 The main goals of public education were to secure a solid
morality, to learn the necessary skills to prosper and progress, and to acquire
the basic understanding of a citizen’s rights and responsibilities. Caro was
fond of employing the metaphor of the republic as an immense schoolroom:

102. Ibid.
103. Ibid.
104. José Eusebio Caro, “La libertad i el Partido Conservador,” La Civilización, no. 5, 6
September 1849.
105. Caro, “La cuestión moral.”
106. Ibid.
107. Ibid.
108. Caro produced several reports on education and frequently presented projects to
better the country’s educational system. See, for instance, “Sobre la educación pública en
la Nueva Granada” (1840) and “Informe sobre la instrucción pública” (ca. 1843), both in
Pombo, Obras escogidas.

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“Give us a serious teacher, a strong government that can maintain order while
the people learn, and when the critical time of elections comes, it has enough
strength to prevent revolutions and save the homeland!”109 Finally, Caro envi-
sioned a protagonist role for the Catholic Church as the main agent of social
moralization in the country: whether the archbishop of Bogotá as the great
patron of the Catholic Church; the Jesuits administering missions in remote
areas of the country, providing frequent confession in the cities, or administer-
ing the education of children;110 or regular priests in charge of the country’s re-
ligious and moral education.111 Only with these three strategies, thought Caro,
could the moral chasm that threatened to rip the country apart be mended;
only then would compliance with the law be the result of personal choice.
Only then would the precariousness of republican historical time cease.

Conclusion: Eternal Time

Behind the fragile republic dwells the possibility of a republic founded on true
moral law; behind the precarious experience of the republic there is everlast-
ing time. Private and public virtues harmoniously comingle and produce a
Catholic vivere civile. The subject of time, precarious and eternal, occupied
Caro throughout his life and became a dominant theme during the last decade
of his life (1843–1853): “Oh time! Only God knows your dark secret.”112 It is in
his poetry, more than anywhere else, where Caro elaborated an explicit notion
of eternal time that could, at times, constitute a denial of earthly life:

Man is an unlit lamp

All his light will come from death
And a new name, and a new fate,
And a new being—demon or angel!
Soul is here veiled by time:
The eternity of time breaks the veil
The eternity! Oh God! Hell and Heaven!113

109. Caro, “Sobre los principios generales.”

110. José Eusebio Caro, “La cuestión de los jesuitas,” La Civilización, no. 14, 8 November
111. Caro, “Sobre los principios generales.”
112. Caro, “La bendición nupcial,” 47.
113. José Eusebio Caro, “Proposición de matrimonio,” in Pombo, Obras escogidas, 44. The
original reads: “El hombre es una lámpara apagada, / Toda su luz se la dará la muerte, / Y
un nuevo nombre, y una nueva suerte, / Y un nuevo ser—demonio ó serafín ! / Al alma el
tiempo tiene aquí tapada: / La eternidad del tiempo rompe el velo … / La eternidad !—oh
Dios ! infierno y cielo!”

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More frequently, though, Caro struggled to reconcile these two temporali-

ties—one reflecting the uncertainties of life and the other signifying what is
eternal and truthful.114 Such coexistence could make possible diversity as part
of eternal harmony and not as the detonating factor of conflict and war. Thus,
in the future

the differences between tongues and nations will disappear, as well as hand
laborers, for they all will become businessmen [as] machines will do all
human labor. Menial workers will disappear and instead the modern engi-
neer will emerge, that is, the intelligent man responsible for commanding
machines, the man who is the living and prophetic announcement of all the
laborers of the world.115

These words were not simply inspired by the possibilities of technological de-
velopment. More importantly, they were written at a time when conflict be-
tween artisans and patricians was at its peak and civil war seemed inevitable.

114. As in, for instance, the unfinished philosophical poem “La bendición nupcial” (ca.
1843–1846), which Caro considered to be his greatest poetic creation.
115. Quoted from Uribe, Pensamiento, 155–156.

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