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La hora de los pueblos: la construcción de los nuevos espacios políticos en Sudamérica, 1820-1861

Pronunciamientos, petitions and elections in the Colombian crisis (1826-1832). A case study on the forms of political instability in the Hispanic world in the early XIXth century

Pronunciamientos, peticiones y elecciones en la crisis colombiana (1826-1832). Un estudio de caso sobre las formas de inestabilidad política en el mundo hispano a principios del siglo XIX
Pronunciamientos, pétitions et élections dans la crise colombienne (1826-1832). Une étude de cas sur les formes d'instabilité politique dans le monde hispanique au début du XIXe siècle
María Teresa Calderón


La crise politique qui a compromis le rêve bolivarien d'une grande nation au nord du sous-continent américain est considérée ici comme un cas d´étude. En mettant en évidence le rôle central des pueblos et des corporations militaires et la nature des ressources politiques que ces acteurs ont déployées pendant la crise de la première république colombienne (1826-1832), l'auteur propose la thèse selon laquelle l'instabilité endémique que connaissent les républiques latino-américaines au début du XIXe siècle n'est pas la conséquence d'une réticence présumée à la légalité et au constitutionnalisme. Au contraire, c'est le résultat d'une culture politique profondément ancrée dans la théologie catholique qui a maintenu en vigueur le corpus juridique de la monarchie et la pratique juridictionnelle du pouvoir. Le constitutionnalisme a garanti les conditions de sa reproduction et a renforcé sa nature conflictuelle, entre autres parce qu'il a favorisé une participation politique intense de nouveaux acteurs par le biais de mécanismes hautement institutionnalisés et fortement juridicisés.

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1The political crisis unleashed by the abdications of the Spanish domains to Napoleon in 1808 paved the way for an outstanding number of republics in the Hispanic world. The remarkable feature of this process is that after three hundred years of undisputable Monarchy, the creation of Hispanic republics did not draw on the pressing concerns that surrounded the creation of the American republic or the French république. Despite this seemingly smooth transition to republicanism, Hispanic republics experienced great instability during the XIXth century. This paper explores the difficult stabilization of Latin American republics by stressing the vitality of a public culture grounded on Catholicism. It places attention on the intertwining of three institutions which played a central role throughout the Hispanic world during the revolutions: petitions, elections and pronunciamientos. The crisis of the first republic of Colombia (1826-1832) is here considered as a case study.

2The first Colombian republic dates to 1819 when Simón Bolívar (1783-1830) referred to the territorial unity of the Viceroyalty of New Granada and the General Captaincy of Venezuela in his speech to the Congress of Angostura. Bolívar believed that necessity had united these territories de facto. Nonetheless, in 1818, many of these territories remained occupied by royalist forces and lacked representation in Angostura. Thus, Congress deferred the promulgation of a law unifying the territories and the expedition of a constitution. In 1821, when the assembly was legally convened in the small villa of Rosario de Cucuta, independence was underway. Nevertheless, whilst the Cucuta Constitution and the law that proclaimed the unity of the territories of Colombia were issued in 1821, total control of the republic’s territory was not secured until 1823 when general José Antonio Páez (1790-1873) liberated Puerto Cabello, thereby displacing the war against the royalists outside the frontiers of the new republic. Three years later a local crisis erupted in the prosperous historical province of Caracas. In a matter of weeks, it took the form of a profound constitutional crisis. By 1832, Colombia had seized to exist and in its place three sovereign republics had emerged: Venezuela, Ecuador, and New Granada.

  • 1 Amongst the numerous works of these historians Vid.: Fioravanti Mauricio, Appunti (...)

3According to the traditional view on the history of Latin America, this crisis has been interpreted as a clash between national identities and ideological struggles avant la lettre, promoted by caudillos through pronunciamientos. This perspective holds the failure of constitutionalism in Latin America throughout the XIXth. century. This essay seeks to unveil the underlying logic of this political process from a perspective related to the critical historiography of law. As it is well known, the renewal of legal history undertaken by Italian scholars around Quaderni Fiorentini, the fundamental works of Bartolomé Clavero and Antonio Manuel Hespanha for the Iberian world, and more recently the works of Marta Lorente and Carlos Garriga paved the way to a fundamental reconsideration of Mauricio Fioravanti’s classification of constitutional models by proposing the existence of a Hispanic model along with the continental and Anglo-Saxon models of constitutionalism1. These historians have emphasized the trend of the constitutions that were widely sanctioned during the Hispanic revolutions to adapt institutions belonging to the juridical corpus of the Monarchy. Their work has regarded the implications that keeping the ius commune tradition in force had on the republican legal and constitutional order.

4From our perspective, the Hispanic revolutions were the result of a vigorous juridical and political culture deeply rooted in Catholic Theology. Hispanic constitutionalism strengthened it because it guaranteed the conditions for the reproduction of power that maintained a strong association to justice with long-lasting consequences. Our argument holds that the conflict that surrounded the first Colombian republic was created and reproduced within the framework of the Constitution, through a set of institutions among which petitions and pronunciamientos played a central role. To account for the role of these institutions, they must be considered along with elections.

5The first section of this paper proposes a reassessment of the pronunciamiento that differs from the traditional view that has associated it to an uprising, placing it on the fringe of law. The second section deals with the main novelty of the revolutions: elections. It explores the relationship between political rights, pronunciamientos and petitions in the Constitutional Convention of 1828. In our belief, the failure of the Convention of 1828 was the turning point of the crisis because the republic lost its constitutional continuity. The third section accounts for the resignification of political petitions by considering the broad consultation amongst citizens and corporations that Bolívar promoted in 1829 in the last attempt to preserve the unity of Colombia. Finally, in the conclusions, we will draw attention to the notion of “reproduction” to account for the vitality of these processes of resignification that took shape during the revolutions and in Latin-American republics.

The Pueblo’s Pronunciamientos

  • 2 María Teresa Calderón, Aquella república necesaria e imposible. Colombia, 1821 (...)

6It is difficult to determine the number of pronunciamientos that took place between the beginning of the crisis in 1826 and 1832 when it came to an end. We were able to trace over five hundred of them across the vast geography of Colombia2. Based on the documents we have come to believe that the pronunciamiento is the paradigmatic form of political action that took shape during the Hispanic revolutions. This phenomenon bears no equivalent in other Atlantic revolutions.

  • 3 Antonio Annino, (coord.), La revolución novohispana, 1808-1821 México, Fondo d (...)
  • 4 Alejandro Agüero, “Localización del derecho en la tradición jurídica hispana. (...)
  • 5 Pietro Costa, Iurisdictio. Semantica del potere político medioevale (1100-1433), Milano, (...)

7The Hispanic pueblo was founded on the Aristotelian notion of a perfect community redefined by Catholic Theology (communitas naturalis perfectae). It referred to a natural and moral entity, subject to natural rights (and obligations), vested with legal and political capacity. Antonio Annino has drawn attention on the fact that the crisis of 1808 did not entail a horizontal transfer of sovereignty from the king to a national assembly3.The vacatio regis set forth a centrifugal process that multiplied sovereignty placing it in the moral and natural bodies of society, that is to say in the pueblos4. A fundamental feature of this phenomenon is that Fernando VII´s illegitimate abdications brought up a question regarding the subjects that were entitled to hold power in the name of the absent king. However, it did not imply a shift in the understanding of society, nor a change in the comprehension of the nature of government. This being the case, society maintained its corporate character and the exercise of public power continued to refer to the administration of justice (ruda equitas)5. We wish to stress the importance of this fact. Despite eighteenth-century reformism, the Catholic monarchy never asserted the exercise of political power outside of divine justice. During the revolutions and the first era of Latin American republics politics continued to be understood as government subject to justice, in a heteronomous understanding of the latter. As such, government – frequently referred to as “administration” – and justice (of divine origin) cannot be considered as two separate branches of power. Our interest in recalling these well-known facts is to draw attention on a distinctive feature of the Hispanic revolutions that Latin American republics inherited.

  • 6 “Ley (1) (8 de octubre) sobre organización y régimen político de los departame (...)
  • 7 “Ley (1) (25 de junio) que arregla la división territorial de la República”, 25 de (...)
  • 8 “Ley (1) (11 de marzo) sobre la organización y régimen político y económico de (...)
  • 9 Ibidem.

8Acting as a legislative body, the Cucuta Assembly of 1821 recognized all existing municipalities, thereby granting the pueblos provided with municipal councils the legal status of villas6. Let us recall that under the Monarchy, only villas and cities recognized as such by the Monarch were entitled to the right of self-government and were therefore endowed with the privilege to gather justice and regiment. Municipal bodies known as municipalidades, consejos municipales, ayuntamientos or cabildos appointed alcaldes. Cucuta established the territorial organization and the political regime of the republic on this network of municipalities and their jurisdictions which were maintained fundamentally intact7. Efforts to regulate the powers of officials and magistrates to separate government from justice failed to create two separate realms of power8. By 1826, the members of ayuntamientos designated as regidores or municipales as well as the alcaldes were elected. The executive officers at the municipal level had seen their attributions severely curtailed9. In 1826 they even lacked indicative functions and their right to vote in the municipalities they presided over was limited to cases of parity. Under these conditions, when the Colombian crisis broke, the pueblos enjoyed broad powers that they had acquired during the revolutions.

  • 10 “El Senado de la República de Colombia”, Bogotá, 27 de marzo de 1826, 16º in S (...)
  • 11 María Teresa Calderón, Aquella república, op.cit., Bogotá, Crítica, 2021, (...)

9In the first semester of 1826, General José Antonio Páez (1790-1873) was removed from office for overstepping his official duties in relation to the implementation of a government decree to create a national militia10. In the absence of the President (Simón Bolívar) who remained in Peru, Vice-president Francisco de Paula Santander (1792-1840) oversaw the executive power. In accordance with constitutional provisions, Santander notified General Páez of his dismissal and summoned him to face trial in Bogotá. In the eastern territories of Colombia, the Commander´s removal from office set into motion a process that has undeniable similarities with the crisis triggered by the abdications of Bayonne in 1808. The pueblos of Venezuela interpreted the general's deposition in terms of a vacatio11. They appealed to a state of necessity and proclaimed their sovereignty exactly in the same terms in which they had done two decades before. They claimed an “original” and “natural” power, restated Páez in office and drew actas or acuerdos to pronounce – hence the voice pronunciamiento – their sovereign will / opinion. By way of pronunciamientos, General Páez was conferred full powers to guarantee the imprescriptible (natural) rights of the pueblos.

10Let’s recall that by the time of the meeting of the Cucuta Assembly, a few territories of the General Captaincy of Venezuela as well as the vast majority of those belonging to the Presidency of Quito remained under the rule of royalists so that neither the province of Caracas, nor the provinces that would later form the southern departments of Colombia participated in the election of the deputies to the assembly. In 1821, Caracas had opposed the oath to the Constitution, but the Santander government had rejected its claim on the grounds that most of the department´s territories had participated in the election of the Venezuelan delegates to the constitutional assembly. In 1826, ignoring the majority rule and the oath breach that had traditionally granted consent, the pueblos of the provinces of Caracas, Carabobo, and Apure denounced the illegitimacy of the Constitution of 1821 and requested its early revision. Their claim crashed against the rigidity of the Constitution that prohibited amendments before 1831, once the war of independence would have ended and a decade of experience would have shed light on the need to carry out reforms (Article 191). As the demand to revise the Constitution gained strength, the crisis transformed its nature. If it originally appeared as a crisis of legitimacy of the Santander government, by the second semester of 1826 it took the shape of a profound constitutional crisis.

11Let us briefly consider the procedures that lead to these pronunciamientos, the structure of the actas or acuerdos that the pueblos set out, as well as the mechanisms that assured the legality and legitimacy of their acts and decisions. In all the cases surveyed, an imminent danger to the conservation of the community launched the process leading to a pronunciamiento. A petition from the solicitor trustee to the ayuntamiento on behalf of the pueblo was very frequent. Given the magnitude of the threat, the town council set up a popular meeting or assembly – junta popular – with the participation of the authorities and the neighbors – vecinos principals –. Occasionally, a spontaneous gathering promoted the meeting of the council. In these cases, to avoid any association with turmoil or an upheaval, order and regularity are stressed in the acuerdo.

12The pronunciamiento gave expression to the pueblo’s sovereign “will” or “opinion”. These two concepts appear indistinctively. In these documents, the pueblo appears in its physical entity as a community of neighbors of a town as well as in its legal and political condition, embodied by the municipal council and represented by the senior pars. Considering that in 1826 the members of the municipalities were popularly elected, the pronunciamiento articulates the traditional form of representation of the community to the new grounds of popular sovereignty brought about by the revolution. As it is well known, the office of the solicitor trustee – síndico procurador –, established in the second half of the XVIIIth century, had introduced popular election. As such, besides the Indian world, it accounted for the sole electoral experience of the Hispanic world prior to 1808. Consequently, we are facing a procedure that enjoyed broad legitimacy at the time. In all cases in which we were able to trace procedures concerning debate or decision making, these popular assemblies resorted to the procedures and qualifications of the electoral process provided in the Constitution. Namely, only citizens that bore the constitutional right to vote or to be elected participated in the debate. However, it is important to note that these proceedings don´t show any trace of the idea of citizenship, nor of the majority principle. On the contrary, what is forcefully affirmed is the vitality of the corporate premise of the pueblo and of the traditional decision-making procedures by way of acclamation – aclamación –.

  • 12 Carl Schmitt, Die Diktatur. Von den Anfängen des modernen Souveränitätsgedankens bis zum (...)
  • 13 Cruz Villalón Pedro, El estado de sitio y la Constitución, Madrid, Centro de Estudios Co (...)

13Let us focus on two additional aspects of the pronunciamiento. In all cases, the pronunciamiento is founded on the declaration of a “state of necessity” that activates the pueblos’ natural sovereignty. Modern constitutional theory continues to discuss the nature of the extraordinary powers that protect the State against internal or external risks threatening its existence and entail the suspension of rights12. Pedro Cruz Villalón has argued that this modern form of exceptionalism was born with the purpose of banishing the state of necessity rooted in tradition13. Nevertheless, in the Colombian crisis these two distinct figures coexist. Furthermore, the “necessitas” to which the pueblos appeal falls within the sphere of natural law and far from implying the suspension of liberties it serves to enact them. This fact further stresses the catholic grounding of the pronunciamiento. As such, invested with their “natural” and “original” sovereignties, the pueblos proceeded to exercise the indefeasible rights that nature bestowed upon them.

14For its part, the government in Bogotá deployed a two-way strategy to re-establish the obedience of the pueblos. In June 1826, it invoked article 128 of the Constitution and recurred to extraordinary powers. This decision qualified the pronunciamientos as "internal commotions" and their participants and instigators as “conspirators”. At the same time, the government summoned its agents at all levels to promote the opinion of the pueblos in favor of the Santander government and the Constitution of 1821. Paradoxically both decisions engulfed the crisis and boosted the pronunciamientos. On one hand, the state of exception clashed against the resistance of the pueblos who refused to accept restrictions on their (natural) rights. On the other hand, by calling to the pueblos the government revealed its incapacity to unify opinion. Furthermore, for the pueblos this heterogeneity of opinions created conditions for a potential armed confrontation that compelled them to stake their position in the crisis.

15This dynamic highlight´s the dialectic of conflict. Furthermore, it reveals its constitutional character: by renouncing to repeal Monarchical normativity (Art.188), the republican legal order brought together catholic-based natural law and positive law issued by Congress. This poses an insurmountable contradiction for us. Nevertheless, tensions and contradictions had always been part of the juridical order in the Hispanic world. As such, all actors – individual as well as collective – resorted to the legal and constitutional order where they found a solid basis for their demands.

  • 14 François-Xavier Guerra and Annick Lempérière. Los espacios públicos, op. cit., México, F (...)

16The second aspect of the pronunciamiento that we wish to consider refers to the nature of the decisions it entailed. The pueblos drafted actas or acuerdos. These documents trace the structure of laws. They state motivations – considerandos – followed by provisions, frequently listed in a numerical order. This structure unveils a fundamental aspect of the pronunciamiento: As the expression of the pueblos’ sovereignties, the pronunciamiento was a source of law. In other words, the pueblos´ decisions were mandatory. As such, their enactment required publication. Two implementation patterns bear importance for the purpose of this reflection. When the pueblos' decisions were addressed to the authorities, they took the form of petitions. At a first glance, these gracious pleads seem to contradict the mandatory nature of the pueblo´s decisions. This concern will be re-addressed in the conclusions of this paper. When the decisions were communicated to other pueblos, the pronunciamiento set into motion a consultation. The pueblos accounted for this procedure in terms of “ruling” – “regularizar” – their opinions. As aforementioned, the voices “public opinion” (in singular) or “general opinion” appear as the equivalent of the "general will" in these documents. This fact emphasizes the monolithic character of the opinion the pueblos sought to realize. This procedure bears great interest because it recalls the communis opinio doctorum that had traditionally served for the administration of justice. This phenomenon cannot be thought solely in terms of consent. It attempted to incite an agreement among the pueblos, but above all it intended to stage a common unity – a “communion of opinion” – that ultimately served to reveal the justice of the pueblos´ cause. Namely, the righteousness of their demands. This form of opinion bears no relationship whatsoever to the illustrated public sphere and it´s idea of opinion14.

  • 15 “Proyecto de ley que convoca a la Gran Convención. Objeciones del presidente Santander”, (...)
  • 16 “El Congreso convoca a la Gran Convención”, palacio de gobierno en Bogotá, 7 de agosto d (...)

17In July of 1827, acting as the sole interpreter of the Constitution, Congress convened to anticipate the Convention. The text of the congressional decree summoning the constitutional assembly for January of 1828 was initially based on the recognition that the pueblospronunciamientos had given expression to the nation’s opinion. Vice-president Santander objected the project of the congressional decree arguing that pronunciamientos were nothing but commotions and uprisings and requested they be duly criminalized15. Congress did not accept Santander´s thesis. In the decree it finally passed in August of 1827 the pronunciamientos were not forbidden most likely because they enjoyed wide legitimacy. However, Congress took a step back from its initial position: instead of the singular voice “public opinion” included in the first draft of the decree, it turned to the plural voice “opinions” implying that the pronunciamientos had a private character16. In this way, Congress offered a solid base for the anticipation of the Convention that Santander couldn´t disregard while meeting the pueblo´s requests. Furthermore, Congress transferred to the Convention that was summoned in the villa of Ocaña the ultimate decision regarding the need to check -thoroughly or partially- the Constitution of 1821.

Elections, petitions and pronunciamientos: the failure of the Ocaña Convention

18The principle of representation prevailed in Cucuta without any doubt. Nevertheless, we could not find traces in this assembly, or in any of the constitutional assemblies that gathered during the existence of Colombia, to the vivid debates that the definition of political rights raised in other latitudes. As elsewhere in the Hispanic world, an intricate electoral system weaved through multiple levels was designed to contain the specter of anarchy associated to direct popular participation. Popular sovereignty was limited in 1821 to voting in primary elections. The Constitution turned to property and wealth as requirements to ensure the capacity of the Legislative Branch as well as to literacy but postponed the application of the latter requirements until 1840. The restrictions on the exercise of political rights reinforced exclusions on citizenship.

19This key concept of modern constitutionalism did not deserve a title in the Constitution of 1821. The word citizenship appears scattered in the text, related to neighborhood – the voting neighbor with a house and a home in the parish – but lacks a definition. At best, we can infer its equivalence to nationhood. As springs from the Constitution, free male, born in the territory of Colombia, together with their children, were Colombians. Nationality was also granted to those who lived in the territories of the new republic at the moment of its political transformation and had remained faithful to the cause of independence. Nevertheless, membership to the nation was restricted not only because of a narrow comprehension of liberty, but as well by the fact that Colombians had to be born of a catholic marriage. Freedom was regarded as the absence of any form of dependency. Given the fact that illegitimacy was profusely spread in late colonial societies and that Latin American economies maintained extensive forms of dependency in the cities and above all in the rural world, the Colombian nation excluded a significant number of people. Apprentices of craftsmen, domestic servants, peasants, laborers, women, and many others lacked political rights. Nevertheless, despite the large scale of these exclusions, the intense fragmentation of the electoral process, and the distance amongst voters, electors and elected deputies, it is undeniable that elections entailed an important inclusion of new actors to politics.

  • 17 Gaceta de Colombia no 304, domingo 12 de agosto de 1827, Bogotá, Biblioteca Nacional.

20Article 64 of the Constitution emphasized the national character of representation in Congress by stating that both senators and representatives held their positions on behalf of the nation and not of the department or province that appointed them. The Constitution expressly prohibited electoral assemblies to provide instructions to all deputies. The wording of the article brooked no doubt: to guarantee the general will of law, the imperative mandate was prohibited. The Constitution did not include any reference to petitions. Yet in 1825, Congress recognized the capacity of municipalities to “admit projects, petitions and reports” in all matters that were legally recognized to these bodies. This allocation was extended to the juntas of policia that exercised the same duties of ayuntamientos at the parish level. Although the Law of 11 march of 1825 did not specify the nature of these petitions, nor did it regulate them regarding their content or their procedure, one can infer that this authorization was limited to the processing of petitions that could not be binding. A reason for the latter can be accounted for by references that appeared in the Gaceta de Colombia, the official newspaper, where the editors invoked the old adjective of gracious to emphasize the character of political petitions. In September of 1826, the Gaceta stated17:

The citizens make their voice heard via the press, and their votes, their desires, and their needs before the body of the representatives via gracious petitions, but never by superimposing themselves on the Constitution

21The Eighth Title on General Provisions of the Constitution of 1821 enshrined the liberty of all citizens to claim for their rights. The Constitution prohibited the suspension or restriction of this right. Article 157 didn´t include the voice petition and yet its wording referred to the right of petition as it appeared in other Hispanic constitutions at the time.

  • 18 Carlos Garriga, “La ley de Estilo: sobre la construcción de la mayoría de just (...)

22Historians of Hispanic law have stressed that graceful petitions – peticiones graciosas – didn´t emerge as something other than the call for justice – peticiones de justicia –18. As it is well known, the ductility of this figure overlaid certain binding dimensions: the monarch could not withdraw his obligation to conduct justice iudicando. However, in the Catholic monarchy the original expression of the petition of rights as a gracious plea was preserved to the dawn of the revolutions. In the Colombian legal and constitutional order, the right of petition retained this ubiquitous nature in the form of a right of claim as a guarantee against grievances (Art. 157 of the Constitution), and in the ability to petition to juntas parroquiales, ayuntamientos and to Congress on local and general matters (Law of March 11, 1825). Some would argue that there is nothing specific in this understanding that is conceivable within the dual nature of this right. However, in the hands of the pueblos, petitioning deployed a new character.

  • 19 “Reglamento de las elecciones de los diputados a la Gran Convención” Francisco de (...)

23A few weeks after summoning for the Convention of 1828, Congress issued the law regulating the electoral process to the constitutional assembly19. Further exceptions in the exercise of political rights were established. The electoral law of 1827 increased the obligation of uninterrupted residence in the territory where elections were to take place to vote and to be elected. Voting was prohibited for the military under the rank of sergeant, and limitations for civil employees, military officials, and religious authorities were established to band their election by the territories where they exercised public office. The consequence of this law was an extraordinary petitioning activity that ultimately compromised the fate of the Convention.

  • 20 “Exposición del comandante del circuito y oficiales del batallón número 6”, San (...)

24We couldn´t find the Book of the Commission of Petitions of the Convention. Nevertheless, we were able to trace over a hundred of these documents dated as early as August of 1827. Most of these petitions are collective (87 %). Amongst them, three quarters were drafted by pueblos and the great majority of the remaining by military corporations. In other words, the bulk of these petitions were produced by the two actors who had emerged strengthened from the revolutions: the pueblos and the military. These documents reveal a series of interesting issues. Firstly, the capacity of petitions to counteract the limitations on political rights. The petition of the commander and the officers of the Nº 6 battalion of the city of San Carlos, dated March of 1828, expresses this matter in the following terms 20:

The official military status has not deprived us of citizenship rights, or respect or subordination to the laws and superior provisions, nor denied us of the right of petition, a fortunate resource that our constitution offers without distinction

  • 21 “Acta de la municipalidad de San Felipe”, ciudad de San Felipe, 10 de marzo de (...)

25This phenomenon might help to explain why the debates surrounding the extension of political rights did not deserve special attention in the Colombian constitutional assemblies. These documents also shed light on the dilemmas of representation in the Hispanic world. In March of 1828, when the constitutional assembly was beginning its works, the militia of San Felipe petitioned to the constitutional assembly. It stated that the Ocaña Convention was flawed because the procedure leading to its gathering had breached "the established principles and rules" and because the debates in the Convention did not reflect the wishes of the pueblos and their understanding of ´common interest`21.

[...] in view of the foregoing, and the state of concern in which all the pueblos find themselves, distrusting the deliberations of the Convention convened before the indicated period, and separating the regulations given to the attempt from the established principles and rules, without the representatives who have already left having been given explicit instructions as to what the pueblos truly wish to be most useful and convenient to them, they (the pueblos) are to manifest their expression and true meaning so that the laws will be in accordance with their votes and not contrary and harmful to the common interests[...]

26For the militia the validity and effectiveness of the Constitution and the law depended on its compliance with the votes and requests of the pueblos. In other words, the “true meaning” of the common interest to which the laws and the Constitution had to give expression to, rested in the pueblos. As such, the deputies to the Convention had to be properly instructed.

  • 22 “Veinte diputados se retiran de la Gran Convención”, La Cruz, 12 de junio de 1828 in CO, (...)
  • 23 “Pronunciamiento de Caroni”, cabecera de cantón de Caroní, 21 de agosto de 182 (...)

27In July 1828, three months after the Convention was installed, and after the assembly had ruled on the pertinence of reviewing completely the Cucuta Constitution, the intense polarization within the assembly committed its representation when a group of twenty-two delegates rose from the Convention. The deputies held account for their decision to withdraw from the assembly compromising its quorum in a public statement. They pointed out that the Convention could not be considered representative of the nation because the deputies had dismissed "the clamors of the pueblos" and the "petitions of the military"22. For these men, the petitions of citizens and corporations served to “rule” the constitutional process. This idea bespeaks to the concept of “ruling opinions” to which we referred to earlier in this essay. It suggests that these procedures shared elements. This matter propounds the thesis that political representation was sought to reflect a broad consultation. If this is so, as we believe, petitions and pronunciamientos were part of a single consultative process that was intended to ensure that the laws and the Constitution fully expressed the opinion of the bodies of society or as the pueblo of San Felipe put it, the true wishes of society. The fact that springs from this phenomenon is that political petitions had a binding character. The withdrawal of the delegates from the Convention of 1828 unleashed the pronunciamientos of the pueblos that proceeded to revoke the mandate they had bestowed on their deputies on the account that they had distanced themselves from the pueblos’ will. The radicalization of this dynamic was such that it led the pueblos whose deputies had not attended the Convention to deprive them from a representation they had not exercised. The pueblo of Caroni stated it in its pronunciamiento23:

We revoke and give in the part that touches this county, for no value or effect, the powers and faculties conferred through our elector to the representatives appointed by this Province, even if they have not attended the sessions of that great assembly, rejoicing that their attendance had not had effect

Bolivar´s Consultation of 1829

  • 24 “1829. José Antonio Arroyo, prefecto del departamento escribe al señor secreta (...)

28A year later, in August 1829, Bolivar issued a communication to the nation regarding the Colombian Constitutional Assembly that was to meet in January 1830 in Bogotá. The failure of the Convention of Ocaña had destroyed the legitimacy of the Constitution of 1821. Bolívar accepted to govern under full powers but in the same decree by which he assumed the government in October of 1828, he summoned a new constitutional assembly. Bolívar called it "Admirable" due to the quality of its members. However, the Congress of 1830 was unable to hinder the republic´s disintegration. It is important to take into consideration the process leading to this Convention because it sheds light on the understanding that the contemporary gave to political representation and helps to unveil the new meaning that petitions had acquired during the revolutions. Bolivar´s communication reads as follows24:

As the meeting of the Congress that must fix in a permanent way the destinies of Colombia approaches, the government participates in the desire to see it constituted according to the general interest, the practical conveniences, and the circumstances of the localities, of the customs and of civilization. But even though the elected people by the pueblos deserve the trust of their constituencies, even though the government and the nation, identified by their feelings in favor of success, surround with all the moral power the august constituent assembly; Their votes could deviate from the will of the provinces they represent, if they are not instructed, and if their opinions are not explicitly expressed to them. Consequently, it is a duty of the government to excite the nation to pronounce her will, of which the representatives of the people will be the organ [...] And as the right of petition has been extended by the organic decree; in no case can its exercise be more useful and even necessary than in this one, in which the primary assemblies, collegiate bodies, and even simple citizens, must pronounce themselves formally and solemnly [...] Promote in the Department of your command the public spirit, inviting citizens to express their opinions about the objects that should occupy the next national representation, either through the press, or by any other means not especially prohibited. With this same intent, I will repeat to your Lordship, that the assemblies of electors can give or send their instructions to their representatives in Congress, and even raise their petitions to the same assembly

  • 25 “Carta de Bolívar al jefe superior de Venezuela, general José Antonio Páez”, L (...)

29This document ascribes the Constitution explicitly to pronunciamientos and petitions and to the instructions – instrucciones – with which it openly invited the pueblos to bind their representatives. For the Bolivarian government these devices had to ensure that the Constitution fully and faithfully reflected the opinion/will of the pueblos. In short, the legitimacy of the Constitution depended on its capacity to reflect a broad consultation to citizens, pueblos, and the corporations of society. In a communication to the pueblos of Venezuela, Bolivar stressed that citizens and corporations should attend the consulta25:

Because it regards nothing less than the re-construction of society or as it were, to give society a different existence

  • 26 Ibidem.

30Bolivar´s formulation betrays the foundation of this process on natural law, exactly in the same way we acknowledged for the pronunciamiento. The vitality of catholic natural law raises a set of problems. In the first place, it requires a deeper clarification of the understanding that contemporaries gave to the notion of constitutional power. As many of the fundamental political references, constitutional power was hardly under discussion at the time. The exegesis of the documentary corpus produced during the crisis seems to suggest that the qualification of “constitutional” was only attributed to the assemblies that were meant to "verify”, that is to acknowledge a political association between territories based on common opinion. In the second place, the new shape of society to which Bolivar referred to in his Communication, – as it explicitly says –, had to reflect26:

[…] the practical conveniences (...) the circumstances of localities, customs, and civilization

  • 27 AGN., Sección: República, Fondo: Historia, T. 5, fo. 531-534.

31The association of “regularized opinion” to the “general will” of Congress not only explains the binding nature of representation, but also accounts for two additional features. The first is that the general will was attached to custom, so that consuetudo continued to serve as a source of law as it had done traditionally. Moreover, the legitimacy of the Constitution depended ultimately on its capacity to reflect local conditions and customs. The second aspect that springs from these documents refers to the common good. In the same understanding of the town of San Felipe in 1828, the city of Pasto claimed that the definition of the common good was solely a matter of the pueblos27.

In a free republic (...) the will of the pueblos should be consulted because they are the only competent judges of the common good

  • 28 Antonio Annino, prologue to María Teresa Calderón (coord.), Política y Constit (...)

32The reference to justice is certainly not fortuitous: the rights that the Constitution had to guarantee remained objectified in justice, rooted in nature, local practices, and customs. Ultimately, the fact that arises from these documents is that the will manifested by the Constitution and the law was never affirmed outside natural law. Annino has called attention to the centrality of the concept of pact with regards to the limited references to the notion of contract in the Hispanic world at the time28. This does not imply a doctrinarian neo-scholastic view. Pactism was certainly traditional, but its reinterpretation by new territorial actors -the pueblos- gave shape to a profound rupture with respect to the pre-revolutionary monarchical order. The `constituent pact´ created and reflected new power relations, both vertically and horizontally. It expressed a political equality between pueblos that was not linked to a theological tradition. What is undeniable is that the constitutional pact created horizontal ties between the pueblos and vertical links between the pueblos and the authorities. When defining the form of government, the pact sealed a process of association between pre-constituted territorial subjects. As Bolívar said, the purpose of the constitutional process aimed at the reconstitution of society, precisely because society had already been established naturally. The notion of "verification" that appears systematically in these documents thus appears as the conceptual core of the constitutional act. The constitutional juncture was the moment to establish the accuracy of an agreement, whereby it fully deployed its legal effects.

33In this regard we may ask ourselves if pronunciamientos and petitions, as the expression of individual and collective actors´ opinions, the consulta as the device that assured the unity of opinion and constitutional assemblies, describe three steps of a sole process. What is indisputable is that constitutional assemblies could not ignore the opinions of the bodies of society which remained linked to natural justice. The enormous distance between this understanding of constitutional power and the conceptions that took shape during the Atlantic revolutions elsewhere is evident.

Final Conclusions

34We have tried to highlight the extraordinary political mobilization of individuals and above all corporate actors – pueblos and military corporations – during the Colombian crisis of 1826, stressing the legal and institutional nature of the two political devices to which they turned: pronunciamientos and petitions. We have argued that the paradigmatic form of political action that sprang from the Hispanic revolutions was the pronunciamiento. The military voiced their opinions throughout the crisis, but it is important to point out that their pronunciamientos were never autonomous. In all cases they intended to guarantee the rights of the pueblos. After the failure of the Convention of 1828, the crisis witnessed military uprisings but, unlike the pronunciamientos, they were not founded on the legal and the constitutional order but solely on the force of arms. Moreover, the impact of violence on the outcome of the crisis was not decisive in as much as it didn´t shift the equilibrium of power among the forces in contention. In a paradoxical way, violence served as a dissuasive element that contributed to create the conditions that ultimately assured a pacific solution to the crisis. We therefore hold that the political conflict that shattered the existence of Colombia was created and reproduced within the framework of the legal and constitutional order of 1821.

35We have placed special attention on the exegesis of the documentary corpus produced during the crisis. To avoid any misunderstandings that the translation may arise, we have preserved the original expressions which have been recorded in quotation marks. Pueblo and pronunciamiento are not susceptible of translation. We have referred to them in Spanish, underlying their specificity using italics. This hermeneutic suggests that the monarchical and the revolutionary languages articulated in unprecedented ways. It is therefore useless to pretend a conceptual history based solely on the referents of political modernity.

36As we have tried to show, political representation in the Hispanic world was linked to pronunciamientos and petitions as well as to elections. In our belief this key principle of government in the Hispanic world cannot be understood without considering the relationship of representation to the consulta and as such to the concepts of “ruling” or “regulating” (regularizar) opinion. Likewise, as much as constitutional power remained linked to custom, common interest, and to the sovereign will of the pueblos it cannot be considered without close attention to these phenomena. This approach clarifies the presumed contradiction that we pointed out earlier between the imperative decisions of the pueblos and the gracious petitions raised to authorities in the pronunciamientos. The thesis we support is that in the hands of the peoples, petitions acquired a binding force. In other words, pronunciamientos and petitions were part of the same conceptual horizon in the early XIXth century Hispanic world. Henceforth, representation faced enormous difficulties to assert itself as the expression of sovereignty. In Ocaña the inclusiveness of petitions and pronunciamientos clashed against the exclusiveness of the right to vote. The paradox that surrounded this critical juncture was that the convergence of these devices ultimately compromised constitutional representation.

37Finally, far from the stereotype of illegality, disorder, and violence, the study of these institutions and the active practice they promoted sheds new light on the instability of Hispanic republics. It is undeniable that most of these institutions made use of elements that had a long trajectory, but the fact we have tried to stress is that they cannot be thought of in terms of simple continuity. Furthermore, the political culture they give expression to restores the particularity of the Hispanic revolutionary cycle. From this perspective, it is forceful to conclude that Hispanic revolutions had little to do with the American Revolution and the French Revolution that preceded them.

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1 Amongst the numerous works of these historians Vid.: Fioravanti Mauricio, Appunti di storia delle constituzioni moderne. Le libertà fondamentali, Giappichelli, 1995; Bartolomé Clavero, Tantas personas como estados: por una antropología política de la historia europea, Madrid, Tecnos, Fundación Cultural Enrique Luño Peña, 1987; Ibid., Historia del derecho común, Salamanca, Universidad de Salamanca, 1994; Antonio Manuel Hespanha, As Vésperas do Leviathan. Instituições e poder político. Portugal, séc. XVIII Coimbra, Almedina, 1994; Ibid., Cultura jurídicaeuropea. Síntesis de un milenio, Madrid, Tecnos, 1998; Juan Frédéric Schaub, “El pasado republicano del espacio público” in François-Xavier Guerra and Annick Lempérière. Los espacios públicos en Iberoamérica. Ambigüedades y problemas, México, Fondo de Cultura Económica/CEMCA, 1998, p. 27-53; Marta Lorente Sariñena y Carlos Garriga, Cádiz, 1812: la constitución jurisdiccional, Madrid, Centro de Estudios Políticos y Constitucionales, 2007.

2 María Teresa Calderón, Aquella república necesaria e imposible. Colombia, 1821-1832, Bogotá, Crítica, 2021.

3 Antonio Annino, (coord.), La revolución novohispana, 1808-1821 México, Fondo de Cultura Económica, CIDE, Conaculta, INEHRM, Fundación Cultural de la Ciudad de México, 2010.

4 Alejandro Agüero, “Localización del derecho en la tradición jurídica hispana. Reflexiones a partir del caso de Córdoba del Tucumán” in Víctor Tau Anzoátegui y Alejandro Agüero, El derecho local en la periferia de la monarquía hispana. Río de la Plata, Tucumán y Cuyo. Siglos XVI-XVIII, Buenos Aires, Instituto de Investigaciones de Historia del Derecho, 2013, p. 91-120.

5 Pietro Costa, Iurisdictio. Semantica del potere político medioevale (1100-1433), Milano, Giuffrè, 1969; Jesús Vallejo, Ruda equidad, Ley consumada. Concepción de la potestad normativa (1250-1359), Madrid, Centro de Estudios Políticos y Constitucionales, 1992. An excellent synthesis can be found in Carlos Garriga, “Orden jurídico y poder político en el Antiguo Régimen”, Istor, Revista de Historia Internacional, no 16 (marzo, 2004), p. 13-44.

6 “Ley (1) (8 de octubre) sobre organización y régimen político de los departamentos, provincias y cantones en que se divide la república”, 1821 in Codificación Nacional de todas las leyes de Colombia desde el año de 1821 hecha conforme a la ley 13 de 1912 por la Sala de Negocios Generales del Consejo de Estado (hereafter CNLC), Bogotá, Imprenta Nacional, 1924, T. I, años 1821, 1822, 1823, 1824, no 50, p. 97-104.

7 “Ley (1) (25 de junio) que arregla la división territorial de la República”, 25 de junio de 1824 in CNLC, op. cit., Bogotá, Imprenta Nacional, 1924, T. I, años 1821, 1822, 1823, 1824, no  56, p. 304-310; “Ley (18 de abril) adicional a la del año 14º, sobre división territorial de la república”, 18 de abril de 1826 en CNLN, op. cit., Bogotá, Imprenta Nacional, 1924, T. II, Años 1825 y 1826, no 292, p. 299-301.

8 “Ley (1) (11 de marzo) sobre la organización y régimen político y económico de los departamentos y provincias”, 11 de marzo de 1825 in CNLC, op. cit., Bogotá, Imprenta Nacional, 1924, T. II, no 211, p. 17-35.

9 Ibidem.

10 “El Senado de la República de Colombia”, Bogotá, 27 de marzo de 1826, 16º in Sucesos Políticos de Venezuela, Bogotá, Fundación Francisco de Paula Santander, 1988, Tomo I, no 6, p. 21-22.

11 María Teresa Calderón, Aquella república, op.cit., Bogotá, Crítica, 2021, p. 69-72.

12 Carl Schmitt, Die Diktatur. Von den Anfängen des modernen Souveränitätsgedankens bis zum proletarischen Klassenkampf, 1921; Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Standfor, Stanford University Press, 1998: Ibid., (2005). State of Exception, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2005; Marie-Laure Basilien-Gainche, État de droit et états d´exception. Une conception de l´État, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 2013.

13 Cruz Villalón Pedro, El estado de sitio y la Constitución, Madrid, Centro de Estudios Constitucionales, 1980.

14 François-Xavier Guerra and Annick Lempérière. Los espacios públicos, op. cit., México, Fondo de Cultura Económica/CEMCA, 1998.

15 “Proyecto de ley que convoca a la Gran Convención. Objeciones del presidente Santander”, Francisco de Paula Santander, palacio de gobierno en Bogotá, 28 de julio de 1827, 17º in Convención de Ocaña (hereafter CO), Bogotá, Fundación Francisco de Paula Santander, Tomo I, no 22, p. 194-201.

16 “El Congreso convoca a la Gran Convención”, palacio de gobierno en Bogotá, 7 de agosto de 1827 in CO, op. cit., Bogotá, Fundación Francisco de Paula Santander, 1993, Tomo I, no 23, p. 203-204; “José Antonio Páez, Jefe Superior de Venezuela escribe al Señor Secretario del Estado varios oficios: acusa recibo del decreto donde el Congreso aprobó medidas adoptadas por el Libertador. Da parte de tranquilidad en el territorio exceptuando Guayaquil y lo entera de las mejoras en todos los ramos mientras la Convención se reúne. Lo entera de que Venezuela marcha por la senda de la paz trazada por el Libertador, solicita leyes y decretos que no recibió por obstrucción del correo para su cumplimiento. Comunica que queda enterado del recibimiento al Libertador por las diferentes provincias y que el Congreso ha mandado a convocar la Constituyente” in Archivo General de la Nación (hereafter AGN), Sección: República, Fondo: Historia, Tomo 7, fls. 791-800. _

17 Gaceta de Colombia no 304, domingo 12 de agosto de 1827, Bogotá, Biblioteca Nacional.

18 Carlos Garriga, “La ley de Estilo: sobre la construcción de la mayoría de justicia en Castilla” in Initium no 15, 2010, p. 315-406; Antonio García Cuadrado, “El derecho de petición” in Revista de Derecho Político, no 32, 1991, p. 119-169.

19 “Reglamento de las elecciones de los diputados a la Gran Convención” Francisco de Paula Santander, palacio de gobierno en Bogotá, 29 de agosto de 1827 in Convención de Ocaña (hereafter CO), Bogotá, Fundación Francisco de Paula Santander, 1993, Tomo I, no 24, p. 207-216.

20 “Exposición del comandante del circuito y oficiales del batallón número 6”, San Carlos, 11 de marzo de 1828 in CO, op. cit., Bogotá, Fundación Francisco de Paula Santander, 1993, T. I, no 38, p. 303-305.

21 “Acta de la municipalidad de San Felipe”, ciudad de San Felipe, 10 de marzo de 1828 in CO, op. cit., Bogotá, Fundación Francisco de Paula Santander, 1993, T. I, no 45, p. 299-302. The italics are ours.

22 “Veinte diputados se retiran de la Gran Convención”, La Cruz, 12 de junio de 1828 in CO, op. cit., Bogotá, Fundación Francisco de Paula Santander, 1993, T. II, no 97, p. 260.

23 “Pronunciamiento de Caroni”, cabecera de cantón de Caroní, 21 de agosto de 1828 in AGN, Sección: República, Fondo: Historia, T. 8, fol. 237r.

24 “1829. José Antonio Arroyo, prefecto del departamento escribe al señor secretario general de su excelencia el Libertador presidente. Acusa recibo de la circular con comunicación en donde se invita a la nación para que pronuncie su voluntad ya que ampliado por decreto orgánico el derecho de petición no puede ser más útil y necesario su ejercicio que en este, en que las asambleas primarias, los cuerpos colegiados y simples ciudadanos deben pronunciarse. Adjunta alocución en donde invita a los ciudadanos a participar en la asamblea constituyente” in AGN, Sección: República, Fondo: Historia, T. 2, fol. 497-498. The italics are ours.

25 “Carta de Bolívar al jefe superior de Venezuela, general José Antonio Páez”, Libertador presidente Simón Bolívar, 13 de septiembre de 1828 in AGN, Sección: República, Fondo: Historia, T. 9, fol. 364r.

26 Ibidem.

27 AGN., Sección: República, Fondo: Historia, T. 5, fo. 531-534.

28 Antonio Annino, prologue to María Teresa Calderón (coord.), Política y Constitución en los tiempos de las independencias, Bogotá, Universidad Externado de Colombia, 2017.

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María Teresa Calderón, « Pronunciamientos, petitions and elections in the Colombian crisis (1826-1832). A case study on the forms of political instability in the Hispanic world in the early XIXth century »Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos [En ligne], Débats, mis en ligne le 28 février 2023, consulté le 24 mars 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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