Contentious Republicans: Popular Politics, Race, and Class in Nineteenth-Century Colombia / Edition 1

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Contentious Republicans explores the mid-nineteenth-century rise of mass electoral democracy in the southwestern region of Colombia, a country many assume has never had a meaningful democracy of any sort. James E. Sanders describes a surprisingly rich republicanism characterized by legal rights and popular participation, and he explains how this vibrant political culture was created largely by competing subaltern groups seeking to claim their rights as citizens and their place in the political sphere. Moving beyond the many studies of nineteenth-century nation building that focus on one segment of society, Contentious Republicans examines the political activism of three distinct social and racial groups: Afro-Colombians, Indians, and white peasant migrants.

Beginning in the late 1840s, subaltern groups entered the political arena to forge alliances, both temporary and enduring, with the elite Liberal and Conservative Parties. In the process, each group formed its own political discourses and reframed republicanism to suit its distinct needs. These popular liberals and popular conservatives bargained for the parties’ support and deployed a broad repertoire of political actions, including voting, demonstrations, petitions, strikes, boycotts, and armed struggle. By the 1880s, though, many wealthy Colombians of both parties blamed popular political engagement for social disorder and economic failure, and they successfully restricted lower-class participation in politics. Sanders suggests that these reactionary developments contributed to the violence and unrest afflicting modern Colombia. Yet in illuminating the country’s legacy of participatory politics in the nineteenth century, he shows that the current situation is neither inevitable nor eternal.

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Editorial Reviews

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Contentious Republicans is a lucid, well-researched, and engagingly written account that will force a rethinking of popular political thought and practice and its impact on national politics in Colombia.”—Mary Roldán, author of Blood and Fire: La Violencia in Antioquia Colombia, 1946–1953

“Contentious Republicans is the most intelligent and persuasive application of the insights of ‘subaltern studies’ I have encountered in the field of Latin American studies. James E. Sanders shows in engaging detail how different subaltern groups turned the republican politics of newly independent Colombia into an arena of struggle. The quality and sheer quantity of Sander’s evidence is impressive; much of it is drawn from regional and national archives largely untapped for the purpose of writing social and cultural history.”—Charles Bergquist, author of Labor and the Course of American Democracy: U.S. History in Latin American Perspective

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822332244
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 3/1/2004
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 258
  • Product dimensions: 6.04 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 0.66 (d)

Meet the Author

James E. Sanders is Assistant Professor of History at Utah State University.

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Contentious republicans

Popular politics, race, and class in nineteenth-century Colombia
By James E. Sanders

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3224-8

Chapter One

Introduction: A Social History of Politics

In a beautiful vale north of Cali, on 31 August 1876, at the Battle of Los Chancos, thousands of soldiers-only months before working as farmers, day laborers, and tenants-stared across a field at one another. Some carried banners supporting the church and the pope; others marched under the tricolor of "liberty." They would engage their opposing brethren for seven hours of brutal artillery fire and desperate charges, each force meting out death, each shedding blood, until finally one group broke and ran, watched by the tired but victorious eyes of fellows not so diverent from themselves. After the guns had fallen silent, hundreds of foot soldiers lay dead or dying on the field, having killed one another to secure the triumph of either the Conservative or the Liberal Party. These same soldiers-back in their guise as plebeian workers-would also have voted many a time for Liberals or Conservatives in the multitudinous elections that punctuated the year. In those more tranquil times, candidates scoured the countryside, visiting the smallest hamlet and the most humble tavern, campaigning for support. On election day, people streamed into the cities from across the land to vote, to ensure that no fraud cost their side its victory, and to enjoy arespite from the demands of the soil.

In mid-nineteenth-century Colombia, thousands of everyday people regularly cast ballots or fought in civil wars in the name of the new nation's Conservative and Liberal Parties. Why? Why did subalterns bother to vote in contests between political factions led by rich men? Why did they sacrifice their very lives in battles for economic and political doctrines about which they supposedly knew or cared little? Yet subalterns' words and deeds argue that they did know and they did care. When they went to war or exercised the suffrage, they understood what they were doing and usually acted for sound reasons. This book will explore these words and deeds to show the distinct ways in which popular groups understood and practiced politics in nineteenth-century Colombia.

Traditional literature concerning nineteenth-century Colombian politics suggests that subalterns were politically ignorant, indifferent, or, simply, the clients of powerful patrons. This approach-besides excluding plebeians from history and denying them agency-fails to explain the astonishing variety of subaltern political action and discourse in the nineteenth century and elites' continual efforts to come to terms with subaltern politics. Such assumptions also ascribe a power to elites that, at least in Colombia, they simply did not possess. A new historical literature has begun to explore the popular liberalism of plebeian groups in Latin America, recognizing subalterns' political participation and their contributions to nation and state building. The popular liberals who shed their blood at Los Chancos were not just fighting against elite hacendados and merchants but also fighting against men of a social class very much like their own. Opposite them stood popular conservatives whose political ideology has received much less attention than has that of popular liberals. Popular republicanism often seems to be synonymous with popular liberalism, but, in Colombia, and I suspect elsewhere, popular liberalism was simply one possible variant, among many, of popular republicanism.

Conservatives as well as Liberals always enjoyed the support of at least some subaltern allies. These popular republicans-liberal and conservative-were not stooges, mindless peons, or bullied clients but often consciously allied with elites in the hopes of finding the political space in which to pursue their own agendas. Sometimes these alliances were short-lived and aimed at achieving immediate goals. Yet, over time, many subalterns came to identify with the two dominant political parties and to see these parties as their own. The most emotionally resonant explanation for this is that families inherited their partisan affiliation from past generations, whose loyalties to any faction were often the result of clientelism or serendipity. However, subalterns often had very good reasons for supporting a specific political party, and these reasons changed over time. These motivations sprang from their own visions of popular republicanism and their particular social and economic situations.

In the Cauca region of southwestern Colombia, three distinct forms of popular republicanism emerged that I have denominated popular liberalism, popular indigenous conservatism, and popular smallholder republicanism. (These forms will be further explored in chapter 2.) Popular liberals tended to be landless workers or tenants on great haciendas in the central river valley. Many were Afro-Colombians-slaves or their descendants-who formed a strong alliance with the Liberal Party. Most studies of popular liberalism focus on mestizos or Indian peasants, but I hope to add Afro-Colombians' experiences to the debate. Popular indigenous conservatives were Indians living on communal landholdings in the southern highlands. They felt threatened by Liberal economic and social policy and saw allies in the Conservative Party, whose language of tradition echoed Indians' own desires to protect their historically legitimated communities. Many popular smallholder republicans were small farmers, especially migrants coming into the area from the Antioquia region to the north. They supported both Liberals and Conservatives, their allegiances changing depending on their local situations and the parties' projects. The political history of the Cauca revolved around the complex relationships between these groups, the leaders of the two political parties, and party factions. While politics in Colombia is usually interpreted as the formation and breakdown of elite factions, the ebb and flow of elite-subaltern relations was often as, if not more, important.

Bargaining increasingly defined the relationship between subalterns and elites after Independence, intensifying after the Liberals took power in 1849. Elites in nineteenth-century Colombia were not all-powerful; they were internally divided into parties, and the state that they controlled was quite weak. They regularly turned to subaltern allies to pursue political projects; indeed, without these alliances, any such project was doomed to fail. The great landholding and merchant class certainly did not exercise political hegemony over most Colombians. Bargaining mediated between the notables' need for allies and subalterns' claimsmaking concerning their social, political, and economic lives.

Of course, bargaining is always an aspect of politics, except in moments of savage conquest or repression. In the colonial period, economic bargaining took place every day on plantations, mines, and haciendas. Subalterns, especially Indians, at times found support in the church and the crown, whom they played off local hacendados. Save for some important exceptions such as the 1781 Comuneros' revolt, bargaining rarely extended beyond the site of production, rarely entered the broader political realm.

I am proposing that a new postcolonial or national form of bargaining emerged after Independence. Chapter 3 will more fully explicate this new form of bargaining, whose most salient features were that it was less personalistic, more public, more programmatic, and, most important, republican. During the nineteenth century, bargaining became less personalistic, less limited by the face-to-face negotiations of landlord and tenant, master and slave, patrician and plebeian. Patron-client relations would continue to be important in the Cauca, but, after midcentury, most bargaining took place beyond those relationships, often between individuals and groups who had little or no personal connection.

As bargaining was less personalistic, it was correspondingly more public. Negotiations continued on the sites of production but swelled beyond them to dominate the public sphere. Plebeians' access to public space was quite limited in the colonial era, but, after Independence, subalterns could enter the public realm and did so with increasing frequency. Bargaining followed subalterns into the public sphere, and, as a consequence, negotiations were not limited to the conditions on any single site of production but began to concern themselves with the whole of society's economic, social, and political life.

Bargaining also became programmatic. Bargaining was frequent in the colonial era, but it was ad hoc and unsustained, becoming most intense in periods of social stress. In the Cauca after 1848, the two dominant political parties began to negotiate with their plebeian allies in a sustained and planned manner over time. Although popular groups had been trying to break into public, political life since Independence, only with the Liberals' ascension to national power in 1848 did an opportunity arise for subalterns to change the nature of Colombian politics, the story of chapters 3 and 4. Bargaining ceased to be evanescent but became a constant, potent force in the Cauca's political life. Successful politicians knew that they would need to negotiate with subalterns. Bargaining became the way politics worked in the Cauca, the program that everyone had to follow.

This new style of bargaining was not a sharp break with the past but an evolution that retained many older aspects of negotiation from the colonial era while incorporating new ones, especially the ideas and practices of republicanism. Republicanism offered new and powerful ways of talking about and engaging in politics that plebeians appropriated. Subalterns used bargaining to reframe elite republicanism, often significantly democratizing it to better suit the needs and visions of Colombia's lower classes. Republican bargaining became hegemonic in the Cauca, the way everyone-elites and subalterns, Conservatives and Liberals, Indians, Afro-Colombians, and Antioqueno migrants-practiced politics.

Hegemony is a tricky and often ill-defined concept, but it is nonetheless useful. I employ it here in a very limited sense to help explicate why bargaining was so prevalent in the Cauca and why republicanism dominated Caucanos' political language and actions. I utilize hegemony to mean the reigning shared terrain in which politics operates-the current limits of what political actors can say or do. Following E. P. Thompson and William Roseberry, hegemony is most efficacious in understanding, not consent, but struggle. Hegemony defines the political and ideological terrain on which contention takes place. Roseberry notes: "What hegemony constructs, then, is not a shared ideology but a common material and meaningful framework for living through, talking about, and acting upon social orders characterized by domination." In the Cauca, republicanism became this common framework.

Bargaining was the primary way in which subalterns and elites contended within republican politics. Florencia Mallon argues that the use of hegemony as the shared arena of social and political struggle allows scholars to pay more attention to the ground-level interactions between rulers and ruled. The Cauca's political history is a story of the continual negotiation between three distinct subaltern groups and the divided elite that attempted to rule over them. This negotiation and bargaining took place within a contentious republicanism that provided the framework for elites' and subalterns' discourse and practice of politics.

Republican bargaining became the only way in which both elites and subalterns could talk about and practice politics publicly. Yet, of course, both elites and plebeians have their own private discourses and conceptions of politics, although those of plebeians are often completely inaccessible to the historian, except by means of risky, and often insubstantial, inferences. In a sense, these private discourses are enticing as they are what people "really thought," but I would argue that, often, they are less important than the shared public discourse of politics. This public discourse is what sets the boundaries of what can be said and, more important, what can be done.

The hegemonic political culture does not just limit or engender discourse, but also action. Transgressive action-gross repression or revolutionary revolt-grabs the imagination, and justifiably so. These moments often mark when a hegemonic political and social system is breaking down and being overtly challenged. These moments can reaffirm an existing system or lead to vast changes in the political and social compact between those above and those below. The Mexican Revolution is the preeminent example of this phenomenon in Latin America's long nineteenth century. However, a political system also changes through the shared political and social negotiations of elite and popular groups. Moments of intense social and political bargaining reframe the discursive and political public realm. In the rough-and-tumble of negotiation, the ways of thinking, speaking, and conducting politics change. When a group decides that the hegemonic system is too limiting (or too liberating for some) and feels that bargaining is futile or too sluggish, then it must withdraw into the realms of raw force, violent repression, or desperate revolt.

In contrast to most of nineteenth-century Latin America, Colombia experienced the relative absence of both mass violent repression by elites and desperate revolt by plebeians. Popular claimsmaking occurred across the Americas, but, in Colombia, it usually manifested itself as republican bargaining instead of open revolt. Most violence was channeled through the republican system-legitimated so to speak-in the form of civil wars or partisan attacks. Let me be clear. I am not saying that elites did not engage in often-horrific violence to secure their hold on wealth and power and that everyday violence, against men and especially women, was not de rigueur for nineteenth-century Colombia. Yet elites never had to, or were never able to, marshal massive projects of violent repression to bend the masses to their will or violently eliminate whole recalcitrant populations. Likewise, plebeians did not engage in do-or-die revolts on a large scale, be they slave revolts, millennial movements, or peasant jacqueries. Whatever their secret desires, elites and subalterns had to play by the rules-rules continually under negotiation-of republican politics. However, the possibilities of republican politics were rather expansive (the subject of chapter 5), and Colombian subalterns often successfully appropriated and manipulated republicanism to suit their own ends. In the late 1870s and the 1880s, Colombian elites did try to close down the political culture of republican bargaining that had flourished since the 1850s through a movement called the Regeneration, but they could attempt this only by recruiting significant subaltern support for their project, the denouement of the story, which I relate in chapter 6.

Although subalterns in Colombia shared a broad vision of popular republicanism, distinct subaltern groups had distinct political discourses and objectives. A focus on only one relatively homogeneous subaltern group-be it of slaves, peasants, Indians, unionized workers, or the urban poor-can, at times, miscast the workings of politics and hegemony. By looking at only one group, especially a group about to be defeated, politics may seem only a struggle between the mighty and the weak. Close examination often reveals that many of the weak are allied with the mighty. This relationship could be interpreted in one conception as hegemony-some popular groups internalize the beguiling discourse and ideology of elites and then repress the brethren with whom they should be allied. Or, if looking only at the repressed group, hegemony seems not to exist at all, to be a myth created by the powerful for their psychological comfort. In this second conception, hegemony does not exist: look at the slaves rising up, the peasants revolting, the workers striking! I would argue that both these conceptions are limited. Neither explains why elites so often find subaltern allies for their projects: the first considers such allies dupes; the second ignores their existence altogether. Neither explains how a particular practice of politics originally came into being. Analyzing various subaltern groups makes the complexity of subaltern politics more evident and illuminates the power and limits of republican bargaining's hegemony. This strategy brings to the fore negotiations between the various factions, negotiations that take place within the hegemonic public sphere of politics. Now subaltern allies of the powerful no longer seem like dupes; similarly, brave rebels no longer appear as completely isolated and unaffected by (and not affecting) the dominant discourse in society.


Excerpted from Contentious republicans by James E. Sanders Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Introduction: A Social History of Politics 1
2 "We the Undersigned, Citizens of the State": Three Forms of Popular Republicanism 18
3 A New Politics: The Emergence of Republican Bargaining, 1848-1853 58
4 Fragmented Hegemony: The Limits of Elite Power, 1853-1863 100
5 The Triumph of Democracy, 1863-1876 125
6 Failure of Discipline: The Suppression of Popular Politics, 1875-1886 153
7 Conclusion: Popular Republicans' Legacies 184
Notes 199
Abbreviations 237
Bibliography 239
Index 253
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