Crafting a Republic for the World is a work of great ambition. It reconstructs how a host of postcolonial elites attempted to create a pioneering, modern republic in the former territories of the Viceroyalty of New Granada. To do so, these elites not only daringly advocated for the creation of a modern republic in a hostile world of empires and monarchies but also led the way in using science, cartography, political economy, and multiple modes of sociological analysis to assemble a coherent republican nation in which commodities and people circulated freely. This development ultimately enabled a vast array of former subjects of the Spanish monarchy to become citizens of a worldly Colombian republic.
This bold argument leads del Castillo to several important historiographical interventions. First, she pushes against the commonly held trope among historians that the nineteenth century was an unfortunate period besieged by caudillismo, regional strife, and never-ending political clashes between liberals and conservatives. In its stead, Castillo demonstrates the innovative, if not always successful, nature of Colombia’s nineteenth-century republican experiment. Second, she questions the notion that the new Latin American republics were overwhelmed by colonial legacies. In fact, she argues, the very idea of “colonial legacies” that historians take for granted today was a concept developed by nineteenth-century political leaders in order to bolster their own republican project.
Marshaling evidence to demonstrate this bold argument is a tall order, but in general, Castillo succeeds in delivering. Chapter 1 begins by focusing on how early political leaders invented the idea of “colonial legacies” to support a new republican project. She pays particular attention to how a group of political elites re-imagined, perhaps distorted, through print the writings of Francisco José de Caldas (1771–1816) to support independence and republicanism. As a man who came of age during José Celestino Mutis’ scientific research expedition in Nueva Granada, Caldas’ early writings more appropriately belonged to the eighteenth-century context of intellectual dynamism in the Spanish monarchy. But the aforementioned group of Colombian political elites appropriated Caldas’ writings to portray him as a martyr whose scientific genius was destroyed by Spanish ignorance and tyranny.
The next two chapters reconstruct how, starting in the 1840s, liberal and conservative political leaders attempted to create a new political economy for Colombia based on internal economic integration. Using science and cartography, a number of intellectuals and politicians re-drew Colombia’s map to facilitate the erection of a political economy of circulation, thus surmounting the legacy of fragmentation that many identified with Spanish colonialism. In a similar vein, many of these political leaders also sought to incorporate indigenous peoples within Colombia’s modern republican project by abolishing resguardos, or communal lands, which were often seen as a barrier to progress. Provincial governors enthusiastically deployed an arsenal of surveyors to take stock of the resguardos and subsequently redistribute land among indigenous people in a manner compatible with a modern republic. The project was not always successful, as continuous litigation and delays hampered the redistribution of land. But rather than a failure, Castillo portrays these delays as evidence of the republic’s legitimacy as a mediator between multiple competing regional and local interests.
The next three chapters continue to reconstruct how Colombian political leaders sought to overcome “colonial legacies” in order to create a modern republic. They did so by organizing a Chorographic Commission to take stock of the colonial mindset among Colombians, by creating a new constitution that included universal male suffrage, and by debating the relevance of the Catholic Church to Colombia’s modern republican project. Throughout these last three chapters, Castillo insists that though liberals and conservatives often disagreed, sometimes violently, they shared nonetheless a vision for Colombia that placed science, economic development, legal equality, and progress more generally at the forefront.
Castillo’s account is convincing, but a couple of points are worth raising. First, because she insists on the innovative and pioneering quality of Colombia’s republican project, the book would have benefited from a discussion of how the case of Colombia differed from that of the United States and other Latin American republics. In what ways was Colombia more innovative than the United States? Was Colombia unique in Latin America? Was Colombia’s uniqueness a function of the dynamic botanical expedition of New Granada directed by Mutis, or was Colombia simply one example among many in Latin America?
Last but not least, Castillo’s suggestion that nineteenth-century Latin America had no colonial legacies may not be completely accurate. It is true that historians have often abused the idea of “colonial legacies” by reducing the region’s history to caudillismo, political factionalism, and corruption. Likewise, Castillo’s point that the idea of “colonial legacies” was a strategic invention to portray Spain as a backward, tyrannical monarchy and thus bolster the project for an independent republic is well taken. However, it would be wrong to suggest that there were absolutely no colonial legacies in nineteenth-century Latin America; the indigenous communal lands alone represent clear evidence of a genuine colonial legacy.
These minor shortcomings notwithstanding, this ambitious and invigorating book will incite discussion for years to come. It sets an important precedent for describing nineteenth-century Latin America as a period of immense political, economic, scientific, and even cultural creativity rather than as a period consumed by caudillismo, corruption, and political fragmentation. In this sense, the book is tremendously successful.