Rebellion and Nation Building in 19th-Century Colombia
Considerando: decreto Nos Antonio Herrán, por la gracia de dios i de la santa seda apostolica, Arzobispo de Santafe de Bogotá
Proclama A Colombia
Estado del personal del ejército el día Estado del armamento, municiones, vestuario
A la nación Al Ciudadano Jeneral Tomás C. de Mosquera, Presidente Provisorio de los Estados Unidos de Nueva Granada, i Supremo Director de la guerra i demas empleados civiles i militares al servicio del Gobierno Federal
Decreto (de 30 de enero de 1863)

None of Colombia’s many civil wars had a more lasting impact on the nation’s political system than the 1859-1862 Rebellion led by Tomás C. de Mosquera. The mid-nineteenth century was a tumultuous time for Colombia, characterized by growing partisan politics and regional rebellions. In the 1850s new political elites emerged in the still divided regions of the country alongside popular movements that challenged the existing political system, demanding greater participation in shaping the Colombian state structure.1 The appearance of these new actors sharpened the divide between Conservative and Liberal Parties. Conservatives continued to support a centralist model of government, while Liberals supported federalism and regional autonomy. New political actors also led to divisions within parties. Most notably, the Liberal Party was divided among the Radicals, the young progressive Golgothas, and the traditional elite Draconians. Unlike previous conflicts, Mosquera’s Rebellion signified a national struggle over domination of the state and Colombia’s future.2

Mariano Ospina Rodríguez’s Conservative administration (1857-1861) reluctantly agreed to some Liberal demands for federalism. Yet, Ospina’s version of federalism was still of a highly interventionist nature. In 1858, he held a constitutional assembly in which he formalized greater state sovereignty and changed the name of the Colombian state from New Granada to the Grenadine Federation recognizing the nine separate states of Colombia. However, the 1858 constitution also mandated that the central government could intervene in any of the states’ administrative affairs, tax and regulate large haciendas, and maintain army bases. Most importantly, the constitution named state governors as agents of the central government, which angered both regional caudillos and landholding elites, who favored states’ rights.3 After 1858, Conservatives and Liberals divided rule of the eight states: Bolívar, Cundinamarca, Antioquia, and Boyacá were Conservative strongholds, while Santander, Magdalena, and Panamá were Liberal ones. The newly formed National Party, headed by Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera, controlled Cauca.4

While Ospina adopted these measures hoping to prevent war, his constitution escalated political tensions. Internal conflicts between Conservative and Liberal provinces in Antioquia, Magdalena, Santander, and Bolívar led to regional uprisings. Mosquera, recognizing the opportunity to overthrow Ospina’s weak government, declared Cauca a sovereign state in rebellion against the central government in 1860.5 In order to gain all of Cauca’s support, Mosquera made amends with his former adversaries José María Obando and José Hilario López.6 With their help, he formed a united Liberal rebellion in Cauca that soon spread to other states. Mosquera and his allies took Antioquia, Magdalena, and Antioquia in 1860.

Ospina and his government initially downplayed the seriousness of the rebellion but by the beginning of 1861 it was clear that the Liberal forces posed a serious threat. Ospina appointed new military leaders from elite Bogotá families. He also relied on Julio and Sergio Arboleda, natives of Popayán and nephews of Mosquera. Julio Arboleda and his forces successfully reclaimed Santa Marta in 1860, a major victory for the Conservatives.7 Julio Arboleda, an experienced military commander, was Mosquera’s most serious rival. During the presidential elections of 1861, the Conservatives in de Boyacá, Cundinamarca and Santander chose Arboleda to replace Ospina. However, as a result of the chaotic state of the nation, there was no formal national election, and Congress did not legally enforce these results.8 Instead, Bartolomé Calvo Diáz, Ospina’s Inspector General assumed the presidency. Mosquera and his forces took Bogotá in July of 1861, and Mosquera became president by default.9 The divisions between the Arboledas and Mosquera demonstrated the deepening party allegiances of the time: even family members from the same town were divided.

Just two days after assuming the presidency Mosquera passed several anti-clerical laws that depleted the church’s financial resources and enforced secular state policies. He also expelled the Jesuits, stating that the order could not be trusted due to its alliance with Ospina.10 These measures sparked a Conservative backlash, supported by the still powerful Catholic Church. Regional Conservative caudillos continued to rebel against the Liberal government in Santander, Boyacá and Antioquia.11 Mosquera’s opponents accused him of being a violent dictator, and attempted to sully his name in order to delegitimize his presidency and encourage resistance. To restore peace and order, Mosquera called a constitutional assembly in 1863. That assembly produced a new constitution that granted regional autonomy and renamed the Grenadine Confederation the United States of Colombia.12

Mosquera’s Rebellion widened the divide between Conservatives and Liberals, a division that exists to this day. After Mosquera took power in 1861, the Liberal Party won presidential elections and controlled the country until 1886. Laws and constitutions were as much weapons of the war as guns or swords.13 Mosquera’s anti-clerical campaign influenced the secularization of the state over the next twenty years. The division of Colombian into separate states with regional autonomy, controlled by warring parties, left a lasting impact on Colombia’s political structure.

1David Bushnell, The Making of Modern Colombia : A Nation in Spite of Itself (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 102; María Teresa Uribe de Hincapié and Liliana María López Lopera, La guerra por las soberanías : memorias y relatos en la guerra civil de 1859-1862 en Colombia (Medellín: Carreta Editores, 2008), 45.

2Uribe de Hincapié and López Lopera, La guerra por las soberanías, 25.

3Ibid., 98–99.

4Ibid., 99.

5Ibid., 100.

6Ibid., 112.

7Mariano Molano, “Arboleda, Julio,” Gran enciclopedia de Colombia (Bogotá, DC; online: Círculo de Lectores; Banco de la República, 1991),


9Bushnell, The Making of Modern Colombia, 120.

10Ibid., 122.

11Uribe de Hincapié and López Lopera, La guerra por las soberanías, 120.

12Ibid., 186-171

13Ibid., 45