Since the histories of nineteenth-century Latin American countries have debatable coherence when viewed solely as national syntheses, historians have long turned to the region for a complementary, yet independent focus. David Church Johnson chooses one of Colombia’s more intriguing patrias chicas, Santander, to analyze if those years when local Liberals legislated their version of a radical “utopia” (1857-85) resulted instead in economic decadence. His goal is to provide a regional interpretation which parallels national treatments of those potentially lost decades when postindependence Latin American economies stagnated rather than boomed.

Colonial Santandereanos distinguished themselves as entrepreneurs and as rebels, for they included among their number the Socorro textile producers and the Comuneros. Their activism continued into the nineteenth century, as Santander was the center of vigorous artisan production (textiles, “Panama” straw hats) and dominant Liberal governments. The early chapters of this monograph explore the evolving character of liberalism through three foci: through the credo of Santander’s leading practitioner, Manuel Murillo Toro; through national legislation; and through its particular application in the region. Succeeding chapters consider the ramifications of the midcentury shift within the regional economy from an artisan production based in the south, to export tobacco and then coffee production located in the north. Did the extreme laissez-faire position of Santander’s Liberals doom the artisans of their south, retard the development of desirable new exports, and lead ultimately to the general economic decline of Colombia’s eastern cordillera, at least as seen in contrast with its western (Antioquia, Caldas, Cauca) counterpart?

Not surprisingly, the author’s ultimate assessment is a qualified “no,” for although Santander’s Liberals exhibited the classic flaws of their counterparts elsewhere in Latin America, it was the prohibitive cost of transport through mountain and jungle terrain, and the vagaries of international demand, that were the ultimate arbiters of the regions development. Still, local attempts to create a “laboratory of radicalism” (p. 17) made a difficult situation worse, as Liberals dismantled their colonial legacy, but failed to provide an effective alternative. They attacked the primitive but existing bureaucracy, refused to subsidize road-building and schools, and legislated a “single tax” (p. 85) they proved unable to collect. The Liberals waited passively for “natural processes” (p. 99) to create a civic and entrepreneurial spirit which would make Santander prosper. Symbolic of their overall failure was the local road system, which became so neglected and overgrown that it eventually had to be recleared with machetes.

Johnson uses documentary sources from numerous local, regional, and national archives; contemporary newspapers; memoirs; and secondary materials to provide a solid narrative useful to students of Colombian and regional history. Missing, however, is much linkage between Liberals as ideologues and as regional men of economic and social import, for the author concentrates on Liberal notables and does not provide prosopographical insight into the collective portraits, local political careers, investment interests, or marriage patterns of those Santandereanos who composed the regional Liberal elite. Nor do the Conservatives receive much attention, although the intraregional conflicts which do appear are provocative, given the patterned structure of civil conflict in Colombia. A final impression which emerges is that the passivity and fatalism of Santander’s Liberal politicians may have reflected—even if for the wrong reasons—a tragic pragmatism. The odds for long-term development, given their regional geography and potential export products, were certainly against them. As their standard bearer Manuel Murillo Toro once noted; “A road open before its time, is a road quickly closed” (p. 99).