Pilar Moreno’s biography of Francisco de Paula Santander has at first sight a somewhat daunting look: a genealogical opening, a habit of referring to the subject as El Hombre de las Leyes, 795 pages of text. A casual inspection gives the impression that this might be an old-fashioned biography in the bad sense: hagiographie, pompous, short on context, and long on dusty polemic. This impression is misleading. Where this book is old-fashioned it is so in the best sense, providing a compelling and highly readable narrative. It also conveys with great sureness of touch and a lot of legitimate color a vast quantity of military, economic, administrative, political, and social information about Santander’s times. It joins David Bushnell’s The Santander Regime in Gran Colombia (1954) as the second indispensable secondary work on Santander’s career.

Francisco de Paula Santander has had a mixed press. Though his administrative importance in the vice-presidency of Gran Colombia has always been recognized, his reputation has been too heavily overshadowed by that of Bolívar, and the dark patches on it—the execution of prisoners after Boyacá, the maladministration of the foreign loans, the possible involvement in the September 1828 conspiracy against Bolívar’s life—show the darker. Though Santander matched Bolívar in wit, learning, intelligence, presence, and enthusiasm for dancing, he did not possess Bolívar’s invincible charm, accessibility, and cosmopolitan polish. Nor after death did he become an object of veneration in his own country. Colombian political divisions did not permit that. The cult of Santander has been the preserve of a certain sort of Liberal, and to an extent remains so.

Pilar Moreno certainly shows that Santander was a superior person and a figure of the first importance. Santander is at times the work of an advocate, but at all junctures it sets out the cases against him with fair completeness and paints his private life warts and all. The narrative conveys well the stresses and dangers of the era—the Sardá conspiracy of 1833 is particularly well handled—and it can be read with advantage by historians who think such an approach outmoded by more structural concerns, such as the origins of the local sense of nationality or the fiscal and logistical aspects of the wars of independence. The author is excellent on Santander’s properly military career and the miniature but murderous campaigns in which he fought before the victory of Boyacá turned him into a general de bufete. These affairs are not tidied up and glorified, as has so often been the case, with unlikely maps of strategic troop movements but described in all the petty chaos of improvisation, desertion, and cruelty.

Though he was born in Cúcuta, by customary definition outside the Reino, Santander was the first republican who discerned clearly how New Granada could be governed. One criticism that can be made of this biography is that it does not address fully Santander’s political methods. Mention is made of his indefatigable scribbling—it was said that Bolívar had an incontinent tongue, and Santander an incontinent pen—his vast correspondence, his occasionally populachero ability to get on well with all classes. His electoral victories are reported, and there is naturally much insistence on his legal ability, but there is no extended treatment of how all was combined into a system. It was not a hermetic one: Santander failed to command the election of his successor as president of New Granada and spent his last years in opposition. Nevertheless it is possible to discern in his methods the pattern of government that has prevailed for so much of the subsequent century and a half.

New or old historians who come to this book will find it rigorously documented, presenting Santander’s frequently powerful arguments with telling quotation and clear resumé, and beneath and beyond the occasional Hombre de las Leyes they will also find it worldly and down-to-earth. Like most of his contemporaries, Santander was not averse to self-praise and was much given to the pursuit of personal glory, and it is still easy for a writer today to succumb to the spirit of that age. This author does not. She succeeds in giving us a picture of a real man facing real problems, with many of which the “new history” is not sufficiently familiar. Pilar Moreno’s Santander should be in any collection on Colombian history.