Traditionally, historians have dismissed the Colombian Federation (1863-1886) as an era of hopeless civil warfare which prepared the way for the rule of Rafael Núñez and Regeneration. It is clear that the Ríonegro Constitution of 1863, imposed by a faction of Liberals known as Radicals, so limited the central government that it was powerless to maintain order among the nine “sovereign states.”1 The anti-clericalism of the government heightened Conservative animosity and alienated more moderate Liberals. Regional uprisings were frequent. In his book La federación en Colombia, José de la Vega lists, for the twenty-three year period, one civil war, twelve revolutions, two coups d’etat, and six years of widespread agitation.2

While no one would deny that political confusion was prevalent during the Federation, an over-emphasis on anarchy has obscured at least one positive accomplishment of the Radical regime—the expansion of popular education. The Organic Decree of November 1, 1870, was Colombia’s first attempt to establish a national system of obligatory, lay education. This decree began an intensive school reform that one writer has called “the golden age of Colombian education.”3 Periodicals of the day reflected the public concern over primary instruction that characterized this era. Opposition to the reform contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War of 1876-1877 and hastened the decline of the Radicals. A review of the reform movement—its background, its controversial nature, its successes and failures —gives new insight into the Federation Era as well as revealing a significant episode in the development of Colombian education.

That the schools were in dire need of renovation was a fact well-recognized by many Colombians in the 1860s. For many years observers had estimated an illiteracy rate well over 90 percent. A census taken in 1870 showed that of the nation’s 563,000 children, only 32,000 attended school of any kind.4 In rural districts scarcely three or four residents could read a newspaper. Municipal officials and priests appeared to be indifferent to the state of education. In 1869 Medardo Rivas, a journalist, lamented that after fifty years of independence, the laws which required district authorities to establish schools were worthless.5Caridad, a leading Catholic periodical, published several articles accusing the clergy of neglecting their teaching responsibilities. In December, 1868, the editor exclaimed:

Compared with other countries our lamentable situation brings anguish to the heart of the patriot. How few are the cabildos that take care of the school! How reduced are the number of priests who take to heart the task of helping the teacher by visiting the school!6

The few existing schools were miserably endowed and miserably taught. In buildings that were little more than shacks, ragged children without books learned by rote their lessons in reading and the catechism. Examinations consisted of a fixed series of questions requiring memorized answers. On his travels through northern Colombia, Manuel Ancízar found that most children forgot all they had learned on leaving school. He concluded, “The science of education has not yet penetrated our country, and the way we are going it will not do so for a long time.”7 An American professor who visited Colombia in the 1850s described a school in Sabanilla, a town in what is today the Department of Atlántico, as the poorest school he had observed. One room served as a shop. The other was the teacher’s living quarters and the schoolroom. The students were naked, the teacher was a mere boy, and there was not a single book. Yet, the American conceded that the school was a credit to the town which was too poor to have a church.8

Colombians who studied and traveled abroad could not fail to contrast the stagnation of their schools with the dynamic changes taking place in European education. The nineteenth century saw the spread of free and universal primary instruction throughout the western world.9 Along with the impact of industrialization, the legacies of the French Revolution—nationalism, democracy, and anticlericalism—placed new demands upon traditional concepts of education. At the beginning of the century, private efforts by Andrew Bell, Joseph Lancaster, Robert Owen, and the Brothers of the Christian Schools popularized the advantages of an educated working class. The highly publicized experimental schools of Pestalozzi in Switzerland and of Froebel and Herbart in Germany demonstrated the importance of trained teachers and “child-centered” education. Gradually the governments of Germany, France, England, and the United States began to assume the responsibility of providing all citizens with an elementary education. By 1860 these countries were making definite strides toward establishing national systems of compulsory primary instruction.

Colombian journalists began to identify education with “civilization.”10 They argued that if England, France and a state like Massachusetts were wealthy with so few natural resources, it was because their populations were almost entirely literate. Prussia’s growing ascendancy over the other German states and her 1870 victory over France stemmed directly from her policy of educating the masses.11 A traveler in Prussia, Switzerland or the United States would find no wretched lower classes because in those countries everyone knew how to read and write. In Colombia, on the other hand, the gente del pueblo were filthy, drunk, and ragged. They had the weak, submissive disposition possessed by the illiterate. Only education could transform the brutalized masses into thoughtful, productive people.12

With the re-establishment of civil order and the adoption of the Ríonegro Constitution in 1863, state and national leaders were more responsive to the plight of the schools and the increasing demands for reform. Most states passed legislation requiring every municipio to support at least one primary school. In particular, Antioquia and Santander undertook a thorough reorganization of public education. On the national level, the Radicals as early as 1865 included the expansion of primary schools within their political platform.13 Before they could take definitive action, however, they had to consolidate their hold on the Union and to stabilize the ailing economy. In the first decade of the Federation, the principal impediment to both goals was General Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera.

Although he had begun his career as a Conservative, Mosquera returned to the national limelight as the leader of the Liberals in 1860. As provisional president of the United States of New Granada (1861-63) he proclaimed such severe restrictions on the Church that even Liberals feared he aspired to “personal government of a permanent character.”14 Elected President of the Federation in 1863 and again in 1866, the General demonstrated his intention to develop Colombian military might. Alienating himself from Congress, he negotiated in Europe a seven and one-half million peso loan for the expansion of the army and internal communications. He concluded a secret defense treaty with Peru and purchased an unauthorized shipment of arms from the United States. Heavy criticism from all sides prompted Mosquera to dissolve Congress on April 29, 1867, declaring Colombia in a state of siege. Three weeks later a swift counter-coup led by General Santos Acosta resulted in Mosquera’s arrest. A re-constituted Congress eventually found Mosquera guilty of high treason and condemned him to exile in Peru.15 Mosquera would return to Colombia and serve as President of Cauca, but he was never again a threat to Radical control.

With the ouster of Mosquera, succeeding Radical administrations of Santos Gutiérrez (1868-70), Eustorgio Salgar (1870-72), Manuel Murillo Toro (1872-74) and Santiago Pérez (1874-76) brought relative peace and prosperity to the Federation. State governments began to stabilize. Conciliatory gestures toward the Catholic hierarchy mitigated the harsh treatment of the Church under the Constitution of Ríonegro.16 The economy experienced an unprecedented upswing. Rising European demand for tobacco, chinchona, and indigo inflated Colombian exports and produced a financial surplus by 1874. In that year the Minister of Hacienda boasted emphatically of the improvement in agriculture, commerce, and general wellbeing.17 Bolstered by the expanding economy, Radical presidents could turn their attention to railroad construction, immigration schemes, and educational reform.

Salgar initiated the national school movement on May 16, 1870. In an address to Congress, he affirmed that expanded and effective popular instruction would increase wealth and tranquility. He argued that since schools would make Colombia a respected and happy nation if not a powerful one, the State had a right to promote the development of education so vital to its interests. Urging the legislators to abandon indecision, Salgar requested authorization to begin the reform.18 In July, Congress passed a law permitting the President to organize public instrtuction and to use federal funds to finance district schools.19 It also appropriated 200,000 pesos for education—about four percent of the national budget for 1871-1872.20

On November 1, 1870, President Salgar published the Organic Decree of Public Primary Instruction. Consisting of ten chapters and 294 articles, the decree organized public instruction into a uniform system directed and supervised by the federal government. It elaborated the nature of teaching, inspection, and administration and prescribed curriculum and teaching methods to be used in the classroom. The law created a General Directorate of Primary Instruction to act as the central administrative office. States which ratified the Decree agreed to establish their own directorates and to cooperate in the drive for primary schools.21 In its conception, the Organic Decree outlined an idealistic educational system. If its provisions could have been fully implemented, Colombia would have joined the most progressive countries of the world with regard to school policy.

The announcement of the Organic Decree heightened the great debate already raging over public education.22 Supporters defended the law as the ultimate in modem pedagogy. Critics focused upon three fundamental aspects: Article 1 which centralized education under the direction of the federal government; Article 87 which made instruction obligatory for all children between ages six and fourteen; and Article 36 which prohibited the government from intervening in religious education, but conceded that school hours might be arranged at parents’ request to allow priests to provide extracurricular classes in religion. Contending that the Organic Decree was unconstitutional, impractical, and destined to lead Colombia to disaster, the opposition attacked these provisions in Congress and in the press. Beneath the cloud of rhetoric the alignment of interests was gradually discernable.

Rising above the emotional political and religious arguments was a group of men who might be called the “educational reformers.” For these Colombians, the need for a literate population outweighed all other concerns. As members of the elite, they were well-known politicians, diplomats, journalists, and pensadores. Yet, after 1870 they focused their energies on public education. Some like César C. Guzmán and Manuel María Mallarino were Conservatives who were to serve as General Directors of Public Instruction and write textbooks for the schools. Others like Enrique Cortés and Dámaso Zapata organized education in the states, rewriting school codes, editing educational journals, inspecting and establishing new elementary schools. Still others like José M. Vargas H., Miguel Gutiérrez Nieto and Nicolás Barragán used their local influence to win popular approval for the schools. Barragán taught classes himself and endowed a 700-volume public library. He even supplied transportation for at least one student who lived too far to walk.23 The bond between these men was their total dedication to educational progress. As Dámaso Zapata wrote in 1880, “I doubtless have my political opinions, but while I have been in the service of public instruction there has been for me no political cause but the schools.”24

Most Radicals supported the Organic Decree. Presidents Salgar, Murillo Toro, and Santiago Pérez took steps to put the law into practice. Radicals filled the periodicals with articles proclaiming that compulsory, lay education was not only constitutional, but politically, economically, socially, and morally desirable. In their opinion critics of such a measure could only be ignorantistas, ultramontistas, godos, or fanatistas. Radicals accepted posts as administrators and contributed personally to the support of the schools. In 1872 fifty Radical Congressmen signed a petition which affirmed that Colombia’s future depended upon her schools and pledged support to free, universal education.25

To stir popular enthusiasm, the Radicals revived local organizations known as Democratic Societies. These groups had first appeared in the 1850s when artisans banded together to support the Liberal program of President López.26 Now the Radicals encouraged the formation of new chapters which would include the defense of official education among their activities. Members promised to enroll their children in the public schools and to give financial aid whenever possible. Typical projects ranged from the collection of twenty-one pesos to buy textbooks by the Democratic Society of Buga to the publication of a manifesto lauding official education, signed by five hundred members of the Democratic Society of Tolua, Cauca.27 The Radicals attempted to use these organizations to make primary instruction a vital issue to the people.

A third, somewhat unexpected source of support for the Organic Decree came from Vicente Arbeláez, Archbishop of Bogotá. A personal friend of President Salgar, Arbeláez took advantage of this cordial relationship to advance the reconciliation of Church and State. Like Salgar, the Archbishop believed that popular education was essential to the “civilization” of Colombia. While lamenting the anti-clericalism of the Organic Decree, Arbeláez agreed that the constitutional separation of Church and State forbade any other arrangement. Propositions XLVII and XLVIII of the Syllabus of Errors by Pope Pius IX had pointed unequivocally to the dangers of lay education.28 Arbeláez believed, however, that the papal condemnation did not apply to the Colombian case where the government permitted priests to give classes of religion within the schools. If the priests could supplement the work of the teachers, they would insure the Christian education of the youth.29

To avoid the greatest perils of secular instruction, Arbeláez urged the Church to cooperate with the government. In pastorals he exhorted the clergy to utilize all means within their power to teach the doctrine. At the Second Provincial Council of the Colombian episcopacy, the Archbishop argued for the adoption of a resolution on religious instruction which implied co-existence with the official schools.30 Arbeláez also used his considerable powers of diplomacy to avert a school crisis in Cundinamarca. In 1872 the Assembly of that state angered many Catholics by prohibiting priests from giving religious classes in the schools. Against the background of outraged cries of “Protestantism” raised by the opposition press, the Archbishop wrote to the Director of Public Instruction expressing his concern. He urged repeal of the law, arguing that it not only violated the Constitution and the rights of the Church, but made continued clerical cooperation with the schools impossible. Several months of negotiation with the government produced a new agreement by which the Assembly agreed to rescind the offending law and to permit the Church to authorize text-books for the school. By achieving a peaceful settlement, Arbeláez smoothed over the quarrel and postponed the civil-religious strife for a few more years.31

Five bishops and a large number of priests followed the lead of Arbeláez. They served as school inspectors, taught classes in religion and encouraged Catholics to enroll their children. The Superintendent of Public Instruction of Santander gave special recognition to the Bishops of Dibona and Pamplona for their “powerful and merited influence in the service of education.”32 Representative of the efforts of many priests was the work of Antonio Castañeda, párroco of Espinal, Tolima, who not only helped to build the urban school, but financed four rural schools from his own pocket.33 Another priest in Guata, Boyacá, gave 32 pesos to aid the schools, supplied teaching materials and visited classes regularly.34 In 1876 Pedro A. Vezga, párroco of Pesca, Boyacá, reported that for the last three years he had supervised the religious instruction of 700 children who attended the sixteen official schools of the municipio. He concluded, “The official schools of this parish leave nothing to be desired with respect to religious instruction. At least I am satisfied and my conscience is tranquil.”35 The priests who supported the public schools showed in these and other ways that lay education was not an insurmountable barrier for Catholics.

The Organic Decree had the enthusiastic endorsement of the educational reformers, Radicals and followers of Archbishop Arbeláez, but its enemies were equally energetic and sincere. There is evidence to suggest that every social stratum from the gente acomodada to the gente del pueblo had reason to reject the schools.36 For the purpose of this essay, only the two most articulate groups will be examined, the Conservatives and Catholics who opposed lay education.

Many Conservatives who wholeheartedly favored the expansion of public education rejected the Organic Decree plan for several reasons. They contended that the centralizing aspects of the law along with its infringements upon the rights of states and individuals were blatantly unconstitutional. Likewise, compulsory education was unjustifiable, for it placed too many demands on the poor who were dependent on the labor of their children. For many Conservatives, religion was the core of education. Lacking the restraint of religion, Colombians would become corrupt, turbulent and incapable of good. El Tradicionista, most militant of the Conservative periodicals, charged in 1873 that students deprived of spiritual training would become “creatures of an atheistic proletariat, a generation without faith or filial love.”37 It was clear they contended, that the instruccionistas were insisting on lay education as a political maneuver. The official schools were damning evidence of a determination to weaken the church and enslave the children “to Liberal ambitions and bastard passions.”38

Conservatives spoke out against the Decree in a multitude of political and religious periodicals. In Congress they proposed new educational plans to replace the existing system. Other projects included a campaign to raise funds to bring to Colombia the Brothers of the Christian Schools whose communities were building schools with great success in Ecuador and Chile.39 The extremists among the Conservatives urged the public to boycott the schools and to demand religious education even if such a stand meant open rebellion.

Clergy who resented the failure of Archbishop Arbeláez to pressure the government for a Catholic curriculum found a spokesman in Carlos Bermúdez, Bishop of Popayán. Bermúdez, backed by the Bishops of Medellín and Pasto, held that since religion was an essential part of education, the Church should continue its traditional supervision of the schools. He believed that lay education was either a Liberal or Masonic plot to ruin the children and annihilate the Church. In the opinion of Bermúdez, the Colombian schools fell within the condemnation of Propositions XLVII and XLVIII of the Syllabus. Even if the priests could teach religion, the schools retained their secular nature as long as the government refused to recognize the authority of the Church.40

After attending the Vatican Council of 1870, Bermúdez returned to Popayán and began his fight against the official schools. In 1872 he issued a pastoral forbidding Catholics within his bishopric to enroll their children in the public schools on pain of excommunication.41 Succeeding letters reiterated the proscription and encouraged priests to boycott the schools. Bermúdez refused to accept the Archbishop’s resolution on religious education at the Second Provincial Council, thus widening the split in the Catholic hierarchy.42 Finally, he refused to cooperate in any way with school officials in Popayán. In 1874, for example, he forbade the normal school students to participate in the Holy Week processions. On learning of the decision, the Director of Public Instruction of Cauca asked the Bishop to reconsider the situation. Bermúdez answered that he was charged to defend the rights of Holy Religion and the Sacred Church, and that he would defend them until his death. When the Director warned that such a stand would lead to civil war, the Bishop replied, “It does not matter that the country be converted into ruins and debris so long as the flag of religion may rise triumphant.”43

Priests throughout Colombia applauded the stand of Bishop Bermúdez. They refused to teach religion in the schools. They warned the teachers that they were betraying their students and counseled parents to withdraw their children. This clerical influence cannot be underestimated. In 1872 a distraught woman in Funza, Cundinamarca, tried to murder the school teacher because the cura had said he was a Protestant and a Mason.44 A teacher in Cauca reported that class attendance had been reduced to three pupils because the priest had threatened the parents with excommunication. He wrote to the Director of Public Instruction:

It appears to me, sir, that for men such as these, the threat is enough and in obedience to said authority they have withdrawn their children from this establishment, although convinced in their own minds of its innocence.45

When a priest in Popayán predicted that small-pox would attack students of the Normal School, not a few of the congregation attended classes the next day to see if the students indeed had contracted the disease.46

The proliferation of Catholic Societies mobilized laymen in the fight against the schools. As guilds dedicated to the defense of the Church, these groups pledged to inspect elementary schools and supervise religious instruction. When possible they founded rural schools to be taught by Catholics. They also drew up manifestos such as the one published in 1872 signed by residents of Popayán, Pasto, and Buga declaring that government intervention in public instruction attacked their rights and beliefs. The signers vowed to work against the schools through their Catholic Societies, the press, and by starting private schools.47 By 1876 10 of the 35 Catholic Societies in Cauca were supporting parochial schools.48

The conflict of political and religious interests spurred by the Organic Decree was apparent in 1870, but the final clash did not come until 1876. In spite of vocal opposition and organized obstruction, the federal government during the first five years of the reform made enormous progress in expanding school facilities. While the state legislatures debated the merits of the system, the federal government began its labor on two fronts: the sponsoring of a German pedagogical mission and the organization of the General Directorate of Public Instruction.

President Salgar regarded the preparation of new teachers as indispensable to the success of the reform. In his May 16th speech, he proposed that foreign educators be brought to Colombia to establish normal schools in conformance with the most modem pedagogical theories. As potential teaching missionaries, North Americans had great appeal, but Prussian prestige, heightened by the recent victory over France, swung the balance in favor of Germans. Colombia’s consul in Berlin, Eustacio Santamaría, reported that the German schools were so renowned that they attracted the attention of the most notable men of England, France, Italy, North America, and even Japan.49 Authorized by the Organic Decree, Salgar ordered the consul to contract nine German professors to found normal schools in every state.

Within a few months, Santamaría had assembled the mission. In addition to organizing the normal schools, the Germans agreed to set up model primary schools as laboratories for the student teachers. They were to introduce Pestalozzian teaching methods and to offer a curriculum similar to the Prussian schools. The Germans pledged to fulfill their duties with dedication, to observe strict morality, and to remain aloof from all political and religious questions.50

Staggering problems beset the Germans on their arrival in the spring of 1872. Colombians tended to view all foreigners with great suspicion. The knowledge that seven members of the mission were Protestant did nothing to ease the customary hostility. Communication was difficult since the Germans had only recently begun to study Spanish. Julio Walner, on being stationed in Cartagena, Bolívar, discovered that the state had made no effort to acquire a building, books, or students for the new school.51 Nevertheless, by the end of the year, a normal school for men was functioning in every state capital. Later an executive decree created similar schools for women. By 1875 20 normal schools were in operation throughout Colombia.52

The first graduates of the new institutions were probably the best-trained teachers in the country’s history. The two-year program included 20 different subjects. Students were selected on a scholarship basis. Those chosen promised to teach in the official schools for four years after graduation or the expense of their education would be forfeited. The exact number of displomas awarded is uncertain, but reports indicate that in 1874 42 teachers were graduated—23 trained in Bogotá.53 An article published that same year in the Diario de Cundinamarca had nothing but praise for the normal schools. Not only did their graduates possess an idealistic sense of mission, but teaching had become an honorable profession, opening new career opportunities to the youth of the districts.54

In addition to its promotion of the normal schools, the federal government organized primary education through the General Directorate of Public Instruction (DGIP) which it established in 1871 as an adjunct to the Ministry of Interior and Foreign Relations. Primarily due to the appointment of excellent General Directors, the work of the office was professionally efficient. The DGIP conducted the first school census and thereafter attempted to collect systematic school statistics. It examined textbooks for possible adoption, commissioning authors to write new volumes. In 1872 the office distributed 87,000 books and 8,000 maps among the official schools.55 The General Director maintained an extensive correspondence with Colombian diplomats abroad, ministries of education in Europe and America, state directors of education, teachers, school inspectors, and other employees. His annual report surveyed the progress of schools in every state and made recommendations for improvements.

One of the most successful projects of the DGIP was the publication of an official periodical, Escuela Normal. A sixteen-page tabloid, it appeared weekly, and was the main communication link between the federal government and the primary schools. Each issue contained the most recent education laws, circulars, and directives from the General Director. There also were informative articles for the reference of the teacher. Whole textbooks such as Física by J. Henri Fabre and Lecciones de fisiología elementaria by T. H. Huxley were translated into Spanish and published by installments. Although it received some income from a small number of paid subscriptions, Escuela Normal was subsidized by the government and distributed free of charge to every primary school in the country. In many isolated communities, it provided the only reading material for the schools.

The increase in primary schools and students by 1876 was the most tangible result of the work of the DGIP and its branch directorates in the states. For that year the General Director talked 1,646 schools and 79,123 students, an increase of 327 schools and 27,177 students over the figures reported in 1872.56 Up until a devastating earthquake in 1875, the state of Santander had made the greatest progress. Cundinamarca and Boyacá also registered substantial gains. Progress on the coast was less remarkable since public education there was virtually a new concept, and few schools had existed before 1870. Nevertheless, Bolívar and Magdalena reported that elementary instruction was improving although “it still did not satisfy patriotic aspirations.”57 Even Panamá boasted 17 schools and 1,071 students.58

While most of the gente del pueblo remained apathetic toward education, in some districts enthusiasm soared. The annual school examinations in Bogotá were public spectacles in the best national tradition attended by the President, members of the diplomatic corps, city officials, and the commandant of the Colombian Guard.59 The opening of a school in Banco, Magdalena, brought out most of the residents as well as the town band. When the Alcalde presented the students to their new teacher, he confidently predicted that the school would transform the district into one of the most important localities on the coast.60 Popular zeal for school examinations in Zipaquirá, Cundinamarca, reminded one observer of the excitement anticipating a bullfight. The townspeople cleaned the streets, whitewashed their houses and raised triumphal arches for the “festival of schools.” In 1873 more than 2,000 spectators attended the examinations and cheered the distribution of prizes.61

The reform which had begun to grapple with some of the obstacles to popular education, came to a sudden halt in July, 1876. Civil unrest in Cauca and Tolima forced the suspension of all public schools. When the Conservatives decided to challenge the Radicals, Catholic hostility to lay schools provided the spark to ignite the explosion.

In general Colombian historians agree that the Civil War of 1876-1877, the most violent conflict of the Federation Era, was an attempt by Conservatives to capitalize on Radical factionalism to seize control of the Union.62 Since 1863 a fundamental weakness of the Radicals was their lack of strong leadership. The death of Manuel Murillo Toro in 1874 left the group without a single man who could unite the members and win support for their cause.63 During the administration of Santiago Pérez, many Radicals deserted in order to form a more moderate Liberal group—the Independents. The Independents demanded constitutional amendments that would limit Radical extremism. They wanted to strengthen the central government so that it could preserve civil order.64 In the meantime the Conservatives were patching up their internal quarrels, and by 1875 they were able to present a united front that contrasted sharply with Radical dissension.

The Presidential election of 1875 was a hotly-fought three-man contest between Rafael Núñez, an Independent, Bartolomé Calvo, a Conservative and Aquileo Parra, a Radical. When no one of the candidates received a five-state majority vote, Congress proclaimed Parra the victor. The Conservatives and Independents cried fraud. In Cauca especially the Radical-Independent split threatened the incumbent Liberal government. The Conservative press launched demonstrations against federal and state institutions. Smoldering animosity toward the official schools brought more clashes between the Catholic Societies and the Democratic Societies.65 In the meantime, the Conservative president of Antioquia, Recaredo de Villa believed that his state was now in a position to bring Cauca and Tolima into a coalition powerful enough to defy the national government. He began to make military preparations, aided in these activities by the financial support of the Conservative Party Committee in Bogotá.66

In the early months of 1876 President Parra was unable to reconcile the antagonism to his administration. A desperate attempt by Archbishop Arbeláez and the Secretary of Interior and Foreign Relations, Manuel Ancízar, to ease at least the school controversy failed to postpone the war. Published on June 20, the Ancízar-Arbeláez Pact was the first formal agreement between Church and State since 1860. The federal government promised to order the teachers to make arrangements with priests to teach religion. If a priest could not visit the school, the teacher could supply religious instruction himself using texts approved by the Church. The government also guaranteed that students might attend religious services on holy days designated by the Church. This arrangement satisfied the moderate Catholics, but it did not appease Bishop Bermúdez who continued to call for war against the schools.67 In July, fighting broke out in Cauca and spread rapidly through the rest of the country.

It is fairly certain that the Conservatives capitalized on the emotional issue of lay education to fan a rebellion begun primarily to satisfy political ambitions.68 In Cauca the war displayed overtones of a religious crusade. Crying “Down with the schools!” the insurgents carried the white and yellow flag of the Papal States and the standard of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.69 One banner bore the legend: “Liberty of Conscience, toleration of all cults, Christian education, respect for the beliefs of the majority.”70 Connstancio Franco, who fought with government troops, recounted the statement of a captured Conservative colonel:

If we had not taken the pretext of religion, we would not have had even half of the people in arms. We do not fight for religion, but to gain civil power, to get back what the Liberals took from us in 1867.71

The Radicals survived the rebel challenge, but only at great cost. Faced by so serious a threat, Radicals and Independents reunited to defend the Constitution of Ríonegro. Government victories at Los Chancos, Garapatá, and El Cocuy assured the preservation of the union, but not before the war had cost ten million pesos, hundreds of lives, and brought agriculture and industry to a standstill.72 A worldwide recession ended the commercial boom of the early 1870’s. Exports fell, and the 1878-79 budget showed a deficit of five million pesos.73 Worse, the civil war had destroyed the delicate balance of power essential to the working of the Federation. Radical reprisals against the vanquished renewed their unpopularity. A military regime imposed on Antioquia along with severe restrictions placed on the clergy and the exile of the Bishops of Popayán, Pasto, and Medellín alarmed the Independents and stirred Conservative hatred. Still without a strong leader, the Radicals could not meet the challenge. After 1877 the oligarchical rule commonly nicknamed “El Olimpo Radical” began to falter.74

The war was equally disastrous for the schools. Except in a few remote regions, classes did not meet during the fighting. In the highlands, soldiers on both sides converted schoolrooms into barracks. Some intentionally destroyed books and burned buildings. The Secretary of Government of Santander reported that the schools had suffered attacks of “inhuman ferocity.”75 Students and teachers lost their lives on the battlefield. Just as it had disrupted the political consensus, the war broke the reform.

Growing Conservative influence and the rise of Rafael Núñez dominated the last 10 years of the Federation. As President of Bolívar in 1876, Núñez had given tacit support to the rebellion. After the war he continued to enjoy great popularity among the Independents. He won the presidential election in 1879 as an Independent but with Conservative support. Núñez’ initial administration (1880-82) was really the first stage of Regeneration. His government revoked the oppressive measures passed against the clergy in 1877. It opened negotiations with the Vatican for a new Concordat. With the approval of Congress, Núñez established the right of the federal government to intervene in the domestic affairs of the states. He reorganized the executive branch into six ministries, awarding important cabinet posts to Conservatives.76 The Constitution of Ríonegro remained in operation, but the federal government was gradually assuming a more dominant role.

Núñez won reelection in 1884 as a Conservative. Crushing a last desperate revolt staged by the Radicals, he emerged the unchallenged master of Colombia. In 1886 he legitimized this position by endorsing a new constitution. Stressing political centralization, the constitution reduced the states to departments. The president was to serve a six-year term and could issue decrees with the force of law.77 A strong republic replaced the loose federation, and the Conservatives would lead Colombia into the twentieth century.

The Radicals’ political collapse was mirrored in the decline of their educational program. After the war one of the first acts of President Parra was to reopen schools. In July, 1877, Antioquia was forced to ratify the Organic Decree.78 The DGIP and the state directorates resumed operations the following year, but the reports of the General Directors revealed mounting difficulties. Lack of funds limited the adoption and publication of texts. Only a few shipments of supplies reached the districts. A bankrupt treasury eventually forced the government to suspend publication of the official periodical, Escuela Normal.79 Most of the German professors returned to Germany on the termination of their six-year contracts, leaving the normal schools in the charge of less competent successors. A drop in educational quality and in numbers of schools and students caused even the reformers to express disillusionment. In 1879, the General Director admitted that the Organic Decree had been born of laudable but impractical idealism. While it was true that in some areas the people held fiestas for the schools, that kind of public favor did not provide blackboards, chalk, or books. It was impossible to produce well-equipped schools and good teachers in so short a time. The government could not fulfill the exaggerated promises of the reform, and its failure only brought new frustrations.80 In 1880 the resignation of Dámaso Zapata after eight years as Director of Public Instruction of Cundinamarca symbolized the low ebb of the reform.81

The Núñez administration of 1880-1882 reorganized primary instruction, but failed to revitalize the schools. A law passed in 1880 gave the President the right to organize and direct official education in all branches regardless of the wording of the constitution.82 Another measure converted the DGIP into the Ministry of Public Instruction.83 A new monthly official journal, the Anales de Instrucción Pública, featured long, scholarly articles on issues of higher education. The Ministry encouraged the clergy to cooperate with the schools.84 Criticism of official education in popular periodicals first cooled and then subsided. The schools were no longer subject to debate, but neither were they dynamic, expanding institutions. The annual reports of the Secretary of Education were pedestrian. Officials admitted educational deficiencies but suggested no solution to the wide-spread poverty, apathy, lack of supplies, and poor teachers. Natural disasters—a small-pox epidemic and a locust plague—took their toll among the highland population. According to the official records in 1884 there were 1,291 schools and 68,291 students in Colombia—a decline of 349 schools and 10,289 students from the totals of 1876.85 Like the Constitution of Ríonegro, the Organic Decree was a dead letter.

In summary, a major concern of the Federation was the expansion of primary schools. Through the Organic Decree of November 1, 1870, the Radicals attempted to organize public instruction for the first time on a national level. The announcement of the decree opened a heated debate in which political and religious factors played a decisive role. Strongest support came from the educational reformers, Radicals and Catholic followers of Archbishop Arbeláez, while most Conservatives and Catholics who followed Bishop Bermúdez constituted an implacable opposition. Despite the controversy, the early Radical administrations made great progress in developing normal and elementary education. The War of 1876-1877, partly triggered by opposition to lay schools, crippled Radical control as well as the impetus for educational reform. When Rafael Núñez took possession of the presidency for the third time in 1886, little remained of the original movement to establish a modern system of public instruction.

Despite its ultimate failure, the reform was an important episode in the evolution of Colombian education. The Organic Decree definitely established the national government’s commitment to provide universal education. The introduction of Pestalozzian theory was the first pedagogical innovation since the efforts of Bolívar and Santander to bring the Lancaster monitorial schools to Gran Colombia in the 1820s. The new normal schools brought respect to the teaching profession. The reform expanded school facilities in such a way that a generation enjoyed educational opportunities denied both their parents and their children.

But the greatest significance of the reform lies in the failure of the Radicals to institute a system of non-sectarian public instruction. In their determination to limit clerical influence, the Radicals alienated powerful Catholic factions and surely doomed their effort at the start. Moreover, once the Conservatives returned to power, they took immediate steps to prevent another attack on Church authority. By a new concordat signed with the Vatican in 1886, the Núñez government agreed to organize and direct official instruction in accordance with Catholic dogma. Núñez guaranteed that all schools would give religious training, observe pious practices, and refrain from teaching any subject disrespectful to the Catholic faith. The Church regained the right to inspect curriculum, to select religious texts, and to dismiss any teacher not meeting its standards.86 The Concordat of 1886 has been modified to some extent in the twentieth century, but there has been little actual change with regard to public instruction. At mid-twentieth century, Colombian education—public and private—remains an ecclesiastical monopoly.87


The nine states were Antioquia, Bolívar, Boyacá, Cauca, Cundinamarca, Magdalena, Panamá, Santander, and Tolima.


José de la Vega, La federación en Colombia: 1810-1912 (Madrid, 1916), p. 256.


Luis Antonio Bohórquez Casallas, La evolución educativa en Colombia (Bogotá, 1956), p. 525.


Memoria al Congreso de Colombia, 1871 (Bogotá, 1871) p. 37.


Revista de Colombia (Bogotá), II, Entrega 8 (August 30, 1869), 157.


Caridad (Bogotá) IV, #22 (December 3, 1868), 351.


Manuel Ancízar, Peregrinación de Alpha (Bogotá, 1956), p. 115.


Isaac F. Holton, New Granada: Twenty Months in the Andes (New York, 1857), p. 32.


Hugh M. Pollard, Pioneers of Popular Education 1760-1850 (London, 1956), p. 222.


This concept was part of a commonly held theory of progress rooted in eighteenth century enlightenment. During the Federation era, writers frequently stated that all societies evolve from “savagery”—the lowest stage of development to “civilization”—the most advanced stage. Vice, ignorance, misery—in short, the absence of perfection characterized the savage state. On the other hand, civilization meant the highest possible degree of perfection of human faculties. It was a completed state of intellectual, moral, and physical prowess. “Barbarism” was a transitional stage between savagery and civilization. “To barbarize” man was to destroy his positive habit of morality. “To civilize” man was to educate him. El Conservador, Bogotá, I, Serie V #112 (May 30, 1882), 446. For a similar definition of civilization see La Sociedad, Medellín, IV, Tri. II #162 (August 7, 1875), 137.


La Paz, Bogotá, I, Tri. III #71 (June 29, 1869), 281.


Diario de Cundinamarca, Bogotá, III, #732 (May 31, 1872).


Salvador Camacho Roldán, Escritos varios (Bogotá, 1892), III, 561.


Antonio Pérez Aguirre, Los radicales y la regeneración (Bogotá, 1941), p. 33.


For a more detailed account see Pérez Aguirre, Los radicales, p. 37; Miguel Puentes, Historia del partido liberal colombiano, 2nd ed. (Bogotá, 1961), p. 241; J. M. Henao and Geraldo Arrubla, Historia de Colombia (Bogotá, 1936), p. 699.


Puentes, Historia del partido liberal colombiano, p. 294.


Aquileo Parra quoted by Luis Eduardo Nieto Arteta, Economía y cultura en la historia de Colombia (Bogotá, 1941), p. 392.


Diario Oficial, Bogotá, VI, #1918 (Mar. 16, 1870), 553-54.


Escuela Normal, Bogotá, I, #1 (January 7, 1871), 1.


El Liberal II, Bogotá, Tri. VI #123 (April 29, 1870).


Escuela Normal, I, Bogotá, #1 (January 7, 1871).


For an extensive discussion of the debate over public education in general and the organic decree see Jane Meyer Loy, “Modernization and Educational Reform in Colombia 1863-1886,” Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin, 1968.


El Maestro de Escuela, Bogotá, III, #176 (November 3, 1874), 201.


Ramón Zapata, Dámaso Zapata o la reforma educacionista en Colombia (Bogotá, 1961), p. 367.


Diario de Cundinamarca, Bogotá, III, #731 (May 30, 1872), 713.


Jaime Jaramillo Uribe, “Romanticismo, utopismo, y positivismo en el pensamiento social y político colombiano del siglo XIX: La obra de José Eusebio Caro,” Bolívar, 13 (January-December, 1960), 123.


El Escolar, II, Popayán #61 (March 7, 1876). Registro Oficial, Popayán, III, #150 (May 31, 1876).


Pope Pius IX announced the Syllabus of Errors in 1864. His condemnation of lay education was stated in Propositions XLVII and XLVIII which labeled as errors the following:

XLVII: The best theory of civil society requires that popular schools open to children of every class of the people, and generally, all public institutions intended for instruction in letters and philosophical sciences and for carrying on the education of youth should be freed from all ecclesiastical authority control and interference, and should be fully subjected to the civil and political power at the pleasure of the rulers and according to the standard of the prevalent opinion of the age. XLVIII: Catholics may approve of the system of educating the youth unconnected with the Catholic faith and the power of the Church, and which regards the knowledge of merely natural things, and only, or at least primarily, the ends of earthly social life. Anne Fremantle, The Papal Encyclicals in their Historical Context (New York, 1963), p. 148.


Arbeláez stated this position in several pastorals. See Caridad, VII, #25 (November 16, 1871), 394-397; Escuela Normal III, #79 (July 6, 1872); 209-211; El Tradicionista, I, Tri. LV #84 (September 17, 1872), 446; El Tradicionista, V, Tri. I #474 (February 29, 1876), 1311-12.


José Restrepo Posada, Arquidiócesis de Bogotá: Datos biográficos de sus prelados (Bogotá, 1966), III, 180-200.


Ibid., p. 300.


Informe del Superintendente de la instrucción pública a la Asamblea legislatura en sus sessiones de 1871 (Socorro, 1871), p. 23.


La Escuela, II, Neiva, #43 (January 15, 1882), 182.


Informe anual del Director de Instrucción Pública del estado soberano de Boyacá 1874 (Tunja, 1874), p. 755.


Diario de Cundinamarca, V, Bogotá, #2001 (July 1876), 921.


See Loy, “Modernization and Education in Colombia,” pp. 192-210.


El Tradicionista, Bogotá, II, Tri. I #128 (February 1, 1873), 632-33.


Manuel Briceño, La revolución 1876-1877 (2nd ed., Bogotá, 1947), p. 2.


El Tradicionista, Bogotá, I, Tri. I, #19 (March 12, 1872), 153.


Gonzalo Uribe U., Los arzobispos y obispos colombianos desde el tiempo de la colonia hasta nuestros días (Bogotá, 1918), p. 176.


Ibid., p. 82.


Restrepo Posada, Arquidiócesis de Bogotá, p. 194.


José María Quijano Wallis, Memorias: autobiográficas, históricas, políticas y de caracter social (1919), p. 219.


Diario de Cundinamarca, Bogotá, III, #711 (July 16, 1872), 872.


El Escolar, Popayán, II, #62 (March 16, 1876), 495.


Quijano Wallis, Memorias, p. 220.


Caridad, Bogotá, VIII, #12 (August 1, 1872), 177-179.


Estanislao Gómez Barrientos, 25 años a través del Estado de Antioquia (Medellín, 1918), p. 162.


Diario de Cundinamarca, Bogotá, II, #687 (April 2, 1872).


Bohórquez Casallas, La evolución educativa, p. 361.


Ibid., p. 363.


Mensaje del Presidente de la Unión al Congreso de 1876 (Bogotá, 1876).


Escuela Normal, Bogotá, VI, #209 (December 7, 1874), 11.


Diario de Cundinamarca, Bogotá, V, #1234 (January 14, 1874), 244.


Escuela Normal, Bogotá, IV, #106-107 (January 18, 1872), 15.


Informe del Director General de Instrucción Primaria de la Unión (Bogotá, 1876).


Gaceta de Magdalena, Santa Marta, Tri. XXVII #302 (September 15, 1873), 1914.


Gaceta de Panamá, Panamá, IV, #1661 (September 17, 1874). Antioquia, which was the only state to reject the Organic Decree, nevertheless took part in the campaign for educational reform and reported regular increases in students and schools.


Throughout the nineteenth century, it was not uncommon m Colombia to celebrate school examinations as public festivals. Bohórquez Casallas in La evolución educativa en Colombia notes that in the 1820’s Santander visited such functions accompanied by other important officials (p. 244). Nevertheless, the fact that educational events attracted widespread publicity in the 1870’s attests to the reform’s success in dramatizing the work of the elementary school. For example, in 1873 Dámaso Zapata reported that the Bogotá examinations attended by President Morillo were “a true popular fiesta that has interested the friends of education and satisfied by two-fold the hope of patriotism.” Tercer informe anual del Director de Instrucción Primaria del E.S. de Cundinamarca (Bogotá, 1874).


El Institutor, Santa Marta, I, #12 (January 25, 1873), 47.


Diario de Cundinamarca, Bogotá, VI, #1519 (December 30, 1874), 193.


See Henao and Arrubla, Historia de Colombia, pp. 706-707; Pérez Aguirre, 25 años de historia colombiana: 1853-1878 (Bogotá, 1959), pp. 396-397; Nieto Arteta, Economía y cultura, p, 401.


Eduardo Rodríguez Piñeres, El olimpo radical (Bogotá, 1950), p. 19.


William Marion Gibson, The Constitutions of Colombia (Durham, 1948), p. 299.


Quijano Wallis, Memorias, p. 214.


Pérez Aguirre, 25 años de historia colombiana, p. 396.


Restrepo Posada, Arquidiócesis de Bogotá, p. 114.


See Hoenigsburg, Las fronteras de los partidos (Bogotá, 1953), p. 107; Rodríguez Piñeres, El olimpo radical, p. no; Laureano García Ortiz, Estudios históricos y fisonomías colombianas (Bogotá, 1938), p. 105.


Hoenigsburg, Las fronteras de los partidos, p. 107.


Briceño, La revolución, p. 283.


Constancio Franco V., Apuntamientos para la historia la guerra de 1876-1877 (Bogotá, 1877), p. 21.


Ernst Rothlisberger, El dorado (Bogotá, 1966), p. 322.


Nieto Arteta, Economía y cultura, p. 390.


Pérez Aguirre, Los radicales, p. 143.


Gaceta de Santander, Socorro, XXII, #1394 (May 7, 1880), 133.


Henao y Anubla, Historia de Colombia, p. 112.


Hubert Herring, A History of Latin America (New York, 1955), p. 482.


Escuela Normal, Bogotá, VII, #303 (March 1879), 342.


Escuela Normal, Bogotá, VII, #304 (March 1879), 345.




La Defensa, Bogotá, Serie II #20 (June 3, 1880), 79.


Anales de Instrucción Pública, Bogotá, I, #1 (September 30, 1880), 40.


Ibid., 2-11.


Diario de Cundinamarca, Bogotá, XVI, #4539 (October 17, 1879), 7203.


Memoria del Secretario de Instrucción Pública correspondiente al año de 1883 (Bogotá, 1884).


El Concordato celebrado entre el Papa León XIII y el Dr. Rafael Núñez, Presidente de Colombia (December 31, 1886), pp. 7-8.


For a discussion of Catholic influence in twentieth century education see Orlando Fais Borda, La educación en Colombia: bases para su interpretación sociológica (Bogotá, 1962), p. 11 and J. Lloyd Mecham, Church and State in Latin America (Chapel Hill, 1966), pp. 133-138.

Author notes


The author is Assistant Professor in history at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.