Biography of Francisco de Paula Santander

Francisco de Paula Santander
Francisco de Paula Santander. National Museum of Colombia

Francisco de Paula Santander (1792-1840) was a Colombian lawyer, General and politician. He was an important figure in the Independence wars with Spain, rising to the rank of General while fighting for Simón Bolívar. Later, he became president of New Granada, and is today remembered for his long and bitter disputes with Bolívar over the governance of northern South America once the Spanish had been driven off.

Early Life of Francisco de Paula Santander:

Santander came from an upper-class Creole family: they got their money from lucrative cacao, sugarcane and coffee plantations. He was a law student in 1810 when the independence movement in South America began taking shape. He was a good student, and had earned a scholarship when his studies were interrupted by the wars of independence. The young and idealistic Santander eagerly joined the fight against the Spanish and by 1812 he had risen in rank to Captain.

Military Career:

In 1813, Bolívar promoted him to Major and entrusted him with the defense of the Cúcuta Valley. Defeated by royalist forces, Santander and his men fled to Venezuela to rejoin the rebel offensive. He was promoted to Colonel in 1816 and served on Bolívar's staff in the Casanare region: Bolívar promoted him once more, this time to General. He crossed the Andes with Bolivar and played a key role in the decisive Battle of Boyacá which liberated Colombia from the Spanish, and Bolívar rewarded him with a promotion to Division General and, more importantly, supported him for Vice President of Gran Colombia.

De Facto President:

In 1821, Bolívar and Santander were President and Vice-President respectively of the new nation of Gran Colombia. Bolívar, anxious to remove Spanish influence from the rest of South America, took thousands of young soldiers with him and fought battles from Peru to Venezuela, leaving Santander behind in Bogotá.

For all intents and purposes, Santander was in charge, and he set about ruling the nation in Bolívar’s absence. He encouraged free trade and sent missions abroad, resulting in the recognition of Gran Colombia by the United States (1822) and Great Britain (1825).

Santander and Gran Colombia:

Although he was Vice President of Gran Colombia, Santander found the large republic unwieldy and his first loyalty was always to New Granada (essentially Colombia). He believed that Ecuador and Venezuela would eventually split off from Gran Colombia, and he was correct. He soon found himself increasingly at odds with Bolívar, who wanted to unify most or all of South America and seemed inclined to use Colombian troops and funds to do so.

Conflict with Bolívar:

Although they had once been close friends and brothers in arms, Santander and Bolívar increasingly disagreed with one another. Santander was very keen on laws: “Arms have given us independence, but laws will give us freedom,” he once said. Bolívar was much more of an autocrat who believed that a firm hand was all that was needed to govern an unruly nation. Often, Santander would work hard on legislation and policy while Bolívar was off campaigning, only to have the President return to Bogotá and repeal and undo everything he had accomplished.

The two were re-elected in 1826, but tensions between them were high.

Santander and the Bolívar Assassination Plot:

Things deteriorated enough that in August, 1828, Bolívar declared himself dictator. One of his first actions was to abolish the office of Vice President, effectively cutting Santander off from political power. In September, Bolívar, with the timely intervention of his mistress Manuela Sáenz, survived an assassination attempt. Santander was immediately arrested and convicted, even though there was no real evidence linking him to the attempt. Bolívar pardoned his old friend, who went into exile. Santander later admitted to knowing about the plot and doing nothing, but denied planning it.

Return to New Granada:

In 1830, Gran Colombia fell apart and Bolívar died of Tuberculosis. In 1832, Santander returned to New Granada and was quickly elected president.

He proved a capable administrator once free of the distraction of Bolívar. He was good at compromise, walking a fine line between anticlerical Liberals and Catholic Conservatives, a line that would later prove extremely difficult for his successors to walk. He invested much in public education. He believed in strong economic ties to the United States and even worked on a deal for what would eventually become the Panama Canal, although the deal was never finalized.

Exit From Power:

Santander made a somewhat undignified exit from power in New Granada. First, he agreed that New Granada would pay some of the debts incurred by the then-defunct Gran Colombia, which angered many of his countrymen. Second, he supported General José María Obando as his successor in the 1836 presidential contest. Obando had been one of Bolívar’s most detested enemies and was (then and now) widely believed to be behind the assassination of beloved General Antonio José de Sucre. The people would not accept Obando and José Ignacio Márquez was elected instead. Santander continued to serve in Congress and died in 1840.

Legacy of Francisco de Paula Santander:

Over the years, the stature of Bolívar has grown immensely. At the time of his death, he was a General without a war, a failed politician and political exile from his home and he died coughing up blood in the steamy jungle. Now, almost two hundred years later, Bolívar is considered a great hero, the George Washington of South America, a visionary who was decades ahead of his time. Bolivia is named after him, as are countless schools, streets, businesses and more.

This is unfortunate for the legacy of Santander, who is mostly only remembered for being Bolívar’s chief rival. Modern South Americans believe that Bolívar’s grand vision of a unified continent, powerful militarily, economically and socially, was derailed by small-minded politicians who sold Bolívar out for a presidency of their own. The name that comes up most often is that of Santander.

This is more than a little unfair. Santander was a decent president, a fairly honest statesman and a steady influence when his nation needed him. It’s true that he was an implacable enemy of Bolívar – the extent of his involvement in the assassination plot is still debated and he was ruthless with Bolívar’s friends (including Manuela Sáenz, who was forced into exile) when he was in office – but it is unreasonable to pin the failure of Bolívar’s grand visions squarely on Santander.

Source: Herring, Hubert. A History of Latin America From the Beginnings to the Present. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962.