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Gabriel García Moreno, Conservative President of Ecuador

Summary and Keywords

Ecuador’s Gabriel García Moreno was one of the preeminent South American conservative politicians of the early national period. His historical notoriety rests in large measure on two seemingly contradictory elements of his administration. First, despite his fervid defense of the prerogatives of the Catholic Church, he embraced a modernization project inspired by liberal notions of progress. Second, his embrace of the Catholic faith flew in the face of the 19th century’s liberal anticlerical tendencies. Hence, nearly all biographies of García Moreno paint him as a villain or a saint. His state formation project transformed the historic relationship between the state and the Catholic Church, making the Catholic faith and the Church an instrument of state formation. Simultaneously, he sought to modernize the country by promoting the construction of roads, a railroad, and telegraph lines that would overcome the topography of the Andes Mountains and unify the country physically. Within Ecuador, debate about his ideas and actions continues to ignite storms of controversy and passionate rhetoric even today.

Keywords: Conservative, federalism, centralism, Constitution of 1861, concordat regionalism, Catholic nation, trabajo subsidiario, Constitution of 1869

Early Ecuadorian History and García Moreno’s Formative Years

A few months before the armies of Venezuelans Antonio José de Sucre and Simón Bolívar liberated the territory known today as Ecuador, Gabriel García Moreno (b. 1821) first saw the light of day, born the youngest of nine children. His parents, an unsuccessful peninsular merchant and the daughter of a criollo businessman and cacao plantation owner, resided in the port city of Guayaquil. Because the small city lacked adequate educational facilities, his family arranged for young Gabriel to be tutored by a priest, who recognized his industriousness and academic brilliance. (He became proficient in Latin, for example, in just one year.) The priest recommended that the intellectually precocious boy be sent at age 15 to Quito to matriculate at the Colegio San Fernando and subsequently at the University of Quito. Although Gabriel had originally intended to study for the priesthood, a budding interest in science and politics led him to pursue a degree in law instead.1

Meanwhile, Ecuador’s early political history had undertaken a number of violent twists and turns. Rejecting Simón Bolívar’s vision that the northernmost South American nations (today’s Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador) should be merged into a single state, Ecuador declared its independence in 1830 under the leadership of another Venezuelan expatriate, Juan José Flores. Flores proved an ambitious president who envisioned Ecuador as an imperialist nation, asserting claims to Peruvian territory and annexing the Galápagos Islands. After Liberals removed Flores in 1845, politics became murkier as the post-independence-era generation fought for control among itself. Saddled with an enormous debt from the days of Bolívar’s Gran Colombia confederation, and splintered into factions because of regional loyalties, Ecuador lacked any sense of national identity. Not that this was surprising, given that the country was named after a meridian line as a compromise rather than retaining its colonial designation, the Kingdom of Quito (a title too controversial for the other regional entities to accept).2

García Moreno played an insignificant role in the maelstrom of these early years of national politics while a student and young lawyer. In the midst of a heated argument with a political opponent who had libeled his brother-in law, García Moreno slapped the offender across the face, challenged him to a duel, and was exiled for his pains. More significantly, when the Liberal government expelled the Jesuit order (again) from Ecuador in 1852, García Moreno led the protest against this measure and for the first time articulated his pro-Catholic ideas in a pamphlet entitled “In Defense of the Jesuits.” The pamphlet instantaneously made him one of the Conservatives’ principal spokesmen. He argued that the Jesuits still had an important role to play in national development as educators trained in modern science and as missionaries in the eastern jungle (the Oriente), which bolstered Ecuador’s claim to unexplored Amazonian territories. Nevertheless, his vituperative attack against the Liberal government earned him a second European exile, this time in Paris, where he came to admire Napoleon III’s modernization project.3 Upon his return to Ecuador, he was elected to the Senate.

By 1859, García Moreno was poised to assume national political leadership because of his ideas and his extensive clique (camarilla) of elite friends and associates based on his social connections in Quito and his classmates from university days. Not only had he married the daughter of a wealthy highland family, but his brother Pedro Pablo had married General Juan José Flores’s daughter. Others of these colleagues would become García Moreno’s cabinet ministers, advisers, and governors during the 1860s and 1870s. His ideas about state formation now included the observations he had made in Europe about the benefits of modernization: improved transportation and communication facilities, and a modern educational system that would transform the thinking of the next generation of Ecuador’s leaders. Years previously, a friend had suggested to García Moreno that he write the history of Ecuador. “I prefer to make it,” he responded.4

Regional Civil War and García Moreno’s Emergence as a National Figure, 1859–1861

Ecuador’s topography and traditions had created intense regional rivalries even during the colonial past. After independence, the prevalence of intense regionalism hindered Ecuador’s process of state formation, just as it had in the European nations now known as Italy and Germany. Because poor roads made travel difficult, and postal systems scarcely existed, most Ecuadorians other than the elite rarely traveled more than a few miles from their birthplace during their lifetime. As a result, they viewed people from other parts of the country as outsiders and foreigners. For many, their loyalties belonged to nuestra país (our country—a term one of García Moreno’s associates used to refer to the northern highlands) and not to Ecuador as a whole.

Physical geography divided the European settled portion of Ecuador into three (or arguably four) distinct regions. People living along the coast who either engaged in agriculture destined for international commerce or who survived as self-sufficient farmers had little reason to travel to the sierra (the highlands). Because of the topography of these highlands, where approximately three-fourths of Ecuador’s population lived, people there also felt distinctive from their regional neighbors. Although famed German scientist Alexander von Humboldt had employed the image of “the Avenue of Volcanos” to describe the geography of the sierra, the land more accurately resembled a ladder lying flat on the ground. That is, a series of hills, perpendicular to the two mountain ranges, divided the “Avenue” into several basins, each of which formed a separate province. Although today’s geographers consider the highlands to be a single region, in 1859 sufficient differences existed in the northern highlands (the area from north of Quito to Riobamba) to differentiate it from the extreme south (Azuay and Loja). The fourth region, which was nearly unoccupied, was home to independent indigenous groups and a scattering of missionaries, and seldom entered into national discussions at this time. While owned by Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands almost never entered into national conversations.

The centrifugal forces of regionalism nearly tore Ecuador apart in 1859. The civil war began because of a policy blunder committed by Liberal general and president Francisco Robles that precipitated an international crisis. Seeking an innovative solution to satisfy the claims of British bondholders that had plagued the treasury since independence, Robles offered to grant land to them in the Oriente to partially satisfy the debt. Unfortunately for Robles, Ecuador’s title to these lands rested on shaky grounds, and Peru’s President Ramón Castilla objected. When the Peruvian ambassador filed a formal protest, Robles expelled him and President Castilla responded by blockading Guayaquil in May 1859. Senator García Moreno spoke out against Robles’s policies and became one of the three leaders of the provisional government as the northern and central highlands repudiated Robles. (Liberals argued that initiating a civil war when the homeland had been invaded by a foreign power was scarcely patriotic!)

The triumvirate’s declaration met with shouts of enthusiasm on the part of the landlord elite of the northern and central highlands, but not so in the south (Azuay province) or the far south (Loja province). Municipal councils up and down the Avenue of the Volcanos as far south as Riobamba endorsed the movement and pledged volunteers to fight against Robles and his colleague Liberal general and former president José María Urbina. But the enthusiasm of the green volunteers proved no match for the Liberal generals and their men, many of whom had fought in the civil wars of the 1840s and 1850s. Ever over-confident, García Moreno led the provisional government’s forces to a disastrous defeat at Tumbuco which led to the surrender of the triumvirate in July.

Intrigue after intrigue, none of which brought him honor, marked García Moreno’s activities following the collapse of the provisional government. First, he sought guns and supplies from President Castilla to renew the war even as the latter’s soldiers occupied Ecuadorian territory just south of Guayaquil. When these negotiations failed, García Moreno sought a secret agreement with the French minister of Ecuador, Emile Trinité, whereby Ecuador would grant Emperor Napoleon III a protectorate over the country, limiting its sovereignty to domestic affairs. This scheme too failed. Meanwhile, General Robles’s commander in Guayaquil, General Guillermo Franco, deposed Robles and exiled him along with his associate, General Urbina. Although a competent tactical commander, Franco had no political backing. Seeking assistance from Peru, in January 1860 Franco signed the Treaty of Mapasingue, in which Ecuador ceded to Peru territory south of Guayaquil in exchange for diplomatic recognition. Franco’s act of vendepatria (selling out his country) enabled García Moreno to regain the moral high ground and resume the regional civil war. Equally important, disease soon decimated Castilla’s troops, and so he withdrew his army back to Peru.

The stalemate called for both political and military leadership. García Moreno provided the former. During the spring and summer, he courted the principals of the two other highland regions, the province of Azuay (home of Ecuador’s third largest city, Cuenca) and the province of Loja, as he sought to unite the three highland regions. Because Franco had only a small garrison of 100 men detailed in Cuenca, the provisional government’s commander, Tomás Maldonado, defeated them after a short battle. From Cuenca, García Moreno rode south to Loja, where his political network included an important local family, the Eguiguren, who persuaded the provincial leader to ally with the provisional government. But the elites of Azuay and Loja exacted a price for joining the provisional government: they extracted a promise from García Moreno that he would support the principle of provincial autonomy after General Franco was defeated.

García Moreno knew he needed a more experienced military commander than himself or Maldonado if the provisional government hoped to defeat Franco, soundly entrenched in the city of Guayaquil. Hence García Moreno courted his one-time enemy, independence hero and former president Juan José Flores, who during the past fifteen years in exile had schemed to return to Ecuador. By July, the deal had been consummated. While García Moreno purchased munitions and supplies, and raised volunteers for the fight, General Flores and the army took the towns surrounding Guayaquil, encircling the city. On September 22, 1860, Flores led a surprise march through a mangrove swamp and attacked Franco’s forces from the rear. The defeated Franco fled to Peru, leaving the provisional government in charge of the entire country.5

Despite the military victory, the results of the ensuing constitutional convention testified to the enduring nature of regional loyalties. García Moreno exacted some concessions that strengthened the northern and central highlands in the name of the “will of the people” and representative government. Thus, the new Constitution of 1861 abolished the earlier electoral college system whereby Guayaquil, Cuenca, and Quito each had one electoral vote and replaced it with a system of direct election by popular vote that in effect allowed the northern highlands (with its majority of eligible voters) to dominate presidential elections.

Despite this change, the Constitution of 1861 embraced federalist principles at the insistence of García Moreno’s partners from Azuay and Loja. Regional tendencies remained unchecked following the civil war. Governors, jefes politicos (essentially the heads of counties), and municipal authorities were to be popularly elected by the affected population. In fact, the constitution, in line with Spanish tradition, reserved great powers to the municipalities, including the power to tax (the trabajo subsidiario) and to retain those funds for municipal purposes. García Moreno lamented the results of the constitutional assembly: “They have elected me president, but tied my hands. I will untie them.” The conflict between the constitution’s federalist principles and García Moreno’s desire for a centralist government, as well as a series of unfortunate international and civil wars, would continue to delay the implementation of his conservative nation-building project.6

The Nation-Building Project Stalls, 1861–1869

Hamstrung by the Constitution of 1861, García Moreno made little progress on his agenda during his first presidential term. The liberal, federalist structure of government mandated by the constitution reinforced the regionalism that had proven so divisive during Ecuador’s early republican history. From the very beginning of García Moreno’s presidential term, this structure enabled his opponents, and even some of his former allies, to resist his initiatives. Nevertheless, because the constitution called for the exclusivity of the Catholic Church, García Moreno was able to press forward on his plan to unify the country around the faith by forging a treaty (called a concordat) with the reformist conservative Pope Pius IX. Although political opponents and even some modern historians have consequently referred to García Moreno’s administration as a theocracy (a government where priests or clergy rule), this characterization technically speaking is flat wrong. García Moreno never employed high-ranking clergy in the government. Liberals used the pejorative term “theocracy” because it carried considerable political weight in the anticlerical world and differentiated Ecuador from almost all other Latin American nations that simultaneously were moving to separate church and state. More accurately, García Moreno utilized the Catholic faith as a device to unify the largely devout Ecuadorians culturally as part of his plan for state formation.

García Moreno believed that a concordat would achieve two objectives: first, it would supersede one article of the constitution and grant the president, and not congress, the right to appoint the archbishop of Quito and other bishops from among the candidates approved by the Church; and second, it would limit clerical fueros (or special privileges), thereby allowing the president to root out corrupt clergy. The twenty-five articles of the draft concordat accomplished these general objectives, but García Moreno wanted more specificity in the final document. For example, he wanted the concordat to permit him to disallow corrupt clergy’s claims of fuero and dismiss those accused of fornication, drunkenness, and concubinage, allowing for an appeal only to a papal court and not a more lenient Ecuadorian ecclesiastical court. He also wanted the ability to create new dioceses and parishes, arguing that too many of the secular clergy lived in larger cities and towns, depriving the rural faithful of the services of a priest. To finance these additional bishops and clergy, he advocated reducing the salaries of the current bishops and reallocating these resources to fund the new dioceses. For his part, Pius IX was interested in signing concordats with all of the Latin American nations as part of his policy of ultramontanism, whereby he sought to strengthen the influence of the pope beyond Rome as a means of reinvigorating the Catholic Church. Pius IX agreed to these changes, and he and García Moreno affixed their signatures to the document in 1863.

Unfortunately for García Moreno, Liberal opponents and even some of the president’s allies pointed out that the language of the Constitution of 1861 required congressional approval of all international treaties before the president could finalize such agreements. Liberals opposed the idea of a concordat as a matter of principle, hesitant to accept any agreement that would also permit the Church to acquire more land, among other issues. Even García Moreno’s allies demanded revisions. Congress revised the agreement by limiting the types of cases where claims of fuero could be applied to canon law cases; it required corrupt monasteries to be dissolved, and it fixed the salaries of bishops and the archbishop. García Moreno accepted these alterations. But he doubted the wisdom of Congress’s demand that the government’s share of the tithe be increased from its historic one-third to one-half. Indeed, this provision proved difficult to negotiate, but eventually the pope acceded. In the meantime, García Moreno began the process of decentralizing the secular church, creating three new bishoprics (Ibarra, Manabí, and Loja) and numerous parishes. The concordat proved to be the most important accomplishment of his first term.7

Other priorities on García Moreno’s domestic agenda stalled as military spending and interest on the foreign debt ate up most of the receipts from the treasury, leaving little for discretionary spending. Education and an improved transportation system, both important parts of the nation-building project, also ran into roadblocks created by regional obstructionists. In the realm of education, García Moreno began recruiting teachers from Europe, specifically members of the Christian Brothers’ order to teach in primary schools for boys, and members of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to teach girls at the same level. Jesuits, historically revered as the best educated of all monastic orders, were recruited to teach in secondary schools. But under the terms of the Constitution, provincial councils of education, and not the national government, oversaw the educational systems within their jurisdiction, which led to uneven results as the more liberal coastal provinces, for example, were unenthusiastic about spreading the influence of the Jesuits.

García Moreno’s plan to build a wide carriage road between Quito, down the “Avenue of the Volcanos,” which would then descend thousands of feet to the plains below, ultimately ending in Guayaquil, also ran into local resistance. According to García Moreno, funding for the road project should have come from the trabajo subsidiario, but many municipalities argued that that tax money should be earmarked for local projects only. Hence, the road made only modest progress from Quito down to the city of Riobamba.

García Moreno’s domestic agenda also stalled because of foreign crises that threatened the very existence of the country. These foreign policy conflicts brought out the worst of his personalities traits; he tended to be short-tempered, irascible, impetuous, and willing to provoke unnecessarily his international enemies. Take, for example, the problem with Peru that emerged even as the constituent assembly was meeting in 1861. President Castilla demanded that Ecuador accept the provisions of the Treaty of Mapasingue, specifically that it cede the territory south of Guayaquil (now largely El Oro province) and repay the 300,000 pesos he had lent to General Franco. Naturally, both Congress and García Moreno refused and prepared for a possible invasion. Fortunately, France and Great Britain came to Ecuador’s defense, offering their “good offices” to prevent a possible Peruvian invasion and a disruption of commerce. With the threat dispelled, García Moreno resorted to name calling, addressing Castilla as “the hero of guano” (referring to Peru’s principal export). Readily aware of Ecuador’s vulnerability to its two larger neighbors, García Moreno again offered Napoleon III the opportunity to establish a protectorate over Ecuador. But Napoleon III dreamed bigger, and put aside any interest he had in Ecuador for a larger project in Mexico.8

García Moreno’s first conflict with Colombia (then called New Granada) again highlighted his character defects. During the midst of a civil war in 1862, Colombia’s rebels crossed the frontier into Ecuador, where they encountered a border patrol. When the patrol confronted the rebels, the Colombian commander slashed the Ecuadorian officer with his saber, wounding him badly. García Moreno immediately levied unreasonable demands upon the Colombian government, and required an immediate response. When none was forthcoming, he quixotically rushed to the border and invaded Colombia in defense of Ecuador’s national honor. Once again demonstrating his lack of prowess of the battlefield, he and his army were captured but soon released as the rebels turned their attention to their real enemy, the Colombian government.

A year later, in 1863, a more imposing threat arose when the victor in that Colombian civil war, Liberal general Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera, unveiled a scheme to reconstitute Simón Bolívar’s dream of Gran Colombia. Venezuela had sufficient military strength to simply ignore Mosquera, but the weaker Ecuador felt vulnerable. Mosquera also voiced his contempt for García Moreno’s conservative state-building project and wanted to depose him. After labeling Mosquera as a “perfidious drunkard,” García Moreno encouraged Juan José Flores to raise a volunteer army and resist the Colombian army already poised on the border. Flores’s hastily mustered volunteers responded with fervor when asked to defend their homeland. But their enthusiasm and will to fight diminished when Flores led them across the border, resulting in another military disaster. Fortunately for Ecuador, Mosquera faced domestic troubles at home, and so he and Flores entered into a face-saving treaty. The larger question remains: Did Ecuadorians’ fear and resentment of the “other” (Peruvians and Colombians) result in a greater sense of national identity and patriotism? Although the evidence is unclear, the answer appears to be that Ecuadorians were willing to defend their regional homelands, but most had no sense of the larger nation.9

Barred by the Constitution of 1861 from immediate re-election, García Moreno resorted to a tactic favored by would-be caudillos and dictators throughout Latin America during the 19th century: the selection of an obedient puppet to succeed him. During the ensuing four-year term, he found it necessary to remove first one puppet and then another because neither took sufficiently strong stands (in García Moreno’s eyes) against Liberals. Nevertheless, three of García Moreno’s actions during the four-year interregnum strengthened his hand and made him Ecuador’s “indispensable” man by 1869.

First, just before he left office in 1865, he crushed yet another Liberal exile invasion led by Generals Urbina and Franco. The two had purchased ships in Peru and through a ruse captured Ecuador’s only naval vessel before anchoring near Guayaquil. Because General Flores had died the previous year, García Moreno had no choice but to lead the campaign against the invaders himself. With a single refurbished merchant vessel, he managed to sink one of the enemy fleet and capture another, forcing the rebel generals to flee back to Peru. In the aftermath of the engagement, García Moreno ordered the execution of twenty-seven captured rebels and an Argentine citizen living in Guayaquil who was implicated in the plot. Liberals decried his excessive punishments (certainly unusual in the days when coup attempts were commonplace) while Conservatives sang his praises for establishing order and sending a message to other potential “traitors.” Certainly, the number of coup attempts lessened between 1865 and the end of García Moreno’s regime in 1875, and the country experienced its first taste of stability since 1845.

Second, García Moreno demonstrated his organizational abilities in the midst of a domestic crisis caused by a natural disaster. In 1868 he led relief efforts after an earthquake leveled the northern city of Ibarra, the nearby market town of Otavalo, and much of the surrounding countryside. As head of the disaster relief project, he directed recovery efforts, soliciting financial and in-kind contributions from his extensive network of friends and from foreign governments to assist the homeless and destitute. Next, he oversaw the reconstruction of both Ibarra and Otavalo based on the urban renewal models he had witnessed in Paris, replacing winding, narrow, colonial-era streets with broader thoroughfares. The people of the affected region congratulated him and labeled him the “Savior of Ibarra.” More modestly, García Moreno summarized his efforts: “I just write the checks and God pays.”10

Third, he served briefly as Ecuador’s diplomatic representative in Peru and Chile when the west-coast South American nations put up a common front against Spain’s attempt to reconquer its former colonies in 1866. Much impressed with Chile and its political culture, García Moreno brought home a copy of Diego Portales’s conservative Constitution of 1833, which would inspire his draft of a new, centralized constitution under which he would govern Ecuador during his second presidential term.

The Conservative State Formation Project Realized, 1869–1875

These three achievements during the interim years made García Moreno the favorite for a second presidential term in the election of 1869. But when the acting puppet president proclaimed his willingness to let Liberals participate in the election, García Moreno removed him from office, called for a constituent assembly, and pre-empted the electoral process. To implement his conservative state-formation project, García Moreno needed to replace the ineffective Constitution of 1861 with a more potent instrument. His colleagues in the constituent assembly accepted his draft with few changes. The Constitution of 1869 strengthened the executive’s hand in two important ways. First, it lengthened the presidential term to six years with the possibility of immediate re-election. Second, the president was empowered to appoint all governors, jefes políticos, and political lieutenants, who supervised municipalities. Congress met only every other year for sixty-five days, and in its absence, the president and his Council of State ruled by decree. The Constitution guaranteed citizens individual liberties, which could, however, be suspended at the president’s discretion. The national government also gained control of the revenues raised by the trabajo subsidiario. Only Catholics could vote, but in fact over 99 percent of Ecuadorians were Catholics, so in reality the franchise did not change. Liberals would have preferred a constitution that separated church and state, but such an arrangement was in direct conflict with García Moreno’s vision of a Catholic nation. Structurally, the Constitution of 1869 created a highly centralized state with García Moreno as the benevolent patriarch of the pious Ecuadorian family.

This organizational system allowed García Moreno to construct the first efficient bureaucracy that Ecuador had known since independence. Political lieutenants reported to jefes politicos, who in turn reported to the governor. Each month García Moreno required governors to submit full reports about their provinces, including the relevant correspondence from their subordinates. For the first time in decades, Quito had a clear understanding of provincial developments. Inspectors in charge of supervising government projects, such as education or road construction, also reported directly to García Moreno. Occasionally, even reports from various dioceses found their way into the president’s hands.11

Centralization of the administration was not an end unto itself, but rather a means to achieve García Moreno’s overarching goal of creating the modernized Catholic nation. His vision of the relationship between Church and state diametrically opposed that of his Liberal opponents. In García Moreno’s view, the Church would serve as the respected, but subordinate partner of the state, offering a beneficent moralizing influence on the population and providing a sense of cultural unity for all Ecuadorians. By allowing well-trained, foreign friars and nuns a free hand in primary and secondary schools, García Moreno intended to inculcate the values of his Catholic nation in Ecuador’s youth.

The Garcian curriculum taught young people religious doctrine and morality alongside the standard subjects of reading, writing, mathematics, Spanish, and national history. Ecuador’s educational system emphasized delivering primary education, now free and theoretically mandatory, rather than prioritizing secondary schooling intended for the elite. García Moreno redoubled his efforts to recruit Christian Brothers’ friars to instruct boys and Sisters of the Sacred Heart to teach girls at the primary level. New schools opened in every province, which required the state to find buildings for classes, provide classroom supplies, and pay teachers. More pupils enrolled than at any previous time in the nation’s history, and more money was expended on education (both proportionately within the national budget and in absolute number of pesos). Annual testing of pupils (federal inspectors oversaw the testing) attempted to ensure the symmetry of education nationwide. Even though Ecuador’s income from taxes increased significantly in the 1870s, the Treasury never had enough funds to satisfy the demand for education.

The education of women and indigenous people posed special difficulties for the administration. Although the liberal statutes of the 1850s abolishing tribute theoretically raised indigenous men to equal status with whites and mestizos, in fact officials and the elite continued to treat them as children. Indigenous people, in García Moreno’s view, needed to be assimilated into the nation. He and most of the elite argued that indigenous people hampered national progress because they retained their language and customs and engaged in subsistence farming. In attempting to deliver education to indigenous towns and the haciendas, García Moreno met considerable resistance—both from indigenous people wanting to retain their culture, and from hacendados who did not want to give indigenous children time off from their tasks. Education in rural settings lagged far behind schooling in towns and cities. Garcian patriarchy saw women as a moralizing force, and so the curriculum in girls’ primary schools reflected this bias by including a large measure of domesticity as well as the basic three R’s.

For similar reasons, secondary and post-secondary education existed exclusively in provincial capitals. Far fewer students attended secondary schools because of the cost of tuition, although the government offered a number of scholarships to deserving students (sometimes students repaid these scholarships by teaching for a number of years after graduation). In addition to the traditional curriculum offered at the University of Quito, new higher education facilities emerged. Jesuits trained in the sciences staffed the new Polytechnic Institute while professional health care providers taught women at the School of Obstetrics. Secular personnel staffed the Conservatory of Music and the School of Fine Arts, both of which contributed to the development of national identity. A music faculty member composed the tune for the national anthem to lyrics penned by Juan León Mera, novelist, educator, and friend of García Moreno.

Teaching young people Catholic values as part of the educational process proved far simpler than reforming adults, necessary to complete the full implementation of the Catholic nation in García Moreno’s view. By decree García Moreno criminalized public drunkenness, a threat to family life, and sex outside of marriage. These decrees targeted indigenous people who practiced “trial marriage” as a matter of custom, and coastal Ecuadorians who tended to be less morally upright than their highland cousins. Other moralistic measures catered to European and US mores and upended local traditions, including bans on cockfights, bullfights, and even Carnival. Although people were arrested and even jailed for these offenses, adult behavior seemingly had changed little by 1875.

Nevertheless, García Moreno believed that the Catholic faith and its rituals would provide ties binding all Ecuadorians together. The hand of the Church touched the entirety of Ecuadorian society, as that institution not only offered education, but also provided the social services that today are associated with civil governments: hospitals, orphanages, poorhouses, and missions along the frontier. As the ultimate gesture designed to ensure Ecuador’s identity as the Catholic Nation, García Moreno dedicated the country to the cult of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in 1873. The cult of the Sacred Heart, a conservative entity that rejected the entirety of 19th-century secular liberalism, reinforced García Moreno’s ongoing support of Pope Pius IX’s ultramontane policies.12

Unifying and Modernizing the State Pragmatically

The second objective of García Moreno’s vision of conservative state formation proposed more pragmatic, earthly considerations to modernize the country along the path that Western Europe and the United States had pioneered earlier in the 19th century. To overcome the physical obstacles and resultant regionalism imposed by Andean geography, he outlined a program to use modern technology (roads, railroads, and the telegraph) to overcome nature’s barriers that separated region from region. Despite the relative stability of the regime, Ecuador could not attract foreign investors to finance infrastructure projects (the country remained deeply indebted to Great Britain) in the same way that Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil could in this era. Consequently, the revenues for modernization would be limited to the modest funds derived from national and local taxes. As a result, much of the modernization effort relied on the strong backs of indigenous people who would provide inexpensive labor.

At the beginning of his second term, García Moreno ordered the resumption of the work on the National Highway (for many years thereafter called the García Moreno Highway) from Riobamba to Alausi and then down the escarpment and across the plain toward Guayaquil. The road project encountered numerous delays, in part caused by natural obstacles such as hilly terrain and loose soil compounded by downpours that washed away bridges. In the midst of the project, García Moreno became convinced that by building a railroad along the plain leading to Guayaquil, he would shorten the duration of the trip from Quito to the port. But the self-financed railroad proved more costly than he predicted. In the end, his crews built only a 25-mile stretch of track from Milagro on the National Highway to just outside Guayaquil. The combined road and railway shortened the Quito-Guayaquil journey from a minimum of two weeks to a mere four days.

Five other roads, which were never completed despite great initial enthusiasm, were intended to link major towns to Quito or the cities in the highlands to ports other than Guayaquil. While most Latin American nations designed roads and railroads to facilitate the movement of products to ports and international markets, García Moreno’s project had a rather different purpose. Because the highlands had little to offer the international marketplace, his primary objective for building these roads was to unify the country. Most of Ecuador’s exports came from the coast, primarily cacao (the source of chocolate), but also the misnamed Panama Hats and tagua nuts (vegetable ivory), used for fine buttons, all of which were shipped abroad from Guayaquil. The road system’s commercial prospects were purely theoretical. The administration hoped that speedier transportation would allow food crops and dairy products to flow to the coast from the highlands, while coastal planters hoped to encourage the migration of cheap labor from the highlands.

Because Ecuador’s poverty precluded the purchase of technology beyond picks and shovels, the road project required hundreds of modestly paid workers, usually drafted indigenous people, to build the road by hand. Foreign engineers oversaw the project. Although initially García Moreno wanted to use reasonably well paid workers to perform the labor, abuses soon occurred. Many indigenous folk willingly worked for wages in areas near their residence, but balked when the contractual term of service took them further afield. All too often, labor recruiters, under considerable pressure from García Moreno to demonstrate steady progress on the road, resorted to coercion and labor drafts. Corrupt overseers kept portions of workers’ wages, and disease plagued the work camps because of substandard conditions.13

Many whites and mestizos held poor opinions of indigenous people in the first place, calling them uncivilized, lazy, servile, prone to drunkenness, and abusive of their spouses, which in their minds justified ignoring them as equal citizens of the republic. By extension, such rhetoric justified the ill-treatment of indigenous people on the work gangs. For the most part, they resisted by deserting from the camps in droves, but in one instance several communities in the province of Chimborazo rose up and killed an overzealous tax collector and two recruiters responsible for conscripting the labor gangs and then incited a revolt. The rebellion lasted for more than two weeks before the provincial militia suppressed it, captured its leader, and executed him.14

Other modernization projects primarily affected urban areas. Guayaquil adopted a modern natural gas street lighting system. In Quito, the government built an astronomical observatory and a modern penitentiary (the Panóptico), as well as providing the historic district of the capital with streets lights and potable drinking water. Smaller cities also enjoyed new public works projects, especially Ibarra, which also built a potable water system for the first time.

Although the depression of 1873 slowed the pace of these development projects, Ecuador’s palpably improved conditions from the 1860s, especially its newfound stability and prosperity, made García Moreno the popular choice in the presidential election of 1875. True, many opponents of the regime remained in exile abroad, and those Liberals living in Ecuador no doubt felt gagged by the constitutional restrictions on individual liberties. Nevertheless, García Moreno easily won re-election. Just before his inauguration, however, three students acting in conjunction with a disgruntled military officer whom García Moreno had cashiered from the army for corruption began plotting to assassinate the president. On August 6, 1875, they attacked him as he returned to work in the National Palace shortly after noon, with Captain Faustino Rayo wielding the fatal blows with a machete.

In the aftermath of the assassination, the battle over García Moreno’s historical reputation commenced. Conservatives lauded his contribution to the nation in providing political stability to Ecuador for the first time since its independence by establishing a centralized government with a modern bureaucracy that lessened the regional differences that periodically threatened to tear the country apart. He utilized the Catholic faith, in which almost all Ecuadorians ardently believed, as a means of unifying the state culturally. Simultaneously, he modernized the state by adopting the new technologies of the 19th century (at least to the extent that Ecuador could afford them) to overcome the regionalism imposed by daunting physical geography. Friends praised his personal honesty (he never accumulated any wealth and had to borrow funds in the 1870s to purchase a home for his family in Quito). For his devotion to the faith, a number of his followers proposed that he should be elevated to sainthood. But the tide of history, as well as the growing secularization of the modern world, meant that their dream would remain unfulfilled.

The rising tide of liberalism and secularism also meant that García Moreno’s image would tarnish over time. The emergence of a Liberal republic under General Eloy Alfaro in 1895 would dismantle the Catholic nation while furthering many of the modernization objectives of the Garcian state. For example, in 1908 Eloy Alfaro, aided by funding from US entrepreneurs, completed the railroad project. Even more important, the Liberals would unveil new legislation that would theoretically bestow greater protection to indigenous people and would break down some of the barriers of patriarchy.

Discussion of the Literature

Most of the traditional historiography of 19th-century Ecuador focused on biographies of the country’s “great men”: for Conservatives, Gabriel García Moreno, and for Liberals, Eloy Alfaro. Although in the long run of Ecuadorian history Alfaro’s Liberals won the political and ideological battle, García Moreno provoked far more interest (at least in the sheer numbers of works dedicated to his life). Arguably, the greater interest in García Moreno’s historical significance resulted from his role as the personification of Catholic Conservativism. Catholic writers from far beyond the borders of the small nation that he governed saw in his administration a viable alternative to secular liberalism. As a result, biographies of García Moreno have been written in Spanish, French, German, English, Norwegian, and even Japanese (and doubtless many other languages) because of his state formation project.

That said, the highly biased nature of almost all of these biographies deprive García Moreno of much of his humanity. Most Conservatives offer up hagiographies suggesting he was a secular saint who could do no wrong (e.g., Augustine Berthe and Severo Gomezjurado). In sharp contrast, Liberal authors interpret García Moreno as the personification of an evil and cruel reactionary and hypocritical ruler of a theocracy (e.g., Benjamín Carrión and Roberto Agramonte). These completely contradictory biographies illustrate the sharp divide that separated Liberals from Conservatives in post-independence Latin America. A few biographers tend to be more even-handed (e.g., Wilfrido Loor and Luis Robalino Dávila), but they are the exception rather than the rule.

A few more recent works contextualize García Moreno and the Garciano within broader themes of 19th-century Latin American history. Enrique Ayala Mora’s sixteen-volume history of Ecuador places the Garciano within the broad sweep of national history, while Marie-Danielle Deméles and Yves Saint-Geours focus on the role of religion in state formation over the course of the 19th century. Juan Maguashca examines the effects of regionalism; Brooke Lanson and Erin O’Connor look at the role of race and gender, respectively; Linda Rodríguez examines state finances while Peter V. N. Henderson’s study offers a political analysis of the regime within the broader question of the state formation process.

Primary Sources

Private Collections

For the biographer, letters, diaries, and other contemporary accounts are the wellspring of the process of reconstructing their subject’s life. In the case of García Moreno, the originals of almost all of his letters can be found at the Biblioteca Espinosa Pólit in Cotacallao, a suburb of Quito. Microfilm copies of these holdings exist at the University of Arizona in Tucson and at St. Louis University. Even more conveniently, the Jesuit scholar Wilfrido Loor published four thick volumes of García Moreno letters, the Cartas de Gabriel García Moreno, that contain nearly all of the aforementioned documents. A few much smaller collections of his letters have also been published. Unfortunately, García Moreno’s letters become terser and less informative during his second presidency, in part because administering the more efficiently constructed state required more of his time.

Some private papers of other prominent figures from the era also are available. Chief among them are the papers of General Juan José Flores, the vast majority of which are in the Archivo Histórico of the Banco Central del Ecuador, with a smaller collection available at the Catholic University. Of all the foreign travelers to Ecuador during this era, the account of Friedrich Hassaurek, the US minister to Ecuador in the early 1860s, is the best known and most frequently cited, although Ida Pfeiffer’s travelogue provides a woman’s perspective on life and customs in the country in the 1850s and is also very insightful.

Government Archives

Public sources, often underutilized by historians of Ecuador, complement these personal letters. Most important, the Archivo Nacional de Historia holds the archive of the Ministerio de Gobierno (Interior), which contains reports and correspondence from governors and jefes políticos, and provides in-depth information on most domestic events (including education, as well as road and railroad construction). The equally well preserved Archivo Histórico of the Foreign Relations Ministry is well catalogued. The two other 19th-century cabinet departments, War and Treasury, were less helpful for me. Much of the War Ministry’s materials are classified or lost, while Treasury reports and statistics have been scattered in various repositories.

Diplomats accredited to the García Moreno administrations also provided considerable information to their governments. Repositories in the United States, Great Britain, and France hold all of their diplomatic correspondence as well as formal replies. Rather commonly, these foreigners offered their impressions about García Moreno’s objectives.

Of course repositories in the United States, Great Britain, and France hold the diplomatic correspondence of ministers accredited to Ecuador during this period.

Further Reading

Agramonte, Robero. Biografía del dictador García Moreno: Estudio psicopatológico e histórico. Havana: Cultural, 1935.Find this resource:

    Ayala Mora, Enrique, ed. Nueva historia del Ecuador. 16 vols. Quito: Corporacíon Editorial Nacional, 1988–2005.Find this resource:

      Berthe, Augustine. García Moreno, presidente de la república del Ecuador: Vengador y mártir del derecho Cristiano. Paris: Victor Retaux é Hijo Libreros Editores, 1892.Find this resource:

        Carríon, Benjamín. García Moreno: El santo del patíbulo. Quito: Editorial el Conejo, 1987.Find this resource:

          Demélas, Marie-Danielle, and Yves Saint-Geours. Jerusalén y Babilonia: Religión y política en el Ecuador, 1780–1880. Quito: Corporación Editorial Nacional, 1998.Find this resource:

            Gomezjurado, Severo. Vida de García Moreno. 13 vols. Cuenca and Quito: Various publishers, 1955–1975.Find this resource:

              Hassaurek, Friedrich. Four Years among the Ecuadorians. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967.Find this resource:

                Henderson, Peter V. N. Gabriel García Moreno and Conservative State Formation in the Andes. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008.Find this resource:

                  Larson, Brooke. Trials of Nation Making: Liberalism, Race, and Ethnicity in the Andes, 1810–1910. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

                    Loor, Wilfrido. Los Jesuitas en el Ecuador; su ingreso y expulsion, 1850–1852. Quito: La Prensa Católica, 1959.Find this resource:

                      Maiguashca, Juan, ed. Historia y el región en el Ecuador, 1830–1930. Quito: Corporación Editorial Nacional, 1994.Find this resource:

                        O’Connor, Erin. Gender, Indians, Nation: The Contradictions of Making Ecuador, 1830–1925. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2007.Find this resource:

                          Pfeiffer, Ida. A Lady’s Second Journey Round the World. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1856.Find this resource:

                            Robalino Dávila, Luis. Origines del Ecuador de hoy: García Moreno. Quito: Talleres Gráficos Nacionales, 1949.Find this resource:

                              Rodríguez, Linda Alexander. The Search for Public Policy: Regional Politics and Government Finances in Ecuador, 1830–1940. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.Find this resource:

                                Williams, Derek. “Popular Liberalism and Indian Servitude: The Making and Unmaking of Ecuador’s Antilandlord State, 1845–1868.” Hispanic American Historical Review 83, no. 4 (2003): 697–734.Find this resource:


                                  (1.) Severo Gomezjurado, Vida de García Moreno, vol. 1 (Cuenca and Quito: Various publishers, 1955–1975); and Roberto Agramonte, Biografía del dictador García Moreno: Estudio psicopatocológico e histórico (Havana: Cultural, 1935), 1–89.

                                  (2.) Mark van Aken, King of the Night: Juan José Flores and Ecuador, 1824–1864 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).

                                  (3.) Wilfrido Loor, Los Jesuitas en el Ecuador: Su ingreso y expulsión, 1850–1852 (Quito: La Prensa Católica, 1959).

                                  (4.) Augustine Berthe, García Moreno, presidente de la república del Ecuador: Vengador y mártir del derecho Cristiano (Paris: Victor Retaux é Hijo Libreros Editores, 1892), 101–106.

                                  (5.) Wilfrido Loor, La victoria de Guayaquil (Quito: La Prensa Católica, 1960); and Juan Maiguashca, Historia y región en el Ecuador, 1830–1930 (Quito: Corporación Editorial Nacional, 1994).

                                  (6.) Peter V. N. Henderson, “La Constitución ecuatoriano de 1861, el debate,” El Proceso 30 (2009): 47–67.

                                  (7.) Marie-Danielle Demélas and Yves Saint-Geours, Jerusalén y Babilonia: Religión y política en el Ecuador, 1780–1880 (Quito: Corporación Editorial Nacional, 1998), 129–202; and Berthe, García Moreno, 375–390.

                                  (8.) Benjamín Carrión, García Moreno: El santo del patíbulo (Quito: Editorial el Conejo, 1987), 398–410.

                                  (9.) Luis Robalino Dávila, Origenes del Ecuador de hoy: García Moreno (Quito: Talleres Gráficos Nacionales, 1949), 27–32, 102–103; and Friedrich Hassaurek, Four Years among the Ecuadorians (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967), 192–194. García Moreno’s correspondence with General Flores and Colombian General Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera is in Wilfrido Loor, Cartas de García Moreno 3 (1955): 91ff.

                                  (10.) Manifesto from Cotacachi canton, September 25, 1868, Archivo Nacional, Gobierno, Imbabura, 1868.

                                  (11.) Brooke Larson, Trials of Nation Making: Liberalism, Race, and Ethnicity in the Andes, 1810–1910 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

                                  (12.) Peter V. N. Henderson, Gabriel García Moreno and Conservative State Formation in the Andes (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008).

                                  (13.) Linda Alexander Rodríguez, The Search for Public Policy: Regional Politics and Government Finances in Ecuador, 1830–1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985); Dawn Ann Wiles, “Land Transportation within Ecuador, 1822–1954” (Unpublished PhD dissertation, Louisiana State University); and Gabriel García Moreno to his wife Mariana, April 15, 1875, Loor, Cartas de García Moreno 4 (1956): 518–519.

                                  (14.) Erin O’Connor, Gender, Indians, Nation: The Contradictions of Making Ecuador, 1830–1925 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2007).