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Ambitious Rebels

Remaking Honor, Law, and Liberalism in Venezuela, 1780-1850

Reuben Zahler

Publication Year: 2013

Murder, street brawls, marital squabbles, infidelity, official corruption, public insults, and rebellion are just a few of the social layers Reuben Zahler investigates as he studies the dramatic shifts in Venezuela as it transformed from a Spanish colony to a modern republic. His book Ambitious Rebels illuminates the enormous changes in honor, law, and political culture that occurred and how ordinary men and women promoted or rejected those changes.

In a highly engaging style, Zahler examines gender and class against the backdrop of Venezuelan institutions and culture during the late colonial period through post-independence (known as the “middle period”). His fine-grained analysis shows that liberal ideals permeated the elite and popular classes to a substantial degree while Venezuelan institutions enjoyed impressive levels of success. Showing remarkable ambition, Venezuela’s leaders aspired to transform a colony that adhered to the king, the church, and tradition into a liberal republic with minimal state intervention, a capitalistic economy, freedom of expression and religion, and an elected, representative government.

Subtle but surprisingly profound changes of a liberal nature occurred, as evidenced by evolving standards of honor, appropriate gender roles, class and race relations, official conduct, courtroom evidence, press coverage, economic behavior, and church-state relations. This analysis of the philosophy of the elites and the daily lives of common men and women reveals in particular the unwritten, unofficial norms that lacked legal sanction but still greatly affected political structures.

Relying on extensive archival resources, Zahler focuses on Venezuela but provides a broader perspective on Latin American history. His examination provides a comprehensive look at intellectual exchange across the Atlantic, comparative conditions throughout the Americas, and the tension between traditional norms and new liberal standards in a postcolonial society.

Published by: University of Arizona Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-vi

List of Illustrations

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xiv

The intellectual genesis for this project stems from my experiences decades ago. Before and during college, I took time off from my studies to backpack in Central America (1986–1987) and in the Andes (1989). ...

Abbreviations for Archives

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pp. xv-xvi

Chronology of Presidencies, 1821-1858

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pp. xvii-xviii

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Introduction: Honor, Law, and Revolution

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pp. 5-21

On April 11, 2002, I sat in the Venezuela’s Archivo General de la Nación while a human storm brewed outside. As a doctoral student struggling to fathom the musty documents of a centuries-old court case, I became distracted by the sounds of rowdiness in the streets below. ...

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Chapter One. From Colony to Liberal Republic: The Enlightenment Experiment

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pp. 22-61

This chapter provides a quick overview of Venezuela’s history from the late colonial period through early independence, approximately 1780– 1830. In so doing, it focuses on two specific narratives that marked Venezuela and numerous polities in the Age of Revolution: (1) the contest between the effort to form a more centralized, rational government ...

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Chapter Two. Bureaucrats Ascendant: Building a Regime of Law

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pp. 62-95

On July 8, 1835, Comandante Pedro Carujo faced his prisoner, the president of the republic, and held out a pistol. Carujo and several other officers had recently rebelled against the elected president, Dr. José María Vargas, and now held him captive in his house. These officers viewed the Vargas presidency as appalling. ...

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Chapter Three. Law Versus Justice: Legalism in the Courts

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pp. 96-119

In January 1823, Policarpo Mendo found himself in a jail cell, and to a large degree his uncertain future hinged upon his reputation. The events that brought him to this precarious situation began a few days earlier, when he stood in a Caracas plaza and watched a cartload of women accused as godas [Spanish loyalists] being driven out of the city. ...

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Chapter Four. "Patrimony of the Soul" : Honor in the Liberal Republic

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pp. 120-149

In 1822, Miguel Arias sat in a Caracas jail cell for having insulted and hit a fellow Venezuelan. He swore that his opponent had insulted him first and that his insults and punches were not criminal acts but rather in self-defense. Arias rejected a settlement offered by the plaintiff because he would have to admit guilt, which would offend his honor: ...

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Chapter Five. Wife, Mother, Citizen, Whore: Honor and Law for Women

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pp. 150-185

On January 21, 1847, Socorro Irasabel hurried into the offices of her local tribunal seeking protection from one of her neighbors. The forty-six-year-old seamstress explained that the previous day her neighbor, Josefa Rangel, had grabbed a knife and attempted to kill Socorro’s sister, Juana. ...

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Chapter Six. Liberalism Without a Loyal Opposition: The Elite Consensus Cracks, 1830's-1840's

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pp. 186-208

In the preceding chapters, we have considered the evolution of political and legal institutions and the culture of honor as well as how liberals came to dominate Venezuelan politics. The remainder of the book will explore the destruction of the Conservative Oligarchy, a term that refers to the regime that governed from 1830 to 1848. ...

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Chapter Seven. The Poor Push Back

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pp. 209-243

Ezequiel Zamora sat in a military barracks, facing his captors. When asked why he had led an insurrection, he responded, “I rose up against the Government because so many of the newspapers that circulated throughout the Republic said that the Government had broken the Constitution and the laws of the Nation, ...

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pp. 244-252

Across the middle period, Venezuelans underwent a series of dynamic transformations in political, economic, social, and cultural terms. Colonial and republican regimes sought to centralize the state’s legislative and judicial power, to construct unambiguous administrative hierarchies, and to establish the supremacy of legislation ...


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pp. 253-298


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pp. 299-302


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pp. 303-318


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pp. 319-330

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About the Author

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p. 352-352

Reuben Zahler received his PhD in history from the University of Chicago in 2005 and is currently an assistant professor in the History Department at the University of Oregon. Inspired by revolutionary disruptions he witnessed during his travels in Central America and the Andes in the 1980s, ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780816599080
E-ISBN-10: 0816599084
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816521128
Print-ISBN-10: 0816521123

Page Count: 351
Illustrations: 6 illustrations, 9 fig., 3 maps, 2 tables
Publication Year: 2013