The Storming of Congress on January 24, 1848

On this date, 181 years ago, an autocrat who had betrayed his mentor launched an attack on the parliament using a supposedly spontaneous mob. It was General José Tadeo Monagas’s last move to hold absolute power.

Photo: Historia Alternativa retrieved

Abuse of power was the mark of 1847 in Venezuela, when José Tadeo Monagas filled all the spaces of power with men loyal to him. But 1848 started with one of the darkest episodes of our history as a republic: the events at the National Congress, on January 24.

On that day, the Minister of Interior and Justice, Martín Sanabria, went to Parliament to read the annual report of the Executive Power. Once there, someone spread the rumour that Sanabria had been murdered, which infuriated the liberal mob. People try to get inside Congress, guards shoot against them and violence explodes. Conservatives and liberals fight each other with knives, stones, fists, spears and bayonets. Congressman Santos Michelena is stabbed by a bayonet when he tries to get out, and he would die from that wound two months later. Congressmen Francisco Argote, José Antonio Salas and Juan García are killed by the mob on-site, as well as sergeant Pedro Pablo Azpúrua, and a tailor who got into the fight.

It was evident by then that José Tadeo Monagas had all the intention of ruling beyond the Constitution.

From March 1847 to March 1858, Venezuela was ruled by the only political dynasty in the country’s history. Brothers José Tadeo and José Gregorio Monagas held power alternately for four-year constitutional terms, until José Tadeo pushed during his second presidency the 1857 Constitution, turning the term into one of six years, allowing as well immediate reelection.

General José Tadeo Monagas rises to the presidency on March 1, 1847.

General José Tadeo Monagas rises to the presidency on March 1, 1847, at 72. Like Páez and Soublette, his prestige came from being part of the Liberator Army since its first years, and he grew politically thanks to General Páez, who was wrong to think he’d keep his own influence on the country through Monagas.

During the first months of Monagas’s government, everything seemed to confirm he was following his mentor’s interests, when he named three of Páez’s men for key ministries. However, when Monagas commuted the death sentence on Antonio Guzmán Blanco for perpetual exile, gave minor posts to people in his circle (without consulting previously with the ministers), and also commuted Ezequiel Zamora’s death sentence, his game became clear.

General Páez remained quiet until August 5, 1847, when President Monagas sent his Minister of War and Navy to tell him he was no longer the chief of the nation’s army.

When he learned about the events of January 24 at Congress, Monagas arrived on his horse, along with General Santiago Mariño, and restored the order with public forces. The chambers were summoned by Juan Vicente González as the new secretary, surprising everyone by jumping to the liberal side from one day to another. Another fervorous conservative, Fermín Toro, said instead one of his most famous remarks: “Tell General Monagas that they can carry my corpse, but Fermín Toro is not a prostitute.” The Legislative Power had been fatally wounded: it would need years to recover its autonomy. Monagas managed to turn Congress into an appendix of the Executive.

He calls Monagas “the greatest, most ungrateful and vengeful of all my enemies…

On January 26, Monagas sends a letter to Páez, asking his help to restore harmony, leaving his own followers out of all responsibility. Páez answers with a letter in which he regrets leading Monagas to power. He calls Monagas “the greatest, most ungrateful and vengeful of all my enemies… Your Excellency does not inspire trust to the more sane, more thoughtful and stronger parts of society.” A declaration of war.

On February 4, 1848, Páez delivers a statement in the city of Calabozo and rides south, to Apure. Monagas charges Mariño with the mission of fighting Páez, and Mariño sends General José Cornelio Muñoz, a former follower of Páez, to face the old general. This causes the battle at Los Araguatos, on March 10, when Páez lost but fled to Colombia, and from there to Curaçao, where he would launch an invasion from the coast of Coro, on July 2, 1849. Páez’s army is barely 600 strong, all he could assemble with the remains of his fortune that didn’t fall into Monagas’ hands.

This new offensive is a failure. Páez is made prisoner by General José Laurencio Silva in Cojedes, in the Macapo Abajo valley, and is sent to Valencia, where he experiences the humiliation of having his feet chained to fetters, a treatment considered unacceptable for a man like him. In Caracas, Páez faces another humiliation: the man in charge of his imprisonment is none other than Ezequiel Zamora. At the streets, people yell “boo, king of the yelling monkeys”  at Páez, in reference to his defeat at Los Araguatos. The old general spent the rest of his time in prison, at the San Antonio de la Eminencia castle, in Cumaná, from where he will part, completely ruined, to exile on May 23, 1850.