DON ANTONIO GONZALEZ DE MENDOZA
Abstract of the Lecture Delivered
At the Havana Bar Association
Dr. A Garcia Hernandez
April 17th 1942
I shall not speak this afternoon about some politician who serves his own aspirations, cravings and interests with unmentionable compromises, nor shall I speak about a poet who with the soaring power of his inspiration stirs the throngs, nor, again shall I speak about some gifted orator who with the entrancing spell of his eloquence is able to lift the masses and guide them into the path of virtue and glory, or drive them into corruption through the indulgence of their lowest and rankest passions. I shall not speak this afternoon, either, about some philosopher who with the terseness of his prose might disclose a whole new understanding of the world or of life, nor, finally, shall I speak about a profound sage admired and revered by posterity for his admirable teachings and insights. I shall speak instead his afternoon, as kindly requested by Mister Chacon and with the forbearance of the Dean of this institution, about a unique man whose abounding virtues shine brighter, and whose absence of vice remains unimpeachable, with the growing number of years since his passing. I shall speak this afternoon about Don Antonio Gonzalez de Mendoza y Bonilla.
For those of us whose professional life at the Bar already has a history to which we can look without shame, for those of us whom the sun of life is past its zenith, how the character and persona of Mendoza grows! For to maintain and conduct one’s life by righteous and unbending moral norms may look like an easy task to those who don not realize how much “blood, toil and tears” is the price to be paid for such a life. The price to be paid in order not to yield to the passions so easily and powerfully stirred in an environment poisoned by the coarsest of materialisms. Not to abdicate to the demands or adulations of the moment so that one may stave off distress, travail and misery. That was the price Mendoza paid.
Mendoza did not leave behind books, pamphlets, or writings of any kind to recommend his talent to future generations. He did much more than that: his vast learning, his profuse, diverse and exquisite readings, his contributions to the Cuban cultural tradition since his collegiate days, his resolute admiration for the liberal arts and the humanities, and his dedication to the rigorous tasks of his juristic vocation, served as the crucible in which his very own life was forged. A human life so well and perfectly crafted and polished, of such wonderful lines, so harmonious, collected and serene that even to this day it stands, in the very midst of our national history, as an undying example of rectitude, honesty and authenticity. It stands forever as an undeniable pride of our profession and of our fatherland.
Among the extraordinary attributes with which Mendoza was blessed, one shines with special brightness, his manly and upright character, displayed throughout his life in all things. He was not only an almost peerless man, but even more so, a “man of character” of that special kind so rare in our community. Justo de Lara so remarks in his article published in El Figaro on the occasion of Mendoza’s death. “And thus was Mendoza, of a character cast in steel”, he says, “Talent, no matter how great, and his was, is useless without a steel will like his. There will be no success for the enterprising man should he not resolve to fix his sights upon his goal, as he did and advance without hesitations, as he did, to walk the straight and narrow path.”
A lecture, such as this, is inadequate to the task of doing justice to a life as long and as rich in memorable deeds as his. A book would be required for such an enterprise. Because of this undeniable fact and, because my talents are unequal to the task of ding justice to the topic without abusing the patience of such a distinguished and kind audience, I will not even attempt to follow the entire path of such a life as that of Mendoza. I will simply sketch an impression of his life by drawing a few lines that might convey its proper magnitude.
Mendoza was born in the City (Havana) on the 4th day of April of the year 1828 in the home of his parents, Don Antonio Gonzalez de Mendoza y Govantes y Dona Rosario Bonilla y Cabrera, and little is known of the early years of his infancy.
Mendoza begins to distinguish himself in his collegiate years at the University of Havana where he undertook the study of Law earning first a degree of Licenciatura en Derecho on August 17, 1853. Three years later, on April 5, 1856, he earned the Doctorado en Jurisprudencia. His collegiate life was intimately tied with that of other bright lights of his time, such as Jose Manuel Mestre, Jose Ignacio Rodriguez, Francisco Fesser, Nicolas Azcarate, Luis de la Calle and Antonio Diaz Albertini. Together they founded the Academia de Estudios, which earned them a well-deserved reputation for academic excellence and dedication. It also earned them the humorous sobriquet of “The Seven Sages of Greece”, a label which conveyed at the same time the admiration of most and the humor of some who, without their academic talent, released through parlor mockery their sense of ineptitude for such endeavors. Jose Ignacio Rodriguez in his biography of Jose Manuel Mestre writes amply about the vicissitudes and exploits involved in the life of the Academy and therefore I shall not dwell here on that topic.
On the third year of his Law studies Mendoza transferred to the University of Madrid where he attended for one year. Professor Lazo conveys the appreciation of the faculty of that Institution for Mendoza’s talent when he stated that “If Civil Law where ever to vanish it could be recovered, whole, in Mendoza”.
After a romantic courtship of Miss. Mercedes Pedroso y Montalvo, and after overcoming some opposition on the part of her father, the immensely wealthy landowner and sugar baron Don Joaquin Pedroso y Echevarria, they were married on March 30th 1855 and had a fecund, lasting and happy union.
In 1856, after obtaining his Doctorado in Jurisprudencia he applied for a publicly endowed Chair of Penal Law and Mercantile Law at the School of Law of the University of Havana. There he participated in competitive examinations, oposiciones, obtaining the highest marks awarded by the examining panel, and therefore, was awarded the Professorship and Chair, which he sought. It should be noted that among the others seeking the Chair, and participating in the competitive examinations, were Francisco Fesser y Ramon F. Valdes. The assigned topic of their competitive dissertations was: “Is cruel and unusual punishment and advisable form of sentencing for the deterrence of crimes? The dissertations of all the competitors were published in the Journal of Jurisprudence and whoever has the privilege of reading them will testify to the fairness with which Mendoza earned the Chair and Professorship as well as the depth of his knowledge and the elegance of his style. Years later, those very qualities would bring him to the Editorial Board of that very Journal of Jurisprudence which enjoyed his contributions for many years.
He lectured at the University and held his Chair with distinction for ten years, until 1866, when a royal decree unjustly stripped him of his tenured Chair and awarded the Chair to Bernardo Riesgo. This cruel injustice brought an immediate rebuke from Jose Manuel Mestre who in protest, resigned his own Chair and withdrew from the University. Thus, regrettably, our highest institution of learning lost two of its most prominent faculty members.
The unjust governmental order was universally censured and even a Spanish newspaper editorialized: “The great injustice which we hereby condemn has been committed against an honorable professor, who earned the appointment to his Chair through rigorous competitive examinations. A man most faithful in the discharge of his duties, of proven talent and eloquence. A man loved by the students and whose learning and virtues gave luster and prestige to the University.”
Mendoza, also through competitive examination, obtained an appointment to the post of Investigative Magistrate for the High Court at Havana. And, the duties of this position he discharged with such authority and eminence that, according to Renne Mendez Penate, the High Court accepted all his judicial reports without exception.
Mendoza was also a member of the Law and Jurisprudence Academy founded within the illustrious and lofty Sociedad de Amigos del Pais (Society of Friends of the Fatherland) on July 12, 1874 through the efforts of Jose Maria Carbonell y Ruiz and Augusto Martinez de Quintana.
Don Antonio Gonzalez de Mendoza was not only an academic jurist, but also a brilliant lawyer and his practice and law firm became the best in Cuba. He was a noted forensic speaker whose mastery of the art received high praise from none other than the exacting and stern critic, Manuel Sanguily. Mendoza had a clear vision of the main currents of his time and with great foresight he turned his professional practice towards the world of business. In this he was a pioneer who correctly anticipated the course of events and the path that our profession would take in this century.
The foregoing is a very sketchy presentation of some of the salient points in the life of Don Antonio Gonzalez de Mendoza y Bonilla. But, there are three very important and special aspects of his life, which are so lightly woven into it, and at the same time so powerfully influential on the structuring and development of the Cuban national identity that will be clearly demonstrated and his right to be included with full honors in this Lecture Series will be fully established.
On the 21st day of October of the year 1865 Antonio Gonzalez de Mendoza submits to the Superior Civil Governor a petition, written and signed by him, requesting approval for the creation of the “Society Against Slave Trade” to be formally constituted on November 19th, 1865 to coincide with the traditional celebrations on the onosmatic of “Her Majesty the Queen, our Lady”.
The Society had as its expressed goal “the complete and definitive extinction of the illicit trade known as Africa trade”. And, the members of the Society would acquire “the obligation, on their honor, of abstaining from any act that might tend to favor such trade” and further would acquire the obligation “not to obtain or buy black slaves, directly or indirectly, traded into the island after November 19, 1865”.
Among those who supported, and collaborated with, Mendoza in such a noble and worthy cause were Jose Silveiro Jorrin, Mestre, Poey, Jose Ignacio Rodriguez, Morales Lemus, Pozos Dulces, Echevarria, Colonel Francisco Montaos and others. The latter was the author of a proposal for the emancipation of the slaves which General Dulce (Captain General of the island) permitted to be discussed at the meeting held at the Cerro residence of Jose Ricardo O’ Farrill.
Attention should not be paid, in this context, to the fact that the endeavor of this Society Against the Slave Trade failed, for this failure was due to the actions of Captain General Dulce who having initially approved the creation of the Society, withdrew his consent scarcely a month after its creation. One should, rather, notice the generosity and liberality involved in undertaking this risky initiative. This gesture alone places Mendoza amongst that narrow circle of men whom the nation can truly consider its benefactors.
Mendoza was not moved in this undertaking by what could be considered a passing enthusiasm for an altruist cause, or the detached fancy of an ivory owner intellectual. Not indeed. To the contrary. This undertaking stemmed from the deepest moral conviction and well-articulated and rooted belief, as was evidenced by his actions a few years later. Upon the death of his father-in-law, his wife Dona Chea Pedroso and her only brother Manuel, a Jesuit priest, came upon possession, as part of their inheritance, of the Santa Gertrudis Sugar Mill, which included a holding of three hundred (300) slaves. At this juncture, when his own property is at stake, Mendoza seals his moral stature by carrying out the obligations of his short-lived Society Against Slave Trade when they no longer bound him, technically, for the Society had ceased to exist years before. Through Deed Number 241 witnessed by Joaquin Lancis, distinguished Official Notary of the City of Havana on the 11th day of September of the year 1879, Mendoza frees the 300 slaves of the Santa Gertrudis Sugar Mill and declares in the aforementioned Deed that this freedom is “freely given” (ex gratia) and not in consideration of any price. And is done with the sole purpose of benefiting the said slaves or, even more properly speaking, of recognizing all their rights and returning them to the condition to which, by their own nature, they are entitled”.
As we can see by this act, Mendoza does not simply preach his doctrines; he practices them even at the cost of his own wealth. Such selflessness and generosity not only places him on the same footing with Wilberforce, to share in his glory, it ties him indissolubly to the origin of our national identity constituted upon the equality of rights of all of its members.
Stirred by the national hopes generated by the Zanjon Treaty the nation began to prepare itself for limited self-rule. Elections were to be held at the municipal level and the different political groups sought to represent the people in these councils.
Mendoza was sought out by the political parties to occupy the Mayoralty of the City of Havana. He, who had never been a politician and who had actually led a completely apolitical life, accepted the nomination. But, with the condition that the contending Political Parties, Liberals and Conservatives, would not feud over it and that there be sufficient votes.
Having being elected Councilman in the elections, he is elected Mayor of the City of Havana by the Council and is inaugurated on January 1st 1879.
Mendoza serves as Mayor until December 1879 when he resigns alleging health reasons. This resignation was rejected because, in the words of the Council, “his learning and his patriotic and peacemaking spirit have contributed immensely to the proper working of the municipal government of this City and to the efficient and harmonious work of the councilmen to the benefit of the City”; and instead of accepting the tendered resignation, and extended leave of absence was granted until “he has recovered his health”.
Why did Mendoza really resign? We do not know. Having as part of his character an aversion to the limelight and a resolute dislike of all publicity and public notice, he never explained, beyond what has been said already, the true reasons for his resignation. This attitude was in keeping with his customary reticence, which was also evidenced by his refusal to make public display of the emancipation of his slaves, an act which he kept in the strictest privacy. He displayed the same self effacing reserve in his refusal to accept his salary of $6,000.00 per/year to which he was entitled for the discharge of the Mayoralty duties and his insistence that such generosity not be recorded in the official records of the Council meetings, nor to accept any official recognition for it, nor to allow that it be made public in any way.
Mendoza’s reputation for fairness and impartiality, his universal prestige in national public opinion, his aloofness from the course of public and political conflicts and disputes, which he followed with patriotic interest but, without factional bias, placed Mendoza in the estimable position of being considered a national resource to be sought out by all parties as the man to turn to in times of institutional crisis. Faced with the demand to serve the public interest he always stepped forward with courage and integrity. With the same courage and integrity with which he relinquished and public post when the discharge of its duties became irreconcilable with this own personal dignity and lacked the minimal requirements of authority necessary for the proper and decorous conduct of the office.
Finally, his resignation to the Office of Mayor of the City of Havana was accepted by the Council, in 1881, when Mendoza was appointed to the, for him, more agreeable task of Administrative Counsel and began to serve in that capacity in the amiable company of Galvez and Bruzon.
This whole episode constitutes a beautiful object lesson in the civic arts delivered by Mendoza to future generations of public servants, though it has, regrettably, been forgotten if it was ever learned.
His conduct in Office and his relationship with the public weal is another way in which the subject of this biographical sketch impinges upon the very origins of Cuban national identity, contributing to the molding and directing of its fundamental institutions.
Now, Independence has been won, civil bondage has ceased, the power of Spain over the island has vanished, “now Fondeviela can see how Cuba is really free”, according to the popular song chorused by the throngs of people wildly celebrating through the streets of Havana. Now, there is a transitional interventionist government headed by U.S. Army General John R. Brook. General Brooke relies for his appointments and many of his decisions on his Cuban advisers. He appoints Jose Antonio Gonzalez Lanuza, whom I will not attempt to raise here, for his merits and worth are will known to all, as Attorney General and Secretary of Education. And, in the midst of all this radical change, we must remember, Mendoza, now in his seventies, remains a man open to public service and the man who, upon the witness of history, represents for all a warrant of impartiality, probity and trust.
The first concern of the Interventionist Government was the organization of the Judicial System and the constitution of its Courts, very specially that of the Supreme Court of the future Republic of Cuba, By Decree Number 41 of 1899 the Supreme Court is created, by Decree 49 of the same year its member Justices are appointed and by Decree 92 of the same year the Process of Appeal is structured. The responsibility for all these Decrees belongs to Lanuza, personally, and very specially that which concerned the appointments of Justices, for, General Brooke, uninformed on the subject of the island’s judicial traditions and problems, left the matter entirely at the discretion of Lanuza whom he know to be an illustrious attorney and authority on the subject.
Lanuza was resolved to appoint to the Supreme Court men not only of earning and manifest probity, but who represented also a cross section of all the six Cuban provinces. For this purpose, and with the strictest criteria, he proceeded to do a careful and confidential study of the record and reputation of many distinguished citizens.
Mendoza was chosen to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Nation. This appointment fell upon him as the only man who gathered in his self the indispensable qualities for carrying out the duties of the position under such special and difficult circumstances. His talent, his unimpeachable probity, his judicial experience and his total and absolute dissociation from the animosities, struggles, conflicts, confrontations and political controversies that had just been settled by the War of Independence, were the best and only guaranty to the Republic that the Supreme Court of the whole nation would, indeed, be so, and not the pawn of any of its factions or special interests. Beyond this, Lanuza personally respected and admired Mendoza. When the appointment was offered to him, Mendoza, with his habitual commitment to service, accepted it immediately and without hesitations, thus giving, once more, witness to that dedication to the public good which was deeply rooted in his soul. When someone remarked, with some surprise, that he was exchanging the immensely profitable practice of his Law Firm for the meager salary with which the public treasury could remunerate the holder of the Office of Chief Justice, Mendoza exclaimed: “ the honor bestowed upon me by virtue of being the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Republic of Cuba more than compensates whatever material losses I may suffer”.
The appointment of Mendoza was the only possible and fair one that the nation could make. For, how could any of the other prominent jurists, no matter how great and legitimate their merits, be appointed Chief Justice of a Supreme Court that was to be the last court of appeal for all the inhabitants of the island? How could this be done when Govin had just finished serving as Attorney General and Secretary of the Interior within the Autonomist Cabinet installed by the Spanish government at the eleventh hour before independence. How could this be done when Galvez had been president of the Autonomist Party and President of the Cabinet in the aforementioned Autonomist Government, or Bruzon, or Sola, or even Domingo Mendez Capote who had just returned from the War of Independence filled with honor and awards? None of them, and they were all men of honor and merit, could offer the nation the guaranty of impartiality and serenity that Mendoza could bestow upon the Office.
I shall not speak here of his exercise of Office for it would really be superfluous to do so. What remains of great interests is his resignation of the Office on September 24, 1900. Why did Mendoza resign? Why did he never discussed it despite the public debate and outcry that surrounded its announcement? Nobody knows for sure, but the immediate events that surrounded it can be pieced together from different sources to give us a clue as to the action of the venerable jurist.
Lanuza had left the post Attorney General and Secretary of Education which he had discharged by appointment of the interventionist government of US Army General Brooke and was replaced in his post as Attorney General by Gener, appointed by the new government of US Army General Leonard Wood. General Wood, upon taking Office, had reassured Mendoza that no actions would be taken by his administration that would jeopardize or interfere with the independence of the Judiciary Branch and therefore of the courts. But, a few days after his conversation with Mendoza, Wood started a trip through the provinces leaving Colonel Scott in charge of the day-to-day conduct of the Government in Havana. Colonel Scott preceded, then, to request an urgent meeting with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Mendoza, to take place immediately. Given the urgency of the request Mendoza offered to hold the meeting at the official residence of the Governor. Nevertheless, the Colonel responded that the meeting should be held at the Office of the Chief Justice, so Mendoza awaited him in his office. The Colonel arrived promptly in full military dress and accompanied by his adjutant. Chief Justice Mendoza immediately received him. The meeting was brief and the Colonel left. A few hours later, a page left the office of the Chief Justice with two envelopes, one containing a letter from the Chief Justice addressed to Attorney General Gener asking him to convey the other envelope, which contained his letter of resignation as Chief Justice, to General Wood.
The incident, which has just been related, was preceded shortly by another, which throws light upon the nature of the events in question. The Civil Court in and for the Province of Havana has written a decision on a case elucidating a question of property rights. As a reaction to this decision of that high court, deemed as opposed to the interests of the Administration, the Attorney General appointed by General Wood, Gener, issued Decree Number 362 of 1900 creating therein a Procedure of Appeal Under Squatting Rights, contrary to the high court’s decision. This Decree issued by Attorney General contained a Preamble, addressed to Governor Wood, containing language coarsely critical of the Justices of the Civil Court in and for the Province of Havana. And, following upon this, through the issuance of two later Decrees, on September 17, 1900, the Justices of that Court, Federico Martinez de Quintana, Emilio Iglesias, Francisco Guiral, Rafael Maydagan and Manuel Jaime, and Justice Felipe Sanchez Roman of the County Court in the same jurisdiction, were dismissed from their posts. The street wags began to refer to these justices, dismissed after having been vilified in the above-mentioned Preamble of Decree 362, as “the preambled ones” (los preambulos). It was these “preambled ones” that after being dismissed were received as heroes and welcomed by the Havana Bar Association. In turn, this reaction of the Association provoked the ire of Attorney General Gener who answered with another order withdrawing from the Bar Association all official character and turning it into a purely private society without regulatory power over the profession, a status which stands to this day…
This contempt for the independence of the Judiciary Branch, the wounding order, intrusive and destructive of Mendoza’s power as Chief Justice and which violated the assurances given by General Wood personally to him, were, without a doubt, the chief cause of his resignation, despite the discreet language employed by him in his letter to Wood in which his gentlemanly tact refers only to “The reasons conveyed to you personally in our conversation….”
After this, Mendoza returns home. He does not return to the law firm he had created and led to brilliant success but, rather, leaves it now in the hands of his two sons, Claudio and Ramon.
With his resignation as Chief Justice, through which Mendoza severs his connection with the Government of Wood, he touches again the very origins of our national identity and of our State by identifying the prestige and fame, which a leader may rightfully claim with the security and independence of the governed. And, further, added the exemplary lesson that if it is true that public service is a duty, it is no less true that it is also a duty to withdraw from it when it becomes impossible to discharge it with honor.
On the 14th day of January of the year 1906 Mendoza’s life come to an end, held in the very bosom of the great family which he built and governed in patriarchal style. The grief of his bereaved family was joined by the grief of the entire City, aware that with the passing of this illustrious son a glorious page of its history was being turned forever… but if it is true that his mortal life had a temporal limit, it is also true that his character, his virtues and his goodness will be an example and a lesson forever valid and relevant, and that his enlightened name “Lume Di Eterna Gioventu Circonda”.
A. Garcia Hernandez