Remembering and Celebrating José Trías Monge

Remembering and Celebrating José Trías Monge

Remembering and Celebrating José Trías Monge

Académico Honorario José A. Cabranes*

April 1, 2021

In a land that has produced more than its fair share of distinguished lawyers, legal scholars, and jurists in the years after Puerto Rico came under the American flag, there can be little doubt that the greatest of them all was José Trías Monge—a young but influential member of the constitutional convention that drafted the basic law of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (1952); Secretary of Justice; a leading practitioner at the Bar; a legal scholar of consequence; a confidential adviser to successive Governors; and last, but not least, a preeminent Chief Justice and leader of the Commonwealth’s judicial branch. I respected and admired him even when we may not have seen things the same way.

It was my privilege to have been befriended by Don Pepe; indeed, it was he who invited me, long ago, to be an Académico Honorario of the Academia Puertorriqueña de Jurisprudencia y Legislación, which accounts for the kind invitation to me by President Antonio García Padilla to participate in the Academia’s commemoration of his extraordinary career and fruitful life.

Anyone seriously interested in the political and constitutional history of Puerto Rico would understand the pivotal role of Trías Monge in that history—as a statesman and as a scholar who had the privileged opportunity, and the intellectual power, to make history and later to record it for posterity.

I was an avocational student of the historical trajectory of my homeland since my early years, from the distance of the Puerto Rican diaspora. In turn, Trías Monge followed American mainland politics closely, as well as developments at the great universities and law schools where he had studied in his youth, to one of which I would go a generation later. Deeply rooted as he was in his native land, he seems to have always kept an eye on developments in the metropolitan state. It was therefore perhaps inevitable that our shared connections to Yale University would be a source of professional convergence.

One such link was the publication by Yale University Press of his important historical account, in English, of the constitutional development of the island under the American flag, Puerto Rico: The Trials of the Oldest Colony in the World (1997).

In 1995, I was asked by the editors of the Press to serve as the anonymous, unpaid reviewer of his manuscript—a role he and I never discussed but one that I imagine he intuited. This task required me to comment at length on the important, multi-faceted roles of the author in the recent history of Puerto Rico. I also described the manuscript as a history of the political and constitutional development of Puerto Rico, with special emphasis on the century during which it has been a part of the American system, “written by one of Puerto Rico’s great senior statemen.”

I was able to report to the editors of the Press that Trías Monge was a leading member of the remarkable generation of Puerto Ricans—individuals who, in many respects, resembled their counterparts in other colonial settings in the aftermath of the Second World War: Educated in the metropolitan state and emboldened by their successful experience there, they returned home to liberate their people (in one form or another) from the constraints and humiliations of colonial rule. I described Trías Monge as I had come to know him: as deeply rooted by personality and sentiment to the land of his birth and as an exemplar of the emerging colonial elites of the period after the War—he had returned home ready and able to move into positions of responsibility that were for the first time being opened to the colonial people. The fact that he was one of the relatively few Puerto Ricans of his generation to study and excel in The Great World—en El Norte—greatly enhanced his reputation at home and inevitably positioned him to serve as a leader of the new elite.

I thought then, as I do now, that it was fair to describe the course of his remarkable career as follows: that at a time when Puerto Rico was still a deeply impoverished and underdeveloped dependency, and few Puerto Ricans had anything like his academic credentials, this physically unimposing, soft-spoken, and eminently prudent intellectual was quickly recognized as someone able to operate effectively in both the mainland and Puerto Rican arenas. His circumspection and his readiness to listen to others without interruption marked him as particularly unusual among his political compatriots; these notable traits of character, combined with great intelligence, undoubtedly contributed to his success. In these respects, Trías Monge resembled Luis Muñoz Marín and Rafael Hernández Colón—both of whom, I think, were able to recognize in him personality traits they shared, that arguably had enabled each of them to dominate the island’s politics for generations. As a result of the eminence and central role of Trías Monge in four decades of public life in Puerto Rico, his book made history as well as recorded it. His great patron, Muñoz Marín, having passed into history, Trías recognized in his book, and in its revealing title, that Puerto Rico’s colonial ordeal had indeed perdured. Understandably the explanation of why and how this was true proved to be a major event among Puerto Rico’s political and intellectual elites. Only he, one of the surviving notables who had framed the Commonwealth Constitution of 1952, could say so with authority and conviction. And he had precisely done that.

All Puerto Ricans—past, present, and future—are the beneficiaries of José Trías Monge’s brilliant and beneficent life in the law.


* United States Circuit Judge for the Second Circuit (New Haven).