Great Lives from History: The 19th Century
The liberator of northern portion of Spanish South America, Bolívar epitomized the struggle against Spanish colonial rule. His most lasting contributions include his aid in the liberation of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela, and his farsighted proposals for hemispheric solidarity among Latin American nations.
Born: July 24, 1783; Caracas, New Granada (now in Venezuela)
Died: December 17, 1830; Villa of San Pedro Alejandrino, near Santa Marta,
Also Known As: Simón José Antonio de la Santisima Trinidad Bolívar
Areas of Achievement: Government and politics, military
Simón José Antonio de la Santisima Trinidad Bolívar (BOH-leh-var) was born the son of wealthy Creole parents in 1783. Orphaned at the age of nine (his father had died when Simón was three), the young aristocrat, who was to inherit one of the largest fortunes in the West Indies, was cared for by his maternal uncle, who managed the extensive Bolívar urban properties, agricultural estates, cattle herds, and copper mines. Appropriate to his class, Bolívar had a number of private tutors, including an eccentric disciple of the French philosophe Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Simón Rodríguez. The tutor schooled the impressionable Bolívar in Enlightenment ideas that would later indelibly mark his political thinking.
When Bolívar was sixteen, he went to Spain, ostensibly to further his education, although his actions suggested that he was much more interested in ingratiating himself with the Spanish royal court. While at the court, he met, fell in love with, and married María Teresa Rodríguez, the daughter of a Caracas-born nobleman. During his three-year stay in Madrid, Bolívar came to see the Spanish monarchy as weak and corrupt; moreover, he felt slighted because of his Creole status. He returned home at the age of nineteen. His wife died six months after they returned to Caracas, and Bolívar, although he enjoyed female companionship, never remarried.
Bolívar returned to Europe. In Paris, he read the works of the Enlightenment feverishly and watched with disillusionment the increasingly dictatorial rule of Napoleon I. He also met one of the most prominent scientists of his day, Alexander von Humboldt, who had recently returned from an extended visit to the New World. Humboldt was convinced that independence was imminent for the Spanish colonies. While in Paris, the five-foot, six-inch, slender, dark-haired Bolívar also joined a freemasonry lodge. There he met radicals who espoused similar views. After Paris, Bolívar went to Italy, where he vowed to liberate his native land from Spanish rule. This second trip to Europe, which culminated in 1807, would play a pivotal role in shaping the transformation of this young aristocrat into a firebrand revolutionary.
After he returned from the Old World, Bolívar spent the better part of the next twenty years in various military campaigns until in 1825, after many defeats, hardships, and bouts of self-imposed exile, Bolívar and his patriot army drove the Spanish royal forces from the continent. During the early years of the conflict against Spain, he vied for leadership of the revolutionary movement with Francisco de Miranda, an expatriate Venezuelan who viewed with suspicion Bolívar's enormous ego and his insatiable lust for glory. After a bitter dispute between the two, Bolívar, believing that Miranda had absconded with the patriot treasury, turned Miranda over to Spanish authorities. Miranda was subsequently taken to Spain in chains and died in a Spanish prison several years later.
As a commander of the patriot forces, Bolívar demonstrated an uncanny ability to adapt his strategy to the particular circumstances. Faced with poorly trained and poorly equipped troops, Bolívar compensated by using the mountainous terrain of the Andes to his advantage, by delegating responsibility to exceptional field commanders, and by using his persuasive powers to attract new troops. Bolívar endured all the hardships and privations of the military campaigns alongside his soldiers. Moreover, the sheer force of his personality and his single-minded dedication to the goal of a liberated continent inspired his troops.
Despite his military prowess, Bolívar suffered a number of difficult defeats from 1810 to 1818. On two separate occasions during this early phase of the struggle, Royalist forces dealt the rebels serious setbacks and Bolívar was forced to flee South America. He used those occasions to raise funds, secure arms and soldiers, and make alliances with other states that might provide aid for the upcoming campaigns.
Bolívar also demonstrated the ability to unite conflicting ethnic groups and classes of Venezuelans and Colombians into an improvised army. He co-opted as many different sectors of South American society as possible during the seemingly interminable war years. A perfect illustration of this penchant for compromise was his visit to Haiti during one of his exiles. There Bolívar extracted much-needed aid from Haitian president Alexandre Pétion. The Haitian president, the leader of a nation where a successful rebellion had liberated the slaves, insisted that Bolívar abolish slavery when he returned to Venezuela. Bolívar, who had set his own slaves free in 1811, agreed to do so, knowing that the Creole elite's economic life was dependent on slave labor.
Another ethnic group that Bolívar courted were the llaneros. Led by their fierce regional chieftain (caudillo), José Antonio Páez, these mobile horsemen dominated the Orinoco River basin and initially supported the Royalist cause. Páez derived his power from control of local resources, especially nearby haciendas, which gave him access to men and provisions. Caudillos such as Páez formed patron-client relationships with their followers, who pledged their loyalty to their commander in return for a share of the spoils. As the abolition of slavery infuriated the Creole elite, the inclusion of Páez and other caudillos in the patriot army also upset members of the upper class, because their property often was ravaged by overzealous guerrilla bands. Bolívar's charisma enabled him to hold this fragile coalition together. After victory was achieved, however, that consensus would be lost, the fissures and fault lines of class and ethnicity would reassert themselves, and the edifice of unity would come tumbling down.
Because of Bolívar's ability to bring together people of diverse ethnic and class interests into a formidable army, the tide of the war changed. Bolívar's army was helped in its efforts to end colonial rule by South America's other liberator, José de San Martín, who began his campaign in the viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata (modern Argentina) and defeated Royalist forces in what is modern Chile and Peru. The two liberators met at an epochal meeting in Guayaquil, Ecuador, in 1822 to plan the final campaign against the Spanish forces in Peru. By 1825, five new nations were created from the Spanish colonial viceroyalties of Peru and New Granada: Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia.
The liberation of the continent was only one of Bolívar's many objectives. A human dynamo who thrived on constant activity, Bolívar also wanted to ensure that the fledgling republics of South America made a successful transition from colonies to nations. A man of words as well as action, Bolívar wrote prolifically amid his grueling military campaigns on almost every conceivable topic of his day. His main political writings--La Carta de Jamaica (1815; The Jamaica Letter, c. 1888), Discurso pronunciado por el general Bolívar al congreso general de Venezuela en el aeto de su instalacion (1819; Speech of His Excellency, General Bolívar at the Installation of the Congress of Venezuela, 1819), and his constitution for the new nation of Bolivia (1825)--demonstrate the evolution of his political thinking (and its growing conservatism) over time.
Although Bolívar fervently believed in democracy, he understood that Latin Americans lacked the political experience to adopt the model of democracy found in the United States. The colonial legacy of three centuries of autocratic rule would not be eclipsed overnight, and a transitional period was needed, during which the people had to be educated for democracy. His primary model, roughly sketched in The Jamaica Letter, was along the lines of the British constitutional monarchy.
Bolívar's first well-developed theory of government was presented to the Colombian Congress of Angostura in 1819. There, his eclectic mixture of individual rights and centralized government was described in detail. Many of the basic rights and freedoms articulated in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and the United States Bill of Rights were contained in his Angostura Address. Faithful to his promise to Pétion of Haiti, he asked that the congress of Great Colombia abolish slavery. To diminish the popular voice, he limited suffrage and asked for indirect elections. Moreover, the heart of Bolívar's political system was a hereditary senate, selected by a military aristocracy, the Order of Liberators. A strong executive would oversee the government, but his power was checked by his ministers, the senate, and a lower house that oversaw financial matters. Bolívar was elected the new nation's first president in 1821.
Bolívar preferred ideas to administration, opting to delegate responsibility for the day-to-day management of government to his vice president. Bolívar grew increasingly skeptical that a workable democracy could be implemented. His last political treatise, the constitution he wrote for the new nation of Bolivia (named for Bolívar) demonstrates this skepticism. This document included a three-house congress and a president elected for a life term with the power to choose a successor. This latest political creation was nothing more than a poorly disguised monarchy. The constitution pleased no one. When Bolívar tried to persuade Great Colombia--a nation that Bolívar himself had fashioned, comprising what are now Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador--to adopt the new constitution, his plea fell on deaf ears. To enact the goals of his administration, Bolívar then did in practice what his constitution permitted on paper: He ruled as a dictator.
Not only did Bolívar meet resistance in implementing his political agenda but he also was frustrated with his farsighted proposals for hemispheric cooperation and solidarity. Convinced that the newly formed Latin American states individually were powerless to withstand outside attack by a European power, he advocated a defensive alliance of Hispanic American states, which would provide military cooperation to defend the hemisphere from invasion. Bolívar invited all the Hispanic American countries, as well as the United States, Great Britain, and other European nations, to send delegates to a congress in Panama in 1826. It was hoped that the Panama Congress would create a league of Hispanic American states, provide for military cooperation, negotiate an alliance with Great Britain, and settle disputes among the nations. Bolívar even articulated the hope for the creation of an international peace-keeping organization. Unfortunately, few nations sent official delegates and Bolívar's visionary internationalist ideas remained dreams for more than a century.
Bolívar's last years were difficult. The new nations he had helped create were racked with internal dissension and violence. After a serious dispute with his vice president Francisco Santander in 1827, a weary Bolívar, suffering from tuberculosis, ruled as a dictator. A year later, an attempt on his life was narrowly averted. Finally, Bolívar was driven from office, when it was discovered that his cabinet had concocted a plan to search for a European monarch to rule after he stepped down. Although he knew nothing of the scheme, he suffered the political consequences. Bolívar resigned from office in 1830, almost penniless. He died on the coast near Santa Marta, Colombia, in December, 1830. He had asked to be buried in his home city of Caracas, but Bolívar had so many political enemies that his family feared for the safety of his remains. In 1842, his body was finally taken home.
Not until the wounds of the independence period were healed by time were the accomplishments of Simón Bolívar put in their proper perspective. In retrospect, his successes and his visionary ideas more than compensated for his egocentrism and the defeats he suffered. As a committed revolutionary and a military general, he had few peers. By sheer force of his dynamic persona and his tireless efforts, he ended colonialism and ushered in a new era of nationhood for South America.
On the political front, his successes were tempered by the political realities of the times. Bolívar knew that the new nations were not ready for independence and a long period of political maturation was needed before democracy could be achieved. His dictatorial actions in his last few years betrayed his own republican ideals, but Bolívar, ever the pragmatist, was convinced that the end justified the means. What Bolívar could not foresee was how elusive democracy would be for South America.
Similarly, his ideas for hemispheric solidarity were not accepted. Not until the creation of the Organization of American States and the signing of the Rio Pact in 1947 would the first halting steps toward pan-Americanism be taken. Bolívar's fears of the growing power of the United States and its potentially damaging effects on Hispanic America proved prophetic. One hundred fifty years after his death, Bolívar is lionized throughout Latin America not only for what he accomplished but also for what he dreamed.
- Allen Wells
Bolívar, Simón. Selected Writings. Edited by Harold A. Bierck, Jr. Translated by Lewis Bertrand. Compiled by Vicente Lecuna. 2 vols. New York: Colonial Press, 1951. A brief, complimentary biographical essay by Bierck introduces this solid collection of Bolívar's most significant political writings.
Bushnell, David. The Santander Regime in Gran Colombia. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1954. A thorough academic monograph on the Santander regime, examining Bolívar's increasingly despotic measures in his last years.
_______. Símon Bolívar: Liberation and Disappointment. Edited by Peter Stearns. New York: Longman, 2003. Biography aimed at history students and other readers who want a concise overview of Bolívar's life.
Hispanic American Historical Review 63 (February, 1983). To celebrate the bicentennial of Bolívar's birth, editor John J. Johnson dedicated an entire issue of the preeminent journal in the field to a reappraisal of Bolívar. Four essays by independence period specialists reexamine and reassess both the man and his place in history. Includes John Lynch's "Bolívar and the Caudillos," Simon Collier's "Nationality, Nationalism, and Supranationalism in the Writings of Simón Bolívar," David Bushnell's "The Last Dictatorship: Betrayal or Consummation?" and Germán Carrera Damas' "Simón Bolívar, El Culto Heroico y la Nación."
Johnson, John J. Simón Bolívar and Spanish American Independence, 1783-1830. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1968. An excellent analytical overview of Bolívar's life and times. This book includes an abbreviated sample of some of Bolívar's most important political writings.
Lynch, John. The Spanish American Revolutions, 1808-1862. New York: W. W. Norton, 1973. One of the best one-volume syntheses of the revolutionary era. Lynch's adroit analysis provides an overview of the internal and external factors that impinged on the struggle for independence. Includes a good examination of the personalities involved in the fighting.
Masur, Gerhard. Simón Bolívar. 2d ed. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1969. One of the best English-language biographies of Bolívar. Masur's even-handed narrative is generally sympathetic and conveys an appreciation for the difficulties that Bolívar faced in reconciling the divergent factions that threatened to divide the movement for independence.
Slatta, Richard W., and Jane Lucas De Grummond. Símon Bolívar's Quest for Glory. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2003. The authors of this biography suggest Bolívar suffered from bipolar disorder, which may have affected his decisions and actions. In examining the battle for independence from Spain, the authors maintain the struggles that Bolívar and his colleagues faced after winning independence set a pattern for Latin American politics for the next century.
Bernardo O'Higgins; José de San Martín; Antonio José de Sucre; Flora Tristan.
Related article in Great Events from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900: Military Campaigns of Simón de Bolívar.
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