Bolívar, Simón (1783–1830)

views updated

Bolívar, Simón (1783–1830)

Simón Bolívar (b. 24 July 1783; d. 17 December 1830), foremost leader of Spanish American independence. Born in Caracas to a wealthy landed family with slave-worked cacao plantations, Simón Bolívar received little formal education, although his private tutor, Simón Rodríguez, helped instill in him an admiration for the thinkers of the European Enlightenment. Bolívar traveled to Europe in 1799, and in Madrid in 1802 he married María Teresa Rodríguez de Toro, the daughter of a Caracas-born aristocrat. Upon her death soon after they returned to Venezuela, he made a second trip to Europe, during which he vowed to work for the liberation of Spanish America.


When the Napoleonic invasion of Spain triggered the crisis of the Spanish monarchy in 1808–1810, Bolívar played a minor role in the various attempts to set up a governing junta in Caracas. However, once a junta was created, in April 1810, he became an active participant in the revolutionary movement. After heading a diplomatic mission sent to London, he pressed for an outright declaration of independence, which was issued on 5 July 1811.

Having served as a colonial militia officer, though without formal military training, Bolívar was eventually given military command of the key coastal fortress of Puerto Cabello, whose loss in July 1812 served to hasten (though it hardly caused) the collapse of Venezuela's First Republic. When the Venezuelan dictator Francisco de Miranda accepted the inevitable and signed a capitulation to the royalists, Bolívar was one of those who angrily arrested him and by preventing his escape in effect turned Miranda over to the Spanish. Bolívar himself soon escaped to Curaçao and from there to Cartagena in New Granada, where he issued the Cartagena Manifesto (the first of his major political documents) and sought assistance for a new attempt to liberate Venezuela. With help from the United Provinces of New Granada, he invaded his homeland in 1813, and in less than three months swept into Caracas. This campaña admirable (admirable campaign), as it has been called, first earned Bolívar the title of "Liberator" and made him the acknowledged political as well as military leader of Venezuela.

Bolívar chose not to restore the federal constitution adopted in 1811 by the First Republic, believing that federalism was a dangerously weak form of government. The Second Republic that he then created, a frank military dictatorship, was no more successful than its predecessor, for it was soon being worn down by the assault of royalist guerrilla bands. Appealing to the Venezuelan masses to reject an independence movement whose principal figures (like Bolívar) were drawn from the creole elite, the royalists found a favorable response especially among the rough cowboy population (llaa-neros) of the Orinoco plains. Before the end of 1814, Bolívar was again a fugitive in New Granada.

Despite his distaste for federalism, Bolívar repaid the New Granadan federalists grouped in the United Provinces for the aid they had given him by helping them subdue Bogotá, whose leaders favored a strong central authority. But he had little desire to take part in this or other internecine conflicts of the New Granadan patriots, especially when the defeat of Napoleon in Europe and restoration of Ferdinand VII to his throne now permitted Spain to redouble its efforts to suppress colonial rebellion. In mid-1815 Bolívar left New Granada, shortly before the arrival of the Spanish expeditionary force that would reconquer most of it for the king. Bolívar went first to Jamaica, where in his "Jamaica Letter" he offered a keen analysis of the present and future state of Spanish America. He next moved to Haiti, where he obtained help from the Haitian government for a new attempt to liberate Venezuela—and for a second attempt when the first ended in failure. By the end of 1816, he had regained a foothold and made contact with revolutionary bands still active in northeastern Venezuela.

In July 1817, Bolívar's forces seized Angostura (today Ciudad Bolívar), on the lower Orinoco River. The port of Angostura gave Bolívar a link to the outside world, while the Orinoco River system facilitated contact with pockets of patriot resistance in other parts of the Orinoco Basin, including the Apure region, where José Antonio Páez had won increasing numbers of llaneros over to the patriot cause. When Páez accepted Bolívar's leadership, the Liberator gained a critically important ally. As a llanero himself, Páez helped to give the independence struggle a more popular image. So did Bolívar's declaration (issued soon after his return to Venezuela in 1816) making abolition of slavery one of the patriot war aims. The mostly llanero cavalry of Bolívar and Páez could not dislodge the veteran Spanish troops occupying Andean Venezuela; but neither could the royalists make much headway on the Orinoco plains.


Bolívar sought to institutionalize the revolutionary movement by calling elections for a congress, which assembled at Angostura in February 1819 and ratified his leadership. Yet Bolívar's long-term objectives were not limited to Venezuela. In May 1819 he embarked on the campaign that took him westward across the llanos and over the Andes to central New Granada, where on 7 August he won the decisive battle of Boyacá. The victory opened the way to Bogotá, occupied three days later, and gave Bolívar control of an area with important reserves of recruits and supplies. It also gave him a victorious momentum that he never entirely lost.

Bolívar placed the New Granadan officer Francisco de Paula Santander in charge of the recently liberated provinces and then returned to Angostura, where, at his urging, in December 1819, the congress proclaimed the union of Venezuela, New Granada, and Quito (Ecuador) a single Republic of Colombia (usually referred to as Gran Colombia). The following year Bolívar turned his attention to the part of Venezuela still under royalist control. Military operations were suspended temporarily by an armistice of November 1820, but the victory at Carabobo, in June 1821, brought the war in Venezuela to a close except for royalist coastal enclaves that held out for another two years.

Meanwhile Gran Colombia was given a constitution by the Congress of Cúcuta, meeting in 1821 on the border between Venezuela and New Granada. The document was not entirely to Bolívar's liking, but he agreed to serve under it when the Congress named him first constitutional president, with Santander as vice president. Since Bolívar intended to continue leading the military struggle against Spain, Santander became acting chief executive in the Colombian capital of Bogotá, charged with organizing the home front and mobilizing resources.

After a local uprising in Guayaquil threw off royalist control of that port city, Bolívar sent his trusted lieutenant Antonio José de Sucre to Ecuador with a Colombian auxiliary force. While Bolívar fought his way through southern New Granada, Sucre penetrated the Ecuadoran highlands. After Sucre defeated the royalists at the battle of Pichincha (May 1822), on the outskirts of Quito, Bolívar entered Quito as well. Continuing to Guayaquil, he obtained its semivoluntary incorporation into Gran Colombia just before he met there with the Argentine liberator José de San Martín. The exact substance of their discussions was never revealed, but it would seem that one thing they disagreed on was how to complete the liberation of Peru, where San Martín controlled the coastal cities but not the highlands. Soon afterward, San Martín abandoned Peru, and Bolívar accepted a call to take his place.


Once he reached Peru, in September 1823, Bolívar found Peruvian collaboration to be somewhat fickle, but by mid-1824 he was ready for his last great campaign. On 6 August he scored an important victory at Junín, in the central Peruvian Andes, and on 9 December, in the battle of Ayacucho, his army (commanded by Sucre) obtained the surrender of the main royalist army. In the following weeks Sucre mopped up remnants of royalist resistance in Upper Peru (modern Bolivia).

A few days before Ayacucho, Bolívar, from Lima, issued a call to the Spanish American nations to meet at Panama and create a permanent alliance. He did not have a Pan-American gathering in mind, for he failed to invite the United States, Brazil, and Haiti—even while hoping that Great Britain would send an observer. The United States and Brazil were invited by the administration of Vice President Santander in Bogotá, though in the end they did not take part; and neither did the Panama Congress of 1826 produce the hoped-for league of Spanish American states. Bolívar's design for the congress, however, revealed his ambivalence toward the United States, whose institutions he admired in principle but considered unsuited to Latin American conditions and whose growing power he foresaw as a long-term threat. His interest in having British representation clearly reflected both his belief that British friendship was essential for the security and economic development of the new republics as well as his deep admiration for Great Britain and its system of constitutional monarchy.

Bolívar soon followed Sucre to Upper Peru, where he assumed provisional direction of the newly independent nation that was to name itself Bolivia in his honor. Bolívar did not stay there long, but when the Bolivians invited him to draft their first constitution, he gladly accepted. The proposal that he later submitted (in May 1826) had some progressive features, yet its center-piece—a president serving for life with power to name his successor—aroused wide criticism as a disguised form of monarchy. Bolívar was gratified that both Bolivia and Peru adopted, at least briefly, the main lines of his scheme. However, his hope that Gran Colombia, too, would adopt some form of it was never realized.

Bolívar's interest in reforming Colombian institutions was heightened by the rebellion of Páez in April 1826 against the government of Santander. The Liberator returned home before the end of the year, settled Páez's rebellion with a sweeping pardon, and added his support to demands for an immediate reform of the constitution. These actions led to a conflict with Santander, who became a leader of the opposition to Bolívar at the constitutional reform convention that met at Ocaña from April to June 1828. When the sessions ended in deadlock, Bolívar's supporters called on him to assume dictatorial powers to "save the republic," and he agreed to do so.

As dictator, Bolívar rolled back many of the liberal reforms previously enacted in Gran Colombia, including a reduction in the number of monasteries and abolition of Indian tribute. He did not necessarily oppose the reforms in question; he merely decided they were premature. And he did not touch the free-birth law that Gran Colombia had adopted for gradual elimination of slavery.

Bolívar's dictatorship was bitterly opposed by the adherents of Santander, some of whom joined in the abortive September 1828 attempt to assassinate Bolívar. After that, political repression became harsher, and Santander was sent into exile, but scattered uprisings still broke out. Also, serious disaffection arose in Venezuela, which was ideologically the most liberal part of the country as well as generally resentful of being ruled from Bogotá. The last straw was an intrigue by Bolívar's cabinet to recruit a European prince to succeed him as constitutional monarch when the Liberator died or retired. Páez again rose in rebellion in late 1829, and this time Venezuela became a separate nation.

Another convention that met in Bogotá in January 1830 did produce a new constitution, but it could not stem dissolution of the union. Ailing and disheartened, Bolívar stepped down from the presidency in March 1830 and set off for self-imposed exile. He died at Santa Marta before he could board ship, though not before Ecuador seceded from the union and newly autonomous Venezuela prohibited its most famous son from setting foot on its soil.

Though at the end it seemed to Bolívar that his work had been in vain, he is revered today as the one person who made the greatest contribution to Spanish American independence. His contribution was not just military but also political, in the articulation of patriot objectives and the establishment of new states. Moreover, he has been claimed as a precursor by every ideological current, from the revolutionary Left (which admires him for his opposition to slavery and distrust of the United States) to the extreme Right (which approves his authoritarian tendencies): there is something about Bolívar to appeal to every taste and every age.

See alsoWars of Independence: South America .


The best English-Language biographies are Gerhard Masur, Simón Bolívar (1948; rev. ed 1969); the highly critical Salvador De Madariaga, Bolívar (1952; repr. 1979).

Augusto Mijares, The Liberator, translated by John Fisher (1983). Bolívar can be studied in his own words in Selected Writings of Bolívar, compiled by Vicente Lecuna, edited by Harold A. Bierck, Jr., translated by Lewis Bertrand, 2 vols. (1951), and in those of his Irish aide in Daniel F. O'Leary, Bolívar and the War of Independence, translated and edited by Robert F. McNerney, Jr. (1970). His campaigns are exhaustively covered in Vicente Lecuna, Crónica razonada de las guerras de Bolívar, 3 vols. (1950); and on his political ideas, Víctor Andrés Belaúnde, Bolívar and the Political Thought of the Spanish American Revolution (1938) is still useful. His relations with Europe and European perceptions of Bolívar are the subject of Alberto Filippi, ed., Bolívar y Europa en las crónicas, el pensamiento político y la historiografía, 2d ed. (1988). A special issue of the Hispanic American Historical Review 63, no. 1 (1983), contains essays by a group of specialists on particular aspects of his career. The subsequent image of Bolívar is brilliantly analyzed in Germán Carrera Damas, El culto a Bolívar (1969).

Additional Bibliography

Bushnell, David. Simón Bolívar: Hombre de Caracas, proyecto de América: Una biografía. Buenos Aires: Editorial Biblos, 2002.

Elliott, J. H. Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492–1830. New Haven: Yale Univeristy Press, 2006.

Hernández Sánchez-Barba, Mario. Simón Bolívar: Una passion política. Barcelona: Ariel, 2004.

Rodríguez O., Jaime E. The Independence of Spanish America. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

                                   David Bushnell

About this article

Bolívar, Simón (1783–1830)

Updated About content Print Article