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Simon Bolivar: The Great Liberator

Oath | Revolutionary | Jamaica | President | Analysis

Drawing of a Young Simon Bolivar

Simon Bolivar was born in Caracas, Venezuela, 24 July 1783.1 His wealthy parents died when he was young, leaving him a considerable fortune. He was raised by an uncle and his tutor was a revolutionary named Simon Rodriguez. Rodriguez was thrown out of Venezuela after being accused of trying to overthrow Spanish rule.2 At sixteen Bolivar was sent to Spain to complete his education. While there (1802) he married a Spanish girl who returned to Venezuela with him. Unfortunately, she soon died.3 Bolivar returned to Europe to travel and immerse himself in a cultured life.

Bolivar's Oath

He travelled to Paris where he met the famous scientist Humboldt, and was a witness to the coronation of Napoleon as Emperor of France (1804). He met his old tutor, Rodriguez, in Rome, here in 1805, he promised to liberate his homeland from Spanish rule.

I swear before you, I swear by the God of my fathers, by my forefathers themselves, by my honour and my country, that I shall never allow my hands to be idle or my soul to rest until I have broken the shackles which bind us to Spain.4

The Revolutionary

He returned to Venezuela via the United States, where he saw republican institutions first hand. Soon after he returned he took the very generous and principled step of freeing all of the slaves on his property. He joined a group of revolutionaries which took advantage of Napoleon's invasion of Spain in 1808 to liberate the country. The group captured Caracas in 1810.5

Simon Bolivar went to England in an effort to get English support for Venezuelan independence. This, however, failed largely because of a British treaty obligation to Spain. Bolivar returned to Venezuela, and in 1811 was part of a constitutional convention that declared Venezuela's independence from Spain. However, in 1812 royalists gained the upper hand and Bolivar was forced to leave the country for Columbia.6

In 1812 he issued his Columbian Manifesto which urged cooperation among the states working for independence from Spain. This manifesto helped him to garner support to reenter Venezuela at the head of a military force (1813). He again took Caracas and made himself dictator, but was again forced out of the country (this time to Jamaica) by military units loyal to Spain.7

Bolivar in Jamaica

In Jamaica Simon Bolivar produced his famous Jamaica Letter, which outlined his views on the revolutionary movement and government. An attempt to assassinate Bolivar was made by his servant, Pio, who had been bribed by Bolivar's enemies. The attempt failed when Pio attacked a different man who happened to be in Bolivar's hammock.8 From Jamaica, Bolivar went to Haiti where he raised an army with the blessing of the Haitian President. In return, Petion asked that he free the slaves in all the countries he would liberate.

In 1817 General Bolivar returned to Venezuela with a new army. He proved resourceful, relying on Haitian help, plus mercenaries from the now reduced armies of the Napoleonic Wars he began to win battles. He forged an alliance with the llanero horsemen of the plains, which provided him with an effective cavalry.9

President Simon Bolivar

In 1819 Bolivar marched to Columbia and defeated the Spanish forces at Boyar.10 From here he formed the first Republic of Columbia - which then was comprised of the present states of Columbia, Panama, and Venezuela. He became the first president of this state in 1819. However, fighting with Spanish and loyalist forces continued until the Battle of Carabobo in 1821 allowed the Liberator to enter Caracas, Venezuela.

As president of Gran Columbia, Bolivar continued to fight to rid the continent of Spanish authority. He tried to keep the areas he liberated united. He questioned whether smaller Latin American states could fend off encroachment by other powers, especially those of Europe. However, centrifugal forces were at work and internal dissensions created many problems. In 1827 he fell out with his Vice President, Santander, and made himself dictator. Yet he was unable to bring stability to "Gran Columbia". In 1830, suffering from tuberculosis, he resigned his office and moved from the capital at Bogota to Santa Marta, near the coast. He died in December of that year.11

Analysis

Bolivar was a superb military commander, a determined man, an inspiring leader, and a political thinker. Above all he was a man of action. He swore to liberate Latin America from Spain and by force of his own personality made that happen. This was how he achieved the title, "The Liberator". His legacy is great. Many places and people were named after him. Even an American Civil War general carried his name into battle, Simon Bolivar Buckner.

He is a hero to much of Latin America. A political movement was named for him. Hugo Chavez invoked his name for his Bolivarian Revolution. Yet it is doubtful Bolivar would have seen much of himself in the Career and pronouncements of Hugo Chavez. The Chavez doctrine is to restrict freedoms and to undermine the economy of his own country. He works to denigrate all classes to the lowest level. Meanwhile Bolivar was a believer in building people up. He wanted to make Latin America strong and prosperous, and ultimately free from tyranny.

In his Jamaica Letter as well as his assuming of the dictatorship in 1827 we do see Bolivar moving against his republican beliefs. However, he saw this as an expediency. He wanted to give his people time to grow, to allow the nation to become a mature republic. He failed to see that his dictatorship set a bad precedent of military praetorianism. Chavez would use this as an excuse to undermine legitimate institutions in his own country of Venezuela.

Was Bolivar a success or a failure? If he failed it was not from want of trying. He wished a United Latin America. It was spinning apart even as he watched. Perhaps the forces were too great for any one man to control. Yet he did succeed in his greatest task, the liberation of his people. He must be numbered among the great men of history.

Youth | Oath | Revolutionary | Jamaica | President


  1. Simon Bolivar, History
  2. Military Heritage Bolivar Bio
  3. Young Bolivar
  4. Bolivar's Oath
  5. Ref to: http://www.simon-bolivar.org/bolivar/simon_bolivar_pp.html"
  6. Reference to article at http://encarta.msn.com/encnet/refpages/RefArticle.aspx?refid=761569365" - Simon Bolivar Biography Encarta
  7. HyperHistory on Simon Bolivar
  8. Attempted Assassination of Bolivar in Jamaica
  9. Latin American Political History By Ronald M. Schneider
  10. Mother Earth Travel - Columbia
  11. Great Lives from History: The 19th Century: Simón Bolívar


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