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Definition: Bolívar, Simón from Philip's Encyclopedia

Latin American revolutionary leader, known as 'the Liberator'. His experience in Napoleonic Europe influenced his untiring attempts to free South America from Spanish rule. He achieved no real success until 1819, when his victory at Boyacá led to the liberation of New Granada (later Colombia) in 1821. The liberation of Venezuela (1821), Ecuador (1822), Peru (1824), and Upper Peru (1825) followed, the latter renaming itself Bolivia in his honour. Despite the removal of Spanish hegemony from the continent, his hopes of uniting South America into one confederation were dashed by rivalry between the new states.

Summary Article: Bolívar, Simón
From Encyclopedia of United States - Latin American Relations
  • Keywords
  • Venezuela
  • Bolivia
  • Peru
  • Revolutionaries and Opposition Leaders
  • South American Heads of State
  • Colombia

Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad Bolívar y Palacios (1783–1830) was born on July 24, 1783, in Spanish-owned Caracas, Venezuela. Inspired though not aided by the United States, he became known as the liberator of all South America.

A Warrior for Freedom

His family was of Basque origin and, in his early life, he enjoyed the best European neoclassical education, focusing on great French thinkers like Voltaire and Jean Jacques Rousseau. After losing both his parents (father at age three, mother at age nine), he was sent to Europe, where he married Maria Teresa Rodríguez del Toro y Alaysa in 1802. In 1803, they went to Venezuela, where Maria died of yellow fever. Bolívar never remarried. He returned to Spain in 1804, just before Napoleon Bonaparte made himself emperor of France. Bonaparte later placed his brother, Joseph, on the Spanish throne. Disillusioned by Napoleon's betrayal of the ideals of the French Revolution, Bolívar traveled across Europe seeking some sort of philosophical resolution. In Italy, he determined to return home and free all of South America.

On his way home, he stopped in the United States and was deeply impressed by the marked contrast of U.S. freedom and the oppression in his own homeland. In 1807 Bolívar arrived in Venezuela and soon became part of the juntas attempting to resist Spanish authority. In 1808 Venezuela declared its independence. In hopes of gaining support from the United Kingdom, the new regime sent Bolívar and Andres Bello Luis Lopez Mendez to London.

When Bolívar returned home in August 1811, he made a public speech advocating independence for all Spanish America. In March 1812 a massive earthquake destroyed Caracas and forced him and others to flee. Spanish troops took advantage of the situation to retake the country, forcing the surrender of junta leader Francisco de Miranda in July. While in exile in Cartagena de Indias, Bolívar wrote his independence declaration entitled Manifesto de Cartagena. In 1813 independence forces in New Grenada (today Colombia, Panama, and parts of Venezuela) established the Congress of Tunja and appointed Bolívar military commander. On May 14 his forces invaded Venezuela, which initiated what became known as the “Admirable Campaign.” After several stunning victories Bolívar, now proclaimed El Libertador, marched into Caracas on August 6, 1813, and a second Venezuelan Republic was established. In his famous “Decree of War to the Death,” he vowed to fight Spain until all South America was free.

His success was short lived. In 1814 José Tomás Boves rebelled and toppled the new republic, forcing Bolívar back to New Granada. In 1815 he was once again forced into exile, this time in Jamaica, where he wrote his powerful “Letter from Jamaica” seeking support for an independent Latin America. He soon received support from Haitian leader Alexandre Pétion. Returning to Venezuela in 1817, he became the head of a new army and captured first Angostura (today Ciudad Bolívar) and, by 1819, he was on the verge of victory.

Dictator of Gran Colombia

Bolívar won a decisive victory at the Battle of Boyacá in 1819, completely freeing New Grenada. On September 7, 1821, Bolívar, supported by the Angostura Congress, joined the newly liberated areas of the north into Gran Colombia, a federation that included modern Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Bolívar became president and Francisco de Paula Santander vice president. Throughout this period Bolívar's primary lieutenant, Antonio José de Sucre, continued to free more lands from Spain, winning victories at Carabobo in 1821 and Pichincha in 1822. On July 26 and 27, 1822, Bolívar held a meeting in Guayaquil with General José de San Martin, who had liberated much of southern South America and received the title Protector of Peruvian Freedom for having freed much of Peru. Together they agreed to continue the liberation of all of Peru, which they completed in early 1824. On February 10, 1824, the Peruvian Congress named Bolívar dictator. Bolívar now began the complete reorganization of all the states freed from Spain. Simultaneously, Sucre decisively defeated the Spanish cavalry on August 6, 1824, at Junín and finished off the remnant Spanish forces at Ayacucho on December 9. Bolívar had freed South America and become the most powerful man on the continent.

On August 6, 1825, at Sucre's behest, the Congress of Upper Peru established the Republic of Bolivia to honor Bolívar. In 1826 Bolívar wrote their constitution, which was a product of his understanding of the classical Greek and Roman democracy, the European Enlightenment, and the American Revolution. It was never enacted. Throughout 1826 internal divisions fomented discord across South America. Regional revolts broke out in Venezuela, leaving the South American coalition on the verge of collapse. While Bolívar eventually arranged a compromise with the rebels in Venezuela, unrest continued to spread as regional jealousy grew. Every time he put out one fire another began.

In April 1828 he declared amnesty for all those in revolt and called for a constitutional convention to be held in Ocana. He envisioned a U.S.-style federation of independent states, with a government designed to protect individual rights. Instead, selfish interests led most representatives to reject Bolívar's model. Fearful of impending anarchy, Bolivar unilaterally created a strong central government in Gran Colombia that included many elements of the 1826 stillborn Bolivian constitution. To assure stability, he also called for a lifetime presidency that allowed the executive to pick his successor. The heavy-handed proposal met with strong opposition, and convention dissidents proposed a plan which called for a federalist government with weak central authority much like the U.S. Articles of Confederation. Bolívar's delegates walked out rather than discuss this proposal, and the convention collapsed. On August 28, 1828, with violent political winds swirling all across South America, Bolívar made himself dictator.

Bolívar intended this to be a temporary measure designed to restore order and save the republic. On September 25 a failed assassination attempt left him emotionally shaken. Throughout the next two years, discontent and upheaval were rampant. Suffering from tuberculosis, Bolívar resigned and withdrew from public life on April 27, 1830. On December 17 he died in Santa Marta, Colombia, despised by many of the people he had worked so hard to free.

In 1842 his body was exhumed and moved from Santa Marta to Caracas, where it was laid to rest under a grand new monument honoring his memory. Over the passage of time Simón Bolívar's reputation has been restored and, today, throughout Latin America, he is their greatest hero—The Liberator. Venezuela and Bolivia celebrate his birthday as a national holiday.

See also Latin American Independence, 1803–1826, U.S. Policy toward; Miranda, Francisco de; Pan-Americanism

  • Boyd, William. Bolivar: Liberator of a Continent. Sterling, VA: Capital Books, 2000.
  • Masur, Gerhard. Simon Bolivar. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1948.
  • Paine, Lauran. Bolivar the Liberator. New York: Roy Publishers, 1970.
Copyright © 2012 by CQ Press, an Imprint of SAGE Publications, Inc.

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