Simón Bolívar (1783-1830) was a South American general and statesman who brought political independence to six present-day nations. Called the Liberator, he was the greatest military figure of South America.
Simón Bolívar was born on July 24, 1783, in Caracas, Venezuela, then part of the Hispanic colonial empire. His parents belonged to the aristocratic upper class, the Creoles. Orphaned at the age of 9, the boy early showed traits of independence and a strong will. Sent to Madrid in 1799 to complete his education, he came under the tutelage of an uncle who secured the proper instruction for the young aristocrat, which included his acquaintance with the decadent court of Charles IV and some of the noble families of Madrid. At the age of 18 Bolívar married Maria Teresa de Toro. In 1802 the couple went to Caracas, where after only 6 months of wedded life the young wife died.
In 1804 Bolívar returned to Europe, this time visiting France and Italy. He was greatly impressed by Napoleon, who had crowned himself emperor, and Bolívar dreamed of a similar glory for himself. The German scientist and traveler Alexander von Humboldt told Bolívar that the South American continent was ripe for independence. When Bolívar went to Rome, he made his famous vow on Monte Sacro to liberate South America.
Expressions of unrest and rebellion already existed in Hispanic America, but it was not until 1808 that the independence movement disturbed the solid structure of the Spanish Empire. That year Napoleon occupied the Iberian Peninsula, deposed the Bourbon dynasty, and appointed his brother Joseph king of Spain. All the colonies refused to recognize the usurper but were divided about the policy they should pursue. Some continued to adhere to the Spanish royal family, but others were bent upon independence and self-government. The struggle was waged from Mexico to Cape Horn, but two provinces took the lead: Argentina, then called the Viceroyalty of La Plata, and Venezuela. On April 19, 1810, the Spanish captain general in Caracas was overthrown, and a junta of native citizens took over his duties. Bolívar's participation in these events remains a matter of controversy. Three months later he was sent to London to obtain England's assistance, but his mission was a failure. He returned to Venezuela, and was followed by Francisco de Miranda, a leader in the conflict with Spain.
In July 1811 Venezuela cut its ties with Spain and proclaimed its independence, but this "First Republic" was a flimsy structure and soon came under counter revolutionary attack. Bolívar had joined the army and had taken part in the ensuing struggle, but he had fallen out with Miranda, who had been appointed dictator and commander in chief. Bolívar had lost an important harbor fortress to the enemy, and Miranda used the defeat to end the war and conclude an armistice with the Spaniards. His action enraged Bolívar, who determined to continue the fight.
Fleeing to the neighboring province of New Granada (now Colombia), Bolívar organized a new army, routed the Spanish, and liberated Venezuela in August 1813. He was appointed dictator but was soon faced with internal dissensions which led to civil war. Again forced to flee, he took refuge in Jamaica and again tried to engage British support for his cause. Although this effort came to naught, one of his most celebrated manifestos was composed there: the "Letter from Jamaica."
Obtaining assistance from the small republic of Haiti, Bolívar once more set forth for Venezuela, and a year later, in 1817, he achieved victory on the plains of the Orinoco valley. There he found an untapped reservoir of raw material and manpower. Two more years of inconclusive fighting followed before Bolívar made a sudden decision to attack the Spaniards from the rear, that is, from New Granada. In one of the most audacious operations of military history, he crossed the Andes and defeated the royalist forces at Boyacá on Aug. 7, 1819.
Bolívar's ambitious plans for the liberated colonies included the establishment of a republic in the Andes, to be called Colombia. It was to be composed of Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador and to be governed by a president appointed for life and by an aristocracy made up of the patriots who had fought for their freedom. The Colombian Republic was proclaimed in December 1819. Bolívar's triumph was only on paper, since the greater part of the territory was still occupied by the enemy; but in June 1821 he liberated Venezuela at the battle of Carabobo, and one of his most gifted officers, Antonio José de Sucre, freed Ecuador in the battle of Pichincha in May 1822.
When Bolívar entered the capital city of Quito in June 1822, he might have considered his ambition fulfilled. But his imperial dreams had grown. The next month he conferred with the Argentinian general José de San Martin at Guayaquil. These secret meetings have been the source of considerable speculation, but the outcome was clear: San Martin renounced his position as Protector of Peru, leaving the field to Bolívar. He entered Peru in 1823 and was victorious over the royal army at the battle of Junín in August 1824. Sucre, whom he left to terminate the campaign, inflicted a crushing defeat on the Spanish at Ayacucho in December 1824. The fight for independence had been won.
Bolívar was now in an extraordinary position. He was president of Colombia, dictator of Peru, and president of the newly created Bolivia, a region which had been called Upper Peru in colonial times and had once belonged to the Viceroyalty of La Plata. This new country honored Bolívar in its choice of a name, and he composed its first constitution, an extremely autocratic and utopian document which lasted only 2 years. At this point in his career Bolívar harbored certain very ambitious projects, though he cannot be accused of a desire to become emperor; he wanted to be "liberator or nothing." His purpose was the creation of an Andean empire, stretching from one end of South America to the other, and he pursued this aim along several paths.
Bolívar called for a confederation of the Hispanic American countries, and in 1826 he assembled a congress in Panama, but the league he had envisaged never materialized. He had another plan for the countries he had liberated—Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia; he wanted to unite them in a Federation of the Andes, with himself as president and with the Bolivian constitution as the permanent basis of government. This project also failed.
In 1826 civil war erupted in Colombia, and Bolívar returned in haste to prevent a clash between the conflicting factions. He gained a temporary reconciliation and called a new constituent assembly together in 1828, but its deliberations did not agree with his autocratic ideas, and he assumed the dictatorship once more.
By now the opposition to Bolívar had assumed such proportions that a conspiracy to eliminate him was set in motion. On Sept. 25, 1828, Bolívar escaped the daggers of the assassins by minutes. For more than a year he fought to preserve his political creation. A war with Peru prevented its encroachment on Colombian territory, but the voices of dissent in Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador were not silenced. A new congress elected in 1830 accepted the secession of Venezuela and, soon thereafter, of Ecuador. Bolívar finally realized that his goal was unattainable and reluctantly admitted that even his presence in Bogotá might spark further discord.
In April 1830, already an exhausted man, Bolívar agreed to leave his country. Possibly his death was hastened by the failure of his political plans, but more likely he died of tuberculosis, on Dec. 17, 1830, near the city of Santa Marta, Colombia.
Bolívar died hated by his enemies and outlawed by his own country of Venezuela, but his reputation was restored soon after his death, and his fame has continued to grow to mythical proportions in Latin America ever since. He maintained the fight against Spain when all appeared hopeless, and he did not give up until he had overcome all the obstacles on the road to independence. He called himself "the man of difficulties," and in truth he was that.
Bolívar's greatest political mistake was his failure to recognize the forces of nationalism which were soon to vitalize the Latin American countries. His desire to give his world a firm and stable foundation was justified, even though his methods were often erroneous. Latin America has continued to foster pronunciamentos and revolutions, in confirmation of Bolívar's most somber apprehensions. Since Bolívar passed into history, South America has not produced his equal.
Selected Writings of Bolívar, compiled by Vicente Lecuna and edited by Harold A. Bierck, Jr. (2 vols., 1951), illustrates the role played by Bolívar in the struggle for independence and expresses his ideas on union, solidarity, and government. J. B. Trend, Bolívar and the Independence of Spanish America (1946), stresses his political theories. Gerhard Masur, Simón Bolívar (1948; rev. ed. 1969), portrays Bolívar with great admiration but not as infallible. See also Hildegarde Angell, Simón Bolívar: South American Liberator (1930); Salvador de Madariaga, Bolívar (1952); and John J. Johnson, Simón Bolívar and Spanish American Independence: 1783-1830 (1968). Useful background studies include Bernard Moses, South America on the Eve of Emancipation (1908) and Spain's Declining Power in South America: 1730-1806 (1919); Curtis A. Wilgus, South American Dictators during the First Century of Independence (1937); C. H. Haring, Spanish Empire in America (1947; rev. ed. 1963); Charles Gibson, Spain in America (1966); and Charles Gibson, ed., Spanish Tradition in America (1968).