Simon Bolivar's Ups and Downs, 1812-1830

Bolivar's military and political career zoomed to extreme highs and lows, like an out-of-control roller coaster. In 1812, he led patriot forces in the town of Puerto Cabello, only to be deceived, and defeated. He poured out his despair in letters to his commander, Francisco Miranda, and his friend and patron, Francisco Iturbe For the complete story of his life, see the Slatta and de Grummond biography, Simon Bolivar's Quest for Glory. [Each of the links from this page constitutes an individual document.]

The patriot forces faced many more defeats, including a seeming attack by nature. In 1812, a huge earthquake struck Venezuela, seemingly focused on areas held by the patriot forces. In retrospect, Venezuela's would name this early period of their independence, the "Patria boba," or "Foolish Fatherland." In late 1812, Bolivar offered his analysis of patriot failures in 1812.

During the Spanish American wars for independence, atrocities mounted on both sides, and the war became more vicious and bloody. Bolivar escalated the violence further by dictating his controversial "war to the death" decree, published in Trujillo as a "Proclamation to the People of Venezuela" on June 15, 1813. In a savage escalation of the conflict, Bolivar decreed death to all Spaniards and Canary Islanders, whom he thoroughly demonized in this pronouncement. Bolivar portrait



Rapidly changing conditions in Spain gave Bolivar further reason for gloom. English merchants, like Hyslop, did not want to miss any future trade advantages. Manchester and the British government did not want to miss any opportunity to dominate Spanish America. Manchester may have been the "Gentleman of the Island" who wrote to Bolivar on August 29, 1815, asking for his opinion on the future of Spanish America. Bolivar penned a lengthy reply, more than 8000 words, to the "Gentleman," on September 6, 1815. His so-called "Jamaica Letter" began by reviewing the traumas his country had suffered "from the time of her discovery until the present at the hands of her destroyers, the Spaniards." The Liberator vowed "the time has come at last to repay the Spaniards torture for torture and to drown that race of annihilators in its own blood or in the sea." He attacked absolutism and monarchy and chided the European powers for not supporting the patriot cause.

The "Jamaica Letter" of 1815 includes exhortation, prophesy, history, criticism, and reasoned political discourse. Bolivar boldly declared: Success will crown our efforts, because the destiny of America has been irrevocably decided; the tie that bound her to Spain has been severed. The hatred that the Peninsula has inspired in us is greater than the ocean between us. It would be easier to have the two continents meet than to reconcile the spirits of the two countries. . . . Because successes have been partial and spasmodic, we must not lose faith. In some regions the Independents triumph, while in others the tyrants have the advantage. What is the end result? Is not the entire New World in motion, armed for defense? We have but to look around us on this hemisphere to witness a simultaneous struggle at every point. Bolivar portrait Bolivar's overview of Spanish America in 1815 revealed the broad, hemispheric vision that would still guide him a decade later.

On September 27, 1815, the exiled "beggar" read an article about New Granada's population, resources, and dissensions in a Kingston daily, The Courant. The next day he replied to the arguments in a letter to the editor of the Royal Gazette. He summarized the true causes of civil war in New Granada.

"Virtually every republic that has inspired great veneration among the human race has borne within it the seed of fatal discord; hence it has been said that dissension is often the measuring-rod of liberty, and that the enjoyment of a liberally constituted government is commonly found to be in direct proportion to the enthusiasm of the parties and the clash of political opinions. What free nation, ancient or modern, has not suffered dissension? Can you point to a history more turbulent than that of Athens or Rome or England or the United States of North America? Our discord had its origin in the two most productive sources of national disaster: ignorance and weakness. Spain cultivated the first with superstition and perpetuated the second with tyranny. In our former situation, we were kept in a condition of almost total insignificance.

"Furthermore, we were abandoned by the entire world. No foreign nation ever aided us with its wisdom and experience, defended us with its arms, or encouraged us with its resources. This was not so in the case of North America during her struggle for independence. The three most powerful nations of Europe, all colonial powers, helped her win independence. Great Britain has not taken reprisal against the Spain which fought against her in the war that cost the former her colonies. The United States of North America which, through her commerce, could have supplied us with war materials, did not do so because of her war with Great Britain. Otherwise, Venezuela could have triumphed by herself, and South America would not have been laid waste by Spanish cruelty or ruined by revolutionary anarchy.

Bolivar asserted that patriot guerrillas in eastern Venezuela and in the llanos along the Orinoco River "are battling with such force and violence that, having seized all the inland provinces, they now stand ready to attack the ports and drive their enemies into the sea."

The Liberator exaggerated. Patriot guerrillas had not seized all the inland provinces, although they had enlarged their enclaves. Bereft of his sword, Bolivar continued waging a propaganda war with the pen. He hoped to convince English authorities that aiding a patriot expedition to Venezuela would result in great rewards for their empire. Bolivar had twice borrowed a hundred pesos from Maxwell Hyslop. On December 4 he again requested a loan because his landlady hounded him. "This accursed woman," Bolivar said, "now demands more than a hundred pesos for extras. She is such a gossip and so perverse that I do not want her to drag me before a judge for so little, and be there exposed to her insolence and outrages. I do not have a marvedi and beg you to send me a hundred pesos." Bolivar crosses the Andes

A strained but effective cooperation between Jose Antonio Paez, the crude caudillo of the llanos, and Bolivar, the cultured creole of Caracas, would mark the year 1818. Paez would meet the Liberator for the first time this year. In his autobiography, he recorded a striking portrait of Bolivar in his prime. His two principal distinctions consisted in the extreme mobility of his body and the brilliance of his eyes, which were black, lively and penetrating as those of an eagle. His skin, though burned by the sun of the tropics, still preserved its clearness and its luster, in spite of all the many and violent changes of climate he had undergone in his campaigns. His temperament as gay and jovial. In private life he was most agreeable, impetuous and dominating when he had some important enterprise in view; thus he united both the courtier and the warrior in himself. He was fond of dancing, gallant and much addicted to ladies' society, and skilful in the management of his horse. In camp he kept his spirits up with witty jokes; but on the march he was always somewhat restless, and tried to fight against his impatience by singing patriotic songs. He was perhaps too fond of fighting, but whilst the battle lasted he was always calm. In rally fugitives he neither spared example or his voice and sword.

Deputies from Casanare had not yet arrived on February 15, 1819, when El Jefe Supremo (the Supreme Chief) opened the Congress of Angostura with another memorable speech. El Correo del Orinoco, (February 20, 1819), the official patriot newspaper, glowingly described Bolivar's discourse as so full of interest and so moving, that neither citizens nor strangers could hold back their tears. The words with which he concluded declaring the Congress installed, and acknowledging in it the National Sovereignty, excited the most glowing enthusiasm, especially when he grasped his sword and said with extraordinary energy: `My sword and those of my illustrious companions in arms are always ready to sustain Its August Authority--Viva el Congreso de Venezuela!' These words, repeated many times by the assembly, were followed by a salvo of artillery.

Writing from San Cristobal on April 20, 1820, Bolivar explained to Santander of the continuing need for troops He ordered "that the Army of the South induct as many slaves capable of bearing arms as it may need; and that 3,000 unmarried young men be send to the Army of the North." The Liberator also explained the rationale for his order to emancipate slaves in exchange for their military service.

The military and political considerations that have led me to order the drafting of slaves are quite obvious. We need robust, vigorous men who are accustomed to hardship and fatigue, men who will embrace the cause and the service with enthusiasm, men who will identify their interests with the public interest, and men for whom death can have little less meaning than life.

The political considerations are even stronger. The emancipation of the slaves has been proclaimed both de jure and de facto. The Congress has had in mind the dictum of Montesquieu: In moderate governments, political liberty gives civil liberty its value, and he who is deprived of the latter is necessarily deprived of the former; he beholds a happy society, of which he is not a part; he finds established security for others but not for himself. Nothing is nearer to the condition of beasts than to view free men everywhere and not be free. Men in this position are enemies of society, and, if large in number, they are dangerous.

Notwithstanding his 1816 pledge to Petion, the Liberator had liberated only male slaves who served in his armies. Gradually, however, he edged toward more enlightened racial views. He declared in favor of a "law of the free womb" (emancipating children born to slaves at birth) until 1821 and advocated the complete abolition of slavery five years later. Like most of the "active citizenry" (ciudadania activa, the creole minority with political rights) of his time, Bolivar feared that anarchy or a tyranny of the majority might result from enfranchising and empowering the non-white, rural masses. He also feared the frightful death tolls of the wars for independence skewed the racial balance even further. As he concluded in his April 20th letter, "In Venezuela, we have seen the free population die and the slave survive. I know not whether or not this is prudent, but I do know that, unless we employ the slaves in Cundinamarca, they will outlive us again."

Bolivar did not consider the rainy season the right time to enter into peace negotiations. With the plains flooded, llanero cavalry could not operate effectively. Supplies could not be packed over the Andes to Cundinamarca. True, patriots had access to foreign markets via the Magdalena, but it would take several months to accumulate adequate stockpiles of arms and powder. Only then would he feel strong enough to dictate terms. He needed the force to convince Morillo that patriots would never recognize Ferdinand VII as their king.

After considering Morillo's letter, Bolivar revealed his thinking in a letter of June 19 to Carlos Soublette: "The Spaniards are thoroughly convinced that they are impotent against us, and they are suffering every possible calamity that war could inflict upon them; hence, to grant them peace, I say, is to accord them an important victory. They are in the position of Plato's rich man: they have everything to lose and nothing to gain; and we, having nothing to lose, covet all that they possess. The conflict has left us nothing but our lives, and life means nothing to desperate men. The Liberator made clear his terms. 'We must offer peace, and nothing more, in return for independence.' He urged Bolivar to return and save Venezuela as Napoleon had saved France."

Bolivar pointedly rejected the Pez plan of monarchy: Napoleon was great and unique but highly ambitious. Here we have none of this. I am not, nor do I care to be, a Napoleon. I regard these examples as unworthy of the glory that I have achieved. The title of Liberator is superior to any that human pride has ever sought. It cannot, therefore, be degraded. Moreover, our people have nothing, nothing whatever, in common with the French. Our Republic has raised the country to heights of glory and property, endowing it with laws and freedom. First he congratulated Congress on behalf of the nation for meeting to draft a constitution for Colombia. He reviewed the successful end to conflict with Peru, but then, with an understandable tone of bitterness, he tendered his resignation.

I fear, and not without reason, that my sincerity will be questioned when I speak to you of the magistrate who is to head the Republic. But Congress must realize that their honor forbids them to consider me for that post, and that mine forbids me to accept it. Would you, by chance, return this precious authority to him who has delivered it to you? Would you, conceivably, to the detriment of your good name, cast your votes for me? Would this not mean that I had voted myself into power? Far be it from you or me to stoop to such behavior.

As is it your obligation to organize the Republic into a well established government, you will find, both within and without your own august number, illustrious citizens who are capable of discharging the office of president with glory and success. All, all of my fellow-citizens, excluding none, enjoy the great good fortune of being held innocent of suspicions; only I am branded as aspiring to become a tyrant.

Do as you will with the presidency, which I respectfully deliver into your hands. Henceforth, I am but a citizen-in-arms, ready to defend my country and obey her government. My public duties are forever ended. I formally and solemnly deliver to you the supreme authority conferred upon my by the express wish of the nation.

Although it speaks more to his extraordinary personality and his psychological state than his politics, Bolivar's "Delirium over Chimborazo" is well worth reading. What do you think the images and symbolism mean?

The patriots completed their military victories over Spanish forces during the early 1820s. However, with military victory won, Bolivar now faced myriad political conflicts. Opponents accused him of dictatorial excesses and tried to assassinate him. His vision of a united Latin America quickly crumbled. Hounded and ostracized he decided to leave South America for a life in exile. However, Bolivar's physical condition deteriorated badly. He issued his final heart-rending proclamation to "the People of Colombia," dated December 10, 1830. He died, delirious, a week later.