Simon Bolivar: His Life and His Work - Guillermo Sherwell

The Congress of Angostura

A Great Address and Campaigning in the Plains


Congress did not meet until February 15, 1819, on account of the late arrival of some representatives. There again Bolivar spoke, and on this occasion he excelled himself in expressing his ideas regarding freedom.

"Happy is the citizen," he said in his address, "who, under the shield of the armies he commands, has convoked national sovereignty to exercise its absolute will. . . . Only a forceful need, coupled with the imperious will of the people, could force me into the terrible and hazardous position of Dictator and Supreme Chief of the Republic. But I breathe freely now when I return to you this authority, which, with much danger, difficulty and sorrow, I have succeeded in keeping in the midst of the most horrible misfortunes which can befall a people."

Among the most remarkable parts of this document, the following will bear close and careful study:

"The continuation of authority in one individual has frequently been the undoing of democratic governments. Repeated elections are essential in popular systems, because nothing is so dangerous as to permit a citizen to remain long in power. The people get used to obeying him and he gets used to commanding it, from which spring usurpation and tyranny." . . . "We have been subjected by deception rather than by force. We have been degraded by vice rather than by superstition. Slavery is a child of darkness; an ignorant people becomes a blind instrument of its own destruction. It takes license for freedom, treachery for patriotism, vengeance for justice." . . . "Liberty is a rich food, but of difficult digestion. Our weak fellow citizens must greatly strengthen their spirit before they are able to digest the wholesome and nutritious bread of liberty" . . . "The most perfect system of government is the one which produces the greatest possible happiness, the greatest degree of social safety, and the greatest political stability."

The following study of the balance of powers in a country shows keen political penetration:

"In republics, the executive must be the stronger, because all conspire against him; while in monarchies, the legislative power should be the stronger, because all conspire in favor of the monarch. The splendor of the throne, of the crown, of the purple; the formidable support given to it by the nobility; the immense wealth which generations accumulate in the same dynasty; the fraternal protection which kings mutually enjoy, are considerable advantages which militate in favor of royal authority and make it almost boundless. These advantages show the need of giving a republican executive a greater degree of authority than that possessed by a constitutional prince.

"A republican executive is an individual isolated in the midst of society, to restrain the impulses of the people toward license and the propensities of administrators to arbitrariness. He is directly subject to the legislative power, to the people; he is a single man, resisting the combined attack of opinion, personal interests and the passions of society."

Elsewhere in his address, he remarks:

"The government of Venezuela has been, is, and must be republican; its foundation must be the sovereignty of the people, the division of powers, civil freedom, the proscription of slavery, the abolition of monarchy and of privileges." . . . "Unlimited freedom, absolute democracy, are the rocks upon which republican hopes have been destroyed. Look at the old republics, the modern republics, and the republics now in process of formation; almost all have aimed to establish themselves as absolutely democratic, and almost all have failed in their just desires." . . . "Angels only, and not men, could exist free, peaceful and happy, while all of them exercise sovereign power." . . . "Let the legislative power relinquish the attributes belonging to the executive, but let it acquire, nevertheless, new influence in the true balance of authority. Let the courts be strengthened by the stability and independence of the judges, by the establishment of juries, and of civil and criminal codes, not prescribed by old times, nor by conquering kings, but by the voice of nature, by the clamor of justice and by the genius of wisdom." . . . "Humankind cries against the thoughtless and blind legislators who have thought that they might with impunity try chimerical institutions. All the peoples of the world have attempted to gain freedom, some by deeds of arms, others by laws passing alternately from anarchy to despotism, from despotism to anarchy. Very few have contented themselves with moderate ambitions constituting themselves in conformity with their means, their spirit and their circumstances. Let us not aspire to impossible things, lest, desiring to rise above the region of freedom, we descend to the region of tyranny. From absolute liberty, peoples invariably descend to absolute power, and the means between those two extremes is social liberty." ... "In order to constitute a stable government, a national spirit is required as a foundation, having for its object a uniform aspiration toward two capital principles; moderation of popular will and limitation of public authority." . . . "Popular education must be the first care of the paternal love of Congress. Morals and enlightenment are the two poles of a republic; morals and enlightenment are our first needs."

Then Bolivar recommended the sanctioning of his decree granting freedom to the slaves.

"I abandon to your sovereign decision the reform or abrogation of all my statutes and decrees, but I implore for the confirmation of the absolute freedom of slaves as I would implore for my own life and the life of the Republic."

This document might well be quoted in its entirety. Very few in the history of mankind can compare with it. "No one has ever spoken like this man," says an author. The peoples of America have been marching steadily, though at times haltingly, but always in a progressive way, towards the ideals of Bolivar. The Congress of Angostura carried into effect many of these sublime principles.

"An assembly of tried and illustrious men, the Congress of Angostura, responded to the important requirements of the revolution, and when it gave birth to Colombia, powerful and splendid, it realized no longer a task Venezuelan in character, but rather an American mission." .

"The address of the Liberator in Angostura may be considered as a masterpiece of reason and patriotism."

At the beginning the Congress was formed of twenty-six deputies, which number was increased to twenty-nine, representing the provinces of Caracas, Barcelona, Cumana, Barinas, Guayana, Margarita and Casanare. This last province belonged to Nueva Granada and the others forming the same vice-royalty were expected to be represented as soon as freed from Spanish domination. Its president was don Francisco Antonio Zea.

As was proper Bolivar immediately divested himself of the civil authority, handing it to the President of the Congress and then resigned his command of the army, offering to serve in any military position, in which he pledged himself to give an example of subordination and of the "blind obedience which should distinguish every soldier of the Republic." The Congress, as was to be expected, confirmed Bolivar in his command and sanctioned all the commissions he had given during the campaign. He was also elected President of the Republic, with don Francisco Antonio Zea as Vice-President to take charge of the government during the campaigns of the Liberator. He organized the government, made the appointments for the cabinet and sent commissioners to England to obtain arms, ammunition and a loan of a million pounds sterling, undertakings in which the Republic did not meet with success at that time.

The installation of the Congress made a great impression at home and abroad, in spite of the attacks and ridicule with which the Spaniards tried to discredit it. On that eventful day Bolivar saw his dream of a great nation, Colombia, take shape, even though it were in danger of dying shortly after its birth.

After asking all the members of the government and prominent persons of Angostura to remain united in the cause of liberty, he went to join the army in the western section.

During his stay in Angostura and afterwards he had been receiving foreign contingents, especially from England. The Foreign Legion played from that time on a very important role in the War of Independence and helped substantially to obtain the triumph. By means of the British contingents, the plainsmen of Paez, the regular armies of Bermudez and Marino, and the genius of Bolivar, which united and directed all, the final victory was achieved.

After a rapid march, Bolivar joined Paez and for a while waged a constant war in the plains, consisting of local actions by which he slowly, but surely, destroyed the morale of the royalists and did all the harm he could, the climate being a great factor in his favor. He was impetuous by nature, but for a while he imitated Fabius by slowly gnawing at the strength of his foe. He tired him with marches and surprises. He burned the grass of the plains, cleared away the cattle, and drove Morillo to the point of desperation. Meanwhile he lived the same life as the llaneros, for he could do whatever the semi-barbarous plainsmen did. He could ride on the bare back of a horse against the foe, or just for the exhilaration of crossing the endless plains with the swiftness of lightning; he could groom his horse and he did; he swam the rivers, waded marshes, slept on the ground and associated freely with his men in the moonlight in front of the camp fires.

At this point of the war, Paez again distinguished himself by an act of supreme daring. With 150 of his horsemen, he crossed the river Arauca, which separated the independent army from the royalists, and then feigned a retreat along the river, which in very few places could be waded. Morillo, considering him and his men easy prey, sent 1,200 men, including all his cavalry, against the retreating horsemen. When they were far from the main body of the army Paez rushed against the attacking party, without giving them time to organize, and at the first inrush he destroyed the column. The defeated royalists fled to their camp and Morillo decided to withdraw, which he did during the night. This action, fought on April 3, 1819, and known as the Battle of Las Queseras del Medio, covered Paez with glory and Morillo with discredit. Bolivar conferred all the honors and praise possible on the brave Baez and on his men.

At that time the plains began to be flooded. In the northern part of South America, the season of rain, called winter, lasts from May until October. The Valley of the Orinoco becomes in places an interior sea. The cattle go up to the highlands and, where horses walk in the summer, small boats ply in the winter, going from village to village and from home to home. The villages are built on piles; and traveling on horseback is very difficult during this season. On these plains, Bolivar and his men would travel, riding or swimming as required. They would drive cattle with them and kill them for food, pressing the remaining meat under the saddles, and continuing the march. To all of this the plainsmen were accustomed; and to this, Bolivar, born among the greatest comforts and reared amid all the refinements of life, showed no apparent repugnance.