Simon Bolivar: His Life and His Work - Guillermo Sherwell

Birth of Bolivia—Bolivar's Triumph

The Monarchical Idea—from Honors to Bitterness


Immediately after Ayacucho, Bolivar ordered the cessation of conscription and called a constitutional convention for February 8, 1825.

"The deplorable circumstances which forced Congress to create the extraordinary office of dictatorship have disappeared," he said, "and the Republic is now able to constitute and organize itself as it will."

Passing from national interests to his great idea of American union, he issued a circular to all the governments of the continent to carry into practice the assembly of plenipotentiaries of Latin America.

"It is now time," he wrote, "that the common interests uniting the American republics had a fundamental basis to make permanent the duration of their governments, if possible. The task of establishing this system and affirming the power of this great political body must rest upon that lofty authority which may direct the policies of our governments and keep their principles of conduct uniform, an authority whose name alone will calm our storms. So respectable an authority can exist only in an assembly of plenipotentiaries, designated by each one of our republics and united under the auspices of the victory obtained by our armies against the Spanish government. . . . The day when our plenipotentiaries exchange their powers will start an immortal epoch in the diplomatic history of America. When, after one hundred centuries, posterity seeks the beginning of our international law, it will remember the agreements which affirmed its destiny and will gaze with respect upon the conventions of the Isthmus. And then it will find the plan of the first alliances showing the course of our relations with the world. What will the Isthmus of Corinth then be, compared with the Isthmus of Panama?"

Bolivar now sent his resignation to Colombia, stating that since he had fulfilled his mission and there were no more enemies in America, it was time to carry out his promise. At this very time he was beginning to be attacked by his enemies as an ambitious man who desired monarchial power! These attacks, it was clear to him, would become more numerous, and even foreigners would take part in the abuses. But there does not now exist one document which warrants a single accusation against Bolivar for immoderate aspirations.

When the War of Independence had practically come to a close Rodil was holding Callao, and Upper Peru was still in the hands of the Spanish. Sucre undertook to remedy this situation while Bolivar attended to the convening of the constitutional congress in Peru. The Liberator remarked how dangerous it was "to put into the hands of any one man a monstrous authority which could not be placed without danger into the hands of Apollo himself." Speaking to the delegates he said he desired:

"to compliment the people because they have been freed of that which is most dreadful in the world, war, through the victory of Ayacucho, and despotism, through my resignation. Proscribe forever, I pray you, such enormous authority, which was the doom of Rome. It was praiseworthy, undoubtedly, for Congress, in order to pass through the abyss and face terrific storms, to substitute the bayonets of the liberating army for its laws, but now that the country has secured domestic peace and political freedom, it should permit no rule but the rule of law."

The Peruvians insisted that Bolivar should retain the power, and passed a decree conferring it on him, without, however, calling him dictator, so as to respect his will. On the same day a decree ordered several honors to be paid him and also that one million pesos (about $1,000,000) be distributed among the officers and soldiers of the liberating army, and that another million pesos be placed in the hands of the Liberator as a token of gratitude of the country.

Bolivar was very much moved, and, to a certain extent, hurt by this pecuniary reward. He declined to accept in the following words:

"I have never wanted to accept, even from my own country, any reward of this kind. It would be a monstrous incongruity if I should receive from the hands of Peru that which I refused to receive from the hands of my country."

Congress finally asked Bolivar to take the million dollars and devote it to charities in his own country and other parts of the republic of Colombia. This Bolivar agreed to do.

Bolivar decided to remain in Peru until the convening of the following congress, which was to assemble in 1826. He immediately bent all his energy to the work of government, in which he was, if possible, more admirable than he was as a soldier. Among the several measures of his administrative work was the establishment of normal schools in the departments, tribunals of justice, several educational institutions, mining bureaus, roads, public charities and multitudinous other services.

On April 1, 1825, Sucre defeated the last Spanish troops in a place called Tumusla.

Upon the completion of his work, Bolivar started to visit Cuzco and Upper Peru. In the city of Arequipa, on May 16, he issued a decree proclaiming the republic of Alto (Upper) Peru. In Cuzco he was received in triumph. A thousand ladies offered him a beautiful crown set with pearls and diamonds. The Liberator received it and immediately sent it to Marshal Sucre, saying:

"He is the conqueror of Ayacucho and the true liberator of this republic."

From Cuzco, Bolivar went to La Paz, and there he was received in like manner. The assembly of Alto Peru sent representatives to meet him. The country had received the name of Republica Bolivar (now Bolivia). From there he went to Potosi, where he remained several weeks, accepting the homage and gratitude of the people. There he received several members of the diplomatic corps and a committee sent by the government of Buenos Aires with the purpose of complimenting him for the services he had rendered to the cause of South American independence which, as they said, Bolivar had made secure forever.

He gave Bolivia its first political organization, applying his favorite ideas about the distribution of powers. Here he repeated what he had done everywhere when in command. He established educational institutions; ordered that the rivers be examined in order to study the feasibility of changing their courses so as to furnish water to arid and sterile areas; distributed land among the Indians; suppressed the duties on mining machinery; ordered the planting of trees, and showed in a thousand ways his untiring energy, all the while keeping in active diplomatic correspondence and in constant communication with his friends and civil officers, in order to give instructions in detail. He issued orders from Chuquisaca to have the Venezuelan soldiers sent back to their country from Peru. He even went so far as to entertain thoughts of the independence of Cuba and Porto Rico.

In January, 1826, he left Chuquisaca for the coast and from there he sailed for Peru, and a month later reached Lima, where he rendered an account of what he had done in Upper Peru and in the South. By that time the last stronghold of the Spaniards, Callao, had fallen into the hands of the Venezuelan general, Bartolome Salom, a very distinguished officer who had played a remarkable role under Bolivar during the War of Independence. The resistance of Rodil in Callao is one of the best examples of Spanish bravery. Rodil was a rough soldier, and often harsh and cruel in his measures. In spite of hunger, illness and losses, he remained in Callao for almost eleven months, not surrendering until January 23, 1826; he and his men were the last representatives of the Spanish power to leave the continent.

As soon as everything was well organized in Peru, Bolivar made ready to return to Colombia. At that time some imprudent friends tried to convince him that it was to the best interest of the now independent countries that he should be made emperor of the Andes, which covered Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. From Caracas, Paez proposed that he should return to Colombia and set up a monarchy. Bolivar steadfastly refused to listen to any of these seductions. To Paez he wrote:

"France had always been a kingdom. The republican government discredited itself and became more and more debased until it fell into an abyss of hate. The ministers who led France were equally cruel and inept. Napoleon was great, singular, and, besides that, extremely ambitious. Nothing of the kind exists here. I am not Napoleon, nor do I wish to be; neither do I want to imitate Caesar, and still less Iturbide. . . . The magistrates of Colombia are neither Robespierre nor Marat. . . . Colombia has never been a kingdom. A throne would produce terror on account of its height as well as on account of its glamour."

To all his friends he declared his decided opposition to the monarchical idea. In another letter, addressed to vice-president Santander, he wrote:

"I have fulfilled all my obligations, for I have done my duty as a soldier, the only profession which I have followed since the first day of the Republic. . . . I was not born to be a magistrate. . . . Even if a soldier saves his country, he rarely proves a good executive. ... You, only, are a glorious exception to this rule."

One of the greatest rewards for his ambition, the one he valued the most throughout the rest of his life, was received at that time. It consisted of Washington's picture and a lock of his hair, sent as a present by Washington's family from Mount Vernon through General Lafayette. In his letter to Bolivar, Lafayette said:

"My religious and filial devotion to General Washington could not be better recognized by his family than by honoring me with the commission they have entrusted to me. . . . Of all men living, and even of all men in history, Bolivar is the very one to whom my paternal friend would have preferred to send this present. What else can I say to the great citizen whom South America has honored with the name of Liberator, confirmed in him by two worlds, a man endowed with an influence equal to his self-denial, who carries in his heart the sole love of freedom and of the republic?"

Bolivar answered:

"There are no words with which I can express how my heart appreciates this gift. . . . Washington's family honors me beyond my greatest hopes, because Washington's gift presented by Lafayette is the crown of all human rewards."

While yet aglow with the great satisfaction he derived from this episode, Bolivar was annoyed again by the movement to make him accept a crown. Some thing still worse occurred at this time. In 1826 trouble broke out in Venezuela because of the activities of Paez.

We have already mentioned that Venezuela was divided into three military districts, governed by Bermudez, Marino and Paez. These three men had been at times hostile to Bolivar, and, in order to satisfy their ambitions, he had placed them in high commands. Paez was stationed in Caracas, where his arbitrary rule was resented by the people. He intrigued against the vice-president, Santander, executing his commands in such a way as to produce ill-will, especially an order providing for the recruiting of soldiers in Venezuela, which because of the manner of its execution, caused much protest and resulted in complaints to the House of Representatives against Paez. The House endorsed the accusation and submitted it to the Senate, which suspended Paez from his post and summoned him to the capital. Paez refused to appear, but at last was obliged to leave his command and retire to Valencia as a private citizen. Once there, he instigated all sorts of disturbances, and succeeded in creating an appearance of popular clamor for his reinstatement in command of the department in order to avoid anarchy. In this he was helped by his friends and partisans. A faction asked him to accept the military command of the department, and Paez, supported by the municipal council of Valencia, did so in disobedience to Congress. He adopted the title of Military and Civil Chief of Venezuela. He succeeded in enlisting the support of Marino, but not that of Bermudez, in spite of all his flattering propositions. Thus started the endless chain of civil revolutions in independent Latin America.

Santander wrote to the Libertador asking him to help save the country from revolution. Paez also sent a communication to him, in which he complained against vice-president Santander. Bolivar decided to return at once to his country, but he met with strong opposition on the part of the Peruvian authorities and people. After some hesitation, he concluded to return home, thus ending the period which marks the height of his popularity. Soon his glory was to be tarnished by ingratitude. He departed from Peru never to return. "Whatever remains of that life is sorrow."

On the way to his country, Bolivar found that the southern provinces of Colombia wanted him to be dictator, but he declared that it was his desire that the constitutional regime should continue. He sent a proclamation to the Colombians, once more offering his services as a brother.

"I do not want to know," he said, "who is at fault. I have never forgotten that you are my brothers-in-blood and my fellow soldiers. . . . Let there be no more Cundinamarca; let us all be Colombians, or death will cover the deserts left by anarchy."

He crossed at the foot of the lofty Chimborazo and arrived in Quito, where he was again received with rejoicing, as he had been in all the towns on his way home; and again he was urged to assume dictatorship. This he steadfastly refused to do. In the middle of November he arrived in Bogota, where he exhorted the people to union and concord. He expressed much satisfaction at the obedience to law on the part of the army, "because if the armed force deliberates, freedom will be in danger, and the mighty sacrifices of Colombia will be lost." For two days only he exercised the executive power, but those days were sufficient to deepen the impression he had left as a great organizer.

He then continued on his way to Venezuela, learning that Paez, who was openly opposed to the most cherished ideas of Bolivar, had convoked a Venezuelan constitutional congress to meet in Valencia on the 15th day of January, 1827. Appreciating the type of man he was to face, Bolivar gathered a small army, to be prepared for contingencies. On his way he learned that Puerto Cabello, which had declared itself in favor of union, had been attacked by Paez and that Venezuelan blood had been shed. Upon his arrival at Maracaibo, he published a proclamation, resolved to make every effort at persuasion before resorting to the sword. Paez had declared that Bolivar was coming to Venezuela as a citizen to help with his advice and experience to perfect the work of reform. From Coro, the Libertador wrote him, attempting to convince him that his conduct was criminal and making him flattering offers if he would desist. When the people of Caracas learned that Bolivar was approaching, a reaction took place, to such an extent that Paez became frightened. Some of the population openly declared themselves in Bolivar's favor.

On the last day of 1826, Bolivar's mind passed through a crisis in an effort to decide what steps would best reduce Paez to obedience, and, if possible, avoid bloodshed. On the following day, the first of 1827, he issued a decree, by virtue of his extraordinary powers, granting an armistice to all those who had taken part in the so-called reform movement, and ordering that his authority as President of the Republic be recognized and obeyed. He also offered to convoke a national convention. Paez hesitated no longer; he acknowledged the authority of Bolivar as President, annulled the decree convoking a congress, and ordered that the President should be honored in all the towns from Coro to Caracas. From Puerto Cabello, Bolivar issued a beautiful proclamation in which he said:

"There are no longer any enemies at home . . . Today peace triumphs. . . . Let us drown in the abyss of time the year 1826. . . . I have not known what has happened. Colombians, forget whatever you know of the days of sorrow."

Paez humiliated himself to the point of asking that he be tried, but Bolivar would not permit it. He even praised Paez for his self-denial, going so far in his generosity as to call him savior of the country. This generosity was censured, especially by the people of Nueva Granada, and was considered a weakness on the part of Bolivar. It was thought to be an indication that he feared his authority would not be sufficiently strong to carry him through the dangerous business of disciplining a man with so large a following as Paez. But this was not so. Bolivar had, upon the occasion of Piar's treachery, shown himself capable of decisive, if difficult action; but his preference was always for justice tempered with mercy. That he felt no weakening in personal power is shown by the following incident: At a banquet where Paez and his partisans formed the great majority of those present, a man started a debate which gave Bolivar opportunity to make very energetic declarations, and even to utter the following words:

"Here is no other authority and no other power than mine. Among all my lieutenants I am like the sun; if they shine it is because of the light I lend them."

Silence followed these words; everybody, including Paez, realized that Bolivar could make himself respected whenever he wished.

His reception in Caracas surpassed any one that Bolivar had ever been given. He could not walk because of the crowd. He had to listen to addresses, hymns and eulogies, receive crowns, attend banquets and accept all kinds of homage. His modesty was recognized by an inscription on one of the banquet tables: "To conquer in the field of battle may be the work of fortune; to conquer the pride of victory is the work of the conqueror." Paez, who had been presented a sword by Bolivar, expressed his gratitude in the warmest terms, and pledged himself to the service of his fellow citizens.

"I should rather die a hundred times," he said, "and lose every drop of my blood than to permit this sword to leave my hand, or ever attempt to shed the blood which up to now it has set free. . . . Bolivar's sword is in my hands. For you and for him I shall go with it to eternity. This oath is inviolable."