Simon Bolivar: His Life and His Work - Guillermo Sherwell

The Man and His Work

Bolivar was of rather less than medium height, thin and agile. In all his actions he showed quickness and alertness. He had large, black, piercing eyes, his eye-brows were curved and thick; his nose straight and long; his cheeks somewhat sunken; his mouth, not particularly well formed but expressive and graceful. From early youth his forehead was deeply lined. His neck was erect; his chest, narrow. At one period of his life he wore a mustache and side-whiskers, but he resumed shaving about 1825, when grey hair began to appear. His hair was auburn at first, and his complexion very white in his youth, but tanned after his long campaigns. His appearance evidenced frankness of character, and his body, spiritual energy.

Bolivar was always a great reader. In his style and his quotations he shows his predilection for the classics, especially for Plutarch's "Lives." He also read much of the literature of the French Revolution. He was a very impressive orator; his addresses and proclamations show much emphasis, and the rhetorical artifice is apparent, as it is in all literature of this kind. In his letters he uses a very simple and naturally witty style. He was a great coiner of sentences, many of which can be found in his proclamations and addresses. His political perspicacity was remarkable. He could and did break the conventionalities and the political principles sacred in that epoch, to formulate those which were better for the condition of the country. He was a shrewd judge of men, and knew how to honor them and please them for the good of the cause they defended. All his intellectual power was necessary to become a master of men like Paez and Bermudez. His mental alertness was exceptional. He could make a decision promptly without showing the effect of haste. He had a brain for large problems and for small details. He would attend to the organization of his army down to the most minute details, as well as to the preparations for long campaigns.

The most admirable moral quality of Bolivar was his constancy. It rose above everything.

His energy was marvelous to carry him through the difficulties he had to encounter. In defeat he had

"the virtue of Antheus as no other hero had to such a degree; a singular virtue of growing to more gigantic proportions when the fall had been deepest and hardest; he had something like a strengthening power to assimilate the sap of adversity and of discredit, not through the lessons of experience, but through the unconscious and immediate reaction of a nature which thus fulfils its own laws. His personality as a warrior has in this characteristic the seal which individualizes it, as was aptly said in a few words by his adversary, the Spanish general Morillo: 'More fearful vanquished than victor.'"

His soul could be like steel, as in the case of Piar, and it could be soft, as in his untiring forgiveness to Santander. His generosity was unlimited. He gave all. Any soldier could come to him and receive money. It is said that no common soldier went away from him with less than a dollar. When he was on his way to Cartagena, having resigned power forever, when he was writing to Caracas for money, at a time when he had not enough to pay his transportation abroad, he was still giving of his limited resources to all who begged of him.

His ambition was legitimate. In a communication he acknowledged that he was not free from all ambition; but that does not mean that he yielded to it. Virtue does not lie in the absence of temptation, but in fighting it successfully. He was truly ambitious for glory, and when glory is as legitimate as his was, there is no worthier ambition. He was accused by Lorain Petre of craving flattery, and of having been delighted with the homage paid him on his way to Potosi. Great men have been flattered always, and that they are flattered does not mean that they like flattery. Furthermore, there is a certain delicate flattery which every man likes. We, sober-minded Americans, have often heard some of our great men who are still living, even called saints, and we do not feel shocked. After having given life to three countries, one of them composed of three large divisions, Bolivar could receive homage without finding it incongruous or exaggerated.

He was refined in manner and always a gentleman. In his campaigns he was careless of his clothing through necessity, but when in the cities he liked to have all the refinements. He never thought of money; he would spend it if he had it, and if he did not spend it, he gave it away. He enjoyed society and was a great admirer of women. "He knelt before love, without surrendering his sword to it."

He was human. He enjoyed a good joke, and sometimes his jokes hurt. It is related that once, after a long march, he arrived at a small town where he expected to get some food. He was received by the notables of the town, among them a young intellectual, who took from his pocket a long address. Bolivar listened to the beginning and at once knew that it was going to be not only long but tedious. The young man came to a sentence reading: "When Caesar crossed the Rubicon . . . ," at which point Bolivar interrupted him, saying, "My dear friend, when Caesar crossed the Rubicon he had had his breakfast, and I have not yet had mine. Let us first have breakfast." Generally, he respected everyone's feelings, and was much inclined to praise others, the living as well as the dead. We may well remember the honors paid to Girardot, his beautiful words in homage to Cedeflo and Plaza, how Paez received his dues after the battle of Carabobo, and how Sucre was given his right place as one of the most legitimate glories of the continent by Bolivar. Speaking of Anzoategui's death, he said: "I would have preferred the loss of two battles to the loss of Anzoategui." No more beautiful way could be found to be generous while being just.

We have called Bolivar a gentleman; we might rather call him a knight. He loved an ideal and lived for that ideal, and that ideal was his last thought before he went to his rest.

He was judged in Europe and North America in very flattering terms. Daniel Webster, J. H. Perkins and Joseph Story, in the name of the Bunker Hill Monument Association, wrote Bolivar the following:

"When we read of the enormous sacrifice of personal fortune, the calmness in difficult situations, the exercise without misuse of a power greater than imperial power, the repeated refusal of dictatorship, the simplicity of your republican habits and the submission to the constitution and law which has so gloriously distinguished the career of Your Excellency, we believe that we see the image of our venerated Washington. At the same time that we admire and respect his virtues, we feel moved by the greatest sympathy to pay equal homage to the hero and Liberator of the South."

Martin Van Buren wrote:

"What better example could be presented of human glory than that of the great chieftain who, after having successfully resisted foreign aggression and extinguished domestic commotion, also conquered the weakness to which noble hearts have been subjected at all times."

Murray, an English rear admiral, wanted to present his homage to the "leader of all South America"; Lord Byron, whose yacht was called Bolivar, also expressed his desire to visit him. Lafayette, Monsignor de Pradt, Martin de Nancy, Martin-Maillefer, and the noted Humboldt, among others, expressed their admiration for Bolivar. Victor Hugo praised him. His name was on the lips of the republicans of Europe as a symbol of liberty.

We have seen the words of Lafayette in transmitting the present sent to Bolivar by Washington's family. A former member of the French Convention wrote to him: "You are the first citizen of the world." The noted Irish orator O'Connell sent his son to him with the following words: "I am sending him to you, illustrious sir, in order that, admiring and imitating your example he may serve under Your Excellency." The same was done by Sir Robert Wilson, member of the English Parliament. Kosciusko's nephew went to him to have the honor to serve him. The Dutch representative in Bolivia compared him with William of Nassau. Bernadotte, King of Sweden, spoke of a striking analogy between Bolivar and himself. Joseph Bonaparte, King of Spain, expressed his desire that Murat's son go to Bolivar as his aide-de-camp. Iturbide's son preferred also to serve under him. J. P. Hamilton, British commissioner to the republic of Colombia, says: "He is the greatest man, the most extraordinary character produced up to this day by the new world." He considers him "super-eminent above all heroes living in the Temple of Fame."

Many persons have made comparisons between Bolivar and Napoleon, Bolivar and Washington and Bolivar and San Martin. Juan Montalvo (in Simon Bolivar)  writes that Bolivar is not so well known as Napoleon because the glamour of Napoleon's life reduced to silence the lives of his contemporaries. He asserts that in the future, Bolivar will take his place beside the French Emperor. Napoleon owes his glory to Chateaubriand, to Lamartine, to Madame de Stael, to Byron, to Victor Hugo, while Bolivar has had few biographers, and a very few have spoken of him with the power and authority of those who praised or attacked Napoleon.

Regarding a comparison between Washington and Bolivar, Montalvo says:

"Washington presents himself to memory and imagination as a great citizen rather than as a great warrior; as a philosopher rather than as a general... . Washington and Bolivar have in common their identity of purpose; both aspired to the freedom of a country and the establishment of democracy. The difference between these two illustrious men lies in the excessive difficulty one had to conquer and the abundance with which the other carried on his work to the end. Bolivar, during several periods of the war, had no resources at all, nor did he know where to get them; his indestructible love for his country, the sense of honor active in his breast, the fertile imagination, the supreme will, the prodigious activities which formed his character, inspired in him wisdom to turn the impossibility into a reality. . . . North America was rich, civilized and powerful even before its emancipation from Mother England; if the colonists had not had their leader, one hundred Washingtons would have presented themselves to fill the place, and not at a disadvantage. Washington was. surrounded by men as remarkable as he was, if not better: Jefferson, Madison, men of great and deep counsel; Franklin, a genius of Heaven and earth. All these and many others, no matter how great they were, or how numerous, were as one in the service of the cause, were rivals in obedience. . . . Bolivar had to tame his lieutenants, to fight and to conquer his own fellow citizens, to fight one thousand elements conspiring against him and against independence, at the same time that he fought the Spanish legions and conquered them or was conquered by them.... Washington presents himself to the admiration of the world, more venerable and majestic, and Bolivar, higher and brighter. Washington established a republic which later became one of the greatest countries on earth; Bolivar founded also a great country, but, less happy than his elder brother, saw it crumble down; and though he did not see his work destroyed, he saw it disfigured and diminished. The successors of Washington, great citizens, philosophers and statesmen, never dreamed of tearing up the sacred mantle of their mother in order to cover their scars with rags of purple; Bolivar's companions, all of them, stabbed Colombia in order to take for themselves the greatest prize. Washington, his work finished, accepted the trivial presents of his fellow citizens; Bolivar refused millions offered by Peru. Washington declined a third presidential term in the United States and, like a patriarch withdrew to live tranquilly in the bosom of private life, enjoying without any mixture of hate the respect of his fellow citizens, venerated by the people and loved by his friends. This singular and happy man had no enemies. Bolivar accepted the tempting command that came to harass his spirit for the third time, and this time from an impure source, and he died rejected, persecuted, insulted by many of his contemporaries. Death has erased this small blemish and we see only the light which surrounds the greatest of South Americans. Washington and Bolivar were august men, the glory of the New World."

In reality, great men cannot be compared. Each one stands by himself. Washington was an able general, ready to sacrifice himself for his country; a learned man, trained in military affairs; the representative of the will of his fellow citizens, who were behind him in his tremendous fight for freedom. Washington was the Father and the servant of his country.

Bolivar did not receive special training in military affairs. He did not represent the will of his country, for his country had no will. His country really did not exist. Bolivar created it. He was obeying no commands but those of his conscience. He was making something out of nothing, and in his campaigns it was the flash of genius which led him rather than science.

Washington was successful as a military commander and more so as a statesman; Bolivar had remarkable successes and crushing defeats as a general, and, as a statesman, he showed a vision which amounted to inspiration—but the creation of his mind and soul, Colombia, was a sad failure. Washington lived in a country of law; Bolivar had to make the law. When Washington was absent from a place, law remained in that place; when Bolivar turned his back, law was violated.

San Martin is a noble figure. He stands alone in the southernmost part of America. He did not begrudge praise given Bolivar, whose superiority he acknowledged by withdrawing in time from the scene in America. Because of this acknowledgment, San Martin grew greater than he had been before their interview in Guayaquil. To endeavor to establish invidious comparisons between him and Bolivar does harm to both heroes and good to no one. Let both stay where they belong, in the hearts of their fellow-citizens, and in the minds of lovers of freedom.

Strong resemblance might be found between Bolivar and Lincoln. Both gave freedom to slaves; both fought a real civil war, for we must not forget that most of the royalists were Americans. Both were men of sorrows. A close examination of Bolivar's pictures and statues will reveal to the observer that in the eyes of the great man of the South is the same inexpressible melancholy which is obvious in those of our own man of sorrows, the beloved Lincoln. Bolivar was insulted and slandered as was Lincoln, and if Lincoln was assassinated by a man, Bolivar escaped the weapon of the assassin only to sink under poisonous treachery and ingratitude. It is true that Bolivar was quick-tempered, at times sharp in his repartee; his intellectual aptness had no patience with stupidity, and occasionally his remarks hurt. But when the storm had passed, he was all benevolence, enduring all, forgiving all, like Lincoln.

He compared himself with Don Quixote, and in many ways this comparison is the best. As Don Quixote, he created Dulcinea. It was not Don Quixote's fault that the lady of his thoughts, the ideal Dulcinea, proved to be just the uncouth peasant girl, Aldonza Lorenzo. Bolivar's Dulcinea was his people, and he was not to blame for all the weakness, the roughness, the grossness of those with whom he came in contact. But the American Don Quixote had a higher virtue than the knight created by Cervantes, for Don Quixote never could transform Aldonza into Dulcinea, while the peoples that Bolivar saw in his imagination, those peoples who at first were hostile to his work, through a century of constant purification, through a century during which Bolivar has become a symbol, a protecting genius, a warning against danger, an irresistible force to conquer difficulties and an imperious finger pointing to higher destinies, are approaching more and more each day what Bolivar thought they ought to be. The Aldonza Lorenzo of. America, through Bolivar's sublime madness, rid of her dross, will be the Dulcinea of Bolivar's dream.