In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Simón Bolívar

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Biography
  • The Spanish Empire and the Bourbon Reforms
  • Comparative Histories of the Spanish American Independence Movements
  • The Wars of Independence in Andean South America
  • Bolívar’s Contemporaries
  • Bolívar, Slavery, and Haiti
  • Bolívar’s Intellectual Formation
  • Bolívar’s Constitutional Designs
  • Bolívar and Spanish American Unity
  • Bolívar the Icon

Atlantic History Simón Bolívar
by
Joshua Simon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 August 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0355

Introduction

Simón Bolívar was born in 1783 in Caracas, the capital city of the Captaincy-General of Venezuela (roughly corresponding to the present-day country of the same name), which was one of three territorial sub-units of the Spanish Viceroyalty of New Granada, the others being New Granada (present-day Colombia and Panama) and Quito (present-day Ecuador). The Bolívars were wealthy and prominent members of the city’s Creole—European-descended and American-born—upper class. Upon his parents’ death, Bolívar inherited significant agricultural and mining assets as well as a large number of slaves. After an excellent private education and two European tours, Bolívar devoted himself to the cause of Spanish American independence. Throughout the crisis provoked by Napoleon I’s 1808 intervention in Spain, Bolívar led a radical faction advocating within Caracas for the end of imperial rule. In 1811, Venezuela became the first Spanish American nation to formally declare independence. During the prolonged and brutal war that ensued, despite some devastating setbacks, Bolívar gained unrivaled influence over the patriots’ military, political, and diplomatic efforts throughout Andean South America. In 1816, Bolívar exchanged a promise to abolish slavery for material and logistical support from the president of the Southern Republic of Haiti, Alexandre Pétion. Bolívar landed a small force at Puerto Cabello, built a base in the Venezuelan plains, and then led a spectacular assault on Spanish forces across the Andean highlands, taking the Viceregal capital at Santa Fe de Bogotá in 1819. Convinced that only an expansive state could guard its independence against Spanish reconquest, Bolívar designed a constitution for what historians now refer to as “Gran Colombia,” a federal union encompassing the entire former Viceroyalty of New Granada. He then pressed his attack southward, liberating the sometimes-reluctant populations of the Andean highland regions of Quito, Peru, and Upper Peru, which was renamed Bolivia in Bolívar’s honor. Even as Bolívar designed new constitutions and began planning a larger Federation of the Andes, regional leaders within Gran Colombia’s constituent states began agitating for greater autonomy. Bolívar employed increasingly dictatorial means in his efforts to suppress his domestic opponents, while at the same time issuing invitations to the governments of the other independent states of Spanish America—and, after some urging from his vice president, to the United States of America—to send representatives to a diplomatic congress in Panama, where he hoped they might forge a still-broader alliance against both internal and external threats to American independence. The Panama Congress met in 1826, and the delegates negotiated some important bilateral treaties, but the Congress did not fulfill Bolívar’s aspiration to create a permanent forum for arbitrating disputes and coordinating the foreign policies of the new American republics. Domestic politics in Gran Colombia spun out of control in this period as well, as first Venezuela and then Ecuador seceded from the union. Bolívar spent the final months of his life disillusioned and incapacitated by tuberculosis. He died in 1830 at the age of 47.

Reference Works

Documents relevant to Simón Bolívar’s life, ideas, and legacy are numerous, varied, and dispersed across archives on three continents. Fortunately, the devoted efforts of several scholars have produced some excellent guides, of which Grases 1978 and Pérez Vila 1964 are the most important. The latter serves as the Introduction to Bolívar 1964–, an ongoing effort to publish a complete edition of all known Bolívar writings. Though less comprehensive, Bolívar 1950 is the standard source for most scholarship. Academia Nacional de la Historia 1961 compiles seventy-eight constitutions and constitutional projects undertaken in Spanish America in the period of independence, including Bolívar’s constitutions for Venezuela, Colombia, and Bolivia. De la Reza 2010 offers excellent annotations and a useful selection of texts related to the Panama Congress. For English translations of Bolívar’s writings, Bolívar 1951 offers the broadest selection of texts, while Bolívar 2003 is accessible, well-curated, and helpfully annotated, making it particularly useful for the classroom.

  • Academia Nacional de la Historia. El pensamiento constitucional hispanoamericano hasta 1830: Compilación de constituciones sancionadas y proyectos constitucionales. 5 vols. Caracas, Venezuela: Academia Nacional de la Historia, 1961.

    Enormous collection sof both actually promulgated and merely proposed constitutions from across Spanish America in the period of the independence movements, including Bolívar’s proposed constitutions for Gran Colombia and Bolivia.

  • Bolívar, Simón. Obras completas. Edited by Vicente Lecuna and Esther Barret de Nazarís. 2d ed. 3 vols. Havana: Editorial Lex, 1950.

    Widely available and containing a broad selection of Bolívar’s discourses, articles, and correspondence, these volumes are still the most widely cited source in scholarship on Bolívar’s writings.

  • Bolívar, Simón. Selected Writings. Translated by Lewis Bertrand. Edited by Vicente Lecuna and Harold A. Bierck Jr. 2 vols. New York: Colonial Press, 1951.

    A broad selection of Bolívar’s speeches, published writings, and correspondence in good English translation.

  • Bolívar, Simón. Escritos del Libertador. Edited by Cristóbal L. Mendoza, et al. 29 vols. Caracas, Venezuela: Sociedad Bolivariana de Venezuela, 1964–.

    Thus far, the Sociedad Bolivariana de Venezuela has published twenty-nine volumes in their ongoing efforts to produce a complete edition of all of Bolívar’s writings.

  • Bolívar, Simón. El Libertador: Writings of Simón Bolívar. Translated by Frederick H. Fornoff. Edited by David Bushnell. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    A very well-organized and carefully curated selection of Bolívar’s writings, with excellent annotations and a good general introduction; perfect for the classroom.

  • de la Reza, Germán A., ed. Documentos sobre el Congreso Anfictiónico de Panamá. Caracas, Venezuela: Biblioteca Ayacucho, 2010.

    A very useful collection of documents related to the Panama Congress of 1826, including Bolívar’s original invitations, subsequent correspondence, bilateral treaties, and other essential materials, with an excellent introductory essay.

  • Grases, Pedro. El Archivo de Bolívar. Caracas, Venezuela: Equinoccio, 1978.

    Guide to manuscripts and volumes contained in the largest archives of Bolívar documents in Caracas, Venezuela.

  • Pérez Vila, Manuel. “Contribución a la bibliografía de los escritos del Libertador.” In Escritos del Libertador. Vol. 1. By Simón Bolívar, 61–290. Caracas, Venezuela: Sociedad Bolivariana de Venezuela, 1964.

    The most comprehensive overview of Bolívar’s known writings, including manuscripts, volumes, and correspondence, organized by archive, publication, period, and subject.

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