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Allan Powell: South America's George Washington

September 06, 2013|By ALLAN POWELL

For several months, while employed as a summer interpreter at Harpers Ferry National Park, I drove through the village of Bolivar and down the steep hill to the park headquarters. At that point in time, I knew very little about this amazing warrior for liberty or why a village in West Virginia would select his name for such an honor. Author Marie Arana, in her recently published “Bolivar — American Liberator” gives a colorful and sensitive account of one of the world’s most dedicated protagonists for liberty.

This fine account of the ousting of a European power from a southern continent can add perspective to our more familiar ousting of a European power from a northern continent. While there are similarities to these struggles for liberty, there are differences. Certainly the character and personality differences of the two liberators — Simon Bolivar and George Washington — are striking.

Two events had a profound influence on the rebellions on both continents: the Enlightenment and the emergence of agitators who had the talent, energy and charisma to organize populations to revolt against royal tyrants that repressed their liberties and grasped their wealth. While the Enlightenment valued reason and liberty, there was also a concerted effort to reduce the power of kings and expand the power of legislative bodies accountable to the people. While Spain was more resistant to Enlightenment liberalism than France and England, the themes filtered into the awareness of malcontents. They saw the reality that the colonies of Spain were open for ideas and leaders to bring an end to Spanish abuses. Simon’s education included the Enlightenment thoughts of Locke, Hume, Voltaire and Rousseau.

The second event, the emergence of opposition leaders, began in 1782 when a small group of Mantuanas (wealthy and influential Creoles but not Spaniards) met in Caracas, Venezuela, to discuss their grievances and the possibility of separating from the crown. This was only one year before the Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolution was signed.

When we compare our liberator, Washington, with Bolivar, “The George Washington of South America,” there are remarkable differences. Bolivar was dwarfed beside Washington, at a mere 5 1/2 feet and carrying a weight of 130 pounds. His endurance in the saddle was legendary — an estimated 75,000 miles, enough to liberate six countries from Spain. Washington stood more than 6 feet tall. Washington had military training starting at an early age, while Bolivar had little formal training. Stories about Washington’s romances indicate an absence of sensuous exploration while Bolivar is reported to be an “insatiable womanizer.” Washington, at a youthful age, compiled a list of rules for good behavior; Bolivar was a self-centered, unmanageable, obnoxious youth.

When we speculate about events that might have profoundly influenced the remarkable transformation in Bolivar’s personality to become a dedicated fighter for liberty for others, several possibilities come to mind. First was his status as a very rich landholder surrounded by poverty, disease, slavery, exploitation and discrimination, supported by a brutal Spanish government. More personal was the tragic and early death of his beloved young wife. Her loss, due to yellow fever, all but destroyed his will to live. Perhaps some meaning could be restored by good deeds. Bolivar professed alarm when Napoleon, in 1804, crowned himself in the Cathedral of Notre Dame. This was praised by a nation that only several years earlier had executed the French nobility for taking their liberties.

Bolivar’s epiphany-like burst to be a liberator happened in 1805 while on vacation in Italy. Arana declares that, “Suddenly, eyes bright with emotion, he whirled around, sank to his knees, and clasping Rodriguez’s hand swore by the God of his fathers that he would liberate his country from the oppressive yoke of Spain.” He then swore, “I will not rest until I rid it of every last one of the bastards.” Later in life, Bolivar told a friend, “The revolution in the United States … was an example. Washington awoke in me a desire to be just like him.”

Bolivar then set about the enormous task of liberating six South American countries. This became a story of human suffering from hunger, exposure to the elements from the frozen Andes to tepid jungles and the wounds of battle. Spain retaliated with savage brutality to control her colonies as Bolivar created republics from Panama to Peru. While his dream of federal unity was too visionary to be realized, he still provided the groundwork for the future.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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