Air University Review, July-August 1986

The Classic Approach

Simón Bolívar and The United States:
A Study in Ambivalence

Dr. David Bushnell

THE Liberator Simón Bolívar, who has been claimed as a forerunner of almost every political movement from social revolutionary to stand-pat traditionalist, has likewise been touted both as the true founder of Pan Americanism and as the farsighted prophet who first warned Latin Americans to combat U.S. imperialism. In reality, just as his political thought contained elements that today both right-wing and left-wing ideologues can find congenial, his approach to inter-American relations exemplifies the ambivalence that has characterized Latin American attitudes toward the United States from the time of independence to the present. And since his words are so often cited–– and cited, often as not, out of context––in discussions of United States-Latin American relations, there is much to be said for looking at exactly what he did think and do about Latin America's northern neighbor.

Bolívar's words carry weight with present day Latin Americans because there was, after all, no one else whose contributions to the independence of the region spanned the entire period of the struggle, as well as so wide a swath of territory, and who was every bit as important in political nation-building as on the field of battle.

No less than six Latin-American nations claim him directly as one of their founders: Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador––all four of which initially came together in a single republic, retroactively dubbed Gran or "Great" Colombia, under his presidency–Peru, and Bolivia. Yet the decisive battle of Ayacucho, won in December 1824 in the highlands of southern Peru by Bolívar's favorite lieutenant, Antonio José Sucre, was celebrated on the banks of the Rio de la Plata as sealing also the independence of Argentina; and, to one extent or another, Bolívar's political leadership was looked up to in all of Spain's former American colonies.

Precisely because his active career covered every phase of the independence struggle in such a wide theater, Bolívar had to deal at one time or another with problems of every variety. And he sometimes dealt repeatedly, but in changing circumstances, with the same problem. Hence the addresses and decrees, public and private correspondence, and other writings of Bolívar seem much like the Bible or the works of Shakespeare: a diligent searcher can find something in them on almost any subject imaginable and can often find Bolívar at one time or another seeming to support every side of every argument. The apparent contradictions may represent, of course, only the application of the same fundamental principle in two quite distinct situations. Bolívar learned by experience and sometimes exercised the right of any intelligent person to change opinions. It is thus hardly any wonder that his words are quoted today with approval––albeit, selectively––in both Caracas and Havana, in Washington and Moscow.

As far as the United States specifically is concerned, Bolívar's views could rest at least in part on direct observation: Bolívar was one of the few Latin Americans of his day who actually visited the United States. He stopped for a period of four or five months on the return leg of one of his two trips to Europe.1 He never made any detailed reference to this visit in his writings, and to what extent his stopover may have influenced his later attitudes must remain a matter of speculation. There is reasonto assume, however, that the impressions he took away with him were generally positive. As he remarked years later to one U.S. diplomat, it was on this short visit that he first observed a condition of "rational liberty."2

Bolívar never again set foot in the United States, but as a leader of the independence movement in Spanish America, he inevitably met and had varied dealings with a great many U.S. citizens and governmental representatives. It has even been hinted, on the basis of rather scant evidence, that one of his lovers may have been Jeannette Hart of Connecticut, whom he came to know in Peru in 1824.3 In general, he made a highly favorable impression on the North Americans whom he encountered. The naval officer Hiram Paulding, who visited Bolívar's camp in the Peruvian highlands during his 1824 campaign, later described him without qualification as having been "the most remarkable man of the age."4 Such praise, moreover, was quite in line with the treatment that he routinely received in the North American press as the "Washington of South America," particularly during the apogee of his political-military career, which may be very roughly defined as the period from the battle of Boyacá in 1819 that ensured the independence of Colombia to the founding in 1825 of Bolivia, the nation that even patterned its own name after his. It was only appropriate that the descendants of George Washington––the "Bolívar of North America," so to speak––were caught up in the general enthusiasm and presented Bolívar with a medallion and other mementos from Mount Vernon in a gesture that touched the Liberator more deeply, he said, than words could express.5

Good feeling among North Americans toward Bolívar never came to an end, but during the last few years of his life it was often overshadowed by a current of criticism that questioned the sincerity of his commitment to republican principles. In large measure, this reaction was the echo of mounting criticism of Bolívar's political initiatives in Latin America itself. There, as his panacea for the social and political unrest of the new nations, Bolívar in 1825 had unveiled the concept of a life-term president with the right to choose his successor, which was soon being assailed as a thinly disguised proposal of monarchy. A life president was the centerpiece of the constitution that he personally drafted for Bolivia and that he hoped would eventually become a model for other countries, including Gran Colombia; and it did not sit well with most liberal publicists.6 Neither was it favorably received by opinion in the United States, a nation that considered itself the natural bulwark of republicanism in a world still dominated by monarchies and that was particularly sensitive to real or imaginary monarchist inroads in this hemisphere. U.S. concern was heightened by a tendency to attribute such designs in Latin America to the influence of Great Britain, at the time the principal political and economic rival of the United States.

For reasons of both political principle and national interest, then, U.S. representatives in Latin America grew increasingly wary of the Liberator. The consul in Lima, William Tudor, changed abruptly from admirer of Bolívar to almost pathological detractor, referring to him in his dispatches as a hypocritical usurper and "madman."7 Chargé Beaufort T. Watts in Bogota still refused to believe that Bolívar had betrayed republicanism and even wrote an impassioned letter in March 1827, imploring him to return to the Colombian capital from Caracas, where he was tarrying, and reassume the presidency to "save" the country––a highly undiplomatic incursion into internal affairs that was sharply condemned by Bolívar's opponents.8 But the next man to represent North American interests in Bogota, future President William Henry Harrison, meddled even more notoriously as U.S. minister and in the opposite political direction. Harrison was spared the embarrassment of being declared persona non grata for his open sympathizing and consorting with Bolívar's enemies only by his routine replacement in favor of a new political appointee after a change of administration in Washington.9 And it was during Harrison's tenure as minister that Bolívar penned the words that have become easily the favorite Bolivarian quotation among contemporary Latin American leftists: "The United States ... seem[s] destined by Providence to plague America with torments in the name of freedom."10

Those who make much of that quotation seldom mention, if they are even aware, the context in which it was uttered. Instead, they commonly imply that Bolívar was foresightedly warning against the later machination of the Central Intelligence Agency in Chile or the not-so-covert struggle of the Reagan administration against revolutionary Nicaragua. In reality, Bolivar's statement is contained in a letter to the British chargé in Bogotá––Harrison's counterpart and diplomatic rival––whose favor Bolívar at the time was ardently seeking, and the principal "torment" involved was nothing but the conventional republicanism that U.S. agents throughout Latin America were then promoting in opposition both to the diplomatic and ideological influence of Great Britain and to the protomonarchist schemes associated with Bolívar and his supporters (These agents' methods often entailed blunt and brazen meddling in Latin American affairs, but their immediate objectives were essentially innocuous.)

Another part of the context of Bolívar's words is, of course, his underlying attitude toward the United States, in which elements of admiration and distrust existed side by side. Under the heading of admiration, there are scattered in his writings any number of highly laudatory references to the United States, its people, and institutions, which receive little emphasis in anthologies published in Havana and, in other quarters, receive sometimes undue emphasis. As he declared in his Angostura Address of February 1819, one of the key documents of Bolívar's political thinking, "the people of North America are a singular model of political virtue and moral rectitude; ... that nation was cradled in liberty, reared on freedom, and maintained by liberty alone."11 Or again, in an essay on public education, he spoke of "the Republic of the United States, that land of freedom and home of civic virtue."12 One wonders how an exemplar of civic virtue could be intent on plaguing America with torments, yet Bolívar meant what he said in both cases.

Though it may seem paradoxical at first glance, Bolívar's very admiration for the virtues of the North American people put him on guard against them. For one thing, he felt that they evoked an excessive and dangerous fascination from his fellow Latin Americans, so that he never failed to join his praise of the United States with a stern warning against attempts to copy U.S. institutions. The people of Latin America, as he stated with some exaggeration in the same Angostura Address, had been given over to "the threefold yoke of ignorance, tyranny, and vice";13 hence, they could not possibly hope to live under the same laws. Indeed, he half suspected that the political institutions of the United States were too perfect to endure indefinitely even here,14 which was simply one more reason why the Latin American nations should not even try to adopt them. As he observed on still another occasion, "I think it would be better for South America to adopt the Koran rather than the United States’ form of government, although the latter is the best on earth."15

But the danger of unwise imitation was only part of the problem. In addition, the United States was just too successful for the comfort of its neighbors. In a letter to Gran Colombian Vice-President Francisco de Paula Santander, he warned that "a very rich and powerful nation, extremely war-like and capable of anything, is at the head of this continent."16 And in large measure, it was "capable of anything" precisely because of those admired virtues and institutions. Moreover, Bolívar had a taste of what he at least regarded as North American bellicosity in an earlier encounter with special agent Baptis Irvine, sent to Angostura (now Ciudad Bolívar) on the lower Orinoco River in 1818 to demand satisfaction for the seizure of two U.S. vessels by Venezuelan naval forces. After being cordially received by Bolívar, lrvine pressed his case in terms so vigorous that the former considered them downright offensive. Then, while rebutting Irvine's protests, Bolívar added his own complaint against the official policy of neutrality pursued by Washington toward Latin America's struggle for independence.17 This policy was essentially the same as that followed by Great Britain, but coming from a New World republic it aroused more resentment; slightly bitter comments concerning it can be found scattered throughout Bolívar's correspondence. Like Irvine's overzealous pressing of financial claims, it undoubtedly contributed to Bo1ívar's opinion (again expressed more than once) that the United States in foreign affairs followed a purely "business-like" policy.18 Perhaps Bolívar's most forceful expression of that particular sentiment took the form of an outburst against "the president of the American hucksters; I detest that lot to such a degree that I would not want it said that a Colombian did anything the same way they do."19

If any one "huckster president" was alluded to in Bolívar's words, it was probably James Monroe,20 whose famous Monroe Doctrine made little impression on the Liberator, to judge from the lack of direct references to it in his papers. Bolívar did recognize that Latin America could count on the help of the United States in case of any threat to its independence from the continental European powers, 21 but he was no less convinced, and quite correctly, that at that time, the attitude of Great Britain carried far more weight, and accordingly he was always eager to win British favor for his cause. Nor did Bolívar feel that a formal alliance with the United States would be to Latin America's advantage. On the contrary, when he laid plans for the first international conference of American republics––which met in Panama in 1826 under his political sponsorship––he did not even wish the United States to be represented.

It is often stated that Bolívar proposed to organize a system of American states without the United States because his aim was to create a Latin American defensive alliance against the United States. If such was his purpose, however, it is not one that he expressly avowed, whereas he did offer two quite specific reasons for not wanting to invite the United States to the Panama Congress. One was his desire not to risk offending the British. The other was his feeling that the United States was simply "heterogeneous" with respect to its southern neighbors, which was another way of stating his belief in the existence of significant differences of culture and historical traditions between the two Americas.22 Just as the distinctive virtues and institutions of the United States made it an inappropriate model to copy and gave it an uncomfortable superiority in military and other strength, they also stood in the way of close collaboration and joint action with other American states. However, Bolívar proposed in the very same breath to exclude Haiti on the same ground of heterogeneity as the United States––and certainly not in its case because of an unspoken aim to curb Haitian expansionism. Neither did he propose to invite Brazil, whose critical difference was the initial adoption of an openly monarchical form of government that had dynastic links with the European monarchies of the so-called Holy Alliance, whose hostility to the new Latin American republics was a source of concern.23 In sum, what Bolívar wished was an alliance of former Spanish American colonies, which alone had enough in common, he felt, for the alliance to be meaningful.

Contrary to Bolívar's desires, the United States and Brazil were both invited to Panama, on the responsibility of Vice-President Santander and the Colombian foreign minister. Bolívar professed to be pleased when he heard that the United States was coming, 24 but most likely he was making the best of a bad bargain. In the end, it made little difference, since one of the two U.S. representatives died on the way, while the other reached Panama after the meeting was over. Brazil failed to act on the invitation received, and the Spanish American nations, a majority of which did send delegates to Panama, failed to accomplish anything of lasting effect at the meeting. The importance of the Panama Congress is thus as a symbol and a precedent, albeit somewhat ambiguous, for later inter-American cooperation.

While not wanting to invite the United States, Bolívar did wish Great Britain to send a representative of some sort to the Panama gathering, and a British observer was in fact present. 25 Bolívar's desire once again underscored his interest in ensuring British favor for the Latin American republics, not simply as a defense against the vague menace of the Holy Alliance but for additional reasons. Undoubtedly, he saw the potential advantage of using Britain in case of need as a counterweight to that "very rich and powerful nation," the United States. But his interest in a special relationship with Great Britain was reinforced by the trend of destabilization that he observed within Gran Colombia itself, as liberals turned against Bolívar in fear that he was determined to foist a Bolivian-type life presidency on them and separatist movements gathered strength in outlying parts of the nation. And when he instructed his ministers in April 1829 to explore the possibility of obtaining some kind of British protectorate for Gran Colombia, they assumed that he also had an overt return to monarchy in mind, because they further assumed that Britain would never consent to such a protectorate unless Gran Colombia first brought its institutions into line with the accepted European model.26 Their subsequent efforts to sound out domestic power brokers and foreign governments on the monarchist option were a poorly kept secret and added to suspicions of Bolívar's intentions on the part of both Colombian liberals and Minister Harrison. It was, in any case, against a background of the protectorate scheme and related monarchist intrigues that Bolívar made his statement that the United States appeared destined to "plague America with torments."

Even when the context of that remark is taken properly into account, it does constitute a fairly conclusive reason why Bolívar cannot be accurately claimed as a forerunner of contemporary Pan Americanism. Instead, he was a forerunner of Pan-Latin Americanism, who, if alive today, would presumably be a warm supporter of all common-market projects and Contadora initiatives and possibly even common fronts against the International Monetary Fund. However, this stance would not itself make him a systematic foe of the United States. In his own lifetime, he was enough of a realist to combine warm admiration for the positive features that he saw in North American culture and institutions with a recognition that on specific issues U.S. and Latin American interests would not invariably be the same and that a people of civic virtue would still not have a foreign policy based on virtue alone. It is difficult to argue with these propositions. At the same time, and despite his irritation over the U.S. policy of formal neutrality in the struggle between Spain and her colonies, Bolívar was fully aware that on the one greatest objective of his own career––Latin American independence––the interests of the two Americas really did coincide.

University of Florida


1. " Cronología de Bolívar," in Sociedad Bolivariana de Venezuela, Escritos del Libertador (Caracus, 1964), vol. I, p. 456.

2. William R. Manning, editor, Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States Concerning the Independence of the Latin American Nations (New York, 1925), vol. II, p. 1322.

3. Antonio Maya, Jeannette Hart, la novia norteamericana de Simón Bolívar (Caracas, 1974).

4. Rebecca Paulding Meade, Life of Hiram Paulding Rear-Admiral, U.S.N. (New York, 1910), p. 68.

5. Simón Bolívar, Selected Writings of Bolívar, compiled by Vicente Lecuna and edited by Harold A. Bierck, Jr. (New York, 1951), vol. II, p. 579.

6. For the text of the Bolivian constitution, see David Bushnell, editor, The Liberator Simon Bolívar: Man and Image (New York, 1970), pp. 47-61. In the view of Vice-President Santander, whose thinking was fairly representative of liberal opinion, this project was "the apple of discord" that led to irreparable political divisions in Gran Colombia, Ibid., p. 151.

7. Manning, Correspondence, vol. III, pp. 1773-1823, 1844-46.

8. E. Taylor Parks, Colombia and the United States 1765-1934 (Durham, North Carolina, 1935), pp. 151-52.

9. Ibid., pp. 153-58.

10. Bolívar, Selected Writings, vol. II, p. 732.

11. Ibid., vol. I, p. 179.

12. Ibid., vol. II, p. 555.

13. Ibid., vol. I, p. 176.

14. Ibid., vol. I., p. 179.

15. Ibid., vol. II, p. 738. Italics added.

16. Ibid., vol. I, p. 307.

17. Benjamin A. Frankel, Venezuela y los Estados Unidos 1820-1888 (Caracas, 1977), pp. 31-32; Sociedad Bolivariana de Venezuela, Escritos del Libertador, XIV, pp. 125-27, 151-58, 207-10, 228-36, 363-65.

18. Bolívar, Selected Writings, vol. I, p. 224. In the Spanish original, the phrase is "conducta aritmética de negocion." Simón Bolívar, Obras completas (Caracas and Madrid, n.d.), vol. I, p. 429.

19. Ibid., vol. II, p. 541. Here the Spanish original of "hucksters" is "regatones," with a connotation of petty haggling in the marketplace.

20. The quotation is from a letter of October 1825, when Monroe was no longer president; but it is part of an unfavorable comment on the style of presidential messages, and it is doubtful that Bolívar had as yet formed any opinion of the messages of Monroe’s successor, John Quincy Adams.

21. Bolívar, Selected Writings, vol. II, p. 482.

22. Ibid., vol. II, pp. 489, 508, 543.

23. Ron L. Seckinger, "South American Power Politics during the 1820s," Hispanic American Historical Review, May 1976, pp. 243-46.

24. Bolívar, Selected Writings, vol. II, p. 585.

25. Juan Diego Jaramillo, Bolívary Canning (Bogotá, 1983), pp. 242-48, 273-78.

26. José Manuel Restrepo, Historia de la Revolución de la República de Colombia (Bogotá, 1942-50), vol. VII, pp. 220-37, 245-50.


David Bushnell (Ph.D., Harvard) is Professor of History at the University of Florida, Gainesville, and Managing Editor of Hispanic American Historical Review. Previously he has served as a USAF historian and chief of the Historical Division, Office of Aerospace Research. Dr. Bushnell is the author of The Santander Regime in Gran Colombia (1954) and Eduardo Santos and the Good Neighbor, 1938-1942 (1967).


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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