Simon Bolivar: The Makings of a Revolutionary

A few weeks ago, I was talking about genealogy with a co-worker of mine. He told me that he was related to Simon Bolivar, a famous South American revolutionary leader. Ironically, when I was a student at Longwood University, for my Colonialism course I wrote a thesis paper for that class about Bolivar. The following is the said thesis paper. Enjoy!!!

Simon Jose Antonio de la Santisima Trinidad Bolivar y Palacios, Simon Bolivar, was influenced by many factors early in his life that led him to become a revolutionary leader. The people he met in his early life, and the ideas they instilled upon him, led to the formation of ideas of liberating his homeland from Spanish rule. Bolivar read the writings of authors such as Rousseau which had an influence on the revolutionary thoughts he developed. In his teenage years he had received some formal military training, though not much. This helped him in his future ventures as a general during the Spanish American wars of independence.

One of the biggest influences on his development of revolutionary thoughts came from his two visits to Europe in which he met some of the people who would help to drive him to thoughts of independence from Spain and liberating his native country of Venezuela. Also on his visits to Europe, Bolivar had experiences that led him to despise the Spanish Crown and he began to see the Spanish government for what it really was.

Simon Jose Antonio de la Santisima Trinidad Bolivar y Palacios, Simon Bolivar, was born on July 24, 1783 in Caracas which was the capital of the Spanish captaincy-general of Venezuela. A captaincy-general is “the office, power, territory, or jurisdiction of a captain general”, the captain general being the head of that territory. The godfather of Simon Bolivar did not agree with his parent’s name they had chosen for him so the godfather said that he should be named Simon after the first Bolivar that arrived in Spanish America. Simon, said his godfather, is a good name of prophecy in that the “Jewish nation was liberated by one Simon Maccabaeus, and who knows what this boy may be when he grows up? He may do as much for his country.” Bolivar’s father, Don Juan Vicente Bolivar, died when he was three years old and his mother, Dona Maria, died in 1792 when he was nine years old. After his mother’s death he was sent to live with his uncle Don Carlos Palacios. In his youth his uncle engaged in hiring a series of tutors for young Simon which did not work out well until Don Carlos hired Simon Rodriguez, a man who would play a major role in Simon Bolivar’s life.

Simon Rodriguez was the greatest influence in Bolivar’s life because of the views he expressed to Bolivar, some of the writers he introduced to him, and other things he taught him. Bolivar’s trustees chose Rodriguez to be his tutor because of his modern ideas of education. In Rodriguez’s tutoring of Bolivar he tried “to sandwich in between his philosophy, his talks on politics, his hatred for the Spanish and their rule, something of Latin, arithmetic, history, and languages.” Between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-six, Rodriguez taught Bolivar, himself between nine and fourteen. The best way to describe Rodriguez’s teaching of Bolivar is:

To this highly intelligent boy, Simon Carreno or Rodriguez brought a new world: the world of ideas. It was like a sky of glorious and luminous
clouds over a treeless and solitary landscape. Justice, liberty, equality, republic, education, posterity, fraternity, nature, goddesses of the
mind, mistresses of the heart, raised by the omnscient youth of twenty-one before the fiery eyes and glowing imagination of the child of eleven.
Of all these new deities, one must have appealed to the keen child more than any other, for he was Spanish, and he felt himself hemmed in by
traditions. Liberty! Away with all chains!

Other thoughts Rodriguez placed upon Bolivar included “rebellion against authority, anarchy against order, rationalism against religion, abstract thought against organic tradition, freedom for the self against inner and outer bonds.

One day Rodriguez did not show up at the regular hour for Bolivar’s lesson and Bolivar found out that he had left the country because he had been involved in plotting a revolution against the Spanish king and this saddened Bolivar greatly. The two would not be together and reunited again until Bolivar’s second trip to Europe in 1803. Andres Bello took over as Bolivar’s tutor but his uncle realized that his education at this point was not making any progress so he decided that young Bolivar should go to Spain to continue his studies.

Bolivar received formal military training beginning at the age of fourteen in which he was enrolled in the militia of the valleys of Aragua. While in the militia Bolivar “attained the rank of alferez, or sublieutenant, but his military performance was thoroughly unremarkable, with no indication of future glory” but nonetheless his early military experience somewhat helped him out in his future undertakings as a military leader. While Simon Bolivar was still a young boy he would sometimes “wander off through the streets of Caracas, mixing freely with members of other social classes in a way that no doubt helped prepare him for his later role as a leader of ragged conscript armies.”

Bolivar in his youth made two trips to Europe, one in 1799 (after the standstill in his education) and the other in 1803; both had a profound impact on him.

In 1799 Bolivar arrived in Spain and headed for Madrid to live with another one of his uncles, Esteban Palacios. While in Spain on this first trip there were a couple of situations which would lead Bolivar to begin to feel animosity toward the Spanish.

While in Spain he played battledore with Prince Ferdinand, who later became Ferdinand VII of Spain, whom he did not like because of the prince’s overbearing, despotic character. While the two were playing this game Bolivar batted the shuttlecock at the prince and hit him in the face, but it is not sure whether or not it was intentional, but considering Bolivar did not like the prince it is likely that it was on purpose. The two got into a fight over the issue and the queen made the two young men make peace. It was only temporary, within less than five years he expressed his contempt for Ferdinand.

There was one incident that opened up Bolivar’s eyes to the treatment of Spanish American’s (also known as creoles) by the Spaniards from the mainland, known as peninsulars. One day Bolivar was out riding around when some Spanish soldiers surrounded him in an attempt to arrest him, saying he was a foreigner who stole jewels, and that they were going to search him. Appalled by this incident, Bolivar threatened to kill any soldier who made an attempt to touch him and as soon as the soldiers saw how serious he was, they apologized and left him be. Outraged by this occurrence, he went to the home of a friend, Manuel Mallo, to get a reason for the insult in which he got an insulting response. He then went back to his uncle Esteban’s home and told him of the incident in which Esteban went to get an explanation and an apology but no apology was given for what happened. Esteban ended up packing up his home and left Madrid; Bolivar went to stay with the Marquis de Uztaris.

Also on his first trip to Europe, Bolivar met Maria Teresa Rodriguez del Toro. Bolivar married her in Madrid, Spain in May of 1802, after a short trip to France earlier that year. The two returned to Caracas and just eight months after the marriage, she died of either yellow fever of malaria.

The main idea Bolivar gained from this first trip to Europe was a realization of the treatment of the Spanish American Creole class by the native Spaniards. On this first trip “his direct observation of the intrigues and corruption of the Spanish court could only reinforce whatever critical thoughts may have been already forming in his mind with regard to political injustice and social abuses.” When Spaniards went to Spanish America some intermixed with natives and settled down and started families. The intermixing of the races caused divisions in class and resulted in long-standing turmoil and unrest in the Spanish colonies. The native Spanish considered those who preferred Spanish America over Spain creoles. Bolivar and his family were considered Creole. Over time less and less creoles were given positions in governmental affairs. After Bolivar began to see this, he started to harbor more thoughts of animosity toward the Spanish government.

After his wife died, Bolivar, with some persuasion from friends and family, decided once again to make a trip to Europe. He arrived in Madrid near the end of 1803 but only stayed for a short while. On March 27, 1804 a decree issued by the king “ordered all creoles, or colonists, as well as foreigners, to leave the capital” because of “scarcity of food.” This was just another example of Spain’s abuse toward its Creole class.

Simon Bolivar therefore made another trip to Paris, France where he would be influenced by the ideas and thoughts of people such as Abbe Raynal and Baron Alexander von Humboldt. It was also in France that he and his mentor Simon Rodriguez would again be reunited in 1805. Rodriguez noticed that Bolivar did not look healthy and determined that the two should take a trip by walking to Italy in the hopes that it would revive Bolivar’s health. On this trip Rodriguez helped Bolivar materialize his ideas and thoughts of revolution from what he had taught him earlier in his life. Now that Bolivar was older and more mature, Rodriguez hoped that he would understand what was going on in the Spanish American Colonies

During the days and months that followed, however, Simon learned a great deal about the history of his country, and as Rodriguez’s ideas had been
the first of a revolutionary nature that Simon had ever heard, and the early plot his tutor had participated in was the first to catch the
imagination of the boy, so now these same ideas began to take definite form in the mind of the boy grown to manhood. With more and more frequency
they talked of revolution. For himself Rodriguez had no ambitions. Those he had once had in his own youth he now roused into life in Simon. It
was 1805, and there was a particular reason why the tutor was in a hurry to reach Milan. Napoleon was there. Simon now despised him, Rodriguez
knew that; and to see the former idol crowned King of Italy might, he hoped, stir his pupil to action. Slowly and carefully he had been planting
his ideas in the youth’s mind. Here was an excellent chance to see what effect they had.

Before this voyage Bolivar was intrigued by and admired Napoleon Bonaparte, the new leader of France because of his political and governmental ideas. After Napoleon took over as dictator, though it did not set well with Bolivar because Napoleon to him became a tyrant and that was what was going on in Spanish America, tyranny.

The two finally reached Rome, Italy in August of 1805. Both Rodriguez and Bolivar climbed Monte Sacro, the Holy Hill on which Bolivar made a vow saying “on my honor, and on my life I swear that this arm shall never rest, this soul shall have no peace, until I have broken the shackles which chain us to Spain.” Rodriguez had achieved his goal. Bolivar had now realized his purpose in life which was to return home to Venezuela and free his native country and other Spanish American colonies from the rule of Spain.

Bolivar had other influences on his ideas and thoughts that contributed to him becoming involved in the revolutionary movements that were taking place in Spanish America. A major influence on Simon Bolivar were the thoughts and writings of Abbe Raynal whose “favorable concepts regarding the Creoles naturally received the most sympathetic acceptance in America.” Raynal also “brought forward every argument to prove the injustice of the colonial policy of Spain and of her treatment of the Creoles.” The thoughts of Raynal not only inspired Bolivar but Raynal’s thoughts and writings were widely read throughout Spanish America. His book The Philosophical History of European Establishments in the Indies was considered to be the spark of the revolution in Spanish America. An additional person who was influential to Bolivar was Baron Alexander von Humboldt whom he met on one of his trips to France.

Another reason for Bolivar’s contempt for the Spanish government was the fact that in Spanish America there was virtually no real educational institutions such as colleges and universities. “Education and environment and, let us add, temperament were all contributing factors in Bolivar’s radical and revolutionary attitude.” While in France, Bolivar went to Humboldt to discuss his educational concerns of Venezuela.

Some time after their talk, Simon went to Humboldt and questioned him about the possibility of founding a free college in Caracas. Before the
older man could reply, Simon with flushed cheeks offered his entire personal fortune for the project. Humboldt knew the policy of Spain was to
decrease rather than increase education among the colonists, and so the twice proffered fortune went begging. “Tempt me again when the colonies
of South America are free,” Humboldt told Simon. “Then I will help you, but now I am too old to start a revolt against King Charles for the
founding of your college. Remember, only through education can freedom bring happiness.”

With Humboldt promising to help Bolivar found a college in the event that the colonies of Spanish America gain independence gave Bolivar even more motivation to join in the revolution to help free his native country and people from the tyranny of the Spanish government. British institutions and the English Constitution were also a big influence on Bolivar in that it inspired his political ideas he wanted for his native land. “He constantly repeats: ‘Liberty is English.’ The letters of the last part of his life reveal that he was faithful to this admiration for British institutions.

The institutions of the United States helped Bolivar in the ideas and things he wanted to see his country have, if and wen it could gain independence from Spain. Bolivar said he would “build a government and help start schools so that the people can govern themselves as they are doing in North America.” After his second trip to Europe, Bolivar planned to go back to Venezuela and to visit the United States on the way. In his visit to the United States he was able to observe everything he envisioned for his country in action. One of his stops was in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where he learned that “schools had been established there very early, and during his visit Simon gathered his first definite ideas for an educational system that in later years he used in his own country.” From the United States he returned to Venezuela and began his part in the independence movements going on.

Simon Bolivar would go on to become the main leader of the patriot forces in the Spanish American wars of independence. He experienced victories and defeats with an army that was outnumbered in most of the battles fought and an army which was much less disciplined than that of the Spanish army. Through his defeats he was able to learn how to become a better commander and statistician and learned not to make the same mistakes again. Bolivar experienced desertions in his army, financed it out of his own pocket at certain times, and there were some instances in which his army neared collapse, similar to what George Washington experienced in the American Revolution. In the end Bolivar helped the Spanish American colonies gain independence from Spain.

Bolivar would go on to gain many political positions throughout the liberated Spanish American colonies which included the positions of 1st President of Greater Colombia (December 17, 1819-May 4, 1830), 2nd and 3rd President of Venezuela (August 6, 1813-July 7, 1814), 1st President of Bolivia (August 12, 1825-December 29, 1825), and 6th President of Peru (February 17, 1824-January 28, 1827). The most ironic event in his life is the fact that he died in the home of a Spaniard by the name of Joaquin Mier. Simon Bolivar died on December 17, 1830 of tuberculosis.

From the beginning Simon Bolivar was destined to become an independence leader. The people he encountered and the ideas those people placed upon him played an integral part in the forming of his ideas of liberating his native country from Spanish rule. Simon Rodriguez’s involvement in Bolivar’s life was the biggest influence in that Rodriguez tutored him in his youth putting revolutionary ideas into his head which he would later formulate and realize the importance of in his trips to Europe. Through these ideas he was able to realize what was to be his destiny.

Bolivar’s trips to Europe also proved important because on these trips he was able to see the corruption and injustice in the way the Spanish dealt with their colonial subjects in Spanish America. He used the institutions of both England and the United States to envision what he wanted for his native country in the event that it gained its independence from Spain. The writings of Raynal helped Bolivar to better see and understand the injustices of the Spanish crown on the creoles in Spanish America. The meetings with Humboldt gave Bolivar more motivation to become a revolutionary because Humboldt made him aware of the fact that Spain was decreasing education in her colonies and in their talks Humboldt said he would help Bolivar set up schools in Venezuela only in the event that the Spanish American colonies gained independence.

Bolivar seeing what Napoleon was doing in France helped him to envisage what kind of ruler he did not want to be. Upon viewing the educational institutions in the United States, Bolivar was able to get an idea of how he wanted to set up future educational practices in his native land. With all the ideas and knowledge he obtained, Bolivar was able to construct his own views which ultimately led him to become a revolutionary and help his country and other Spanish American countries gain their independence from Spain in which he is still remembered for today.


Belaunde, Victor Andres. Bolivar and the Political Thought of the Spanish American Revolution. New York: Octagon Books, 1967.

Bushnell, David. Simon Bolivar: Liberation and Disappointment. New York: Pearson Education, 2004.

De Madariaga, Salvador. Bolivar. New York: Schocken Books, 1952.

Marschall, Phyllis and John Crane. The Dauntless Liberator. New York: The Century Co., 1933.

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3 Responses

  1. Cecelia Long says:

    This was an interesting article to read.

  2. Xavier says:

    Great stuff! Now I just want to dig deeper i to his history!

    • Todd Long says:

      Xavier, yeah it was really interesting as I was researching Bolivar when I was in the planning stages of writing that paper. The more I learned and read about him, I was like, wow, he’s like the George Washington of South America, the main difference being though that Bolivar received a good education, something Washington did not gain. Washington, as they say, went to the school of hard knocks; his father had died when he was young, his older brothers were lucky to have been able to be educated abroad in England. But there definitely were many parallels in the two men. And as I make note of in the paper, Bolivar had travelled to the U.S. to see how things worked here and he likely learned a lot about our struggle and fight for independence and likely took some guidance from our fight for freedom. Happy hunting!!!

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