From Revolution to Father of the Nation: Biography of Simon Bolivar

All about Simon Bolivar's life, from his childhood to his military campaigns, political accomplishments, and lasting legacy. Whether you're a history buff or just curious about one of the most important figures in Latin American history, this article has everything you need to know about Bolivar.

From Revolution to Father of the Nation: Biography of Simon Bolivar
Portrait of Simon Bolivar (Anonymous, 1815)

Simón Bolívar was born in Caracas on July 24, 1783, into a prominent family of Basque origin that had been established in Venezuela since the late 16th century. His father, Colonel Don Juan Vicente Bolivar y Ponte, passed away when Simón was just three years old, leaving his mother, Doña Concepción Palacios Blanco, to manage the family's considerable assets and take charge of the children's education. Simón had three older siblings - María Antonia, Juana, and Juan Vicente - and another sister, María del Carmen, who unfortunately passed away at birth.

Despite the tragedy of losing his father at a young age, Simón was fortunate enough to inherit a rich estate that had been established for him in 1785 by Presbyter Juan Félix Jérez y Aristaguieta, in addition to his paternal inheritance. His mother was a woman of fine sensibility and proved to be an excellent manager of the family's wealth.

During his early years, Simón Bolívar spent most of his time in his hometown, occasionally visiting the family's haciendas in the Aragua Valleys. However, in 1792, his mother, Doña Concepción, passed away, and his sisters María Antonia and Juana married young. As a result, Simón and his brother Juan Vicente were left in the care of their maternal grandfather, don Feliciano Palacios. The family resided in a house facing San Jacinto square in the city center.

Unfortunately, Simón's grandfather passed away, leaving him in the care of his uncle and guardian, Carlos Palacios. At the age of 12, Simón experienced a common early adolescence crisis and ran away from his uncle to seek refuge with his sister and her husband, with whom he felt more affectionately connected. After a favorable resolution of the situation, Simón became a boarder in the house of don Simón Rodríguez, a brilliant pedagogue and social reformer who headed the School of First Letters in Caracas.

Simón and Rodríguez quickly established a mutual understanding and sympathetic relationship that lasted throughout their lives. Although Rodríguez left Caracas in 1797, Simón continued his education with other teachers in the city. He received lessons in writing and arithmetic from Carrasco and Vides, while Fray Jesús Nazareno Zidardia and Presbyter José Antonio Negrete taught him history and religion. Guillermo Pelgrón served as his Latin teacher, while Andrés Bello provided private lessons in history and geography. Bello, who later became the first humanist in America, possessed a wealth of knowledge even in his youth.

Bolivar was destined for a career in arms, and at the tender age of 14, he enrolled as a cadet in the Battalion of White Militia of the Valleys of Aragua. His father, a former colonel, had previously served in the same battalion. In less than a year, Bolivar was promoted to Second Lieutenant, with a glowing service record that noted his outstanding application and known valor.

In addition to his practical military training, Bolivar pursued theoretical knowledge in various subjects that formed the basis of military training, such as mathematics, physics, and topographic drawing. To that end, he attended an academy established by the wise Capuchin Friar Francisco de Andujar in Bolivar's own house in mid-1798. The academy was also attended by several of Bolivar's friends.

Simon Bolivar's European Journey

In 1799, he embarked on a journey to Spain where he resided in Madrid. There, he was fortunate to have the guidance of his uncles Esteban and Pedro Palacios, as well as the wise Marquis of Ustáriz, who provided him with intellectual and moral direction. During his stay, he dedicated himself wholeheartedly to his studies and received an education that befitted a gentleman of the time. He delved into a wide range of subjects, including history, classical and modern literature, mathematics, and French.

Additionally, he learned fencing and dancing, both of which he made remarkable progress. Through frequent attendance of gatherings and salons, he polished his spirit, improved his language skills, and developed greater poise. It was in Madrid where he met María Teresa Rodríguez del Toro y Alayza, with whom he fell deeply in love.

Towards the end of 1800, he considered settling down and starting a family, before returning to his homeland to tend to his properties. However, he waited and in the spring of 1801, he traveled to Bilbao, where he stayed for most of the year. Afterward, he briefly toured France, visiting Paris and Amiens, before returning to Madrid in May 1802, where he married María Teresa on the 26th.

The couple traveled to Venezuela, but their happiness was short-lived, as Maria Teresa passed away in January 1803. He returned to Europe later that year, passing through Cadiz and Madrid, before settling in Paris in the spring of 1804 as a young widower.

Bolivar's life in the nascent French Empire was a whirlwind of social and intellectual activity. He was drawn equally to the pleasures of society and the excitement of European politics, attending the theater, salons, and gatherings, and meeting beautiful women as well as scholars like Alexander von Humboldt and Amado Bonpland.

Bolivar's passion for knowledge was evident in his attendance at conferences and free study courses, where the latest theories and information were disseminated. He was particularly devoted to reading during this period of his life and reunited with his mentor, Simon Rodriguez, whose experience and knowledge proved to be an invaluable asset in their conversations, readings, and travels. The two of them even crossed the Savoy on foot and visited Italy together.

In Rome, on Monte Sacro, in August 1805, Bolivar made a solemn vow in front of his mentor to work tirelessly until he had liberated the Spanish-American world from Spanish control. After this momentous occasion, Bolivar went on to ascend Vesuvius with Baron Humboldt and other scientists, while Rodriguez and he separated once again.

Bolivar later joined a Masonic lodge in Paris before becoming aware of the attempts made by Precursor Miranda in Venezuela. He decided to return to his homeland and left the French Empire in 1807 on a neutral ship that stopped in Charleston before he traveled through parts of the United States. Bolivar finally returned to Venezuela later that year.

Portrait of Simon Bolivar (Anonymous, 1804-1806)
Portrait of Simon Bolivar (Anonymous, 1804-1806)

Simon Bolivar: From Aristocrat to Liberator

As a young aristocrat, he focuses on promoting his estates while keeping an eye on the future of his country. In 1808, he won a resounding lawsuit against Antonio Nicolás Briceño over the boundaries of one of his estates. Along with his brother Juan Vicente, he often holds meetings with friends at their country house in Caracas, located on the banks of the Guaire River. They discuss literature and make plans for the independence of Venezuela.

On April 19, 1810, Bolivar was appointed, alongside Luis Lopez Mendez and Andres Bello, as a commissioner to the British Government by the Board. After completing his mission, Bolivar returned from London by the end of the same year, having witnessed firsthand the practical functioning of institutions in England.

At the heart of the Patriotic Society of Caracas, Bolivar was a fervent advocate of Independence, which the Congress proclaimed on July 5, 1811. Bolivar joined the Army as a Colonel and contributed to the subjugation of Valencia in 1811 under the orders of Miranda.

Despite his best efforts in 1812, Bolivar could not prevent the fall of the plaza of Puerto Cabello into the hands of the royalist forces, of which he was commander, due to betrayal. General Miranda also capitulated before the Spanish chief Domingo de Monteverde in the middle of 1812.

Bolivar, along with a group of young officers, including the unfortunate Precursor, was arrested in the port of La Guaira while eager to continue the fight. However, their efforts were in vain. Bolivar was fortunate to have a friend, Don Francisco Iturbe, who helped him obtain a passport, which allowed him to escape to Curacao and then to Cartagena de Indias.

In Cartagena de Indias, Bolivar wrote and published his "Memoria dirigida a los ciudadanos de la Nueva Granada por un caraqueño," one of his significant writings that expressed his political beliefs and principles that would guide his actions in the coming years.

From 1818 onwards, triumphs would come to dominate the brilliant military campaigns of this individual, although victories and setbacks had alternated until then. Leading a small army, he cleansed the banks of the Magdalena River of enemies, seized the town of Cúcuta in February 1813, and began the liberation of Venezuela in May. His series of combats and skillful maneuvers led him, victorious, from the border of Táchira to Caracas in just three months, earning the well-deserved title of the Admirable Campaign.

During his passage through Trujillo in June, he dictated the Decree of War to Death, affirming the incipient national sentiment of the Venezuelans. Earlier, while passing through Mérida, the people had hailed him as the Liberator, a title that was formally bestowed upon him in October 1813 by the Municipality and people of Caracas, securing his place in history.

Venezuela's Terrible Year and Bolivar's Flight

During the period spanning August 1813 to July 1814, known as the Second Republic, Venezuela experienced what is commonly referred to as the Terrible Year. The War to Death was raging and battles, both won and lost, were occurring at a rapid pace.

Despite significant victories such as those at Araure, Bocachica, and the first battle of Carabobo, and the heroic resistance of both the entrenched camp of San Mateo and the city of Valencia, General Simon Bolivar and General Santiago Mariño, who had previously liberated the East of the country, were ultimately forced to yield to the overwhelming number of their adversaries.

The main leader of the opposing forces was the realist José Tomás Boves, who triumphed in the Battle of La Puerta in June of 1814, forcing the patriots to evacuate Caracas. This led to a significant emigration towards the East of the country, where Bolivar and Mariño found their authority unrecognized by their comrades-in-arms.

Bolivar, once again seeking refuge, fled to New Granada where he intervened, with varying degrees of success, in internal political struggles. He managed to persuade the city of Bogota to join the United Provinces, further bolstering his influence. However, in May of 1815, Bolivar was forced to abandon his command in front of Cartagena, to prevent the outbreak of a civil war.

From May to December 1815, he found himself isolated in Jamaica, eagerly awaiting the opportunity to intervene once again in the struggle. During this time, he reflected on the fate of Spanish America, and in September, he penned the famous Letter of Jamaica. In it, he demonstrated his profound understanding and prophetic vision of the continent's past, present, and future.

Portrait of Simon Bolivar (Antonio Meucci, 1830)
Portrait of Simon Bolivar (Antonio Meucci, 1830)

Bolivar's Expeditions and Victories in Venezuela

After Napoleon's defeat in Europe and the arrival of a powerful Spanish army led by General Pablo Morillo in Venezuela, the royalist supporters gained renewed courage. Meanwhile, Bolivar traveled to the Republic of Haiti in search of resources to continue the fight. The President of Haiti, Alejandro Petión, generously provided him with the necessary resources.

Bolivar led an expedition from Los Cayos, which arrived on Margarita Island in May 1816 before moving to the mainland. They took Carúpano by assault, and on June 2, Bolivar issued a decree granting freedom to the slaves, which he soon ratified.

However, Bolivar was separated from the majority of his forces in the port of Ocumare de la Costa and had to return to Haiti to organize a second expedition. They arrived on Margarita Island at the end of the year. By early 1817, Bolivar was in Barcelona, to seize the Province of Guayana and make it the base for the final liberation of Venezuela.

The patriots took the capital of the province, Angostura (now Ciudad Bolivar), in July, and Bolivar organized the State by creating various councils and courts, including the Council of State, Council of Government, Superior Council of War, High Court of Justice, and Consulate Tribunal. He also established a newspaper, the "Correo de Orinoco," which began publication in June 1818.

Despite fighting against both the Spaniards and the anarchy that had infiltrated his camp, Bolivar continued to push forward. In October 1817, General Manuel Piar, one of the main republican leaders, was shot in Angostura after a military trial. However, Bolivar's "Law of Distribution of National Assets" also helped strengthen the patriotic sentiment during this time.

The Center campaign of 1818 started well for the republicans when the Liberator successfully caught the royalist general Morillo off guard in Calabozo. However, the republicans suffered a defeat in the Semén siege.

In another close call, Bolívar nearly lost his life to a royalist patrol in Rincón de los Toros at night. Nonetheless, on June 5th, Bolívar returned to Angostura where he received support from a Diplomatic Agent from the United States and a significant number of European volunteers.

Bolivar's Struggle for Independence

On February 15, 1819, Bolivar summoned the Second Congress of Venezuela in Angostura, where he delivered a speech that laid out his political ideology and presented a draft Constitution. Soon after, he set out on a campaign to liberate New Granada, leading his army across the treacherous paramo of Pisba. In July 1819, his forces engaged in brutal battles at Gámeza and Pantano de Vargas before achieving a decisive victory in the Battle of Boyacá on August 7.

Bolivar subsequently entered Bogota, leaving General Santander in charge of the newly organized provinces of New Granada. After returning to Angostura, Bolivar proposed and secured the passage of the Fundamental Law of the Republic of Colombia by the Congress in December 1819. This historic law created a vast state comprising the modern-day republics of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, and Panama.

In January 1820, the Liberal Revolution erupted in Spain, adding momentum to the republican cause. The tides began to turn as the Republic armies secured victories across the country - Cartagena fell under siege, while Merida and Trujillo were liberated. Seeking peace, the new Spanish government and the patriots signed the Treaty of Armistice and the Regularization of the War in Trujillo in November 1820. The Liberator, Bolivar, met with General Morillo in Santa Ana.

After the Armistice expired, the republican armies advanced toward Caracas. On June 24, 1821, Bolivar led a decisive battle in the Sabana de Carabobo, ultimately securing Venezuela's independence. The remnants of the Royalist Army fled to Puerto Cabello, which finally fell in 1823. Bolivar triumphantly returned to his hometown, greeted by the jubilation of his fellow citizens.

Portrait of Simon Bolivar (Anonymous, 1832)
Portrait of Simon Bolivar (Anonymous, 1832)

Bolivar's Pursuit of South American Independence

In his pursuit of freeing South America from Spanish rule, Bolivar's next focus was Ecuador. He traveled through Maracaibo and arrived at Cúcuta where the Congress was convening. From there, he made his way to Bogotá. In 1822, two patriot armies under Bolivar and General Antonio Jose de Sucre attempted to liberate Quito. After the Battle of Bomboná in April, which broke the resistance of the Pastusos, Sucre emerged victorious at the Battle of Pichincha on May 24. This led to the integration of Ecuador into the Republic of Colombia. During his time in Quito, Bolivar met Manuela Saenz, who became the love of his life.

On July 11, Bolivar arrived in Guayaquil where he met General Jose de San Martin, who had just arrived from Peru on July 25. The two heroes of South American independence embraced and discussed matters of importance, which were documented by Bolivar and his General Secretariat. However, San Martin's main objective to negotiate the future of Guayaquil could not be achieved as it had already been incorporated into the Republic of Great Colombia.

By mid-1823, the political and military situation in Peru had worsened. Bolivar, called upon by the Congress and the people of Peru, embarked from Guayaquil on August 7 and arrived in Callao at the beginning of September. The situation was chaotic and Bolivar focused on reorganizing the army with the corps that had accompanied him from Guayaquil as the central nucleus. In January 1824, Bolivar fell ill in Pativilca, on the Peruvian coast, where he received news that the garrison of Callao had defected to the royalists. Despite the difficulties, Bolivar's indomitable spirit manifested in his famous exclamation: "Triumph!"

After Lima fell to the royalists, the Peruvian Congress took a bold step before dissolving itself: they named Bolivar Dictator, granting him unlimited powers to save the country, much like the old Roman Republic. Bolivar calmly accepted the tremendous responsibility and retired to Trujillo, where he worked tirelessly.

Bolivar's genius and his unwavering faith in the destiny of America worked miracles. He undertook the offensive and, on August 7, 1824, he defeated the Royal Army of Peru in Junin. The campaign continued, and Bolivar entered Lima, reestablishing the siege of Callao.

Meanwhile, General Sucre achieved the definitive seal on American freedom on December 9, 1824, in Ayacucho. Two days prior, Bolivar had invited the governments of Latin America to send their plenipotentiaries to a Congress in Panama. The invitation was sent from Lima, and the Congress did indeed convene in June of 1826.

After the military phase of Independence came to an end, Bolivar made an important gesture on February 10, 1825. Standing before the Peruvian Congress in Lima, he relinquished the unlimited powers that had been conferred upon him. Two days later, Congress recognized the Army and the Liberator with honors and rewards.

However, Bolivar declined the million pesos that had been offered to him. He then embarked on a journey to visit Arequipa, Cuzco, and the provinces that were formerly known as Alto Peru, which were now a nation under his leadership. This new nation was called the "Bolivar Republic," known today as Bolivia.

In 1826, Bolivar drafted a Constitution Project for the newly-formed state. This document expressed his vision for the consolidation of order and independence in the recently emancipated countries.

The Life and Legacy of Simón Bolívar

General Paez led a revolution known as "La Cosiata" against the Government of Bogota in April 1826, while Bolivar was away. When Bolivar returned to Caracas, he worked to reestablish peace at the beginning of 1827. However, the forces of dissociation were stronger than unifying tendencies. Bolivar distanced himself politically and personally from Vice President Santander, leading to a total rupture. Bolivar left Caracas for the last time on July 4, 1827, and arrived in Bogota via Cartagena. He was sworn in as President of the Republic before Congress on September 10, 1827.

In 1828, the National Convention gathered in Ocaña but dissolved without agreement among the parties. The Dictator, Bolivar, narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in Bogota that same year. He then embarked on a campaign to counter Peruvian forces in Ecuador, where he remained for most of 1829, despite feeling unwell.

In early 1830, Bolivar returned to Bogota to convene the Constituent Congress, but Venezuela had already declared independence, and opposition to his rule was growing in New Granada. Despite his failing health, Bolivar worked to preserve his legacy. However, he eventually resigned from the presidency and traveled to the coast after learning of Sucre's assassination.

Deeply affected by the news, Bolivar planned to leave for Europe, but he died on December 17, 1830, at San Pedro Alejandrino, a hacienda near Santa Marta. His last proclamation, a political testament, had been addressed to his compatriots on December 10th.

His exceptional talents, intelligence, willpower, and selflessness set him apart from his peers. Simón Bolívar devoted these qualities entirely to a noble cause - the liberation and organization of several nations. Today, Simón Bolívar is revered as a Father by those he liberated. In 1842, his mortal remains were brought to Venezuela with great ceremony and now rest in the National Pantheon.

Full Citation: “Biografía De Simón Bolívar - Simón Bolívar.” Biografía De Simón Bolívar - Simón Bolívar,