Viva la Revolución

The Fourth of July is the most of American of holidays. I mean that not just in the estadounidense sense. When the 13  colonies of British America declared their independence from George III, stating that “all men were created equal” and had basic rights which included the right to topple oppressive governments and establish new ones in their place, the subjects of Carlos III began bristling under the yoke of Spanish colonialism.

That the two monarchs were both IIIs wasn’t the only similarity between the two Americas. Just as it was the bourgeoisie of New England and the slave-owning aristocracy of the South who rose up against London, it was the criollo elite in Mexico, New Granada (Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Panamá) and Río de la Plata (Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay and Paraguay) who would revolt against the Bourbon Reforms and the privileged, Spanish-born peninsulares. The Revolt of the Comuneros in New Granada, a precursor to the wars of independence in Spanish America, occurred less than six years after Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, and centered on — what else? — the crown’s weakening of local autonomy and burdensome taxation.

Earlier this week the Wall Street Journal published an article by Caitlin Fitz, a professor of history at Northwestern, in which she describes how Fourth of July became a call for revolutionary solidarity across the Americas:

“The international ardor rang loudest on July Fourth, but it reverberated year-round. Appalachian farmers read poetry about Andean independence. Sailors wore cockades for revolutionary Montevideo. Parents even named their sons Bolivar, after Simón Bolívar, the Venezuelan political and military leader sometimes called the ‘George Washington of South America.’

“During the 1824 presidential election, Andrew Jackson named his prized ‘stud colt’ Bolivar, after the Americas’ other premier general. And when the citizens of Steubenville, Ohio, gathered to commemorate the nation’s 50th-year ‘jubilee’ on July 4, 1826, the star of their parade was a prizewinning ram also named Bolivar.

“Sometimes this grass-roots enthusiasm translated into concrete support. Around 3,000 privateers from the U.S. swashbuckled under Latin American flags, and American merchants became one of the rebels’ primary firearms suppliers. In 1822, the U.S. became the first country in the world to extend diplomatic recognition to Peru, Chile, Argentina, Mexico and Colombia (which itself also included modern-day Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama).”

Famously the Marquis de Lafayette, who’d served under General Washington during the first American revolutionary war, dubbed General Bolívar “the George Washington of South America,” a comparison “El Libertador” relished. Lafayette even presented Bolívar with a gold medal in 1826 containing a mini portrait of the late president and a lock of his hair, along with the inscription: “This portrait of the author of liberty in North America was donated by his adopted son to him who achieved equal glory in South America.” Not being able to travel down to the newly liberated Republic of Colombia himself, Lafayette sent the medal to his former protégé with a letter in which he wrote, “Of all men living and even of all men in history, Bolívar is the one to whom Washington would have preferred to send this present.” Bolívar proudly displayed the medal on the breast of his uniform till the day he died, even demanding that every portrait of him include the medal.

Only three years after receiving his most prized possession, however, Bolívar already viewed the country his hero had fathered as a potential menace toward his beloved continent. Foreseeing the hegemonic implications of the Monroe Doctrine, Bolívar wrote that “the United States seem destined by Providence to plague America with misery in the name of liberty.” Subsequent history would prove Bólivar to be not only a liberator, but a prophet as well.

Still, at a time when one presidential candidate is campaigning on his promise to build a wall of separation between the United States and Latin America, it’s important to remember the ties which bind us here to those there —  geographically, but also ideologically and historically. America has become a synonym for freedom, pluralism and the self-determination of peoples. “[Multiracial] Latin America,” Fitz writes, “was a mirror that helped Americans to understand who they were — and, just maybe, who they might become.” Colón may not have discovered a “New World” in 1492, but Americans — people of the Americas — have been building (and fighting) toward one ever since.

Viva la revolución!


Featured image: Equestrian statue of Simón Bolívar in Washington, D.C. featuring the gold medal (Jyothis/Creative Commons)