Simón Bolívar: A Life, by John Lynch

It follows that if Simón Bolívar was a man of heroic achievement, he was a man of heroic character. Lynch, who is an authority on South American history, says of Bolívar that he was “the first Latin American of real universal dimension.” His book demonstrates how. Though this is the only biography of Bolívar I’ve yet read, it struck me as a really good one. I want to review his book in three sections: first the biography, detailing some of what I’ve learned of Bolívar; second the history, considering Lynch’s work; and third a personal evaluation, showing some considerations that influence my report.

Biography

Bolívar was a man of a relentless, persevering character. One of his associates was a Colombian called Francisco de Paula Santander. Santander was bright and unscrupulous, capable but not entirely trustworthy. Bolívar put him in charge in Bogotá where his meanness suited him to the petty calculations and bureaucracy of administration. This freed Bolívar, after the arduous campaign to liberate Colombia, to undertake another arduous campaign to liberate Ecuador. And he described himself to Santander in a letter in this way: “I am a man of difficulties.”

Bolívar was indeed a man of difficulties. All his life is the tale of one great challenge after another. After his first defeat in Venezuela, he went to Cartagena, got himself an army, proceeded on his Admirable Campaign, and saw it all come to nothing thanks to a bloodthirsty Spaniard named Boves. He went into exile, but he returned from Jamaica, undertook once more to fight for his country, and in an arduous advance that began all the way in Guyana, crossed the torrid plains of Venezuela and Colombia, scaled the Andes, and gave the Royalists a death blow in the chilly highlands of Boyacá. Having liberated Colombia, he was able to go back and finish liberating Venezuela, but then he realized that Ecuador presented a problem for the south of Colombia, so he went there.

On the way he encountered difficulties and his army of 3000 was reduced to 1000, but he persevered through torrid equatorial hotlands, deserts, up into the mountains into the cold regions over 3000 meters, and delivered another defeat for Spain. In Ecuador he met his counterpart, the liberator of the south, San Martin. San Martin was having difficulties with Peru and eventually gave up. Bolívar prevailed, but not before he had entered to acclaim only to be betrayed before his final success. But he prevailed, and afterward almost collapsed, remaining ill for two months.

Rumors from Colombia reached him, bad news, setbacks, trouble—all during his illness. During this time a part of Peru still harbored some loyalists and had to be liberated. This became Bolivia, where the Bolivarian constitution, with Bolívar’s unappealing suggestion of a lifetime president who would appoint his successor (an alternative to a hereditary monarchy) was written. Bolívar tried ever after to peddle this constitution on the people he had liberated.

Lynch explains each step of the way, how one thing gave way to another, how the circumstances weighed in Bolívar’s consideration, what he was after, why his heroic marches and endless campaigns were undertaken. Lynch explains that Bolívar believed in the lifetime presidency and a limited democracy with a strong centralized government because he believed the people were not capable of more. He knew the European constitutions and the constitution of the United States, but he did not believe these would work in South America. South American had too much racial diversity, too much ignorance, too many factions and divisions for federalism and representative democracy.

Having achieved liberty, Bolívar came to believe South Americans first needed order and stability, then liberty. He came to believe that they were not prepared to use the liberty he had achieved.

The last blow for the man who had marched and triumphed over a great deal of rugged and varied terrain and many armies, was the assassination plot. He had to jump out of a window and hide beneath a bridge. The traitors were brought to justice, but the countries he had spent his life liberating were being turned against him. At last he wandered away from Bogotá, down to Honda, up the Magdalena and out to the sea. Dying of tuberculosis, the man of difficulties wondered, “How will I get out of this labyrinth?” It summarized his attitude, if Lynch is right, his endless perseverance against all setbacks.

History

John Lynch knows the details. The book is a little slow in starting, the narration of some of the events early on seems flattened, anticlimactic, so that they don’t have the impact one would expect. But Lynch is a man of patience and experience. He is building up his case carefully, and marshalling his details, his dates, his quotations, his interpretations. The book proceeds calmly, inevitably, shrewdly through the events, displaying for us the circumstances in which this remarkable man, Bolívar, spent his life. It ends up being admirably done.

After spending almost three hundred wide pages on the events and details, Lynch offers his concluding interpretations, and they are careful, sober, the product of research, understanding and due consideration. He does this very sensibly, a historian responding and interacting with the state of things in his field of study.

Personal

I don’t know much about these events, about the literature, about the state of South American historiography at the moment. But from what I can tell, from what I’ve read and noticed, and from the way Lynch goes about what he does, I am left impressed. I enjoyed the book, and I think it will prove a good introduction to the further study of Colombian history and that of its neighbors. One doesn’t approach a field of study fit to understand, to judge, to evaluate. One needs an introduction, an orientation, and after that a lot of exposure. I’ve read some other books, but this one seems to have the required ballast. I recommend it.

One of the nice things about reading this book now, is living here in Colombia. I know what Bolívar’s Quinta in Bogotá looks like, I regularly walk past the window he leapt out of (it has a Latin inscription), I regularly go past the last house he stayed in before abandoning Bogotá, I know the weather of the paramos, I know the torrid hotlands a bit, the places are familiar and the ways of them, the houses, the people. The book, of course, is the richer for that. But now, thanks to the book, these places, the statues, and the land itself have all been enriched for me.

2 thoughts on “Simón Bolívar: A Life, by John Lynch

  1. I recall being impressed by Bolivar when I attended the elementary school. I don’t recall what year it was that we had an overview of South American history, although, I suppose it was probably rolled into a Social Studies curriculum.

    Thanks for sharing the recommendation.

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