AMERICAN REVOLUTIONS

In 1775, despite all the profound economic and social differences that had developed between them, both North and South America were still composed of colonies ruled by distant kings. That, however, was about to change.

On 2 July 1776 a large crowd gathered on the steps of the old trading exchange in Charleston to hear South Carolina’s government declare the colony’s independence from Britain. It was the first to do so. Some forty years later Spanish rule was ended in Latin America. Yet while one revolution cemented the democratic rights of property-owners, and brought into being a federal republic that within a hundred years was the world’s wealthiest country, the South American revolutions consigned all of America south of the Rio Grande to two centuries of division, instability and underdevelopment. Why was that?

Both the Spanish and the British empires experienced crises in the late eighteenth century. The increased regulation of transatlantic trade by the imperial authorities and the high cost of the Seven Years’ War (1756–63) paved the way for colonial revolts. Those that broke out in Britain’s American colonies in the 1770s had their counterparts in Spain’s: Túpac Amaru II’s Andean Rebellion of 1780–83 and the Comunero Revolt in New Granada (present-day Colombia) in 1781. But when independence was claimed by thirteen of Britain’s North American colonies, it was the reaction of a self-consciously libertarian society of merchants and farmers against what they saw as an over-extension of imperial authority. It was not only the hoary old question of taxation and representation that caused what can legitimately be seen as a sequel to the British Civil War of the 1640s.45 Significantly, land played a vitally important part in the American Revolution. The British government’s attempt to limit further settlement to the west of the Appalachians struck at the heart of the colonists’ expansionist vision of the future46 – a vision of manifest larceny that was especially dear to property speculators like George Washington.* When the government in London struck deals with the Indian tribes during the Seven Years’ War, Washington assumed they were mere wartime expedients. He was appalled when the Indians were effectively confirmed in their lands by the royal proclamation of 1763:

I can never look upon that Proclamation in any other light (but this I say between ourselves) than as a temporary expedient to quiet the minds of the Indians [he wrote to his future partner William Crawford in 1767]. It must fall, of course, in a few years, especially when those Indians consent to our occupying the lands. Any person … who neglects the present opportunity of hunting out good lands, and in some measure marking and distinguishing them for his own, in order to keep others from settling them, will never regain it. If you will be at the trouble of seeking out the lands, I will take upon me the part of securing them, as soon as there is a possibility of doing it and will, moreover, be at all the cost and charges of surveying and patenting the same … By this time it may be easy for you to discover that my plan is to secure a good deal of land. You will consequently come in for a handsome quantity … [But] keep this whole matter a secret, or trust it only to those … who can assist you in bringing it to bear by their discoveries of land.47

In 1768 Washington acquired 45,000 acres of present-day Mason, Putnam and Kanawha counties in what is now West Virginia; he was also a direct beneficiary of the subsequent forcible ejection of the Delaware, Shawnee and Mingo tribes from the land south of the Ohio River. But in his eyes the Quebec Act of 1774 made matters worse, by not only expanding what had been French Canada into present-day Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and parts of Minnesota, but also guaranteeing freedom of worship to Francophone Catholics. Small wonder the rebellious New Englanders bracketed it, along with the four punitive measures passed following the Boston Tea Party, as one of the ‘Intolerable Acts’.

War might have been averted by timely concessions from London on the headline issues of tax and representation. And the war might have gone the other way if the British generals Howe and Burgoyne had been better at their jobs. Perhaps more skilled diplomacy could have prevented the fateful isolation of Britain that culminated in the French victory – for that is what it was – at Yorktown in 1781. It is even possible to imagine the thirteen colonies subsequently falling apart instead of coming together. The economic problems of the war and post-war period were severe: inflation close to 400 per cent per annum at its peak in 1779, then a slump that halved per-capita income between 1774 and 1790, a mountain of debt equivalent to 62 per cent of gross national product in 1790, states imposing tariffs on each other and – worst of all – Massachusetts farmers like Daniel Shays driven to open revolt when their property was confiscated to pay for tax arrears and private debts. Had the revolution not progressed beyond the Articles of Confederation, then perhaps the fate of North America would have been more like that of South America – a story of fragmentation rather than unification. It took the constitution of 1787, the most impressive piece of political institution-building in all history, to create a viable federal structure for the new republic, creating not only a Lockean quartet of powers – executive, bicameral legislature and supreme court – but also a single market, a single trade policy, a single currency, a single army and (significantly) a single law of bankruptcy for people whose debts exceeded their property – not forgetting an amendment, the Fourth, protecting the individual against ‘unreasonable searches and seizures’.

At root, it was all about property. And in these terms Washington was one of those hard-nosed men who did well out of the War of Independence. His will, executed in 1800, lists a total of 52,194 acres of land in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, Kentucky and the Ohio Valley, as well as lots in the Virginian cities of Alexandria, Winchester, Bath (now Berkeley Springs, West Virginia) and the newly founded city that bore his name. Nothing could better illustrate the tightness of the nexus between land and liberty in the early history of the United States. In South America the Indians worked the land. In North America they lost it.

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The South American Washington should have been Simón Bolívar. He too overthrew an empire – Spain’s. But he failed to create a United States of South America. The American Revolution not only achieved unity for the former British colonies (though of course the Canadian and Caribbean colonies remained faithful to the empire, as did many American Loyalists who chose to leave the fledgling republic).48 Independence also set the United States on the road to as yet unsurpassed prosperity and power. Yet independence from Spain left South America with an enduring legacy of conflict, poverty and inequality. Why did capitalism and democracy fail to thrive in Latin America? Why, when I once asked a colleague at Harvard if he thought Latin America belonged to the West, was he unsure? Why, in short, was Bolívar not the Latin Washington?

Born in July 1783, the son of a wealthy Venezuelan cacao planter, an orphan before he was ten and a soldier by the age of fourteen, Bolívar studied in both Spain and France, spending time in Paris in 1804 after all foreigners – including Latin American creoles – had been expelled from Madrid in response to a food shortage. He returned to Venezuela in 1807, as inspired by the Napoleonic phase of the French Revolution (see Chapter 4) as he was disgusted with Spanish rule. Bolívar was already dreaming of analogous changes in his native land. But when revolution came to South America, it was not a premeditated plan so much as a chaotic response to the sudden vacuum of power that followed Napoleon’s assault on Spain in 1808. Two years later, Bolívar was sent to London to seek British support in the event of a French attack on Spain’s American colonies. He did not get it, but he did meet and befriend Francisco Miranda, the veteran campaigner for Venezuelan independence. On their return home in July 1811, they proclaimed the First Venezuelan Republic.

The republic ended in failure. The constitution of 1811 explicitly confined the right to vote to property-owners but, as we shall see, that excluded a much larger proportion of the population than equivalent rules in North America. The result was that the propertyless, including large numbers of freed slaves (pardos), rallied to the royalist cause.49 After the royalists had secured Puerto Cabello, Bolívar became disillusioned with Miranda and betrayed him to the Spaniards. Fleeing to New Granada, Bolívar then sought to rally the creoles there behind a second bid for independence.

Having proclaimed a Second Republic with himself in the role of dictator, Bolívar waged a so-called campaña admirable that drove the royalists from Mérida, Bogotá, Caracas and Trujillo and won him the epithet el Libertador. His Decree of War to the Death in 1813 illustrates the increasing viciousness of the conflict: ‘Any Spaniard who does not, by every active and effective means, work against tyranny in behalf of this just cause, will be considered an enemy and punished; as a traitor to the nation, he will inevitably be shot by a firing squad.’50 Prisoners were routinely killed – 800 at a time, on one occasion. Bolívar drew the line only when one of his confederates, nicknamed el Diablo, sent him the head of an elderly Spaniard. Yet, despite this resort to terror, non-whites continued to defect to the royalists. A devastating earthquake that struck Caracas in March 1812, killing around 10,000 people, seemed to vindicate the Church’s condemnation of the independence movement.* Characteristically, Bolívar was defiant, declaring: ‘If nature opposes us we will fight against her and force her to obey us.’51 His biggest problem was not nature, however, but José Tomás Boves, a renegade Spaniard whose ragtag army of llaneros – Indians, fugitive slaves and deserters, interested more in plunder than in freedom – proved impossible to subdue.52 A succession of military reverses at their hands forced Bolívar to flee once again, this time to Jamaica. A brief sojourn on Haiti only added to his conviction that the liberation of Venezuela’s slaves must now become a part of his strategy. Only by making the cause of independence appealing to blacks as well as to white creoles could he hope to succeed.53 He now directed his appeals to all South Americans, including gente de color (‘people of colour’).54

It worked – for a time, at least. Enticed by the offer of political representation, many pardos enlisted in Bolívar’s army. The symbol of their aspirations became Manuel Carlos Piar, the son of a Spanish merchant and a half-Dutch, half-African mulatta from Curaçao. For a casta (a person of mixed race) like Piar to attain the rank of general-in-chief seemed to prove that Bolívar was sincere in his claim to be the liberator of all South Americans, regardless of colour. Meanwhile, Spanish support for the reassertion of royal authority was waning. In 1820 there was huge mutiny in Cadiz among the 14,000 men about to be sent across the Atlantic to ‘recolonize America’.55 This was a bitter blow to Pablo Morillo, the royalist commander, whose thankless task it was to shore up Spain’s crumbling imperium.

The tide was turning in Bolívar’s favour. But there were many battles still to fight. To bolster still further the forces at his disposal, Bolívar now looked abroad for assistance.56 Improbably, he found it in Britain.

Brown, MacGregor and even Ferguson – to say nothing of O’Connor, O’Leary and Robertson – are rather incongruous names to find engraved prominently on the grandiose monument to the founding fathers of Venezuela in the heart of Caracas. But these were just a few of the British and Irish soldiers who fought and in many cases died for the cause of Latin American freedom between 1810 and 1825.

In all, around 7,000 British and Irish volunteers signed up to help liberate South America from Spanish rule. Some were veterans of the Napoleonic Wars who had no appetite for the peace that followed Waterloo. But the majority (two-thirds of the total) were military novices. A few were doubtless inspired by the loftier cause that Bolívar now embodied: a free and united South America. Liberation was in the air after 1815 and other idealists, most famously Byron, went to help the Greeks wrest back their independence from the Ottomans. But the majority of those who sailed to Venezuela were, like the earlier British migrants to North America, attracted mainly by promises of land – the haberes militares promised as the reward for military service. Among them was a young captain from Manchester named Thomas Ferrier, who soon found himself in command of Bolívar’s British Legion.

Ferrier’s first view of the new Bolivarian America was a town called Angostura (the home of the bitters)* on the inhospitable banks of the Orinoco River, where Bolívar had established his base. For four years, he and his men fought in a succession of battles from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific. In August 1819, after the Battle of Boyacá, they helped take Tunja and Bogotá, where Bolívar proclaimed the Republic of Colombia.57 They then turned north to Venezuela. Finally, on 24 June 1821, they reached Carabobo, south of Puerto Cabello. This was to be the decisive battle of Bolívar’s Venezuelan campaign. Around 6,500 republicans faced 5,000 royalists loyal to Spain. If Bolívar’s troops could win the day, the road eastward to Caracas would lie open.

Bolivar ordered 600 men under Ferrier’s command to outflank the Spaniards, who were dug in on a hill that commanded the battlefield. They were able to approach undetected along some well-hidden gullies. But as soon as they were spotted, the Spaniards opened fire with at least two cannon and 3,000 muskets. In the sweltering heat, Ferrier vainly waited for Bolívar to send reinforcements. Finally the order was given to advance. The bayonet charge that followed was one of the greatest military feats ever seen on the battlefields of South America. One account describes it as ‘a task that required not only heroic courage, but herculean endurance and bull-dog determination to keep on while the last spark of life and strength was left’. By the time the enemy position had been taken, Ferrier lay fatally wounded. An ecstatic Bolívar called the British soldiers ‘Salvadores de mi Patria!’ – ‘Saviours of my country’.

Bolívar was now master of what he called ‘Gran Colombia’, encompassing New Granada, Venezuela and Quito (modern Ecuador). José de San Martín, the liberator of Argentina and Chile, had yielded political leadership to him. By April 1825, his men had driven the last Spanish forces from Peru; Upper Peru was renamed ‘Bolivia’ in his honour. The next step was to create an Andean Confederation of Gran Colombia, Peru and Bolivia.

Why did Bolívar’s Gran Colombia fail to establish itself as the core of a United States of Latin America? The superficial answer lies in his determination to centralize power and the resistance of the regional caudillos (warlords) who had stepped into the vacuum left by the Spanish collapse.58But this is to miss three deeper difficulties.59

The first is that the South Americans had virtually no experience of democratic decision-making, of the sort that had been normal in North American colonial assemblies from the outset. Indeed, because power had been so concentrated in the hands of the Spanish-born peninsulares, the creoles had little experience of any kind of administrative responsibility. As Bolívar put it in 1815:

We are … neither Indian nor European, but a species midway between the legitimate proprietors of this country and the Spanish usurpers … We were cut off and, as it were, removed from the world in relation to the science of government and administration of the state. We were never viceroys or governors, save in the rarest of instances; seldom archbishops and bishops; diplomats never; as military men, only subordinates; as nobles, without royal privileges. In brief, we were neither magistrates nor financiers and seldom merchants.60

He was dismayed by the factional infighting he witnessed in the creole assemblies of New Granada.61 In his Cartagena Manifesto of 1812, he poured scorn on ‘the … fatal … system of tolerance … a system long condemned as weak and inadequate by every man of common sense’ and on the ‘criminal clemency’ of the ‘benevolent visionaries, who, creating fantastic republics in their imaginations, have sought to attain political perfection, assuming the perfectibility of the human race’. He also denounced the First Venezuelan Republic’s experiment with federalism, which ‘by authorizing self-government, disrupts social contracts and reduces nations to anarchy’.62 By the time of his second period of exile in Jamaica, he had become convinced that ‘institutions which are wholly representative are not suited to our character, customs, and present knowledge’.63 Two years before the Battle of Carabobo, he addressed the newly formed Congress in Angostura in a similar vein:

Although that nation was cradled in liberty, raised on freedom, and maintained by liberty alone … it is a marvel … that so weak and complicated a government as the federal system has managed to govern them in the difficult and trying circumstances of their past …

In his view, the United States constitution would require ‘a republic of saints’ to work.64 Such a system could not possibly work in South America:

Regardless of the effectiveness of this form of government with respect to North America, I must say that it has never for a moment entered my mind to compare the position and character of two states as dissimilar as the English American and the Spanish American.

So Bolívar’s dream turned out to be not democracy but dictatorship, not federalism but the centralization of authority, ‘because’, as he had put it in the Cartagena Manifesto, ‘our fellow-citizens are not yet able to exercise their rights themselves in the fullest measure, because they lack the political virtues that characterize true republicans’.65 Under the constitution he devised – which, among other peculiarities, featured a tricameral legislature – Bolívar was to be dictator for life, with the right to nominate his successor. ‘I am convinced to the very marrow of my bones’, he declared, ‘that America can only be ruled by an able despotism … [We cannot] afford to place laws above leaders and principles above men.’66 His Organic Decree of Dictatorship of 1828 made clear that there would be no property-owning democracy in a Bolivarian South America, and no rule of law.

The second problem had to do with the unequal distribution of property itself. After all, Bolívar’s own family had five large estates, covering more than 120,000 acres. In post-independence Venezuela, nearly all the land was owned by a creole elite of just 10,000 people – 1.1 per cent of the population. The contrast with the United States is especially striking in this regard. After the North American Revolution, it became even easier for new settlers to acquire land, whether as a result of government credits (under various acts from 1787 to 1804) or of laws like the General Pre-emption Act of 1841, which granted legal title to squatters, and the Homestead Act of 1861, which essentially made smallholder-sized plots of land free in frontier areas. Nothing of this sort was done in Latin America because of the opposition of groups with an interest in preserving large estates in the countryside and cheap labour in crowded coastal cities. In Mexico between 1878 and 1908, for example, more than a tenth of the entire national territory was transferred in large plots to land-development companies. In 1910 – on the eve of the Mexican Revolution – only 2.4 per cent of household heads in rural areas owned any land at all. Ownership rates in Argentina were higher – ranging from 10 per cent in the province of La Pampa to 35 per cent in Chubut – but nowhere close to those in North America. The rural property-ownership rate in the United States in 1900 was just under 75 per cent.67

It should be emphasized that this was not an exclusively US phenomenon. The rate of rural property-ownership was even higher for Canada – 87 per cent – and similar results were achieved in Australia, New Zealand and even parts of British Africa, confirming that the idea of widely dispersed (white) landownership was specifically British rather than American in character. To this day, this remains one of the biggest differences between North and South America. In Peru as recently as 1958, 2 per cent of landowners controlled 69 per cent of all arable land; 83 per cent held just 6 per cent, consisting of plots of 12 acres or less. So the British volunteers who came to fight for Bolívar in the hope of a share in the haberes militares ended up being disappointed. Of the 7,000 who set off for Venezuela, only 500 ended up staying. Three thousand died in battle or from disease, and the rest went home to Britain.68

The third – and closely related – difficulty was that the degree of racial heterogeneity and division was much higher in South America. Creoles like Bolívar hated peninsulares with extraordinary bitterness, far worse than the enmity between ‘patriots’ and ‘redcoats’ even in Massachusetts. But the feelings of the pardos and slaves towards the creoles were not much more friendly. Bolívar’s bid for black support was not based on heartfelt belief in racial equality; it was a matter of political expediency. When he suspected Piar of planning to rally his fellow castas against the whites, he had him arrested and tried for desertion, insubordination and conspiring against the government. On 15 October 1817 Piar was executed by a firing squad against the wall of the cathedral at Angostura, the shots audible in Bolívar’s nearby office.69 Nor was Bolívar remotely interested in extending political rights to the indigenous population. The constitutional requirement that all voters be literate effectively excluded them from the political nation.

To understand why racial divisions were more complex in South America than in North America, it is vital to appreciate the profound differences that had emerged by the time of Bolívar. In 1650 the American Indians had accounted for around 80 per cent of the population in both North America and South America, including also Brazil. By 1825, however, the proportions were radically different. In Spanish America indigenous peoples still accounted for 59 per cent of the population. In Brazil, however, the figure was down to 21 per cent, while in North America it was below 4 per cent. In the United States and Canada massive migration from Europe was already under way, while the expropriation of the Indian peoples and their displacement to ‘reservations’ of marginal land was relatively easily achieved by military force. In Spanish America the Indians were not only more numerous but were also, in the absence of comparably large immigration, the indispensable labour force for the encomienda system. Moreover, as we shall see, the institution of African slavery had quite different demographic impacts in the different regions of European settlement.70

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In the end, then, Bolívar’s vision of South American unity proved impossible to realize. After revolts in New Granada, Venezuela and Ecuador, the proposed Andean Confederation was rejected and Gran Colombia itself disintegrated when Venezuela and Quito seceded. The victor was Bolívar’s former confederate, the caudillo José Antonio Páez, who had thrust himself forward as the proponent of a narrow Venezuelan nation-state.71 A month before his death from tuberculosis in December 1830, having resigned his posts of president and captain-general, Bolívar wrote a last despairing letter:

… I have ruled for twenty years, and from these I have derived only a few certainties: (1) [South] America is ungovernable, for us; (2) Those who serve a revolution plough the sea; (3) The only thing one can do in America is to emigrate; (4) This country will fall inevitably into the hands of the unbridled masses and then pass almost imperceptibly into the hands of petty tyrants, of all colours and races; (5) Once we have been devoured by every crime and extinguished by utter ferocity, the Europeans will not even regard us as worth conquering; (6) If it were possible for any part of the world to revert to primitive chaos, it would be America in her final hour.72

It was a painfully accurate forecast of the next century and a half of Latin American history. The newly independent states began their lives without a tradition of representative government, with a profoundly unequal distribution of land and with racial cleavages that closely approximated to that economic inequality. The result was a cycle of revolution and counter-revolution, coup and counter-coup, as the propertyless struggled for just a few acres more, while the creole elites clung to their haciendas. Time and again, democratic experiments failed because, at the first sign that they might be expropriated, the wealthy elites turned to a uniformed caudillo to restore the status quo by violence. This was not a recipe for rapid economic growth.

It is not by chance that today’s President of Venezuela, ‘El Comandante’ Hugo Chávez, styles himself the modern Bolívar – and indeed so venerates the Liberator that in 2010 he opened Bolívar’s tomb to commune with his spirit (under the television arc lights). An ex-soldier with a fondness for political theatre, Chávez loves to hold forth about his ‘Bolívarian revolution’. All over Caracas today you can see Bolívar’s elongated, elegantly whiskered face on posters and murals, often side by side with Chávez’s coarser, chubbier features. The reality of Chávez’s regime, however, is that it is a sham democracy, in which the police and media are used as weapons against political opponents and the revenues from the country’s plentiful oil fields are used to buy support from the populace in the form of subsidized import prices, handouts and bribes. Private property rights, so central to the legal and political order of the United States, are routinely violated. Chávez nationalizes businesses more or less at will, from cement manufacturers to television stations to banks. And, like so many tinpot dictators in Latin American history, he makes a mockery of the rule of law by changing the constitution to suit himself – first in 1999, shortly after his first election victory; most recently in 2009, when he abolished term-limits to ensure his own indefinite re-election.

Nothing better exemplifies the contrast between the two American revolutions than this: the one constitution of the United States, amendable but inviolable, and the twenty-six constitutions of Venezuela, all more or less disposable. Only the Dominican Republic has had more constitutions since independence (thirty-two); Haiti and Ecuador are in third and fourth positions with, respectively, twenty-four and twenty.73 Unlike in the United States, where the constitution was designed to underpin ‘a government of laws not of men’, in Latin America constitutions are used as instruments to subvert the rule of law itself.

Yet before we celebrate the long-run success of the British model of colonization in North America, we need to acknowledge that in one peculiar respect it was in no way superior to Latin America. Especially after the American Revolution, the racial division between white and black hardened. The US constitution, for all its many virtues, institutionalized that division by accepting the legitimacy of slavery – the original sin of the new republic. On the steps of the Old Exchange in Charleston, where the Declaration of Independence was read, they continued to sell slaves until 1808, thanks to article 1, section 9, of the constitution, which permitted the slave trade to continue for another twenty years. And South Carolina’s representation in Congress was determined according to the rule that a slave – ‘other persons’ in the language of the constitution – should be counted as three-fifths of a free man.

How, then, are we to resolve this paradox at the heart of Western civilization – that the most successful revolution ever made in the name of liberty was a revolution made in considerable measure by the owners of slaves, at a time when the movement for the abolition of slavery was already well under way on both sides of the Atlantic?

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