South America - A Popular History - H. Butterworth

Declaration of Independence—
the Events of July 4, 1811

That was a thrilling hour when, on July 4, 1811, Don Simon Bolivar arose in the Patriotic Society of Caracas. Great political movements have frequently begun in clubs. The social revolution in France found its voice in La Montagne. The South American liberties were born in the Patriotic Club in London, of which Miranda was the inspiring spirit. The Patriotic Society of Caracas arose out of the necessities of the hour. It led public opinion, and developed the sentiment of liberty and independence.

The provinces had elected a congress. The deputies of the people met at Caracas. The one question that excited all minds was, Shall the Congress sever the province from Spain, and proclaim to the world its independence? The air was electric with patriotism, but there were conservative minds amid the popular enthusiasm for liberty. Such were jealous of the influence of the Patriotic Society. To them the society was a congress of counsel, whose opinions the legislative body followed as a matter of form. In this society these cautious minds saw the methods of the French Revolution.

On July 4, 1811, a very important meeting of the Patriotic Society was held. The declaration had been made that the society was but another congress, without powers, and that its influence tended to schism. To rectify this mistake, young Bolivar rose, and poured forth his ardent dent and decisive sentiments in fiery words: "Patriots, there are not two congresses, one of opinion, and one of action. The times demand both bodies. Those who feel the necessity of the union of all hearts for liberty can make no schism. Patriots, what we desire is the union of all hearts and minds to inspire us in the achievement of our liberty. The hour has come. Yesterday to repose in the arms of apathy was a disgrace; to-day it is treason. The voice of the people must be heard. The Sovereign Congress assembles; it discusses what should be done in this crisis. What does it say? That we should commence the new order of things in a confederation. Are we not already confederated against foreign tyranny? That we should await the result of the policy of Spain. Await? What is it to us, my countrymen, whether Spain sells her slaves to Bonaparte, or keeps them to do her bidding, if we our selves are determined to be free? What matters it, O my countrymen? Such sentiments as these are the sorrowful results of our chains. They tell us that vast projects should be developed calmly. Calmly? Are not three hundred years of servitude a sufficient preparation for decisive action? Calmly? Are three hundred years of like tyranny needed to make us men? Our Patriotic Society respects as it should the august Congress of the new nation; but that Congress should remember that our Society responds to the public heart, and is the focus of enlightenment in the revolutionary cause. Patriots, let us lay, without fear, the foundation-stone of South American liberty. To falter is to fall. Venezuelans, I move that a committee be appointed from this body to carry these sentiments to the Sovereign Congress!"

The speech, like that of Patrick Henry amid like events, was decisive. The next day the sun of the Andes shone on a republic, and not on a slave-pen of Spain.

A deputy followed Bolivar, and in the spirit of the thrilling exhortation, "Let us lay the foundation-stone of South American liberty," moved that the "motion of Don Simon Bolivar be adopted." The society carried the motion with the fervor of the growing inspiration, and Dr. Miguel Pena was instructed to write the petition to the Sovereign Congress, expressing the views of Bolivar.

The petition was read in the legislative body on July 4, the eve of the memorable day of Venezuela and of the meridional world. It was a hammer-stroke. The privileged group of the Patriotic Society had recorded an opinion that was unwritten law.

It was July 5, 1811. As the light poured over the purple Caribbean Sea and the green Andes, the people hailed the rising sun as the beginning of a new era. Congress this day would record the patriotic declaration of the 4th. Congress assembled, presumably in the Federal Palace. The president of the Congress faced the future boldly, and in a clear and heroic voice said to the excited deputies: "We have now arrived at the hour most opportune to treat the question of absolute independence. The question should be discussed immediately." The galleries thundered with applause. Deputies sprang to their feet to support the motion. "Shall the motion to make Venezuela free be adopted?" "Motion!"

What events of three hundred years of servitude in South America lay behind that motion, trembling in the air, in that bright room lit by the sun of the Andes! The provinces of South America had been but prisons of Spain. The mita had hardly been more oppressive upon them than the Spanish king had been to his own people of the Peninsula. Charles IV. once said, on returning a petition of the people of Merida for a school: "I do not consider learning proper in America." The Peninsular kings held all Americans in their provinces to be slaves, denied them the right to think, and accounted any independent expression of thought as treason.

Larrazabal, in a clear and masterly manner, makes a summary of the most conspicuous of these grievances: the printing and even the sale of books of any kind without the sanction of the Council of the West Indies were prohibited; the reading of Robertson's popular history of America was forbidden under the penalty of death; a publisher of desirable works, presumably without the license of the West India Council, was condemned to wear the chains of the dungeons of Cartagena; the newspaper press had no independent voice; South American commerce with foreign countries was carefully guarded; no vessel was allowed to sail the Spanish Main without a license from the foreign court; the South Americans were not allowed to make any contract with foreigners, either to sell or to buy, without the approval of the Spanish courts; no one was allowed to visit America without the royal permission, under the penalty of death; in 1706 the Royal Audiencia of Peru published a law that no Indian should be allowed to have stores or to trade, for the reason that such industries put the native population on a social level with Spanish merchants.



But not only were Americans forbidden to trade with foreign nations; they were forbidden to engage in traffic between the provinces. The tyrant's hand was laid also upon the products of the fields. Here was prohibited the planting of vines and olives, there the sowing of flax; in one place the export of wines, almonds and raisins, in another place the building of mills. The Spanish grandee controlled everything in the interests of the throne of the Peninsula.

The church was as intolerant as the government. It has been quite common for Protestant writers to depict in vivid colors this form of intolerance, themselves forgetting the ecclesiastical bigotry and crimes of the days of Calvin in Geneva and of Mather in New England. There are, however, few chapters of horrors in the world's history that can equal that of the Spanish Inquisition of Mexico, Cartagena and Peru. It would be a painful task to depict the tortures inflicted upon helpless people by it for obeying the laws which God has written in every soul. Apart from these merciless tortures, into which entered the spirit that animates the bull-fight, and which gratified the most inhuman and unchristian instincts, the general purpose of the ecclesiastical rule was to forbid any freedom of thought or of personal rights.

Few South Americans ever rose to public office. Out of one hundred and sixty viceroys, only four were not Spanish. Of minor offices a similar statement would be true.

The taxed tea, the stamped paper, and like injustices that led to the Revolution in North America were light matters indeed when compared with what the colonies of the palm-lands suffered from three centuries of Spanish rule. The cause of Samuel Adams was a just one, but that of Bolivar was a necessity to the existence of any personal liberty.

The motion that voiced the resolution of the Patriotic Society of July 4 was made in the Sovereign Congress of Venezuela, and was adopted. Venezuela had followed the example of Switzerland, of Holland, of the United States of North America, and was free.

Jefferson's sublime preamble to the Declaration of Independence, beginning, "When in the course of human events," and declaring that "all men are created free and equal," is matched by the words with which the new declaration begins. We quote this powerful state paper in part, following the translation of Larrazabal:

"In the name of the all-powerful God:

"We, the representatives of the United Provinces of Caracas, Cumana, Varinas, Margarita, Barcelona, Merida and Truxillo, forming the America Federation of Venezuela, in the south continent, in Congress assembled, considering the full and absolute possession of our rights, which we recovered justly and legally, from the 19th of April, 1810, in consequence of the occurrences in Bayona, and the occupation of the Spanish throne by conquest, and the succession of a new dynasty, constituted without our consent, are desirous, before we make use of the rights of which we have been deprived of by force for more than three ages, but now restored to us by the political order of human events, to make known to the world the reasons that have emanated from these same occurrences, and which authorize us to the free use we are about to make of our sovereignty.

"We do not wish, nevertheless, to begin by alleging the rights, inherent in every conquered country, to recover its state of property and independence; we generously forget the long series of ills, injuries and privations, which the sad right of conquest has caused to all the descendants of the discoverers, conquerors and settlers of these countries, plunged into a worse state by the very same cause that ought to have favored them; and, drawing a veil over the three hundred years of Spanish domain in America, we will now only present to view the authentic and well-known facts which ought to have wrested from one world the right over the other, by the disorder and conquest that have already dissolved the Spanish nation.

"Always deaf to the cries of justice on our part, the governments of Spain have endeavored to discredit all our efforts, by declaring as criminal, and stamping with infamy, and rewarding with the scaffold and confiscation every attempt which, at different periods, some Americans have made for the felicity of their country; as was that which lately our own security dictated to us, that we might not be drawn into a state of disorder which we foresaw, and hurried to that horrid fate which we are about to remove forever from before us. By means of atrocious policy, they have succeeded in making our brethren insensible to our misfortunes; in arming them against us; in erasing from their bosoms the sweet impressions of friendship, of consanguinity, and converting into enemies a part of our own great family.

"At a time that we, faithful to our promise, were sacrificing our security and civil dignity not to abandon the rights which we generously presented to Ferdinand of Bourbon, we have seen that, to the relations of force which bound him to the Emperor of the French, he has added the ties of blood and friendship, in consequence of which even the governments of Spain have already declared their resolution to acknowledge him conditionally.

"In this mournful alternative, we have remained three years in a state of political indecision and ambiguity, so fatal and dangerous that this alone would suffice to authorize the resolution which the faith of our promises and bonds of fraternity had caused us to defer till necessity was obliged to go beyond what we at first proposed, impelled by the hostile and unnatural conduct of the governments of Spain, which have disburdened us from our conditional oath, by which circumstance we are called to the august representation we now exercise.

"But we, who glory in grounding our proceedings on better principles, and not wishing to establish our felicity on the misfortunes of our fellow-beings, do consider and declare as friends, companions of our fate, and participators of our felicity, those who, united to us by the ties of blood, language and religion, have suffered the same evils in the anterior order of things, provided they acknowledge our absolute independence  of the same, and of any other foreign power whatever; that they aid to sustain it with their lives, fortunes and sentiments; declaring and acknowledging them (as well as any other nation), in war, enemies; in peace, friends, brothers and compatriots.

"In consequence of all these solid, public and incontestable reasons of policy, which so powerfully urge the necessity of recovering our national dignity, restored to us by the order of events; and in compliance with the imprescriptible rights enjoyed by nations to destroy every pact, agreement or association which does not answer the purpose for which governments were established, we believe that we cannot, and ought not, preserve the bonds which hitherto have kept us united to the governments of Spain; and that, like all other nations of the world, we are free, and authorized not to depend on any other authority than our own, and to take among the powers of the earth the place of equality which the Supreme Being of nature assigned to us, and to which we are called by the succession of human events, and urged by our own good and utility.

"Notwithstanding we are aware of the difficulties that attend, and the obligations imposed upon us, by the rank we are about to take in the political order of the world, as well as the powerful influence of forms and habitudes to which unfortunately we have been accustomed, we, at the same time, know that shameful submission to them, when we can throw them off, would be still more ignominious to us, and more fatal to our posterity, than our long and painful slavery; and that it now becomes an indispensable duty to provide for our own preservation, security and felicity, by essentially varying all the forms of our former constitution.

"In consequence whereof, considering, by the reasons thus alleged, that we have satisfied the respect which we owe to the opinion of the human race and the dignity of other nations, in the number of whom we are about to enter, and on whose communication and friendship we rely:

"We, the representatives of the United Provinces of Venezuela, calling on the Supreme Being to witness the justice of our proceedings and the rectitude of our intentions, do implore his divine and celestial help; and ratifying, at the moment in which we are born to the dignity which his providence restores to us, the desire we have of living and dying free, and of believing and defending the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Religion of Jesus Christ; we, therefore, in the name and by the will and authority which we hold for the virtuous people of Venezuela, do declare solemnly to the world that its United Provinces are, and ought to be from this day, by act and right, free, sovereign and independent states;  and that they are absolved from every submission and dependence on the throne of Spain, or on those who do or may call themselves its agents and representatives; and that a free and independent state, thus constituted, has full power to take that form of government which may be conformable to the general wish of the people; to declare war, make peace, form alliances, regulate treaties of commerce, limits and navigation, and to do and transact every act in like manner as other free and independent states. And that this our solemn declaration may be held valid, firm and durable, we hereby mutually bind each province to the other, and pledge our lives, fortunes, and the sacred tie of our national honor.

"Done in the Federal Palace of Caracas, signed by our own hands, sealed with the Great Provincial Seal of the Confederation, and countersigned by the Secretary of Congress, this fifth day of July, 1811, the first of our independence."

On the same, the ever-memorable 5th of July, the Congress adopted the tricolor flag of Miranda as the emblem of the new liberty.

Capitol, Caracas


The next day the sun of liberty rose on the Maritime Andes, and upon people who had begun the emacipation of the meridional world.

The sublime words with which the first declaration of independence of a South American province opens and closes breathe the high patriotism of the Continental Congress of North America. They have a tone of reverence, a sense of the Divine Providence, and a faith in the Supreme Ruler of the cause. They read like a prophet's inspiration. Only a sense of grandeur and magnitude of the event could have inspired them.