What do we know about George Washington? I’ll bet you could name three things about him (one of them having to do with a cherry tree, as I recall) and not even need to use Google. He is America’s greatest hero, liberator, and first president, and to this day remains a popular research topic for third grade history reports nationwide. Oh, and his face is all over our money, too.
But elsewhere in the world, the reputation of another freedom fighter eclipses our homegrown hero’s achievements. Known here as the “George Washington of South America”, the legend of “El Libertador!” (The Liberator) Simón Bolívar is known for freeing many countries from oppression, not just one, like our George. And yet, even though Bolivar’s deeds far eclipse those of Mr. Washington, it seems that no one outside of South America has ever even heard of him. Have you?
Simón Bolívar was born into Venezuela’s aristocracy on July 24, 1783, and his actual given name was the impressive Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad Bolívar y Palacios Ponte y Blanco. Impresionante, no? He had a privileged childhood, but that was cut short when his parents died suddenly, when he and his siblings were still quite young. After that he was raised by his uncles.
In Venezuela, you become a man faster than here in the states. It was true then and it is still true now. When Bolívar was only 14-years-old, he joined the same army battalion as his father, who served as Colonel. By the time he was 15, he was already a 2nd Lieutenant for the White Militia Battalion in the Aragua Valley. And by 16, he had joined the company of Spain’s Viceroy to Mexico. Later, Bolívar showed his true colors to the world when he voiced his opposition to the power Spain had over its South American colonies, and openly admired his hero Napoleon Bonaparte, and the American Revolution.
Bolívar indeed, went to Spain and was educated in the classics of Greece and Rome. He even studied the neo-classical writing of French political philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. Bolívar proved to be different from his peers though, because he was a man of not just words, but action. At first, he admired Napoleon for liberating France, but he was appalled when Napoleon crowned himself emperor.
Though he had once lived a privileged life, he now wanted nothing more than freedom and equality for all of his people. At the age of 22, while atop a famous hill in Monte Sacro, Bolívar vowed to his long time tutor and friend Simón Rodríguez, that he would not rest until South America was free from Spain, and the “chains that bound it”.
It was then that Bolívar began his campaign to overthrow Spanish rule in earnest. Upon returning to his beloved Venezuela, he was made General of the Militia. His life-long military training gave him the ability to win the battles necessary to gain independence. The Battle of Carabobo near Valencia gave Bolívar his first victory over Spain and officially liberated Venezuela, but Bolívar did not stop there. He fought on, sword always thrust forward as a symbol to his troops that freedom was near. He crossed the borders into New Granada (now Colombia) and then Peru, Ecuador and finally Bolivia, winning the battle for freedom for all those countries.
While conducting some business in Columbia, Bolívar discovered he had yet one more battle to fight, only this time it was with tuberculosis. On December 10, 1830, at the age of 47, Simón Bolívar died in his bed.
Though Bolívar died young, his legend lives on throughout South America. There are statues of him everywhere you look, surprisingly including in New York City's Central Park, and in Venezuela, not only is his face printed on their money, they named their currency, the Bolivar, after him!
July 4th is a day that inspires all Americans to appreciate George Washington,, and demonstrate their patriotism to the red, white and blue. And that’s not only the case for us Americans! If you travelled south a couple degrees of latitude, you’d find people celebrating in the exact same way on July 5th, the day that Simón Bolívar declared Venezuela free from its oppressive mother country. That set off a chain reaction, and suddenly, under Bolívar’s leadership, South America could not get enough of freedom. And each year, Peruvians, Colombians, Panamanians, Ecuadorians, and Bolivians also celebrate their liberation. And like us, they never forget to honor the hero that gave them their freedom.