Daily Archives: 4 March 2022

Bolivar’s Constitution, 1826

From Bolivar: American Liberator, by Marie Arana (Simon & Schuster, 2013), Kindle pp. 350-351:

BOLÍVAR’S CONSTITUTION WAS A TESTAMENT to how the social realities of the continent had altered his liberating vision; it was a curious combination of deeply held republican principle and authoritarian rule. He had long feared the lawlessness that a hastily conceived democracy might bring. To hand power too quickly to illiterate masses was to snuff out what little order there was. He had once told a British diplomat in Lima, “If principles of liberty are too rapidly introduced, anarchy and a wholesale purge of whites will be the inevitable consequences.” In other words, he had granted all races equality, but he worried that in the process of institutionalizing it, the blacks and Indians would simply kill off the old aristocracy—the very class from which he hailed. It was exactly what had happened in Haiti. Bolívar’s new constitution meant to free the people, and yet, for their own good, keep them in a tight harness.

His constitution’s proposed division of powers—executive, legislative, judicial—was similar to that of the United States, although he added a fourth branch, a separate electoral college. The legislative branch was to be made up of senators, tribunes, and censors. Senators were to enact and guard the laws; tribunes would deal with money and war; censors would safeguard liberties. The government would offer the people a “moral” education in order to instill principles of civic responsibility. The constitution provided for freedoms of speech, press, work, and passage. It ensured citizens all the benefits of personal security, equality before the law, and a jury-based system of justice. It abolished slavery. It put an end to all social privilege. Up to this point, Bolívar’s constitution resembled—even improved on—its British and United States counterparts. Where it differed starkly was in its conditions for the presidency, and it was here that the document ran aground.

Bolívar had stipulated that the president be appointed for life. To him, presidential power was key; upon it would rest the entire Bolívarian concept of order. Although he claimed that he had rendered the position headless and harmless because a president would be powerless to appoint anyone to the legislative government or to the courts, there was no doubt that the presidency would be the most powerful institution in the land. A president’s influence would extend into perpetuity by virtue of his ability to choose a vice president, who would be his successor. Thus, Bolívar contended, “we shall avoid elections, which always result in that great scourge of republics, anarchy . . . the most imminent and terrible peril of popular government.” He had come a long way from his address to the congress of Angostura seven years before, in which he had roundly averred: “Regular elections are essential to popular government, for nothing is more perilous than to permit one citizen to retain power for an extended period.” In the course of taking his wars of liberation south, he had changed his mind entirely.

When the Bolivian constitution was complete, Bolívar sent that “ark of the covenant” off to Sucre in Bolivia, in a special mission led by his personal aide, Colonel Belford Wilson. Eager to promote its adoption in other republics, he had several editions printed and dispatched to Colombia by the very courier who had delivered Páez’s message begging him to become king. In Peru, his secretary of state made sure that every member of the electoral college had a copy. Bolívar’s constitution, in short, was to be distributed as widely as possible, throughout the Americas as well as strategic points in Europe. As his handiwork circulated, reactions were mixed. The English regarded it as an enlightened charter, generous in its promised liberties, but wise in its mitigation of a “mischievous excess of popular power.” In the United States, on the other hand, legislators were outraged by its provision for a president for life; Southern politicians were infuriated by its abolition of slavery. In South America, opinions were divided. In Chile and Argentina, it was received with moderate praise; in Colombia, it was trooped from town to town by a Venezuelan known to have urged Bolívar to the throne, and so it was no surprise that it was seen as a prologue to monarchy.

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