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Chapter 18

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Life of Miranda

by
William Spence Robertson

The University of North Carolina Press
1929

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

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Chapter 20

Vol. II
p102
Chapter XIX

Venezuela's Declaration of Independence


[image ALT: An engraved head-and‑shoulders portrait of a middle-aged man in a civilian coat or jacket with a ruffled shirt. He wears his long tail in a pigtail fastened with a ribbon, and has a serious and somewhat fierce expression. He is Francisco de Miranda.]

Francisco de Miranda. A lithograph. In Marqués de Rojas, "El Général Miranda." Reproduced by courtesy of Garnier Frères, Paris.

The horoscope of Venezuela had altered greatly since Miranda departed from La Guaira for Cadiz. The revolution of April, 1810, constituted a great step toward separation from Spain. Many Venezuelans, however, opposed independence. An influential factor in determining the attitude of the people was the activity of clever, persuasive, and forceful leaders. Among the most capable of those personages was that native of Caracas named Simón Bolívar. By December, 1810, his remarkable energy and iron determination were consecrated to the patriot cause. He was destined rapidly to increase in influence and prestige. There is a tradition that for some time after his arrival the returned exile resided in Bolívar's house. Miranda had almost reached the pinnacle of his fame. Yet to a large number of his countrymen he was scarcely known at all. To others he was notorious merely as a revolutionary whose attempt to liberate Venezuela in 1806 had failed miserably. An occasional Venezuelan had heard rumors about his romantic adventures in Europe. Some compatriots viewed him as a soldier of fortune who had drawn his sword in divers causes. Certain leaders were aware that while they had been groaning under the Spanish yoke, he had been living comfortably on English gold. Miranda was soon forced to realize that not all of the Venezuelans considered him a gift of favoring Providence.

Yet such was his military experience and political knowledge that he soon became the focus of public attention. His rôle was peculiarly difficult not only because he was a stranger to South America but also because his native land was in many respects strange to him. Imperfectly acquainted with conditions in Venezuela and with fixed notions about what her political future should be, he suddenly appeared on the stage in the midst of a stirring drama. Supremely confident that among  p103 his precious papers he had the prescription for certain ills of his country, he was destined to influence her fortunes profoundly. To describe Miranda's career in South America is almost to write the early history of independent Venezuela.

In spite of declarations by Venezuelan leaders that they were faithful to their captive King, the Spanish patriots mistrusted them. The Minister of State of the Regency said that they had been so audacious as to declare themselves independent and to create a junta to exercise a pretended authority. On August 1, 1810, the Regency announced that a blockade would be laid against the province of Caracas.1 It authorized Antonio Ignacio de Cortabarria to proceed to that province as a commissioner clothed with royal authority who was to recall the people to their allegiance.2 In October, 1810, an Extraordinary Cortes which had assembled at Cadiz declared that the Spanish dominions in both hemispheres formed the same nation and that Spain's subjects residing in the Spanish Indies should have the same rights as her citizens.3 When he learned that the Venezuelans were arming to support their new government, from Puerto Rico on December 7, 1810, the royal commissioner directed a letter to the junta of Caracas to request that those Venezuelans who had rebelled should quietly disarm and return to their homes.4 Although Cortabarria's appeal probably reënforced the loyalist spirit that had appeared in certain sections, yet it did not recall the radicals to their allegiance.

In October, 1810, Robert K. Lowry, who had been sent from the United States to Venezuela as marine and commercial agent, wrote from La Guaira and stated that certain Venezuelan leaders were contemplating the establishment of a representative government in imitation of the United States. The desire for the rule of Ferdinand VII is fading away, declared Lowry, "and I am informed that ere long they will throw the  p104 phantom aside."5 In a letter from Caracas on November 30, 1810, he expressed the opinion that "a large portion of the people" in that city wished independence.6

On Christmas Day, 1810, the junta of Caracas complained to Cortabarria that he was seducing those subjects of Ferdinand VII who were satisfied with its measures.7 Early in 1811 the royal commissioner announced that he would enforce the blockade against the recalcitrant Venezuelans. On February 5, 1811, in a letter to Cortabarria the junta of Caracas severely criticized those persons who were conspiring against the new régime. An emissary from the Cortes named Montenegro who made his way to Caracas was imprisoned in Miranda's house whence he escaped to the West Indies.8 Such incidents widened the breach that had opened between Spain and her continental colonies in the New World. A decree of the Cortes dated February 9, 1811, tardily declared that colonists were to enjoy the same rights as Spaniards, that in the future the representation from the Spanish Indies in the Cortes was to be on an equality with that from the Peninsula, that all restrictions on American industry were to be removed, and that creoles were to be as eligible to civil, ecclesiastical, and military offices as Peninsulars.9 But by the time this conciliatory decree reached Venezuela her leaders had taken other steps that clearly showed a drift toward separatism.

Meantime the influence of the press began to be felt in Venezuelan politics. The Gaceta de Caracas had been issued since 1808 from the very printing press that Miranda had brought to the shores of the Caribbean in the Leander. In November, 1810, a journal styled the Semanario de Caracas was founded. In January, 1811, another periodical named the Mercurio Venezolano was established by an enterprising  p105 creole named Francisco Isnardi.10 In June the first number appeared of the Patriota de Venezuela, the organ of the Patriotic Society.11 These journals became the vehicles through which novel political ideas were disseminated.

Beginning in November, 1810, William Burke, who had preceded Miranda to Caracas in the hope of contributing to the success of the revolutionary cause,12 published in the Gaceta de Caracas a series of articles entitled the "Rights of South America and Mexico." Taking inspiration from Thomas Paine, Burke presented arguments for the absolute independence of Venezuela from Spain. He urged the Venezuelans to incorporate among their political rights not only the writ of habeas corpus and trial by jury but also the doctrine of complete religious toleration. He pleaded with them to receive foreigners who professed the Protestant faith "as sons of a same Creator and a same God."13 To counter his arguments on February 23, 1811, the University of Caracas selected two distinguished alumni to prepare formal refutation.14 In a letter to Bello, Roscio alleged that Miranda tried to increase his prestige by denouncing the doctrine of religious toleration to the archbishop of Caracas.15

A club designated the Patriotic Society, which had been established to promote industry and commerce by a decree of the junta dated August 14, 1810, had meantime furnished Miranda an opportunity to exercise his talents as a director of the revolutionary spirit.16 In this society, which was located at the capital city, social and political problems of moment were discussed and new policies were formulated. Some of its members entertained very liberal ideas. Discussions led by Miranda and Bolívar in this Jacobin Club stimulated a spirit of independence among Venezuelan leaders. Eventually it  p106 came to exercise a radical influence upon politics. "The society," wrote José de Austria, a patriot who wrote a useful account of this period, "made itself odious to the enemies of the separatist movement; for in its meetings the tyranny of the government of the metropolis was denounced, attention was directed to the atrocities of the Welsers, to the monopoly of the Company of Guipúzcoa, to the venality of officials entrusted with the administration of justice, and to the despotism of Guevara and Emparán. To follow the example of the United States was declared to be the only remedy for these evils, the only way to prevent a repetition of such abominations."17

In accordance with the action of the junta of Caracas, steps had been taken in Venezuela for the election of deputies to a Congress. Early in November, 1810, six delegates for the province of Caracas were selected by an electoral assembly which had been chosen by the freemen. Fortunately for Miranda, when he arrived in Venezuela elections had not been held in all of her districts. He was chosen as delegate for the district of Pao in the province of Barcelona. Delays in the arrival of delegates compelled the junta to postpone the date when Congress was to begin its deliberations. Composed of some forty members from the provinces of Barcelona, Barinas, Caracas, Cumaná, Margarita, Mérida, and Trujillo, on March 2, 1811, this assembly opened its sessions.

The inaugural ceremonies of the first Congress of Venezuela were interestingly described in the Gaceta de Caracas. It stated that, after an arrangement was made for a temporary organization in the former "palace" of the Captain General, the delegates, accompanied by a guard of cavalry and infantry, proceeded to a church where members of municipal organizations had gathered. Attired in his pontifical robes, the archbishop of Caracas celebrated mass. The delegates then took oath on the Holy Scriptures that they would defend the rights of Ferdinand VII, that they would oppose any other  p107 ruler who might aim to exercise authority in the Venezuelan provinces, that they would maintain pure and inviolate the Roman Catholic religion, and that they would duly respect the regulations of Congress and faithfully fulfill their duties. The military commander at Caracas took a similar oath. Heralds then announced to the people that a new nation had been brought into existence.

After salvos of artillery, and the solemn chanting of Te Deum, the congressmen returned to the palace of government. There the members of the provisional junta took an oath to recognize the authority of Congress as a legitimate representative of Ferdinand VII and faithfully to exercise the executive power until Congress should transfer it to other hands. An oath of fidelity to the executive and legislative authorities of Venezuela was then taken by prominent military officers and by civil and ecclesiastical dignitaries. Words and phrases employed in the description of these impressive ceremonies indicate that certain Venezuelans viewed them as constituting an important step toward the attainment of nationality.18

With regard to the mode of voting to be used, Congress decided that each province should have one vote.19 It soon undertook to assume the political functions of the junta by exercising governmental authority. After selecting certain persons who were to act as departmental secretaries, Congress elected three creoles, Baltazar Padrón, Cristóbal de Mendoza, and Juan Escalona to serve as the executive power of the State. Roscio declared that upon the day when this choice was made, Miranda anxiously awaited the results. "In the election he got eight votes," continued Roscio, "from thirty‑one members of Congress. He received this news in his house, and veiled his regret by saying: 'I rejoice to learn that there are in this country persons more suitable than I for the exercise of supreme power.' "20 On July 1 Congress declared that foreigners of whatever nationality would be received in the fertile  p108 province of Caracas, and that their persons and property would enjoy the same protection as those of citizens, provided that they recognized the country's sovereignty and independence and respected the Roman Catholic religion.

The Secretary of State soon announced that the government would allot lands to those aliens who wished to cultivate them. Further, he made known that, although the slave trade was prohibited, yet foreigners would be allowed to bring slaves into Venezuela for use in industrial pursuits.21 Attracted perhaps by these inducements, a number of adventurous Europeans soon proceeded to Venezuela. In their number was an audacious Scotchman named Gregor McGregor, and Colonel John Robertson, who had been secretary of the English governor of Curaçao. Among Frenchmen who had already yielded to the lure of the new land of promise was Louis Delpech, who married into the prominent family of Montilla.

Important political problems were soon considered by Congress. As a result of Miranda's exhortations, it decided that laudatory inscriptions to Captain General Vasconcelos should be removed from public monuments.22 In June, 1811, the question was raised whether Congress represented slaves definitely constituted states or merely certain peoples without a constitution. This crucial problem was provoked because of a proposal to divide the province of Caracas. A consideration of that project precipitated a debate regarding the status of the Venezuelan provinces and the powers of Congress. As usual, Miranda had an opinion which he was not loath to express. On June 25 he argued that the renunciation of the crown of Spain by the Bourbon dynasty had restored to the Spanish Americans their rights. Congress, he maintained, was a sovereign body, which should decide upon the time for independence.23

When on July 2, 1811, letters from Telésforo de Orea containing news from the United States were read to Congress, a  p109 resolution was introduced which asserted that Venezuelan independence was imperative. A motion that Congress should be transferred from Caracas to an interior town where it might labor in tranquillity was opposed by Miranda and lost.24 On July 3 Congress reached the momentous decision that the time had come to consider a declaration of independence. The ensuing debate was opened by J. L. Cabrera, a deputy from the province of Barinas, who declared that it would be necessary to formulate the reasons why the Venezuelan people considered themselves independent. Cabrera expressed himself in favor of a measure that would announce that the rights of Ferdinand VII were null and that would place the new State in a position where her independence would be acknowledged by other states.25

The discussion that took place in the halls of Congress on July 3 helped to crystallize the views of its members. Luis Tovar of the province of Caracas boldly argued that the Venezuelans had desired independence since April 19, 1810, but that they had postponed making the announcement because of political reasons. In a similar manner Fernando Peñalver, the delegate for Valencia, maintained that the Venezuelans had a right to declare themselves free and independent and that they should frame a republican constitution. In reply to those who feared that a declaration of independence might antagonize England, José M. Ramírez of Aragua explained that as England was allied with Spain, she had adopted a policy of mediation toward Venezuela. He alleged that the name of Ferdinand VII had been used by Venezuelan leaders to cloak their real designs so that the people would not take alarm.26

The opposes of an immediate declaration of independence pleaded that the time was inopportune, that a confederation of the Venezuelan provinces should first be formed, and that Congress lacked the authority to declare Venezuela independent of Spain. Manuel Vicente Maya, the delegate from La  p110 Grita in the province of Mérida, declared that his instructions did not permit him to favor an announcement of independence. Juan G. Roscio, who was a representative of the province of Caracas, stated that although he favored a declaration, yet he believed that the people of Venezuela should first unite in common action. He expressed the apprehension that an immediate declaration of independence would antagonize those people who had opposed the measures of the governmental junta.27

On July 3 Miranda made two speeches in favor of an immediate declaration. In regard to one speech the secretary of Congress merely stated that the orator argued in favor of independence in an "energetic and lengthy discourse." It appears, however, that he reasoned cogently that the establishment of a republican form of government would be inconsistent with an acknowledgment of Ferdinand VII, and that the Venezuelan people had for some time been in a position to proclaim their independence from Spain.28

Fortunately Miranda's argument in regard to the influence of a declaration of independence upon the international relations of Venezuela has been preserved. He maintained that in the ambiguous situation in which she was placed a nation that might succor her "could not safely count on our reciprocity, if she should solicit aid from us against Spain whose rights we have not yet solemnly disavowed. We ought to be independent," said Miranda, "we ought to run the risks and to enjoy the advantages of that status, in order that foreign nations may make firm compacts with Venezuela which will serve us by engaging directly the forces of the enemy against that nation which aids us. I believe that this reason ought to influence us strongly in favor of independence."29 His clever suggestion that the Venezuelan nation might be able to engage a foreign alliance which would aid her against Spain must have made a strong appeal to his compatriots; for some of them felt that they could scarcely cope with Spanish power  p111 single-handed, while others thought that French soldiers would ultimately overrun Spain.

Francisco Javier Yanes, a delegate from Araure, declared that he could not add anything to what Miranda had said to demonstrate "the justice, necessity, utility, and convenience" of an immediate declaration of independence. He undertook to refute the arguments of its opponents. He maintained that Miranda had demonstrated that Venezuela had been for some time in a position to declare herself independent. He reasoned that a confederation could not properly be established before independence was proclaimed: for "a confederation was an association of free, sovereign, and independent states" united by a perpetual compact. He argued that a preliminary expression of the popular will concerning independence was not necessary: the people were represented in the Constituent Congress, and the decision of a majority of Congress was the national will. He asserted that, if the patriots had consulted the people about the measures of April 19, 1810, the Venezuelans would still be slaves. It would be more dangerous, he said, for Venezuela to postpone action in regard to independence than to make an immediate decision. He argued that independence of Spain would greatly benefit Venezuela, and asserted that the debate concerning independence had "perhaps been the most important discussion that had been witnessed by Spanish America since the melancholy epoch when it was enslaved."30

Just before this debate closed, Miranda rose to analyze the arguments that had been presented. In emphatic words he asserted that almost all the delegates agreed that certain advantages would accrue to Venezuela from an immediate declaration of absolute independence from Spain. He declared that Yanes had destroyed the argument that the formation of a confederation should precede a declaration. The plea that the delegates lacked authority to declare independence he stigmatized as sophistical.31

 p112  The Patriotic Society had meantime undertaken to crystallize opinions about Venezuela's status. A member of Congress named Palacio Fajardo, who later wrote a sketch of the revolution in the Spanish Indies, recorded that on April 19 the members of that society "marched in procession through many of the principal streets, bearing ensigns appropriate to this festival."32 It seems that on the evening of that joyous anniversary Miranda presided at the meeting of the club. Eloquent members argued in favor of the separation of Venezuela from Spain. Antonio Muñoz Tébar avowed that April 19 was "the natal day of the revolution" and that a year had been dissipated in dreams of love for the royal slave of Napoleon. "Let the first year of independence and liberty begin. Let us have a confederation of states or a centralized government, one legislature or many legislatures." A cyclopean patriot named Coto Paúl vehemently argued for immediate action. "We are here," he reasoned, "on the high mountain of holy demagogism, to reanimate the Dead Sea of Congress. When demagogism has destroyed the present régime, and when sanguinary spectres have come for us upon the field that has been torn by war, Liberty will arise."33

To counter the argument that the Patriotic Society was usurping the place of Congress Simón Bolívar pleaded as follows:

"There are not two Congresses. Will those who most fully realize the need of union foment discord? What we desire is that this union should become effective and should urge us on to the glorious enterprise of our liberty. To unite ourselves in order to repose, in order to sleep in the arms of apathy, was yesterday a disgrace, — today it is treason. The national Congress is debating what decision should be reached. And what do its members say? That we should commence by a confederation, as if we were all confederated against foreign tyranny. That we should await the results of the policy of Spain. What does  p113 it matter to us whether Spain sells her slaves to Napoleon or keeps them, if we are resolved to become free? These doubts are the melancholy results of our former chains. What great projects should be prepared during the calm! Were not three hundred years of calm enough? The patriotic junta respects the national Congress, as it should, but Congress should listen to the patriotic junta, which is the center of all the revolutionary interests. Let us fearlessly lay the corner stone of South American liberty: to vacillate is to be lost. Let a committee representing this society convey these sentiments to the sovereign Congress."34

A committee of the Patriotic Society was accordingly chosen to make known to Congress its views concerning a declaration. On July 4 that committee expressed the sentiments of the society about this critical issue to a secret session of Congress. A member of the club named Miguel Peña presented a discourse which urged that an immediate declaration of independence should be made. Congress now suspended the debate upon independence until its President could confer with the Executive Power as to whether or not such a step would be compatible with public security.35

On the forenoon of the next day Cristóbal de Mendoza, who was now president of Congress, announced to it that the Executive Power had expressed the conviction that an immediate declaration of independence from Spain would not only put an end to the political ambiguity of Venezuela but would also spoil the schemes of her enemies. At once Miranda arose to reënforce this decision and to urge the need of immediate action because of conditions in Spain.36 The delegate from La Grita again protested that his instructions would prevent him from agreeing to a declaration of independence. Two other delegates asserted that such a step was inconsistent with the oath of allegiance which had been taken to support Ferdinand VII. Among the speakers who tried to refute this argument was Roscio; he alleged that the Bourbon dynasty had virtually  p114 sold Spanish America to Napoleon. He further argued that the justice and necessity of a declaration of independence had been demonstrated. He frankly admitted, however, that publicists might well doubt whether Venezuela with only one million inhabitants was strong enough to take such a significant step. Cabrera pointed out, however, that European nations had recognized smaller states than Venezuela as having an independent status.37

Miranda pleaded for definite action. Upon Roscio's half-hearted argument about Venezuela's ability, he descanted in a long, energetic speech that was fortified by concrete illustrations gathered during his travels. He asserted that when the United States had "perfected her grand and immortal enterprise" she did not have three million white inhabitants. The Republic of San Marino, he maintained, scarcely had a population of half a million. The City-Republic of Ragusa, which had played a distinguished rôle in history, had about a million. The Electorate of Hanover had fewer inhabitants than Venezuela. The United Provinces of Holland had struggled successfully against the tyrant Philip II. In fine, Miranda concluded that the Venezuelans, bordered as they were by New Granada, should banish their fears and proceed immediately to proclaim their independence.38

Cristóbal de Mendoza then spoke in favor of such a step. He said that Venezuela would thus set an example which would be immediately followed by the neighboring Viceroyalty, and that a declaration of independence by the Venezuelans would thwart their enemies. Juan José de Maya, the delegate from San Felipe, stated, however, that although he favored independence, yet he was apprehensive that a declaration might cause an exodus from Venezuela similar to that which once took place in France.39 To refute this objection Miranda  p115 sprang to his feet to declare that when the Republic was proclaimed, only the nobles had left French soil. In regard to Venezuela the orator argued that only a few undesirable Spaniards would emigrate if a republic should be proclaimed. He then asked a pertinent question:

"What evils will result if such men leave the country without agreeing to independence? Their departure would be the happy occasion of our perfect tranquillity. Let them embark in a happy hour! Let them go to Puerto Rico! Let them join Cortabarria, who is commissioned to represent the Spanish King! They will certainly do us less damage there than they could do amongst us."40

Thus Miranda became one of the foremost champions of an immediate declaration of independence. In the words of Roscio, who was not a kindly critic, Miranda "bore himself well and debated wisely."41 After other congressmen had expressed themselves in favor of a declaration, with the exception of Maya of La Grita who still insisted that his instructions prevented him from supporting the measure, the delegates voted in favor of independence. The president promptly announced that "the absolute independence of Venezuela" had been declared. The official account of the congressional debates records that this "announcement was followed by the cheers and acclamations of the people who had been tranquil and respectful spectators of this august and memorable discussion."42 A royalist contemporary was probably not exaggerating much when he declared that he then beheld dashing through the streets of the city of Caracas coatless, intoxicated, and jubilant young men who tore down the portraits of Ferdinand VII and trampled them under foot.43 Patriots embraced one another.

On the afternoon of July 5, 1811, Congress appointed various committees. Francisco Isnardi, who had been acting as secretary, and Juan Roscio were chosen to draft an exposition  p116 stating the causes and motives that impelled the delegates to declare their independence of Spain. Felipe F. Paúl, a delegate from San Sebastián, was assigned the task of formulating an oath that would pledge officials and dignitaries to support the new régime.44 Miranda and two other members were selected to choose the design for a cockade and a national flag. This committee evidently accepted Miranda's views: it soon decided that the standard of the new State should be red, blue, and yellow, — the very colors which in 1806 the arch-revolutionist had flown from the masthead of the Leander. The standard soon hoisted by Venezuelan vessels bore a unique design. In the upper inner corner was an Indian armed with a bow and arrow, who was seated upon a rock by the sea. Upon a staff he displayed a liberty cap. A crocodile'sa jaws protruded beyond his feet, while above the horizon a glorious sun was rising. Below the aboriginal figure was the legend "Colombia," and across the upper corner of the union were inscribed the words, "Venezuela Libre."45

[image ALT: A crude drawing of a South American Indian seated on a gavial or similar beast; he wears a tall feathered headdress, a bow and quiver are slung around his back, and in his left hand he holds a long thin pole hoisting a Phrygian cap; in his right, a sort of chaplet or garland of leaves. Above and behind him in an arc, the words 'VENEZUELA LIBRE' and beneath the animal, a ribbon inscribed 'COLOMBIA'. It is the chief device on a flag of Venezuela, described and commented in detail on this webpage.]

Design of the union on the flag hoisted by vessels of Venezuela soon after the Declaration of Independence was signed. From a colored sketch sent by Manuel Sanz to Governor Hodgson of Curaçao. In the Public Record Office, London.

On July 5 Juan Rodríguez Domínguez, who was serving as president of Congress, announced to the Executive Power that Congress had sanctioned a Declaration of Independence and was engaged in considering the formulation of an act that would elevate the Venezuelan provinces to the rank of free and sovereign states and would emancipate the people from the horrible slavery that they had suffered. The Executive Power promptly made the decision in favor of independence known to the officials of the province of Caracas, to the other provinces of Venezuela, to the archbishop, and to the army. In a proclamation addressed to the people of the province of Caracas the members of the Executive Power avowed that they now no longer recognized any superior authority upon earth, but that such a noble conception could only be executed by men  p117 animated by the spirit of liberty and disposed to make sacrifices for it.46

On July 7, 1811, the committee on the framing of a Declaration of Independence presented the "Solemn Act of Independence" to Congress. Although the congressional records for that day merely state that "the Act declaring Independence framed by the secretary was read and approved,"47 yet it appears certain that Roscio rather than Isnardi was chiefly responsible for the vibrant phraseology of a document that became immortal in Venezuelan annals. Though acting as the secretary of Congress, Isnardi was not a member of that assembly. On the other hand, Roscio was a trusted, judicious, and patriotic congressman who was well versed in political theory. Further, when Congress appointed a committee composed of Roscio, Fernando del Toro, and the secretary to present the Declaration to the Executive Power, it was Roscio who acted as the spokesman for the deputation.48 Still, to the writer it would seem strange if the Declaration of Independence of Venezuela were framed without the use of Miranda's knowledge of political thought and without the aid of his facile pen.

The "Solemn Act of Independence," began by invoking Almighty God. Its preamble continued thus: "The representatives of the United Provinces of Caracas, Cumaná, Barinas, Margarita, Barcelona, Mérida, and Trujillo, which form the American Confederation of Venezuela in the southern Continent, assembled in Congress, in view of full and absolute possession of our rights that we have recovered justly and legitimately since April 19, 1810, in consequence of the occurrences at Bayonne, the occupation of the Spanish throne by conquest, and the succession of a new dynasty instituted without  p118 our consent, are desirous, before using the rights of which we have been forcibly deprived for more than three centuries but which are now restored to us by the political order of human events, to make known to the world the reasons arising from these events that authorize the free use which we are about to make of our sovereignty."

The Venezuelan Fathers politely drew a veil over the evils resulting from three hundred years of Spanish domination in America. The reasons for their Declaration of Independence were primarily based upon the distracted condition of Spain. The Solemn Act of Independence stated that by the abdication of the Spanish monarchs at Bayonne, they had failed in "the sacred duty which they had contracted with the Spaniards of both hemispheres," and had become incapable of ruling "a free people whom they transferred like a group of slaves." It argued that certain measures of the Spanish patriots had helped to conserve in America the illusion in favor of Ferdinand VII: they promised us liberty, equality, and fraternity in pompous discourses and studied phrases in order to conceal the snare of a cunning, useless, and degrading representation." It asserted that when the Venezuelans were compelled to take action to preserve the rights of the Spanish King, the Spaniards stigmatized as ungrateful, perfidious, and insurrectionary a measure identical with that which had been taken by the provisional governments of Spain, because that step put an end to the monopoly of administration which they had intended to perpetuate in Venezuela in "the name of an imaginary King."

The Act proceeded to say that the Venezuelans were then declared to be in a state of rebellion. They were blockaded, war was declared against them, and agents were dispatched from the Motherland to set them against each other. Their representation in the Cortes had been made a mockery. After spending three years in "a condition of indecision and political ambiguity," by the use of "the imprescriptible rights that people enjoy to destroy every pact, agreement, or association that does not answer the purpose for which governments were  p119 established, "they had reached the conclusion that they ought no longer to preserve the bonds which had united them to Spain, and that they were free to "take among the powers of the earth the place of equality assigned them by the Supreme Being and by nature." The climax of their intricate reasoning is presented in the following paragraph:

"We, the representatives of the United Provinces of Venezuela, beseeching the Supreme Being to witness the justice of our proceedings and the rectitude of our intentions, imploring His celestial aid, at the moment when we are born to the dignity that His Providence restores to us, express the desire to live and to die free and to believe and defend the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Religion of Jesus Christ, as the first of our duties. We, therefore, in the name and by the will and authority which we hold from the virtuous people of Venezuela, declare solemnly to the world that her United Provinces are and ought to be by fact and right, free, sovereign, and independent states, that they are absolved from any dependence on the Spanish crown or on those who call themselves its agents or representatives, that, as a free and independent State, Venezuela has full power to adopt that type of government which will conform to the general wish of the people, that she has power to declare war, to make peace, to form alliances, to engage treaties of commerce, limits, and navigation, and to make and execute all other acts performed by free and independent nations. To make this, our solemn Declaration, valid, firm, and durable, we hereby mutually bind each province to the other provinces and pledge our lives, our fortunes, and the sacred tie of our national honor."49


[image ALT: An engraving of an elegant room sparely adorned in the classical style, with ceilings at least 7 meters high; it appears to be the interior of a church: on the far right a wooden structure about 5 meters high is probably a pulpit. In the room, two groups of men face each other, about 60 men altogether, almost all of them standing. In the center of the picture, a table covered with a heavy cloth down to the floor, on which a document is being signed with a quill pen by a man bending over it. The group who have already signed are behind the table on the viewer's right, those who are waiting to sign are across from them. Between them, a young man extends a quill in his right hand to the next man, and with his left motions toward the table. It is a painterly scene of the signing of the Declaration of Independence of Venezuela.]

The Signing of the Venezuelan Declaration of Independence. Painting by Martín Tovar y Tovar. In the Palacio de Justicia, Caracas. Engraving by George Profit in "El Cojo Ilustrado," July 1, 1911.

Though a few clauses of the Venezuelan Act of Independence vaguely re‑echo immortal phrases of Thomas Jefferson, yet it can scarcely be said that this Act formulated a philosophy which justified the Spanish-American Revolution. Neither did the Venezuelan Declaration contain a terrible arraignment of the colonial policy of the Motherland. Stress was rather laid on those spectacular events that induced the  p120 wise political philosopher, James Bryce, to characterize Napoleon the Great as the "Liberator of Spanish America."

On July 8 Congress approved the oath of allegiance to the independent government. This oath contained an acknowledgment of the sovereignty and absolute independence of the "United Provinces of Venezuela" from the Spanish monarchy. It included a pledge of obedience to the magistrates and laws of Venezuela as well as a declaration that the Venezuelans would defend their Confederation and would preserve Roman Catholicism pure and undefiled as the exclusive religion of the country.50 The Executive Power instructed the archbishop on July 8 that when the Declaration of Independence was formally made public the bells in all the churches of the capital city should ring.51 In a number dated July 11 El Publicista de Venezuela, a periodical which served as the organ of Congress, printed the Declaration of Independence in the belief that it would thus fulfill the fervent wishes of a people who were "anxious to become acquainted with the most glorious act that had yet been performed in South America."52

The announcement of Venezuela's separation from Spain was published on July 14; at the same time the national flag was for the first time displayed. On the next day the oath of allegiance to the new system was taken on the gospels by such dignitaries as congressmen, judges of the supreme court, members of the Executive Power, and the archbishop of Caracas. Regulations were soon promulgated that relieved the press from many restrictions which had hampered it during the colonial régime. Other steps were taken that aimed at the regeneration of Venezuela. On July 30 Congress passed a bill which provided that treason was not to work corruption of blood or forfeiture except in the person of the traitor.53 About a month later it sanctioned a law that absolutely prohibited  p121 the use of torture in the United Provinces.54

The measures taken by the Venezuelans in the midsummer of 1811 constituted the most important step in their transition from the status of Spanish colonists to that of citizens of an independent republic. The Declaration of July 5, 1811, was indeed the complement of the measures of April 19, 1810. Leaders of Venezuela now boldly discarded the mask of their professed allegiance to Ferdinand VII and proclaimed their intention of establishing absolute independence of the Motherland.

As stated in their Declaration of Independence, the Venezuelans had been incited by provocative measures of the changing governments of Spain. There is reason to believe, however, that a number of determined leaders had for some time been directing their efforts toward a Declaration. On the other hand, as in the case of the United States, there is no certainty that a majority of the citizens of Venezuela would have favored such an extreme step at this juncture, if they had been asked to express their opinions in a referendum. In fact, it is doubtful whether the prospect of independence from Spain had even been considered in some of the elections for delegates to the Congress of 1811. Subsequent developments indeed raise the question as to whether the Venezuelan patriots who ardently desired absolute independence were not in a minority.

However that may be, Venezuela had now taken a decisive step. Henceforth her people had to range themselves either for the independent cause or against it. Though here and there in Spanish Indies discontented individuals had indistinctly muttered the magic word independencia, though certain cabildos had dropped vague hints about separation, and though local juntas had made veiled statements about their secessionary designs, yet the clearest announcement with regard to the destiny of a Spanish-American people that had yet been made came from Caracas. Venezuela was the first of the  p122 Spanish colonies in America, through delegates associated in a Congress, formally and absolutely to declare herself independent of the Motherland.

As an exposé of motives, the Declaration of Independence was supplemented by an exposition that had been framed by Roscio and Isnardi in accordance with the decision taken by Congress on July 5. On July 24 this justificatory address was approved by Congress, and six days later it decided that one thousand copies of the manifesto should be printed.55 If we may judge by the emphasis and the reasoning employed in this document, it was, in the main, written by the same hand that framed the Act of Independence. Relatively slight attention was given to the despotic and monopolistic policy pursued by Spain toward her colonies. In reasoning that was occasionally inconsistent, attention was rather directed to the scandalous scenes that had taken place in distracted Spain, to the alleged declarations of Spanish patriots that upon the proclamation of a Napoleonic dynasty they had recovered their absolute liberty and independence, and to the thwarting of the project of Venezuelan leaders to institute a local junta in imitation of the juntas formed in the Motherland. The oppressive rule of Captain General Emparán was bitterly denounced. Resentment was displayed at reports that had been circulated in Venezuela of alleged victories of Spanish arms over the French intruders. The liberal promises held out to colonists by the Spanish Regency were ridiculed as illusory. April 19, 1810, was proudly mentioned as the day upon which the colossus of despotism in Venezuela had collapsed. The period intervening between that memorable day and July 5, 1811, was declared to have been marked by insults and hostilities on the part of Spain and by moderation and suffering on the part of Venezuela. The author announced that it was a principle of natural law that the Indies no longer belonged to the Spanish crown. He argued that the emigrants who settled in a new country acquired a right to that territory. "It is well  p123 known," he continued, "that in the natural order, it is the duty of the father to emancipate his son, when he ceases to be a minor and can make use of his powers and his reason to make a living; and that it is the right of the son to do this whenever the cruelty or dissipation of his father or his tutor compromises his fate or exposes his patrimony to be the prize of a covetous person or of a usurper."56

As in the case of the Thirteen Colonies, so also in Venezuela the Declaration of Independence was not signed on the day when it was adopted. Not until August 17, 1811, did those members who were then present in the halls of Congress solemnly affix their signatures and rubrics to the formal announcement that Venezuela had separated from Spain.57 It was probably more than a tradition which impelled the talented Venezuelan artist, Martín Tovar y Tovar, in painting that memorable scene to portray Miranda standing in martial pose beside the desk at which the Venezuelan fathers were successively signing their Declaration of Independence.

Foreign opinion of this Declaration was various. A Spanish journalist in London stigmatized it as an imprudent and precipitate measure. "By this atrocious policy," said Blanco White, "our brothers have become insensible to our disgrace; they have armed themselves against us; they have blotted from their minds the sweet impressions of friendship and consanguinity, and have converted a part of our great family into enemies. * * * This imprudence has caused me as much dismay as the moderation of the first junta of Caracas caused me enthusiasm. I cannot apply any other name to a step that without producing any good effects may bring about many evils to the common cause of the Spanish Empire."58 The editor of the Correio Braziliense took a different view: "When we turn our eyes to this new State," said he, "it appears to us that we behold there the elements of a powerful nation; for the provinces that enter into the Confederation include an extensive  p124 territory with a fertile soil and healthful climate, — a domain endowed with many lakes, seaports, and navigable rivers."59

Newspapers in the United States made favorable comment. On September 3, 1811, in an article entitled "Independence of South America," the Weekly Aurora said: "We have this day the gratification of publishing the Declaration of Independence of the provinces formerly subjected to the Spanish yoke, in that part of South America called Venezuela, and the establishment of the only form of government, that of a federal and representative republic, founded on the equal rights of mankind, which is calculated to assure the liberty and happiness of the human species. The provinces consist of seven; but the spirit of liberty and independence is not confined to Venezuela; it extends to the whole of South America." In an editorial addressed to "the Friends of Good Government, Liberty, and Independence," after mentioning the revolutions that had taken place in France and North America, the American Patriot added: "South America now appears on the grand theatre, and has taken rank in the great scale of nations. Who amongst us does not exult at the intelligence received from that abused and long oppressed people?"60 A sympathetic expression of sentiment came from the White House. President Madison declared, in his annual message to Congress on November 5, 1811, that it was impossible to overlook the scenes that were developing among "the great communities which occupy the southern portion of our own hemisphere and extend into our neighborhood. An enlarged philanthropy and an enlightened forecast concur in imposing on the national councils an obligation to take a deep interest in their destinies, to cherish reciprocal sentiments of good will, to regard the progress of events, and not to be unprepared for whatever order of things may be ultimately established."61


The Author's Notes:

1 Blanco, Documentos para la historia de la vida pública del libertador, II, 571‑72.

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2 Ibid., pp693‑94.

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3 Colección de los decretos y órdenes que han expedido las cortes generales y extraordinarias, I, 9‑10.

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4 Blanco, II, 693‑96.

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5 Oct. 1, I. & A., Consular Letters, La Guayra, I.

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6 Ibid.

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7 "Answer of their Highnesses, the Supreme Junta of Caracas, to Don Antonio Ignacio de Cortavarria," W. O., 1/107.

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8 Montenegro to Hodgson, July 2, 1811, ibid., 1/108.

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9 Colección de los decretos y órdenes que han expedido las cortes generales y extraordinarias, I, 68‑69.

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10 Picón-Febres, La literatura venezolana en el siglo diez y nueve, pp110‑12.

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11 "Prospectus," in Hodgson to Liverpool, July 5, 1811, W. O., 1/108.

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12 Burke, Derechos de la América del Sur y México, p. iii.

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13 Ibid., p81.

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14 Universidad de Caracas, La intolerancia político-religiosa vindicada.

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15 Amunátegui, Vida de Don Andrés Bello, pp99‑100.

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16 El Español, II, 248.

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17 Bosquejo de la historia militar de Venezuela, pp40‑41.

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18 El Español, III, 330‑35.

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19 El libro nacional de los Venezolanos, pp11, 12.

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20 Amunátegui, p100.

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21 Academia nacional de la historia; prólogo á los anales de Venezuela, pp88‑89.

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22 El libro nacional, p24.

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23 Ibid., pp8, 9.

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24 Ibid., pp29, 42.

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25 Ibid., pp43‑44.

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26 Ibid., pp44, 45, 48.

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27 El libro nacional, pp50, 59‑60.

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28 Ibid., pp45, 49, 51.

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29 Ibid., p49.

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30 Ibid., pp50‑55.

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31 Ibid., p60.

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32 Outline of the Revolution in Spanish America, p111.

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33 El publicista de Venezuela, no. 17, as quoted by González, Biografía de José Félix Ribas, pp33‑35.

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34 Ibid., pp36‑37.

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35 El libro nacional, p62.

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36 Ibid., p63.

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37 El libro nacional, pp64, 65, 75‑76.

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38 Ibid., p78.

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39 Ibid., pp78‑79, 81.

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40 Ibid., p81.

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41 Amunátegui, p111.

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42 El libro nacional, p90.

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43 Díaz, Recuerdos sobre la rebelión de Caracas, p33.

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44 El libro nacional, pp91, 92.

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45 Design inclosed in Hodgson to Liverpool, Aug. 11, 1811, W. O., 1/109. See further, Mendoza Solar, "Escudos de armas de Caracas, Miranda, Nueva Granada, la Gran Colombia y Venezuela, desde la conquista hasta el año 1911," in El Cojo Ilustrado, XXI, 327.

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46 Gil Fortoul, Historia constitucional de Venezuela, I, 535‑36.

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47 El libro nacional, p94.

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48 Gil Fortoul op. cit., pp536‑37. The biographers of Roscio take the view that he took a large part or even an exclusive part in framing the Declaration, see Azpurúa, R., Biografías de hombres notables de Hispano-América, I, 159; Yanes, "Semblanzas de próceres civiles," in El Cojo Ilustrado, II, 16.

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49 El libro nacional, pp199‑205.

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50 El libro nacional, p210.

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51 Damiron, Compendio de la historia de Venezuela, p171.

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52 Sánchez, El publicista de Venezuela, p19.

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53 Blanco, III, 166‑69, 188.

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54 Ibid., p207.

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55 El libro nacional, pp128, 133.

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56 Prólogo á los anales de Venezuela, p117.

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57 El libro nacional, p173.

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58 El Español, IV, 42.

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59 Correio Braziliense, VII, 567.

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60 As quoted in the National Intelligencer, Sept. 26, 1811.

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61 Madison, Writings, VIII, 162‑63.


Thayer's Note:

a Surely not a crocodile — that animal is exclusively native to the Old World — but an alligator, a gavial, or a cayman, indigenous to the New. The word cocodrilo is, however, commonly used in Spanish, if incorrectly according to careful speakers, to refer to any of these toothèd beasts, and therefore may have been the word used in the design of the flag.


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