The US and Spanish American Revolutions

by Jay Sexton

If one says “American Revolution” in the United States today, it is assumed that what is being referred to is the North American liberation struggles against the British Empire in the late eighteenth century. But the British North Americans were not the only group of European colonists in the Americas to rebel against their distant rulers in this era. Beginning in 1808, those in Spain’s vast American empire—spanning from Mexico in the north to Buenos Aires in the south; Peru in the west to the present-day coast of Venezuela in the east—rose up against Spanish rule. As in North America, a combination of ideology, geopolitics, and material interests motivated the revolutionaries. The Spanish American revolutions were protracted and complex. They are better thought of in the plural than the singular given their chronological progression and disparate geographical centers of action.

Of all the revolutions in modern history, those in Spanish America in the early nineteenth century might be most closely related to eighteenth-century revolution that created the United States. In both cases, centuries-old transatlantic colonial ties were severed in wars of independence. Both revolutionary movements were also civil wars of sorts, pitting pro-independence factions against those who fought for the continuation of the colonial connection. Historical actors in the United States and in Spanish America were alive to witness the revolutions in both regions. Consider Thomas Jefferson, who authored the US Declaration of Independence in 1776 and lived until 1826, the year most historians cite as the end of the Spanish American revolutions; or José de San Martín, the Argentine revolutionary leader, who was born in 1778 during the American Revolution. Finally, both independence movements began a protracted and contentious process of postcolonial nation-building. In time, a single United States emerged from the ashes of British colonialism. In Spanish America, several new states came into being, led by Mexico, Gran Colombia (whose territory included present-day Colombia, Panama, Venezuela, and Ecuador), Peru, Buenos Aires (present-day Argentina), and Chile.[1]

Contemporaries often commented upon these affinities. Revolutionaries in Spanish America pointed to the United States as an example of a successful rebellion against Old World colonial rule. In the United States, observers viewed the revolts in Spanish America as validation of their own revolution. “Our example has animated the South-American provinces to declare themselves independent!” exclaimed the North American Review reporting on the conflict in Pernambuco in 1817.[2] There is no question that the inhabitants of North and Spanish America were deeply aware of the similarities of their revolutions. But can the US Revolution be said to have influenced those in Spanish America several decades later, as the North American Review contended?

The answer to this question hinges upon historical method. Assessing influence is a notoriously tricky business. One way forward is to explore the circulation of revolutionary ideas from North to Spanish America. The work of historian Peggy K. Liss provides a model study. Liss found that Thomas Paine’s Common Sense—a publication crucial to promoting the revolutionary cause in North America in the 1770s—was circulated widely in Spanish America.[3] Translated into Spanish by Venezuelan Manuel Garcia de Sena in 1811 and published in a volume that included translations of the founding national documents of the United States, this text was popular in Spanish America during the revolutionary struggles of the 1810s.

The influence of the US revolution in Spanish America can be traced in other ways. The political ideas and practices of the new US republic, as well as the constitutions of the individual states in the Union, can be found in the political documents and institutions of the new Spanish American republics. Venezuela’s assertion of independence in 1811 so closely resembled that of 1776 that a Spanish official believed its author was none other than Thomas Jefferson. George Washington posthumously became a celebrity figure in Spanish America, often serving as the archetype of a successful revolutionary. Other connections can be found within the United States. Spanish American diplomats and envoys, for example, traveled to the United States to lobby for support. Philadelphia, where US independence was declared, became an important center of activity for Spanish American revolutionaries and their North American sympathizers.

These networks and texts provide empirical evidence that links the North American 1776 to the subsequent revolutions in Spanish America. The North American example undoubtedly inspired and influenced the independence movements in Spanish America. Yet influence should not be confused with causation. The international event that most directly triggered the revolts in Spanish America was the French invasion of Spain in 1808, not the US Declaration of Independence. In stark contrast to North America in the 1770s, it was the crumbling of central imperial power in Spain, not the exercise of it, that precipitated revolution.[4] Furthermore, Spanish American invocations of the North American revolutionary model should not be seen as straightforward attempts at mimicry. Rather, when Spanish Americans invoked 1776 or the writings of Thomas Paine, they sought not only to learn from the US example, but also to validate their own actions, to appeal to wavering allies, or to communicate their determination to achieve independence to foreign audiences—not least the United States, which did not recognize Spanish American independence until 1822. Political utility, as well as ideological inspiration, accounts for the prominence of references to the United States during the Spanish American revolutions.

When assessing external influences in the Spanish American revolutions, it is also important to place the role of the United States in a broader, international context. If it is true that this era witnessed the forging of new links between the inhabitants of the Americas, these were not the only international connections of significance. Many—indeed, most—Spanish Americans continued to look primarily across the Atlantic for external reference points. Tracts from the French Revolution also were translated into Spanish and widely circulated. That the violence and bloodshed in France in the 1790s often led Spanish American elites to present it as a negative model does not diminish its importance as an external influence.

The most important foreign reference point was Britain. It should come as no surprise that Spanish American revolutionaries looked to Britain for support. Boasting the world’s greatest navy and serving as the Atlantic economy’s financial center, Britain had more to offer the cash-strapped Spanish American rebels than did any other foreign power. But Spanish American elites also looked to Britain for political inspiration. Suspicious of fundamental social change and wary of US-style democracy, elite revolutionaries like Simón Bolívar found in Britain a model polity that balanced conservative institutions, such as monarchy, with the rule of law and a tradition of gradual reform. Though he greatly admired the United States—declaring after his visit there in 1806 that “for the first time in my life I saw national liberty”—Bolívar doubted that its political system would flourish in Spanish America. “I think it would be better for [Spanish] America to adopt the Koran than the government of the United States, although it is the best in the world,” Bolívar asserted. Britain’s constitutional monarchy, in contrast, held greater appeal: “England is the envy of all Countries in the world, and the pattern all would wish to follow in forming a Constitution and Government.”[5]

The potential that the new republics in Spanish America might gravitate toward the British caused much concern in the United States. The revolutions that had been seen as validation of its own independence movement threatened to play into the hands of the United States’ former colonial master. No US politician trumpeted the Spanish American cause more than did Henry Clay. But for as much as Clay presented the revolutions as a triumph of the anti-imperialism of 1776, he also viewed them through the hard-headed lens of US national interest. Clay argued that an independent Spanish America would become an important US export market, as well as enhance US security by pushing European powers out of the western hemisphere. Like many of his compatriots, Clay viewed the revolutions in Spanish America as an opportunity for the United States to enhance its geopolitical position by countering the designs of the British.

The famous Monroe Doctrine of 1823, which was largely the work of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, struck a similar note. The document expressed solidarity with Spanish Americans, but did not extend concrete support to them at a moment in which it was feared that reactionary European powers might intervene to re-establish colonial authority. Instead, it was crafted to advance the unity of the United States, as well as to counter British advances in Spanish America. In time, the Monroe Doctrine became less a symbol of a shared, pan-American anti-imperial ideology than a nationalist justification for US territorial expansion across North America and imperialist intervention in the Caribbean.

Developments such as the evolution of the Monroe Doctrine from anti-imperial symbol to imperialist instrument changed the way in which Spanish Americans viewed the American Revolution. By the late nineteenth century, memories of 1776 were less a model for Spanish Americans to follow than they were a mirror to hold up to the increasingly powerful United States. Anticolonial nationalists such as José Martí, who was a leader in Cuba’s struggle against Spain in the late nineteenth century, romantically looked back at US history. But Martí’s purpose was less to use 1776 as a model for Cuban independence than it was to remind US statesmen to live up to their nation’s anti-imperial founding.

[1] Lester Langley, The Americas in the Age of the Revolution, 1750–1850 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996); Wim Klooster, Revolutions in the Atlantic World: A Comparative History (New York: New York University Press, 2009).

[2] “Revolution in Pernambuco,” North American Review and Miscellaneous Journal, July 1817, 226.

[3] Peggy K. Liss, Atlantic Empires: The Network of Trade and Revolution, 1713–1826 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), 210.

[4] J. H. Elliot, Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492–1830 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).

[5] John Lynch, Simon Bolívar: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 216–217; Liss, Atlantic Empires, 203, 219.

Jay Sexton is University Lecturer in American History at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He is the author of The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth-Century America (2011) and Debtor Diplomacy: Finance and American Foreign Relations in the Civil War Era, 1837–1873 (2005) and co-editor, with Richard Carwardine, of The Global Lincoln (2011).

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