Back to Inquiry Set

Address to the Bolivian Constituent Congress

Bolívar, Simón

Bolívar, Simón. “Address to the Constituent Congress,” in El Libertador: Writings of Simón Bolívar, edited by David Bushnell (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 54 – 64.

In May 1826 Simón Bolívar submitted a draft constitution for the new nation of Bolivia to its Constituent Congress. The excerpt above comes from Bolívar’s speech to explain his constitution and convince the representatives to adopt it for Bolivia. The constitution created a president serving for life, with a fourfold separation of powers among a lifetime presidency, an independent judiciary, a congress with three houses, and an electoral body. Bolívar considered his draft of the Bolivian constitution to be his masterpiece. Bolivia adopted Bolívar’s constitution, with some minor changes. However, in other new South American nations, wealthy white creoles worried that Bolívar’s ideas about equality could lead to a social revolution. They took control of the new nations and set up a legal and social order that protected property and racial divides and that disadvantaged people of color and the poor.

Although Bolívar was liberal rather than radical, he included the abolition of slavery and made references to equality and the abolition of “privileged classes.” Since the actions of slaves, Indians, and other groups, such as the rebellion of Tupac Amarú in what is today Peru in the 1780s, threatened the property and privileges of white creole elites as much as they did the Spanish rulers, most creoles wanted to confine republican rights to themselves. On August 6, 1825, at the Congress of Upper Peru, the Republic of Bolivia was created. Bolívar wanted a large unified American state in South America, with a republican government, but he also wanted strong authority for a president — who might even be a hereditary king or dictator. Although his constitution was adopted by the Constituent Congress of Bolivia, the result was not equality. The South American revolutions produced unstable national republics dominated by wealthy and powerful white elites: enslaved people remained in slavery and indigenous people, who enjoyed some rights under the colonial system, now found themselves with fewer rights and with no secure claims to land.

Under our constitution, the president of the republic is like the Sun, immovable at the center of the universe, radiating life. This supreme authority should be permanent, because in systems without hierarchies, a fixed point around which magistrates and citizens and men and events revolve is more necessary than in other systems. Give me a fixed point, said an ancient, and I will move the earth. For Bolivia, this point is a president for life. In him, all order originates, even though he lacks the power to act. He has been beheaded so that no one will fear his intentions, and his hands have been tied so that he can harm no one. …
The most perfect guarantees have been written into this draft: Civil liberty is the only true freedom; the others are nominal or of little importance insofar as they affect the citizens. The security of the individual has been guaranteed, this being the purpose of society and the source of all other guarantees. As for property rights, these will depend on the civil code that in your wisdom you will compose with all dispatch for the happiness of your fellow citizens. I have left intact the law of all laws — equality. Without this, all guarantees, all rights perish. To ensure equality, we must make every sacrifice, beginning with infamous slavery, which I have laid at her feet, covered with shame.
Legislators! Slavery is the violation of every law. The law that would seek to preserve it would be a sacrilege. What possible justification can there be for its perpetuation? From whatever perspective you consider this crime, I cannot persuade myself that any Bolivian could be depraved enough to want to legitimize this most abominable violation of human dignity. One man owned by another! A man regarded as property! One of God’s images hitched to the yoke like a beast!....