Op-Ed: What the baby Bolivar boom tells us about how we used to view South America

Almost 200 years ago, as the United States approached its 50th birthday, a new baby name swept the nation. It wasn’t biblical or even Anglophone. It was Bolivar. Hundreds of mothers and fathers, living in Kentucky log cabins or Illinois farmhouses, named their crying, crinkly newborns after Spanish America’s most celebrated revolutionary: Simón Bolívar of Venezuela.

The baby Bolivar boom wasn’t an isolated oddity, either. Other Americans named their new towns, their boats and even their livestock Bolivar, adopting the Spanish-speaking revolutionary as one of their own.

Given how much of our current election cycle has been marked by talk of border walls and racial slurs, it may seem surprising that ordinary Americans held such early affection for Latin America. A generation before the United States swallowed half of Mexico (including what turned out to be a gold-encrusted California), visions of a harmonious republican hemisphere prevailed.

In the 1810s and early 1820s — just a generation or two after our Revolution of 1776 — most of Latin America fought (and won) independence wars against Spain and Portugal, from Mexico and Colombia to Chile and Brazil. Those developments owed more to the chaos of the Napoleonic Wars than to the shot heard round the world, but nonetheless, U.S. patriots happily gave themselves credit for having inspired a hemisphere full of revolutionary disciples. They concluded that their founding republican ideals really were universal — that U.S. light was spreading to places thought mired in Iberian colonial darkness. Victories across Latin America thus inflamed U.S. patriotism; as a Boston newspaper trumpeted, these newfound sister republics were “flattering to our national pride.”

The excitement was pervasive. From Chillicothe, Ohio, to Savannah, Ga., mothers dressed their daughters in feathery, broad-brimmed “Bolivar hats.” Poets wrote odes to Brazil and Peru. West Point cadets looked exuberantly south and fired ceremonial cannons. Newspapers printed long lists of toasts sent in after each Independence Day, including hundreds feting Latin American freedom. As editors nationwide approvingly observed, toasts to “the Patriots of South America” were “the favourites of the day,” along with toasts to the Founding Fathers, the Constitution and the United States itself.


The U.S. government remained officially neutral in these revolutions, declining to do for Latin Americans what France had done for it. But people found smaller ways to chip in. In 1812, Congress voted to send $50,000 worth of provisions to help erstwhile revolutionaries in Caracas dig out after a devastating earthquake; it was a pioneering instance of U.S. foreign aid. In another groundbreaking congressional vote 10 years later, the United States became the first country to formally recognize Spanish America’s new nations as independent powers.

Our early 19th century predecessors saw themselves as political kin of people with clear cultural, linguistic and sometimes racial differences.

Hoping to do well by doing good, merchants loaded their ships “with weapons as ballast” (as Portugal’s ambassador griped) and sold the goods to South American rebels. With similarly mixed motives, some 3,000 privateers attacked Spanish ships on the high seas until Congress outlawed the practice beginning in 1817.

The inter-American idealism was so strong that it often transcended racial and religious differences. Everyone knew that Latin Americans were Catholics, and newspapers widely reported that Spanish Americans in particular were passing gradual antislavery laws. Black U.S. audiences were thrilled, while white observers were so excited about the anticolonial battles that they accepted the antislavery ones. As the flummoxed Portuguese ambassador wrote at the time, it was “as if every person ... was denounced as an anti-patriot, if he be not an advocate for supporting every rebellion or insurrection ... whether these self-styled patriots are white, black, or yellow.”

Americans’ universalist optimism about human potential was endlessly contested, and their abstract talk of brotherhood wilted as slavery spread into the South and West. Inter-American ardor eventually yielded to manifest destiny, racialized chauvinism and war with Mexico. But the sanguine inclusiveness of the 1810s and early 1820s mattered nonetheless. In celebrating the decline of colonial rule to their south, Americans were defining the United States as an advocate for worldwide republican liberty — even when that liberty included Spanish-speaking antislavery Catholics.

This short-lived and self-congratulatory excitement for Latin American independence offers few easy answers for our own times. Hemispheric enthusiasts themselves disagreed about the particulars of inter-American trade and diplomacy. Immigration wasn’t a central issue, and when it did begin to surge later in the 1820s and 1830s, people usually were moving to Mexico, not away from it. Still, the hemispheric enthusiasm stands in striking contrast to our current political discourse about Latin America. Our early 19th century predecessors saw themselves as political kin of people with clear cultural, linguistic and sometimes racial differences. Turning south of the border, early U.S. patriots adopted internationalism as a credo.

Two centuries later, Donald Trump offers a new credo: “Make America great again.” The power and the peril of this slogan stem from its imprecision. To which past? What elements of our history does he propose to resuscitate? To paraphrase Walt Whitman, our history is large; it contains multitudes. It teems with triumph and treachery, freedom and slavery, equality and oppression.

But here’s one thing we might resuscitate. We could improve upon our early 19th century predecessors’ global awareness and interest, their conviction that our welfare was intertwined with that of foreigners. We could reject Trump’s belligerent isolationism in favor of international goodwill. And we might consider that such hemispheric hopefulness and inclusive cosmopolitanism are an American tradition too.

Caitlin Fitz is an assistant professor of history at Northwestern University and author of “Our Sister Republics: The United States in an Age of American Revolutions.”

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