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The South American revolutionary Francisco de Miranda was not an exceptional military talent, a gifted diplomat, or an innovative thinker. He was a master propagandist and tireless promoter of the one idea that animated his entire life: the emancipation of Spanish America. For his constant efforts on four continents, his countrymen have given him the title of Precursor.
Born in Caracas, Venezuela, to an entrepreneurial emigre merchant from the Canary Islands, Francisco de Miranda grew up in a large family and attended college in Caracas. Miranda’s father purchased a captaincy in the Spanish army for him, and the ambitious young man set off for Madrid in 1771. Thus began the adventures of a man who would one day become a revolutionary obsessed with the emancipation of South America.
Miranda did not return to Venezuela for nearly forty years. Once in Spain, Miranda set about enjoying all that life in Europe offered. Beginning a pattern that lasted throughout his lifetime, he exploited his considerable charisma to secure the patronage of wealthy men and women who paid his expenses and invited him to their salons. Miranda entered into active duty and saw service in the Spanish garrisons in northern Africa. He proved to be an unusually difficult soldier, however, openly admiring his Moorish opponents and sympathizing with their desire to rid their soil of a foreign military presence. Starting to dream of liberating his own countrymen, Miranda was reprimanded, even jailed, several times for his insolence and outright disobedience. He requested a transfer to the Spanish fort at Cuba several times before permission was finally granted and he set sail for the Caribbean in 1780.
Once there he again enjoyed the protection of important people; Cuban governor Juan Manuel Cagigal liked the brash young man and invited him to participate in the expedition that retook Pensacola from the British. He later coordinated the efforts of certain Cubans to supply the North American patriots, sending critical financial aid to Admiral de Grasse in Chesapeake Bay. In 1783, he was entrusted with an important mission to Jamaica to negotiate a prisoner exchange but, while there, may have had some secret business of his own. When he returned to Cuba, rumors started to circulate that Miranda had been enlisted as an English spy. Although the charges were never proven, he had already become so transfixed by the idea of liberation and alienated from the Spanish Empire that he decided to defect. Under cover of darkness, Miranda stole away to the United States to witness the birth of a new American republic.
Francisco de Miranda spent nearly two years, 1783 and 1784, traveling throughout the United States, stopping in Charleston, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and many smaller towns in between. During his extended tour, he visited many important battle sites and talked with many important military and political leaders of the new nation. Miranda became particularly close with Alexander Hamilton, Henry Knox, and the extended family of John Adams, whose son-in-law William Smith became a frequent travel companion. He met George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette, both of whom left him unimpressed. Throughout his tour, Miranda sought out experiences that would help him understand the vast political experiment taking place around him.
In 1784, Miranda sailed to England to continue his useful politically motivated tourism. He ventured northward to Scotland in a failed effort to meet Adam Smith, but nonetheless managed to meet important academics and inventors in Edinburgh and at Oxford University. The Spanish embassy kept close watch on this deserter, sending back frequent reports on his activities and meetings. In 1785, Miranda and William Smith decided to take a tour of Europe. They sailed for the Netherlands, and from there continued onward to Prussia, where they arrived in time to witness maneuvers being held by Frederick the Great’s much-vaunted military. Parting ways with Smith, Miranda continued southward to Italy, where he held secret meetings with exiled Spanish-American Jesuits. Miranda’s educational tour continued to Greece and Turkey, where he reverentially visited all the sites of classical antiquity and studied current military practices and weaponry.
Miranda headed northward to the Crimea just in time to meet Prince Potemkin and Catherine the Great on their tour of the Ukraine in 1786. Enjoying royal favor, he spent a year in Russia with Catherine, who later granted him the aristocratic title of count and promised him perpetual protection in her embassies. Miranda traveled through Scandinavia and back to central Europe, ending his tour in France. With his impeccable timing he arrived in Paris in the momentous month of May 1789, when the first steps toward revolution occurred.
Feeling sympathy with the cause of liberation throughout the Atlantic world, Miranda joined the forces of the French Revolution in 1793. He commanded their northern troops in Belgium but failed to secure his territorial gains when material support from France was slow to arrive. Miranda was a competent military leader, but quickly fell victim to the Jacobins’ political intrigues. Maximilien Robespierre, in particular, despised Miranda for his adherence to positions advocated by the Gironde (a group of moderate republican deputies). In 1794, Miranda was arrested, put on trial for treason, and jailed for nearly two years; when he was released he returned to England to try to interest Prime Minister William Pitt in a scheme to liberate South America. He remained devoted to the ideals of the early French Revolution, though, and eventually founded a Jacobin club in Venezuela.
Tired of waiting for William Pitt and the English Parliament to approve his expeditionary force, Miranda decided to ask his old friends in the United States for assistance. He sailed to America in 1805 and quickly secured an audience with President Thomas Jefferson and Vice President James Madison, who expressed their interest, even their tacit approval, but refused to grant him any official support. Nevertheless, Miranda’s friends in New York were more enthusiastic and managed to outfit a ship, which he named the Leander, after his young son. Dozens of idealistic young men volunteered to join his expedition, which landed at Coro, in northwestern Venezuela, in 1806. Despite his grandiose pronouncements of liberty and equality, Miranda’s forces met with little interest from the local inhabitants. He held the town for about a week before abandoning it (along with several of his disillusioned mercenaries) to the advancing Spanish royalists. Miranda returned home to his young family and a hero’s welcome in London; many of his followers died in Spanish prisons. The episode later launched a bitter political controversy in the United States when opponents of Jefferson and Madison tried to tie the illegal and abortive invasion to their administration.
Miranda spent three more years in London, lobbying politicians on behalf of his cause and learning how to manipulate public opinion by prosecuting his arguments in the press. He formed close working partnerships with the philosophers James Mill and Jeremy Bentham, both of whom took a great interest in the emancipation of Spanish America. Miranda relished his position as host to the various representatives of Spanish American juntas who came to London in the summer of 1810 and returned to Venezuela himself later that year. Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in 1808 had created a constitutional crisis in the empire; power legally devolved upon local town councils until the central monarchy could be restored. At first, patriotic Americans claimed loyalty to the crown, but by 1811, certain radical elements in both Buenos Aires and Caracas had come out in favor of independence and republican government. Miranda was elected as representative of the remote province of Pao when the constitutional congress was held and the First Republic declared in July 1811. He was a controversial figure, though, seen by many as old and out of touch with local realities. When the Spanish royalists staged their counterattack, Miranda reassumed his familiar role as general and commander in chief. In early 1812, he assumed emergency dictatorial powers during the siege at Valencia, which fueled his unpopularity among the younger patriots.
Francisco de Miranda was taken in chains to the port city of Cadiz in Spain, where he lived out the rest of his days miserably in the prison of La Carraca. He continued to correspond with his friends and family, constantly beseeching them to secure his release. His health failed dramatically and he died in July 1816. Miranda was not an exceptional military talent, nor was he a gifted diplomat. Neither was he an innovative thinker. He was a master propagandist and tireless promoter of the one idea that animated his entire life: the emancipation of Spanish America. For his constant efforts on four continents, his countrymen have given him the title of Precursor.
- Halpine, S. (1999). The altar of Venus: A biography of Francisco de Miranda. Bloomington, IN: 1st Books.
- Lynch, J. (1986). The Spanish American revolutions 1808–1826. New York: Norton.
- Nicolson, I. (1969). The liberators: A study of independence in Spanish America. New York: Frederick A. Praeger.
- Racine, K. (2003). Francisco de Miranda: A transatlantic life in the age of revolution. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources.
- Robertson, W. S. (1965). Rise of the Spanish American republics. New York: Free Press.
- Robertson, W. S. (1969). The life of Miranda. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. (Original work published 1929)
- Thorning, J. (1952). Miranda: World citizen. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.
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