A Quest for Freedom

(In his book, Stephen Girard, America’s First Tycoon, George Wilson addresses the extreme plight of South America in the nineteenth century with its pervading poverty and overbearing upper classes. This was slavery at its most heinous form. In the chapter on Simon Bolivar, Wilson speaks of Stephen Girard’s concern.”)

 “Wars of independence were brewing in South America early in the nineteenth century. They were led by Simon Bolivar, who became known as the Great Liberator, and they were successful because there were brave men willing to fight to be free. Most importantly, victory was achieved because these men had arms and ammunition to fight with. Wars are not won by bravery alone.

   Stephen Girard’s role in supplying weapons and munitions to Bolivar and his freedom fighters is a noteworthy sidelight in the history of South America. Girard gave Bolivar the lift he needed when he needed it the most—when he was a nobody, when he was unknown, when he was unsung, when he was unheard of. Later, there were many who climbed on Bolivar’s bandwagon, but it was Girard who led the parade.

   When Bolivar, with few guns, little money and hardly any followers, first dared to dream of challenging and defeating the mighty European powers that were entrenched in South America, there were many who thought he was a fool. Nonetheless, Girard could see the potential for triumph against seemingly impossible odds. U.S. foreign aid had not been invented yet. Covert operations abroad were a nonexistent concept in Washington. A fledgling America was still shying from international entanglements. The laws of the United States frowned on unauthorized acts of war by private citizens against sovereign governments.

   In spite of these deterrents, Girard financed the shipment of guns and ammunition to subjugated peoples in South America in the name of liberty and justice. He put weaponry in the hands of rebels desperately and urgently in want, rebels who were asking only for a chance to fight and perhaps to die for their objectives. Girard was not the kind to let legalisms stand in the way of a good cause.

   There are many dimensions to this improbable story. It seems odd that a maritime merchant sitting in his counting-house in Philadelphia would become involved in the activities of an obscure would-be revolutionary thousands of miles away. Yet, that is what happened. It happened in part and indirectly because the slave revolt that had begun in St. Domingo in the early 1790s culminated in a fiery and bloody climax in the early 1800s when French plantation owners and their families were slaughtered in huge numbers. Napoleon sent tens of thousands of French troops across the Atlantic in a futile effort to quell the uprising. Toussaint  L’Ouverture, the leader of the rebellious slaves, was captured by the French and removed to France, where he died in prison in 1803.Nonetheless, former slaves continued to rebel and were successful in winning both individual and national freedom. The former French colony of St. Domingo became the independent country of Haiti, formerly founded in 1804.”

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