Independence from Spain
Lacking communication except by sea, which the Spanish generally controlled, Panama remained aloof from the early efforts of the Spanish colonies to separate from Spain. Revolutionaries of other colonies, however, did not hesitate to use Panama's strategic potential as a pawn in revolutionary maneuvers. General Francisco Miranda of Venezuela, who had been attracting support for revolutionary activities as early as 1797, offered a canal concession to Britain in return for aid. Thomas Jefferson, while minister to France, also showed interest in a canal, but the isolationist policies of the new United States and the absorption of energies and capital in continental expansion prevented serious consideration.
Patriots from Cartagena attempted to take Portobelo in 1814 and again in 1819, and a naval effort from liberated Chile succeeded in capturing the island of Taboga in the Bay of Panama. Panama's first act of separation from Spain came without violence. When Simón Bolívar's victory at Boyacá on August 7, 1819, clinched the liberation of New Granada, the Spanish viceroy fled Colombia for Panama, where he ruled harshly until his death in 1821. His replacement in Panama, a liberal constitutionalist, permitted a free press and the formation of patriotic associations. Raising troops locally, he soon sailed for Ecuador, leaving a native Panamanian, Colonel Edwin Fábrega, as acting governor.
Panama City immediately initiated plans to declare independence, but the city of Los Santos preempted the move by proclaiming freedom from Spain on November 10, 1821. This act precipitated a meeting in Panama City on November 28, which is celebrated as the official date of independence. Considerable discussion followed as to whether Panama should remain part of Colombia (then comprising both the present-day country and Venezuela) or unite with Peru. The bishop of Panama, a native Peruvian who realized the commercial ties that could be developed with his country, argued for the latter solution but was voted down. A third possible course of action, a union with Mexico proposed by emissaries of that country, was rejected.
Panama thus became part of Colombia, then governed under the 1821 Constitution of Cúcuta, and was designated a department with two provinces, Panamá and Veraguas. With the addition of Ecuador to the liberated area, the whole country became known as Gran Colombia. Panama sent a force of 700 men to join Bolívar in Peru, where the war of liberation continued.
The termination of hostilities against the royalists in 1824 failed to bring tranquillity to Gran Colombia. The constitution that Bolívar had drafted for Bolivia was put forward by him to be adopted in Gran Colombia. The country was divided principally over the proposal that a president would serve for life. The president would not be responsible to the legislature and would have power to select his vice president. Other provisions, generally centralist in their tendencies, were repugnant to some, while a few desired a monarchy. Panama escaped armed violence over the constitutional question but joined other regions in petitioning Bolívar to assume dictatorial powers until a convention could meet. Panama announced its union with Gran Colombia as a "Hanseatic State," i.e., as an autonomous area with special trading privileges until the convention was held.
In 1826 Bolívar honored Panama when he chose it as the site for a congress of the recently liberated Spanish colonies. Many leaders of the revolutions in Latin America considered the establishment of a single government for the former Spanish colonies the natural follow-up to driving out the peninsulares. Both José de San Martin and Miranda proposed creating a single vast monarchy ruled by an emperor descended from the Incas. Bolívar, however, was the one who made the most serious attempt to unite the Spanish American republics.
Although the league or confederation envisioned by Bolívar was to foster the blessings of liberty and justice, a primary purpose was to secure the independence of the former colonies from renewed attacks by Spain and its allies. In this endeavor Bolívar sought Britain's protection. He was reluctant to invite representatives of the United States, even as observers, to the congress of plenipotentiaries lest their collaboration compromise the league's position with the British. Furthermore, Bolívar felt that the neutrality of the United States in the war between Spain and its former colonies would make its representation inappropriate. In addition, slavery in the United States would be an obstacle in discussing the abolition of the African slave trade. Bolívar nevertheless acquiesced when the governments of Colombia, Mexico, and Central America invited the United States to send observers.
Despite the sweeping implications of the Monroe Doctrine, President John Quincy Adams--in deciding to send delegates to the Panama conference--was not disposed to obligate the United States to defend its southern neighbors. Adams instructed his delegates to refrain from participating in deliberations concerning regional security and to emphasize discussions of maritime neutrality and commerce. Nevertheless, many members of the United States Congress opposed participation under any conditions. By the time participation was approved, the delegation had no time to reach the conference. The British and Dutch sent unofficial representatives.
The Congress of Panama, which convened in June and adjourned in July of 1826, was attended by four American states--Mexico, Central America, Colombia, and Peru. The "Treaty of Union, League, and Perpetual Confederation" drawn up at that congress would have bound all parties to mutual defense and to the peaceful settlement of disputes. Furthermore, because some feared that monarchical elements sympathetic to Spain and its allies might regain control of one of the new republics, the treaty included a provision that if a member state substantially changed its form of government, it would be excluded from the confederation and could be readmitted only with the unanimous consent of all other members.
The treaty was ratified only by Colombia and never became effective. Bolívar, having made several futile attempts to establish lesser federations, declared shortly before his death in 1830 that "America is ungovernable; those who served the revolution have plowed the sea." Despite his disillusion, however, he did not see United States protection as a substitute for collective security arrangements among the Spanish-speaking states. In fact, he is credited with having said, "The United States seems destined by Providence to plague America with misery in the name of Liberty."
Three abortive attempts to separate the isthmus from Colombia occurred between 1830 and 1840. The first was undertaken by an acting governor of Panama who opposed the policies of the president, but the Panamanian leader reincorporated the department of Panama at the urging of Bolívar, then on his deathbed. The second attempted separation was the scheme of an unpopular dictator, who was soon deposed and executed. The third secession, a response to civil war in Colombia, was declared by a popular assembly, but reintegration took place a year later.
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