Francisco de Miranda: Transatlantic Enlightenment and Its Limits

Categories: Latin American

In 1952, former Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles referred to Francisco de Miranda as “an apostle of American liberty” and “a member of that immortal group of patriots to whom the peoples of the New World owe their independence”.[1] Of course, the vast life and works of the Precursor to Latin American Independence is much more complex. As one of the most widely traveled and learned men of his time, Francisco de Miranda sought to use the networks he forged across Europe to inspire and attempt revolution in Latin America.

Yet the sheer size and implications of these networks were paralleled and shaped by the complexities of a Europe in rapid revolutionary flux. This study calls into question the tactics used by Miranda in invoking a type of transnational enlightenment revolutionism which remains unparalleled in the history of modern Europe. At the heart of our inquiry lies the question of the extent to which Miranda was able to seek the support of influential leaders and politicians from vastly different European nations without compromising his revolutionary ideals.

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This study, however, does not take the revolutionary outlook of Miranda as constant or in any way rigid, instead choosing to question the ways in which inconsistencies and contradictions in Miranda’s thought illuminate the ways in which he adapted his vision for Latin America as he learnt the lessons of revolution in Europe. In this sense, I choose to focus on the language of Miranda’s writings to track change and continuity in his approach to Latin American independence so that we may be able to more accurately understand not only how revolutionary discourse developed in Europe but also how it was coopted and translated by figures from across the Atlantic.

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As historians in a world increasingly divided by political rhetoric and borders, it seems necessary and right to turn our attention to the ways in which certain values challenged and transcended the deeply-wrought divisions which once existed between peoples, nations and continents. Using Miranda as a kaleidoscopic lens through which we can better understand how the Enlightenment broadened the scope of the liberal project gives us renewed appreciation for the power of values such as liberty, sovereignty and civil society. Yet if we are to use Miranda as a representation of the transnational power of the Enlightenment project, we are tasked with evaluating the ways in which navigated the complicated discourses of the time. How successful was Miranda in articulating and applying the universal values he touted? The impact of this inquiry touches on several fault-lines in the historiography of both Enlightenment Europe and Latin American decolonization, primarily on the viability and celebration of enlightenment principles in Europe and the origins and impacts of European liberalism on Latin America. In this sense, my choice of sources spanning from the beginning of Miranda’s exile in 1783 up to his death in 1816 is significant as it covers not only the height of enlightenment revolutionism in the European continent, but also the development and realization of independence across a significant section of Central and South America. These questions and approaches serve a much-needed update in the historiography of Francisco de Miranda, which to date has not been fully analyzed by intellectual or transnational historians.

Modern historians of Latin America and its movements for independence have noted Francisco de Miranda not as a visionary for his nation, but as a mildly peripheral figure who engaged in naïve radicalism. In his influential survey, Peter Bakewell notes that Miranda was a prime example of how some “creole citizens tended to radicalism for radicalism’s sake,” focusing his analysis of Miranda’s travels and failed revolutionary expeditions as representations of the impotency of enlightenment ideals in the Spanish colonies. In context, Bakewell argues that “creoles did not necessarily take up notions of inherent human freedom and equality, not accept that government should follow the popular will” instead seizing merely on the “possibility” of independence as “the political legacy of the Enlightenment”.[2] In a broader analysis, Marshall Eakin positions Miranda as part of the “New Order” forged by nineteenth century liberalism, and agrees with Bakewell in noting that “for Spanish Americans, the Enlightenment did not so much produce revolutionary sentiments as it generated a more critical attitude toward authority, tradition and monarchy”.[3] By comparing the forging of the “New Order” of liberalism in Latin America to a “second conquest of the region,”[4] however, Eakin dismisses the reciprocal exchange of ideas which defined the networks wrought by Miranda in Europe. Both of these modern historians do an excellent job of tackling the ways in which race shaped Creole liberals’ outlook on revolution in Latin America, but their dismissal of the important connections which Miranda maintained with Venezuela and the rest of the region while exile mistakenly depicts him as another European dealing in a distinctly European form of Enlightenment discourse. By seeking to trace the networks and relationships which are latent in Miranda’s correspondence I hope to be able to illuminate these influential historians’ analysis of Miranda’s liberalism – Miranda’s many letters to leaders in Europe, such as those which seek support from Russia in England, often transcend and override long-standing rivalries in the name of Latin American independence. Indeed, while our inquiry also seeks to evaluate the motivations behind these alliances, it does so by taking revolutionary dialogue in Miranda’s letters seriously, instead of merely dismissing them as diluted forms of racial liberalism or as attempts to impose foreign ideologies in the Spanish colonies.

Turning more specifically to works which deal with Miranda in the context of his travels, there is a clear trend towards skepticism of his legacy by more modern historians. Joseph Thorning’s 1952 biography of Miranda goes as far as to say his “primary loyalty was to the human race” and credits him with giving Latin Americans the idea that they could effect revolution and independence by themselves.[5] Yet for more recent historians, there is a different narrative. In Karen Racine’s seminal biography of Miranda, she refers to the general as “a clever man, but not a deep thinker,” noting that he was ultimately “unable to rise to the challenges of a fundamentally new kind of conflict”.[6] In a more recent collection of essays studying Miranda and his Enlightenment, John Lynch credits the General only with making Latin America a “subject of debate, if not decision” for British parliamentarians.[7] For Racine, Lynch and John Maher Miranda’s success can be evaluated first by understanding the reasons why the Leander Expedition of 1806 failed – for these historians, the expedition represents Miranda’s naiveté in failing to recognize the strength of the rivalries he would re-ignite by sending a revolutionary force to Venezuela from England. These historians also make extensive reference to the trade agreement signed by the British with the Spanish in 1809, noting this episode as representative of Miranda’s ultimate failure. These modern scholars carry out accurate evaluations of Miranda based on assessments of the responses he received from particular European countries,[8] yet there is no attempt to understand the tactics used by Miranda or to draw extensively on the ways in which he articulated his liberalism in different places to build alliances. My project will explore the many possibilities implicit in a study of strategy – I will be able to place Miranda in a wider framework of scholarship on international relations and diplomacy as conceived and practiced during his period.

The trend towards skepticism which defines biographers of Miranda in terms of overall evaluations repeats itself in relation to the nature of Miranda’s beliefs. Thorning’s study of Miranda poses from the outset that “Miranda wanted the advantages of trade without the poison of political penetration,” suggesting that Miranda’s vision for Latin American was not one which reiterated the imperial aspirations of Europe.[9] Racine is much more skeptical of Miranda’s motivations in this respect, arguing that English newspapers repeatedly articulated support for Miranda’s ventures only in terms of British colonial interests in the region.[10] In this sense, both Racine and Lynch stress that Miranda needed extensive support from European leaders and so was forced to “confuse and contradict” his principles in order to navigate existing alliances.[11] Thorning disagrees on this point, instead arguing that “Miranda expressed a willingness to attempt an invasion […] with a minimum of British help”.[12] This point of divergence in the scholarship seems to be driven by developments in writing regarding the lack of uniformity of Enlightenment ideals, but both sides miss the point – it is indeed likely that Miranda had to reshape and reform his ideals in order to appeal to different audiences, and it is also likely that he imagined a revolution led mostly by Venezuelans. In fact, letters sent to Catherine the Great do suggest that Miranda wanted a revolution that was “distinctly Colombian in character”.[13] Understanding that neither of these approaches can be dismissed in a study of Miranda is essential. Our study seeks to interpret the ways in which Miranda did restructure his beliefs in line with his experiences in Europe, but also to piece together the way in which he imagined a sovereign Latin America. This goal is not met by any of the major biographies and studies of Miranda in the last century, partially because they have prioritized political and social narratives in their analysis, as opposed to a thorough evaluation of the ideas and actions articulated by Miranda during the period.

Historians writing in 2016 have begun to consider Miranda more fully in the context of his own philosophies and to understand him as part of webs of discourse and ideas which held across Europe and extended to South America. Joselyn Almeida, writing on the development and spreading of ideas between 1780 and 1890 in her book Reimagining the Transatlantic, argues that Miranda was deeply entangled in transnational discourses of revolution and liberation at the intersection of slavery and imperial expansionism in Europe. In this sense, Almeida carries out a successful analysis of Miranda’s language and writings to argue that he “successfully manipulated the connection between writing, nation building, and law, a literacy that marks him as a man of order”.[14] In line with this, Almeida is able to reveal how Miranda self-fashioned a Romantic personality to remove himself from the “definitive challenge to empire and enslavement that the revolutions in France and St. Domingue signified”.[15] Almeida is able to elevate her analysis by comparing Miranda to contemporary Toussaint Louverture, and concluding that while the latter positioned himself as a champion of “la liberte extreme” in the French colonies, Miranda imagined himself as a “legislator” opposed to the volatility which defined the aftermath of the French revolution.[16] The field of comparative studies in this way has greatly illuminated the ideas and self-fashioning methods developed by Miranda. In his recent article, Omar Miranda compares General Miranda to Lord Byron, noting that “Miranda inspired a type of transnational celebrity – ‘exilic romance’” which anticipated Byron’s distinct fame.[17] Yet Omar Miranda goes further to argue that “the literal and metaphorical distances of exile enabled Miranda to manipulate his public image – to perform it – and suit it to his purposes”.[18] This analysis, which uses Miranda’s writing and correspondence as central sources, is more in line with the approach adopted in my study. Both Almeida and Omar Miranda take Miranda’s ideas and posturing in Europe seriously as representative of political self-fashioning, the development of political discourses across borders and the employment of Romanticism in the public sphere. Yet while these two writers focus on Miranda comparatively only as parts of larger bodies of work on colonialism and romanticism, I will seek to create a broader framework in order to understand how exactly Miranda positioned himself in the European sociopolitical stage and how he translated revolutionary discourse not only for his countrymen in Venezuela but for others in Europe as he sought support. What were the divergences between the performer and the negotiator? What do these tell us about Europe and the individual in the age of Enlightenment?

This study does not ask, in the style of Miranda’s many biographies, how successful the General was in his ultimate goal of Latin American independence. It also moves beyond the attempts made by recent essayists to highlight the contradictions in Miranda’s writings as a way of providing evidence for the coopting and fragmentation of Enlightenment beliefs at the altar of imperial expansion. Instead, it seeks to question the ways in which Miranda navigated European society and fashioned himself to deliver a vision of the future of Latin America to leaders and potential allies. How was the man and his ideas change as revolutionary struggles developed in Europe, and how did those changes manifest in his articulation of the benefits of Latin American independence to both his countrymen and Europeans? The many letters and archives collected by Miranda and used in this study give us an insight into some of the complex answers to these questions. Firstly, letters to American leaders where he refers to the “anarchic shocks” of rebellion in post-revolutionary French colonies do suggest he sought to distance himself from the radicalism of the French model as early as 1798.[19] Yet during his time in France in the 1790s, Miranda positions himself at the heart of the revolutionary government and expresses pride in his French citizenship, noting his “preference” of France over any other European nation.[20] Indeed, Miranda was after all a French general. At the same time, countless letter denote Miranda as courtier to leaders as influential as Catherine the Great (with whom he is rumored to have had an affair) and governors in Turkey. In this sense, we get a sense of the multifaceted image Miranda had to adopt in order to navigate European high society – he was an army general who had fought in the two great revolutions of his time, a man of letters who was deeply aware of the pitfalls of radicalism, and a quixotic figure whose charisma took him to royal courts and the homes of the powerful. This complex and powerful milieu of personalities, together with a pre-existing European fascination with South America, positioned Miranda favorably to build strong personal and political not only with leaders but the public across the continent. Arthur Wellesley, one of the most powerful men in the world at the time, denotes his “deep personal sadness” in having to tell Miranda Britain would offer no support for a second revolutionary expedition in 1810;[21] and Catherine the Great expresses not only her own “personal disappointment” at Miranda’s abandonment of Russia in 1795 but also that of “my people, who have come to revel in your traveled insights”.[22]

Analyzing language closely to track the development and employment of Miranda’s multifaceted persona during this period will be the aim of this study. It will begin by taking a closer look at Miranda’s aristocratic background in Venezuela, seeking to understand how early experiences of racial difference and colonial life shaped his motivations to seek exile and promote independence from overseas. This chapter will draw on biographies of his early life, but will also look at how Miranda remembered and reconstructed his childhood in the letters he wrote in Europe. Understanding how Miranda remembered and conceived his experience of Latin America will be important in understanding many of his tactics. Having had laid out a foundational understanding of Miranda’s motivations for exile this study will focus on tracking the development of Miranda’s ideas and personalities along several axes – his political philosophy, his military strategies, his management of a fruitful social scene, and his political mediations. By developing a more complete understanding of the content and shape of each of these aspects of Miranda’s life, we shall be able to better understand how they connect and intertwine to create a highly flexible and adaptable yet principled Romantic persona in the name of revolution. Furthermore, by tracing these lines of inquiry across the period and regions throughout Miranda’s exile, this study will provide a more accurate overview of how and when Miranda changed his beliefs, as well as how he used the lessons he had learnt from past revolutionary experiences and turmoil in Europe.

Unlike biographers and other historians of Miranda, my study will not be structured by the countries which he visited during his period in exile. In order to fully grasp the extent to which his ideals and personality transcended and challenged political borders (as well as occasionally reified them), I will organize my analysis around the Leander Expedition of 1806 as the main turning point. In the first chapter I will consider race and upbringing in terms of how the influenced a young Miranda to leave Venezuela for Europe. Laying out the ways in which, despite being a Creole, Miranda was distinctly Venezuelan and not European will be important in evaluating the development of his persona in Europe. The second chapter will focus on his initial travels to the United States and his rise to fame during the Revolutionary War. Here I will have the opportunity to trace the beginning of his political philosophy closely, and begin to consider the ways in which he was already constructing an image of revolutionary action that was distinct and unique. The third chapter will focus on the period from 1785 up to his arrival in France in 1790. Focusing on the reasons for departure from each country, I will trace Miranda’s travels across Europe, Asia and Russia focusing on his development of close ties with leaders such as Catherine the Great and Turkish governors, keeping a close eye on any changes arising from his American experience. The fourth chapter will take a close look at Miranda’s involvement in the French revolution, noting changes in ideology and self-fashioning from his first revolutionary experience in the United States and the development of his relationships with other leaders. At this stage, it will be interesting to examine the cases brought against him during this period by both the Committee on Public Safety and the Spanish Inquisition, as a way of understanding how he presented a threat to the state but also how he would use these cases to bolster his image in other European nations later. The fifth chapter will focus on Miranda’s time in England, the Leander expedition, and its aftermath. Taking the failed Leander expedition of 1806 as a standard through which to measure Miranda’s mature beliefs, this chapter will continue to trace Miranda’s socio-political and military posturing in the English context and examine the extent to which the Leander failure could be attributed to him directly or other factors in the contemporary history. The Leander expedition of 1806 is important because it is the closest Miranda ever gets to liberating Latin America and also because it did, although ultimately unsuccessfully, draw on significant European military and political support; it is an important point through which to evaluate Miranda’s tactics and approaches. Lastly, our study will briefly analyze the intersection of Bolivar and Miranda and examine how the imprisonment of Miranda fits in with our analysis of his distinctly Romantic cosmopolitanism as he died in Cadiz, largely considered a traitor of the First Venezuelan Republic by the early revolutionaries there. On the whole, the study will conduct a primarily chronological approach but this will serve a diverse thematic analysis of the several aspect of Miranda’s life which are important to our inquiry.

The focus on language and ideas in this study helps it find a distinct place in current scholarship. It not only illuminates and elevates the transnational nature of Miranda’s life and indeed the Age of Enlightenment as a whole, but also allows us to conduct a comparative analysis of Miranda throughout time as a way of understanding the development of his ideas and approaches. In this sense, my study goes beyond the narrative structures of the biography to incorporate thorough structural and linguistic analyses that take into account the historical forces which defined Europe at the time. Comparing the Miranda of 1783 with the Miranda of 1793 tells us not only about the individual’s revolutionary growth, but also about how the abstract ideas of arguably the biggest changes effected by the Enlightenment where coopted and processed by those who sought to replicate them. The vastness of Miranda’s archives and collections mean they are not readily available to scholars remotely due to cultural funding by the Venezuelan government, as well as digitization projects by French and Spanish scholars. Such accessibility to these extremely valuable collections present exciting opportunities for qualitative analyses of the language and movements of Miranda throughout his life. Keeping these opportunities in mind, and fully employing the approaches set out above, this study seeks to build on the classic biographical approach by extending the scope of our questions directly to the written material. In this sense, this study hopes to piece together Miranda’s complex life, renewing the significance of his already permanent place in the history of the world.


  1. Almeida-Beveridge, Joselyn. Reimagining the Transatlantic: 1780-1890.  Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011.
  2. Bakewell, Peter. A History of Latin America.  Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1997.
  3. Eakin, Marshall C. The History of Latin America: Collision of Cultures.  New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
  4. Fifth Earl of Stanhope, Philip Henry. Notes of Conversations with the Duke of Wellington, 1831-1851.  Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1938.
  5. Lynch, John. "Francisco De Miranda: The London Years." In Francisco De Miranda: Exile and Enlightenment, edited by John Maher. London, UK: Institute for the Study of the Americas, 2006.
  6. Miranda, Francisco de. "El Unico Apoyo Que Me Queda Hoy." In America Espera, edited by J. L. Salcedo-Bastardo, 99-100. Caracas, venezuela: Biblioteca Ayacucho, 1982.
  7.  "Por La Cooperacion De Estados Unidos a La  Independencia Del Resto De Continente (1798)." In America Espera, edited by J. L. Salcedo-Bastardo, 219-21. Caracas, Venezuela: Biblioteca de Ayacucho, 1982.
  8. "¿Por Que En Un Gobierno Democratico Las Mujeres No Estan Representadas? (1792)." In America Espera, edited by J. L. Salcedo-Bastardo, 122-24. Caracas, Venezuela: Biblioteca Ayacucho, 1982.
  9. Miranda, Omar F. "The Celebrity of Exilic Romance: Francisco De Miranda and Lord Byron." European Romantic Review 27, no. 2 (2016): 207-31.
  10. Racine, Karen. Francisco De Miranda, a Transatlantic Life in the Age of Revoultion. Latin American Silhouettes.  Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources (SR) Books, 2003.
  11. Thorning, Joseph F. Miranda: World Citizen.  Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 1952.


  1. Joseph F. Thorning, Miranda: World Citizen (Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 1952). XIX.
  2. Peter Bakewell, A History of Latin America (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1997). 357.
  3. Marshall C. Eakin, The History of Latin America: Collision of Cultures (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). 8.
  4. Ibid., 9.
  5. Thorning, Miranda: World Citizen. XXI-XXV.
  6. Karen Racine, Francisco De Miranda, a Transatlantic Life in the Age of Revoultion, Latin American Silhouettes (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources (SR) Books, 2003). XIV-XV.
  7. John Lynch, "Francisco De Miranda: The London Years," in Francisco De Miranda: Exile and Enlightenment, ed. John Maher (London, UK: Institute for the Study of the Americas, 2006). 52-53.
  8. Both Maher and Racine’s works focus on developments within borders. Their chapters are largely focused on the particular countries where Miranda lived, and rarely make connections across those borders.
  9. Thorning, Miranda: World Citizen. XIX.
  10. Racine, Francisco De Miranda, a Transatlantic Life in the Age of Revoultion. 205-207.
  11. Lynch, "Francisco De Miranda: The London Years." 34-35.
  12. Thorning, Miranda: World Citizen. 161.
  13. Francisco de Miranda, "El Unico Apoyo Que Me Queda Hoy," in America Espera, ed. J. L. Salcedo-Bastardo (Caracas, venezuela: Biblioteca Ayacucho, 1982).
  14. Joselyn Almeida-Beveridge, Reimagining the Transatlantic: 1780-1890 (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011). 66.
  15. Ibid., 87.
  16. Ibid., 66-67.
  17. Omar F. Miranda, "The Celebrity of Exilic Romance: Francisco De Miranda and Lord Byron," European Romantic Review 27, no. 2 (2016). 208.
  18. Ibid., 207.
  19. Francisco de Miranda, "Por La Cooperacion De Estados Unidos a La  Independencia Del Resto De Continente (1798)," in America Espera, ed. J. L. Salcedo-Bastardo (Caracas, Venezuela: Biblioteca de Ayacucho, 1982).
  20. "¿Por Que En Un Gobierno Democratico Las Mujeres No Estan Representadas? (1792)." In ibid.
  21. Philip Henry Fifth Earl of Stanhope, Notes of Conversations with the Duke of Wellington, 1831-1851 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1938). 68-69.
  22. Miranda, "El Unico Apoyo Que Me Queda Hoy."
Updated: Sep 23, 2021
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Francisco de Miranda: Transatlantic Enlightenment and Its Limits essay
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