South America is not the corner of the world you think of when someone asks you for names of great classical liberal thinkers and politicians of the 19th Century. You don’t believe me? Then try to name two of them right now without Googling it.
See, I told you so.
When you really look for them, however, you can find them. South America does indeed have many of these great people in its history. You just have to look very diligently and carefully. For whatever unfortunate reason or reasons, they’re not as famous as they should be.
In Ecuador, where I come from and where I live, history is not the main theme in conversations among common people. Many still get history wrong (because they were often taught poorly). Others simply don’t know historic dates and characters from their own cities or states. But that is, as we all know, lamentably common these days in many countries.
I think Ecuador is special for many reasons but as a classical liberal myself, I especially appreciate that it was the place where some really extraordinary friends of liberty were born. One of them even played the major role in ending indigenous slavery in the whole Spanish Empire in the region. I want to tell you about him here.
Born in Guayaquil in 1780, José Joaquin de Olmedo is now mostly remembered as a poet who wrote some of the most beautiful lines about military conquests, family and life itself. He was much more than a good poet, though.
Olmedo studied law in Lima, Peru—away from his family for whom he always had the kindest words. He was very loyal to his fatherland, Spain. As a student at San Marcos University, he learned from books, some of them forbidden, from the greatest minds of the time. That’s where he learned about the Enlightenment, natural law, and the path that nations like the United States and France had traveled. Liberty was an idea that appealed to him increasingly as he read about it in both theory and history.
Olmedo grew up at a time when constitutional monarchy was regarded in intellectual circles as the ideal. He felt that way himself until around 1811, the year in which he was called to serve as a representative of Guayaquil in the Courts of Cadiz (in Spain). The more he saw absolute monarchy firsthand, the more this budding young libertarian questioned it. He was increasingly inclined toward independence for the Spanish colonies in the Americas and against the tyrannical practices of the King of Spain, Ferdinand VII. He once wrote a poem, later titled as “The Tree,” in which he said,
The wise, free and virtuous peoples
on the throne they laid down the laws,
and the kings prostrate at their feet.
But the tyrant, no: he sat himself,
and the sacred laws
he prostrate to his sacrilegious feet;
And nothing forgave in his attempt.
His courage, his talent,
even the virtues themselves served him,
and held in state maxims
their respectable mask to him were given.
Once in Cadiz, he had the opportunity to deliver a speech on the matter of indigenous slavery. It was 1812, and his zeal for liberty was maturing into a profound and informed passion. He poured his mental energies into that speech, eloquently defending the rule of law, the human rights of all men, and free trade. He even mentioned the principle of rational selfishness as a prime motivation for human action.
Olmedo took on corruption in an aspect of the legal system known as the Mita. Its roots went back to the days of the Inca Empire when it involved compulsory, unpaid labor for “community service.” Though ameliorated somewhat under Spanish colonial rule, it left much to be desired from the standpoint of individual liberty. The idea was to require some number of the indigenous Indians to work under landlords and priests to have their minds educated and their talents cultivated.
Olmedo pointed out, however, that the system amounted to a form of slavery. Landlords assigned the Indians under their “care” to work on plantations by force. Because the Indians were not “free labor,” their overseers treated them with apathy at best and cruelty at the worst. Though the masters justified it all by claiming it was for the Indians’ own good, Olmedo saw it differently. He didn’t believe any amount of “free” food, clothing and shelter outweighed a person’s lost of liberty. “Nobody can do good,” he said, “to those who don’t want to receive it.”
The Indian Law Code specified humane ways that the Indians were to be treated while in the custody of their masters. It prescribed, for example, the limits to how far they could be transported from their original homes. Separation from their families was prohibited. The labor duties they could be subjected to and the payments they were to be given were also put into the law. But all this was shamelessly ignored; the law was just so much ink. Even a “limited” or allegedly benevolent slavery carries the dangerous seeds of boundless oppression. Olmedo spoke beautifully about what should be done:
The remedy, your Honor, is very simple, and so much easier, as the courts to apply it need not edify, but destroy. This remedy is the abolition of the Mita and all personal servitude of the Indians and a repeal of the unjust land laws. Let it be erased, your Honor, that fatal name of our Code, and oh, if it were possible to erase it also from the memory of men!
This remarkable young man urged regard for Indians as equals, not only in the human-created structure of laws but also more fundamentally in the way we think of all peoples within Creation. He pronounced that “The Mita is directly opposed to the freedom of the Indians, who were born as free as the kings of Europe.”
Olmedo defended free markets, declaring thus: “When will we understand that only without regulations, without obstacles, without particular privileges can industry, agriculture, and everything that is commercial flourish, abandoning all the care of its promotion to the interest of the owners?”
He talked about the righteousness and most legitimate purpose of every law: “There’s no wise law, except the one that makes [all] men happy.”
For me (and many others in Ecuador and South America), Olmedo is one of the greatest historical figures of the whole continent. He was a man who had no fear of standing against tyranny, injustice, racism, classism—and all this in the very heart of the Spanish Empire. He ultimately achieved the dissolution of the Indian Law, and the freedom of thousands of indigenous peoples in the colonies from México to Argentina.
José Joaquin de Olmedo proved over and over again to be a righteous man, a champion of freedom—not only of the Native Americans, but of all mankind. He was the intellectual godfather of the independence of Guayaquil in 1820 and later, of Ecuador as a unified nation in 1845. He fought until the end of his life against even those who were once his close friends but who betrayed the ideal of liberty for their own self-aggrandizement.
There are more stories I could share about this great man, but those are for another time. For now, let us celebrate José Joaquin de Olmedo, the Ecuadorian abolitionist you now know something about. Hopefully you will want to know more.