Francisco de Miranda (March 28, 1750, Caracas, Venezuela—July 14, 1816, La Carraca, Spain) was a Spanish American revolutionary who after a career in the Spanish Army from 1783 devoted his life to the cause of Spanish American independence. The various designs of Miranda in the 1780s–1800s were founded upon the idea of a military liberation expedition to Spanish America led by him and organized with the support of a power (Great Britain, United States, France) in conflict with Spain that would then foment existing discontent and lead to a wide-scale revolt and independence. Though these plans failed, as did his attempt to organize an expedition from New York without the support of any power (1805–1807), in 1810 the revolution in Spanish America started without his participation as a consequence of the Napoleonic invasion of Spain. Miranda was called to Caracas and eventually led the short-lived First Venezuelan Republic in 1812. After its defeat he spent the last years of his life in Spanish jails. Miranda’s failure influenced the South American revolutionaries who adopted the tactics of unconditional warfare against the Spanish troops from 1813.
A shrewd and sophisticated expert in world affairs and political intrigues and an acclaimed military commander, Miranda was persistently trying to use the conflicts between great powers to achieve his goal though he knew that these powers’ leaders were eager to use him as a trump card against the Spanish Empire in their geopolitical games. His contacts ranged from US Founding Fathers, British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger and Viscount Melville to the Prussian king Friedrich II and the Russian empress Catherine II. He was a respected peer in the high society of the European “republic of letters” in the Age of Enlightenment. In the United States his friends belonged to the Federalist Party, which represents an interesting phenomenon since Federalists are usually viewed as being generally skeptical toward foreign revolutions. In Spanish America Miranda’s ideas received no support until 1810–1812, as his failed expedition clearly shows—this is an excellent example of the interplay between “evental history” (histoire évenémentielle) and the longue durée, demonstrating how fast and unpredictable radical historical change may be. In spite of this long political solitude, Miranda entered the Spanish American symbolic pantheon as the precursor of independence.
Spain entered the Age of Atlantic Revolutions (1775–1825) motivated by a desire to re-establish its traditional status as a major European power, a position that its Habsburg monarchs gradually had relinquished over the course of the 17th century and that was lost in dramatic fashion during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1713). Over the first six decades of the 18th century, the newly installed Bourbon dynasty launched a series of administrative, military, clerical, and economic reforms designed to spark and then protect an imperial revival. As a regular participant in the colonial wars of the period, the Spanish crown relied heavily on military strength to signify its renewed standing vis-à-vis its international adversaries. Any gains won by force of arms also needed to be confirmed by treaty and reinforced by positive peacetime relationships with these same rivals. As a result, an assertive diplomacy played an important role in promoting Spanish interests during a tumultuous era that began with great hopes for the restoration of Spain’s historic preeminence in the Atlantic World but ended with the collapse of its American empire.