Bernardo O’Higgins, Chile’s Founding Father
Chile reveres Bernardo O’Higgins (1778 – 1842) as its liberator and the founding father of the nation. He was a revolutionary leader who took charge of a ragged rebel army, and commanded the military forces that fought Spain from 1810 to 1818 to secure Chile’s independence. In 1817, he was appointed “Supreme Director”, Chile’s first head of state.
O’Higgins was the illegitimate son of an Irish immigrant officer who rose in the ranks of Spain’s colonial bureaucracy to become governor of Chile, then Viceroy of Peru. Bernardo’s mother was the daughter of a prominent local, and it was with her family that he was raised. He had next little contact with his father, whom he met him only once, without knowing who he was at the time.
As a teenager, O’Higgins was sent to study in Europe, and there he encountered and was influenced by political activists from Spain’s New World colonies, such as Francisco Miranda. They imbued the youngster with revolutionary and nationalist zeal, and by the time he returned to Chile in 1801, he was dedicated to the idea of national independence.
1801 was also when O’Higgins’ father recognized him on his deathbed, and left him a prosperous estate in his will. He was eventually wrenched from the quiet life of a farmer by the rising tide of independence movements that swept South America following Napoleon’s annexation of Spain in 1808. O’Higgins dove into nationalist politics, and by 1810 had emerged as a prominent Chilean leader.
When Spain sought to reassert its authority by force, O’Higgins rose through the military ranks to become the general in chief of all Chilean forces. He was defeated in 1814, however, and the Spanish reoccupied Chile, sending O’Higgins and thousands of Chilean patriots fleeing across the Andes to Argentina. There, he spent three years preparing to regain his country, and in 1817, he and Argentine general Jose de San Martin led a combined army that defeated the Spanish and recaptured Chile.
O’Higgins was appointed head of state of the newly independent Chile and ruled as a de facto dictator. He led a generally successful administration, which maintained law and order, built a national navy, and launched campaigns against the royalist Spanish stronghold in Peru. However, O’Higgins was politically inept, and he ended up leaving himself isolated.
He alienated the powerful Catholic Church by allowing Protestantism in the new nation, and by meddling in church affairs. He alienated the commercial classes by taxing them to fund expensive campaigns in Peru. He alienated the former elites by abolishing their titles of nobility, and seizing some of their lands. In early 1823, with Chile on the verge of erupting into civil war to overthrow him, O’Higgins ceded power, and went into retirement.