…never had I entertained any ambition other than to merit the hatred of the ungrateful and the esteem of the virtuous.
-José de San Martín, July 22, 1820
San Martín did both.
One of the greatest heroes of Pan-American history, San Martín was an exceptionally rare kind in that, after achieving what he had set out to accomplish–namely the liberation of most of South America–he held true to his word. He relinquished all power and returned home following a fateful and mysterious meeting with fellow libertador Simón Bolívar.
Both men had hopes for a united South America, and both were disillusioned by the continual conflicts that thwarted their idealistic vision.
Upon vanquishing the Spanish army from Argentina, San Martín had hardly set foot outside his newly independent homeland when internal divisions led that nation to civil war. San Martín’s powerful army and his own fame could have swayed the civil war, but he chose to fight the Spanish in Chile and Peru rather than return to Argentina with his army to take sides and shed the blood of his countrymen.
He was proclaimed Protector of Peru, a title he relinquished after his meeting with Bolívar, along with command of his army. He then returned briefly to his farm in Mendoza, Argentina. After the death of his wife, San Martín placed himself in voluntary exile in Europe, moving to France with his daughter Mercedes. He would spend the rest of his life in France, a nation he had once fought against as a youth in service to Spain.
Today San Martín is revered as the national hero of Argentina.
Jose de San Martín had liberated the Rio de la Plata (Argentina), marched his army across the Andes, and defeated the Spanish in Chile before turning his attention to the north, to Peru—Spain’s most tenacious stronghold on the continent. In Chile he created a navy from scratch in order to attack Peru by sea.
At that moment, San Martín’s newly independent homeland of Argentina was emerged in civil war; yet he felt if he used his army to intervene in Argentina it would only lead to more destruction. Before debarking from Valpasairo, Chile, he issued his proclamation to his countrymen in Argentina on his reasons for continuing to Peru, rather than returning to his homeland to support one warring faction over another:
Provinces of the Rio de la Plata: This proclamation will be my last response to my calumniators: I can do no more than to risk my life and my honor for the sake of my native land. Whatever may be my lot in the campaign of Peru, I shall demonstrate that ever since I returned to my native land, her independence has been my constant thought, and that never had I entertained any ambition other than to merit the hatred of the ungrateful and the esteem of the virtuous.
Upon reaching Peru, he was interviewed by an Englishman, Captain Basil Hall, who paraphrased the General as saying that the war in Peru was “not a war of conquest or glory, but entirely of opinion; it was a war of new and liberal principles against prejudice, bigotry, and tyranny.
San Martín said he had no territorial ambitions in Peru, or even to wish them independence if the people were not for it.
All that I wish is, that this country should be managed by itself, and by itself alone. As to the manner in which it is to be governed, that belongs not at all to me. I propose simply to give the people the means of declaring themselves independent, and of establishing a suitable form of government; after which I shall consider that I have done enough, and leave them.
A year later, on this day in 1821, the General stood in the great square in Lima, unfurled the new flag of independent Peru, and announced:
“From this moment, Peru is free and independent, by the general wish of the people, and by the justice of her cause, which may God defend. Viva la patria! Viva la libertad! Viva la independencia!“
The General was made Protector of Peru, but Spanish forces continued to battle San Martín’s troops, and Peruvian independence was far from assured. General Simón Bolívar, who had defeated the Spanish in Gran Colombia (today’s Venezuela, Colombia, Panama and Ecuador), entered Peru from the north. The two great Liberators of South America met in Guayaquil, Ecuador, on July 26, 1822, to discuss the fate of the continent.
Much has been written about, and hardly anything is known about, what happened between Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín at their only meeting. There were no witnesses other than the two men themselves. But after the interview, San Martín–true to his word–resigned his position as Protector and returned to Argentina, leaving Bolívar to defeat the Spanish in Peru.
San Martín’s wife died the following year. Distraught by her death and the civil wars wreaking havoc in Argentina, José de San Martín took his daughter Mercedes and moved to France, where he lived until his death in 1850.
Jose de San Martin
Bolívar was deigned Dictator of Peru in 1824, the same year he drove out the Spanish for good. The southern part of Peru became Bolivia in his honor.
Spain officially recognized Peru’s independence in 1879.