Both North and South American populations revolted against the exploitative, colonial rule of distant kings. Yet while the northern United States of America would go on to become the world’s wealthiest country, its southern counterpart, Gran Colombia, would quickly dissolve into a region of troubled nations. Both the U.S. and Gran Colombia expelled foreign rulers and extended control over a wide region, but why were their outcomes so different?
The success of the United States could be tied to its Constitution and the federal structure it implemented. A single market, trade policy, and currency allowed for frictionless trade in a region of semi-autonomous entities. The rule of law provided internal security and emphasized the power of land ownership, which was widespread in comparison to South America, where a less numerous elite controlled a greater percentage of land. In the spirit of Manifest Destiny, expansionism urged settlers into the American West, and legislation such as the General Pre-emption Act of 1841 and the Homestead Act of 1861 granted legal title to squatters and promoted new land acquisition by private parties. The legacy of the British model was a huge population of enterprising colonials, and under the new system they were land owners with a structure designed for political representation. Despite inherent contradictions with regard to the treatment of Native Americans and the lingering slavery issue that would drive the country to Civil War, the property-owning populous was a crucial ingredient for American success, and the nation continued to grow in size, wealth, and power.
While the U.S. expanded across the North American continent, Gran Colombia formed in South America in 1819. Led by Venezuelan military Libertador Simón Bolívar, Gran Colombia fought to unite regions covering present-day Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, Ecuador, and parts of Peru and Brazil.
Yet the circumstances of the South American revolution were vastly different from those in America, and the dream was short lived. Over time, the map of Gran Colombia came to tell the story of disintegration rather than expansion. While North America was heavily populated with land-owning colonials who displaced the native populations, the Spanish had by comparison laid land and power in the hands of very few, using natives as a class of laborers. Additionally the clashes between Pardos, slaves, Creoles, Native Americans, and Spanish peninsulares proved too problematic for the success of the union. Bolívar’s dream of a democratic federation of independent republics was tempered by the realities he faced, and he soon came to consider his South American citizens incapable of exercising their rights in a system of self-government. Ultimately he led a centralized regime and in 1828 proclaimed himself dictator. By 1830 he resigned, defeated by the failure of his government. 1831 saw the abolition of the Gran Colombia state, leaving behind countries with little tradition of representative government and setting off a cycle of revolution and counter revolution, in which wealthy elites would manipulate the system of the day to maintain the imbalanced status quo. Ultimately the lack of widespread property ownership and the hazy rule of law brought about Gran Colombia’s demise.