Volume LXII, Number 1
William and Mary Quarterly
Reviews of Books
© 2005 by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture
Francisco de Miranda: A Transatlantic Life in the Age of Revolution.
. Wilmington, Del.:
Scholarly Resources, 2003. 336 pages. $65.00 (cloth), $19.95 (paper).
Reviewed by Margaret Ellen Newell,
Ohio State University
Venezuelan-born Francisco de Miranda (1750–1816), regarded as “the Precursor” of South
American independence, always seemed to find himself at the center of dramatic historical events in
Europe and the Americas. Miranda hobnobbed with George Washington and Alexander Hamilton
in the aftermath of the American Revolution. He debated constitutional theory with Jeremy
Bentham and James Mill. He discussed history with Edward Gibbon and plotted an invasion of
South America with the younger William Pitt even as Spanish spies dogged his every move. He
mentored future liberators of South America such as Simon Bolivar and Bernardo O’Higgins. He
romanced Lady Hester Stanhope (among many others) and captivated Empress Catherine the Great
of Russia. He barely escaped the guillotine in revolutionary France. He was at various times a
Spanish colonel, a French general, a Russian count, an English political consultant, and the
governor-general of the First Venezuelan Republic. Accounts of Miranda’s political—and
amorous—adventures strain credulity, but as Karen Racine’s fascinating new biography attests, the
facts of his life surpass the most imaginative fiction.
Racine’s fresh interpretation highlights Miranda’s place in the late-eighteenth-century
transatlantic Enlightenment. Like Thomas Paine and the Marquis de Lafayette, Miranda devoted
himself to the advancement of liberty in general as well as to a particular nationalist cause. Living in
exile for most of his adult life, Miranda was part of an international community of intellectuals,
reformers, and quasi-professional revolutionaries who shared a common language of republicanism.
Inspired by the successes of the United States and steeped in Enlightenment idealism, Miranda
wished to be a historical actor, a heroic liberator in the mold of George Washington.
Using Miranda’s own voluminous diaries and correspondence, Racine ably charts the process
by which the Precursor self-consciously constructed an identity as the leader of Spanish American
independence. Miranda claimed a “longer, whiter lineage” (3) in Venezuela, but in fact his father
emigrated from the Canary Islands. Mercantile success did not insulate the family against conflicts
with local creole elites that took the form of accusations about the Mirandas’ racial purity. In part to
escape the controversy, Miranda sought preferment in Spain where his father purchased him a
captaincy in the army. (Interestingly, Racine speculates that Miranda’s service in Spain’s North
African outposts gave the Venezuelan his first taste of a hostile local population’s resistance to