Alberdi, Juan Bautista (1810–1884)

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Alberdi, Juan Bautista (1810–1884)

Juan Bautista Alberdi (b. 29 August 1810; d. 19 June 1884), Argentine diplomat, political philosopher, and constitution maker. Perhaps Alberdi's most salient trait was that he did not fit the usual image of the Latin American nation builder. He was a sullen and somewhat timid man who spent most of his adult life away from his native land and who was devoid of eloquence and leadership qualities. Yet because he had a powerful mind and an acute sense of reality, Alberdi was able to influence his contemporaries to such an extent that he is rightly considered one of modern Argentina's founding fathers. The constitution of 1853 is essentially a reflection of his political creed, and it was his ideas that largely prevailed when the process of national unification culminated in 1880 and the country began to transform itself into one of the wealthiest and most dynamic in Latin America. At this time, too, Argentina was on the way to becoming the most Europeanized nation in the region as a result of an uninterrupted flood of immigration. This was a key development with which the name Alberdi is inextricably associated.


This remarkable statesman was born the same year that the Argentine independence movement began. At that time the total area of the new nation (more than a million square miles) was populated by fewer than 400,000 people. For this reason, and because the population centers were isolated and remote from one another, Argentines referred to their land as the "desert." Long little-regarded by Spain, it had developed along a pattern of disunity. Originally it had been settled from different and unrelated points in the neighboring territories, and it had been further divided by the political and economic systems imposed by the metropolis. As a consequence, Argentina had grown up as a polarized colony. On the one hand, there was the port city of Buenos Aires, which after its opening to transatlantic trade late in the eighteenth century, was economically and culturally oriented toward Europe. On the other, there were the cities of the interior, which had remained satellites of other colonial economies such as that of present-day Bolivia. This cleavage reflected not only conflicting interests, but also diverse social arrangements and lifestyles.

By setting up a "national" government in 1810 without first consulting the provinces, the porteños (people of the port city of Buenos Aires) further complicated the situation and so paved the way for the period of internal strife and anarchy that followed. Buenos Aires wanted unity, but only if the provinces accepted its supremacy. The provincial caudillos, for their part, rejected centralization under porteño rule, favoring instead local autonomy under a loose federal system. Total disintegration might have been Argentina's fate had it not been for the rise of a strong man, Juan Manuel de Rosas, who governed with an iron hand between 1829 and 1852. He paid lip service to federalism, because in that way he would not have to share the income generated by the Buenos Aires customhouse with the provinces. But Rosas exercised authority over the country as a whole, more so than anyone before him. He also symbolized the traditionalist, nativist reaction that set in against the liberal and "exotic" ideas of Bernardino Rivadavia, who had attempted to modernize the country during the previous decade.


Alberdi arrived in Buenos Aires from his native Tucumán in 1824. He was a weak, poor youngster who had lost both parents. But he had family connections and had been awarded a scholarship to study in the College of Moral Sciences of the University of Buenos Aires, recently founded by Rivadavia. Young Alberdi's ambition was to become a lawyer.

Alberdi indulged in too much outside reading, however, and for this reason was a poor student; it took him a long time to achieve his professional goal. But the delay gave him the opportunity to witness the emergence of Rosas, develop personal contacts with him and other caudillos, and most importantly, join the "generation of 1837," a group of intellectuals largely born after 1810. These young men were strongly influenced by romanticism, the new literary and political movement that Esteban Echeverría had introduced from France in 1830. They formed a literary salon in June 1837, at one of whose meetings Alberdi read his first important paper, an attempt to interpret Argentine reality in terms of romantic ideology. On this occasion he also dismissed Rivadavia as doctrinaire and proclaimed that Rosas's power was legitimate.

Nevertheless, when Rosas's dictatorship tightened shortly afterward, the salon had to go underground (under the name "May Association"), and its members later had to seek refuge in Montevideo, Uruguay. Here Alberdi was finally able to obtain his law degree and begin a profitable practice. Having turned against the dictator like most of his colleagues, he became involved in the literary warfare that the exiles waged for the liberation of their country. In addition, he supported the military campaign of the Uruguayan anti-Rosas faction and its French allies. But these activities led nowhere, and he felt increasingly disappointed. When a victorious pro-Rosas Uruguayan army laid siege to Montevideo in 1843, he realized that he had no taste for the life of a soldier. Alberdi left for Europe, where he met Argentina's most illustrious exile, General José de San Martín, the hero of national independence. Upon returning to the Americas, Alberdi chose Chile as his haven, settling there in April 1844.


By this time Alberdi was a man of note among Argentine exiles. His articles and pamphlets were well known, and his analyses and political opinions were widely commented upon and discussed. He had the opportunity to put them to work when, in 1852, a coalition led by provincial caudillo Justo José Urquiza ousted Rosas and called a convention to draw up a new constitution. Alberdi wrote a book especially for the occasion, commonly called Bases, which rapidly turned into the most influential of its time. It was the convention delegates' chief source of information on constitutional matters.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the new constitution, promulgated on 25 May 1853, largely followed Alberdi's recommendations. Seeking to reconcile Argentina's warring factions, it provided for a federal system of government similar to that of the United States, but it also included significant adaptations to Argentina's peculiar needs. According to Alberdi, Argentina had to set aside "its ridiculous and disgraceful mania for the heroic" and move forward along the path of material progress. It had to promote the advance of learning and instruction in general, build railroads and navigable canals, attract foreign capital, and encourage and facilitate the colonization of the lands of the national domain. Above all, there was Alberdi's most celebrated aphorism, "to govern is to populate." Argentina had to promote immigration (especially of hardworking Anglo-Saxons) in order to transform the "desert" into a source of wealth and abundance. All of this required writing into the constitution the fundamental principles of economic liberalism, which the delegates did, including a remarkable bill of rights guaranteeing liberty, equality, the right to work and trade, and the civil rights of aliens.


Another feature of the constitution was the stipulation that Buenos Aires should be the capital of the republic and that the income from customs was to belong to the nation. This was unacceptable to Buenos Aires, and as a result Argentina now split into two separate states: the city of Buenos Aires and its province and the inland Argentine Confederation. Urquiza remained as head of the latter, and Alberdi broke with his own Buenos Aires associates—including Domingo F. Sarmiento and Bartolomé Mitre—in order to serve him through a diplomatic mission to Europe, to which he went without setting his foot in the territory of the confederation. He spent seven years as a diplomat and a writer, defending the integrity of Argentina against Mitre's policies. To him, mitrismo was rosismo in disguise, just as Rosas's dictatorship had simply been a prolongation of colonial practices.

In 1861 Mitre's forces defeated the Confederation at Pavón; Alberdi lost his position the following year. But although he remained in Europe, Alberdi did not retire to private life; rather, he continued to write about Argentine problems, albeit not always accurately, as was the case with the Paraguayan War (1865–1870). The criticisms that he directed against the Buenos Aires government on this occasion showed that he was not well informed; furthermore, he was dubbed a traitor to the fatherland. Because of this, and because he had to contemplate how his enemies rose to power while he aged perceptibly in exile, he lived through bitter days. This is clearly reflected in his writings, wherein he began to justify his actions with an eye on posterity.

By the late 1870s, however, things began to change in the distant fatherland. There was an upsurge of provincial opposition to porteño domination, and a native of Tucumán, Nicolás Avellaneda, was elected president. Alberdi's followers thought that the time was ripe for his political comeback and elected him to congress. He arrived in Buenos Aires in 1879. By this time, however, he was a tired man of sixty-nine who could not even read his own speeches. Therefore, he could not give a good account of himself. But he was able to witness the triumph of his ideas about national unification, for it was during his Buenos Aires sojourn that the port city finally became part of the Argentine federal republic as its capital, as the 1853 constitution had called for.


Defeat did not silence Alberdi's critics, who fiercely opposed the diplomatic appointment that the Argentine government proposed to bestow upon him in 1881. It was obvious that his compatriots would never give him the wide recognition that he deserved. Disillusioned and disappointed, Alberdi expatriated himself, living again in France. He died there three years later, surrounded by a few friends. He had never married.

In 1889, by popular request, his remains were brought back to Buenos Aires, where they were buried in an impressive ceremony. The most prominent representatives of the local and national government were not present.

See alsoArgentina, Constitutions; War of the Triple Alliance.


On Alberdi's ideas, see José Luis Romero, A History of Argentine Political Thought (1963). On Alberdi himself, most of the literature is in Spanish. The best biographical study is Jorge M. Mayer, Alberdi y su tiempo (1963). For a scholarly edition of Alberdi's most important work, see Mayer's edition of Las "Bases" de Alberdi (1969).

Additional Bibliography

Herrero, Alejandro. La política en tiempo de guerra: La cultural política francesa en el pensamiento de Alberdi (1837–1852). Remedios de Escalada, Pcia. de Buenos Aires: Ediciones de la UNLA, 2006.

López Gottig, Ricardo. Los fundadores de la república: Juan Bautista Alberti, Nicolás Avellaneda, Esteban Echeverría, Bartolomé Mitre, Guillermo Rawson, Domingo F. Sarmiento. Buenos Aires: Grito Sagrado Editorial: Fundación Friedrich A. von Hayek, 2006.

Terán, Oscar. Las palabras ausentes: Para leer los escritos póstumos de Alberdi. Buenos Aires: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2004.

                                     JosÉ M. HernÁndez

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Alberdi, Juan Bautista (1810–1884)

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