Sarmiento, Domingo Faustino (1811–1888)

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Sarmiento, Domingo Faustino (1811–1888)

Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (b. 15 February 1811; d. 11 September 1888), writer, educator, journalist, historian, linguist, and president of Argentina (1868–1874). According to Mary Peabody Mann, Sarmiento was "not a man but a nation." Born in the frontier city of San Juan, near the Andes, he was the son of a soldier who fought in the wars of independence and a mother who supported the family by weaving. An early intellectual influence was a maternal uncle and private tutor, the priest José de Oro. Steeped in the classics, the Bible, Latin, and French, Sarmiento began teaching elementary school in his teens. Post-Independence chaos and anarchy awakened his interest in orderly government. By 1829 he fought with the unitarists against caudillo rule. When the federalists gained control of San Juan, he fled to Chile to the town of Los Andes, where he taught school and worked in a store. Upon returning to San Juan in 1836, he started the newspaper, El Zonda, in which he expounded his ideas about education, agriculture, and modernization. Ahead of his time, Sarmiento advocated educating women. In 1839 he founded a secondary school for girls in San Juan (Colegio de Santa Rosa de América), for which he wrote the by-laws. Facing jail because of political activities against tyrant Juan Manuel de Rosas, Sarmiento fled to Chile in 1840.

In contrast to Argentina, Chile was developing peacefully under a government framework organized by Diego Portales. In Santiago, Sarmiento rose to a position of prestige and influence; he befriended educator and writer Andrés Bello, director of education (and later president of Chile) Manuel Montt, historian José Victorino Lastarria, and political activist Francisco Bilbao. Sarmiento pursued his twin interests—education and journalism—and he contributed articles to the influential newspapers El Mercurio, El Nacional, and El Progreso. He believed that Argentina's problems were "rooted in barbarism," and he said that he "only dreamed of founding schools and teaching the masses to read." For him, universal education was the key to defeating backwardness, and he thought he could transform the gaucho. In 1845 he serialized and also published in book form the work for which he is best known: Civilización i barbarie: Vida de Juan Facundo Quiroga. I aspecto físico, costumbres, i ámbitos de la República Argentina (translated by Mary Mann as Life in the Argentine Republic in the Days of the Tyrants; or, Civilization and Barbarism [1868]). In this work, also known as Facundo, Sarmiento expounded penetrating observations about the Argentine countryside and gaucho life and about the depredations caused by caudillo warfare, and he described the career of the federalist caudillo Juan Facundo Quiroga. The book represented a passionate indictment of Rosas, which the tyrant perceived as a threat.

In Santiago, Sarmiento served as the head of a new normal school (teacher training institute). He prepared textbooks, school programs, and curricula. Many of his progressive ideas were adopted in Chilean elementary and secondary education. Following the lead of preeminent thinker and educator Andrés Bello, Sarmiento tried to simplify Spanish orthography and render it more phonetic. He published Memoria sobre ortografía americana (Compendium of American Orthography [1843]), and all his writings used the new phonetic spelling. He tirelessly advocated universal education—the cornerstone of a true democracy—believing that an educated electorate is the best antidote to anarchy and tyranny.

Rosas dispatched a diplomatic mission to Chile to secure the extradition of the man who wrote Facundo. Coincidentally, the Chilean government sent Sarmiento to Europe and the United States to survey various educational methods. Disappointed in the rigid social class system, the lack of democratic governments, and the stultifying educational methods he saw in Spain, France, Germany, Holland, and Switzerland, Sarmiento did not think the fledgling American republics should emulate European models. In England, Sarmiento chanced upon a report written by Horace Mann to the Massachusetts Board of Education. During his stay in the United States, he met in Boston with educators Horace Mann and Mary Peabody Mann, who influenced his ideas about public education. His visit to the Boston area and other parts of the United States convinced Sarmiento of the importance of strong, representative, local government for a meaningful democracy on the national level. He also visited public libraries; elementary, secondary, and normal schools; and universities.

Upon returning to Chile he married his common-law wife Benita Martínez (1848), and he wrote Viajes en Europa, Africa, i América, 1845–1847 (2 vols., 1849–1851). The portion relating to the United States was translated by Michael Rockland as Sarmiento's Travels in the United States in 1847 (1970). Like Alexis de Tocqueville before him, Sarmiento perceptively analyzed life in the United States. His Travels remains a timeless classic. In addition to his two popular works, Facundo and Travels, Sarmiento also produced the romantic prose masterpiece Recuerdos de provincia (Provincial recollections [1850]); De la educación popular (About public education [1849]), which was revised as Memoria sobre educación común (Report on public education [1856]); and Las escuelas: Base de prosperidad i de la república en los Estados Unidos (Schools as the basis of prosperity and republican government in the United States [1866]).

When General Justo José de Urquiza successfully rallied the remaining caudillos against Rosas in 1851, Sarmiento traveled to Montevideo to join the armed struggle. After the defeat of Rosas at the Battle of Caseros (1852), and as a result of disagreements with Urquiza, Sarmiento returned to Chile. He moved permanently to Argentina in 1855, where he became the director of the department of education in Buenos Aires Province and threw himself into reforming education with his accustomed energy. Juana Manso de Noronha, an Argentine educator, became his closest assistant and confidante. He founded the journal Anales de la educación común (Annals of public education) in 1858; he wrote for the newspaper El Nacional; and he continued to promulgate ideas about universal public education with a modern curriculum that included science, practical learning, and gymnastics for both men and women. The proposed reforms met the stiff resistance of the Sociedad de la Beneficiencia (Society for Charity), which had been in charge of women's education since the 1820s. Sarmiento was prevented from reforming women's education. Between 1856 and 1861 Sarmiento founded thirty-four new schools, and he ordered the publication of new textbooks.

Following national unification in 1882, Sarmiento played an important role in bringing peace and order to the provinces. He served as senator and later as governor of San Juan Province (1862–1864), where he tried to implement programs of education reforms and economic development; he also continued writing for newspapers. His projects for land reform were relentlessly opposed by the caudillo Angel Vicente Peñaloza (El Chacho). Federal forces defeated El Chacho on 12 November 1863, and his severed head was displayed on a pike, as was the custom of the times.

By 1862 Sarmiento had separated from his wife Benita and was engaged in a long-term liaison with Aurelia Vélez. In 1864 he became minister plenipotentiary first to Peru, then to the United States. Finding Washington provincial, Sarmiento settled in New York, where he saw greater opportunities to learn about educational innovations and business practices. He reacquainted himself with Mary Mann (Horace Mann died in 1859) and other educators and intellectuals he had met during his previous trip. He visited teachers' colleges and universities in Boston, New York, and Chicago, always helped by Mary Mann. He lectured on North and South America to the Rhode Island Historical Society (1865). The talk was translated into English by the young Bartolomé Mitre, the Argentine president's son. In 1866 Sarmiento's only son, twenty-year-old Dominguito, was killed in the Battle of Curupaití in the War of the Triple Alliance.

In 1868 Sarmiento was elected the second president of a newly unified Argentina. His presidency was the culmination of his tireless struggle to transform Argentina into a modern nation. As president he vigorously promoted economic, social, and cultural development. Following the ideas of Juan Bautista Alberdi and Bartolomé Mitre, Sarmiento fostered European immigration and encouraged the establishment of agricultural colonies. He worked to expand railways and roads; he promoted shipping, commerce, and advances in public health; and he modernized and beautified the city of Buenos Aires. To further educational reforms, he established public libraries throughout the country, and he recruited North American schoolteachers. More than eighty-eight teachers came to Argentina between 1867 and 1889. In 1869 he mandated the establishment of a normal-school network. He introduced advanced teaching techniques, added foreign languages to curricula, and founded kindergartens. Many of the reforms were implemented by Sarmiento's successor, President Nicolás Avellaneda. As a result of their efforts, Argentine schools became the best in Latin America. Sarmiento ordered the first national census of Argentina in 1869; he founded the Colegio Mil-itar (National Military Academy), the first astronomical observatory, and trade and technical schools; he fostered the modernization of agriculture, mining, and industry; and he established the Sociedad Rural to improve livestock breeds.

After leaving the presidency, Sarmiento served in the Senate (1875–1880), held the office of interior minister, visited Chile, was once again superintendent of education of Buenos Aires Province (1879–1882), and founded the journal La educación común (Public Education) in 1876 and the newspaper El Censor in 1885. Quite ill during the last three years of his life, he died in Asunción, Paraguay.

Political and historical writings of Sarmiento include: Comentarios de la constitución de la Confederación Argentina (1853), Arjirópolis: O la capital de los estados confederados del Río de la Plata (1850), Discursos parlamentarios (2 vols. [1933]), Emigración alemana al Río de la Plata (1851), Condición del extranjero en América (The Foreigner's Condition in the Americas [1888]), and studies about the War of the Triple Alliance.

Published correspondence includes: Sarmiento-Mitre: Correspondencia, 1846–1868 (1911), Epistolario íntimo (1963), and Julia Ottolenghi's Sarmiento a través de un epistolario (Sarmiento Through His Correspondence [1940]). Sarmiento's last publication was La vida de Dominguito (1886), which mourned his son Domingo Fidel. Posterity harshly criticized him for the 1883 book Conflicto y armonías de las razas (Conflict and Harmony in the Races), in which he largely repeats the prevalent theories about race mixing and racial purity. His Obras completas in fifty-three volumes were published in 1888.

During his presidency, Sarmiento dealt with the last of the caudillos. Despite his lifelong opposition to caudillo rule, Sarmiento governed as a personalist and strengthened the power of the executive. As president he used the central government's power to crush political opposition in the interior provinces, and he imposed sieges to quell uprisings. When the law seemed inadequate, he ruled by decree. Viewed by some of his contemporaries as an egotist ("don Yo" or "Mr. Me"), Sarmiento nevertheless looms as a protean figure: a visionary, an educator, a writer, and a seminal nation-builder.

See alsoBello, Andrés; Caudillismo, Caudillo; Rosas, Juan Manuel de.


Watt Stewart and William M. French, "Influence of Horace Mann on the Educational Ideas of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento," in Hispanic American Historical Review 20 (1940): 12-31.

Ricardo Rojas, El profeta de la pampa (1945).

Allison Williams Bunkley, The Life of Sarmiento (1952; repr. 1969).

Alberto Palcos, Sarmiento: La vida, la obra, las ideas, el genio, 4th ed. (1962), and "La presidencia de Sarmiento," in Historia argentina contemporaranea, vol. 1, ed. Academia Nacional de Historia (1963), pp. 89-148.

Paul Verdevoye, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento: Educateur et publiciste, 1839–1852 (1964).

Ezequiel Martínez Estrada, Meditaciones sarmientinas (1968).

Frances G. Crowley, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1972).

Elda Clayton Patton, Sarmiento in the United States (1976).

Aníbal Ponce, Sarmiento: Constructor de la nueva Argentina (1976).

Manuel Gálvez, Vida de Sarmiento (1979).

Noé Jitrik, Muerte y resurrección del Facundo (1983).

Natalio Botana, Alberdi, Sarmiento, y las ideas políticas de su tiempo (1984).

Gabriel Brizuela, Bibliografía sarmientina (1989).

Dardos Pérez Guilhou, Sarmiento y la constitución: Sus ideas políticas (1989).

Joseph T. Criscenti, ed., Sarmiento and His Argentina (1993).

Additional Bibliography

Bellotta, Araceli, and Nora Fusillo. Sarmiento: Maestro del éxito. Buenos Aires: Grupo Editorial Norma, 2000.

Botana, Natalio R. Domingo Faustino Sarmiento. Buenos Aires: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1996.

Feinmann, José Pablo. Filosofía y nación: Estudios sobre el pensamiento argentino. Buenos Aires: Seix Barral, 2004.

Gárate, Miriam V. Civilização e barbá rie n'os Sertões: Entre Domingo Faustino Sarmiento e Euclides da Cunha. São Paulo: Fapesp, and Campinas: Mercado de Letras, 2001.

Sorensen, Diana. El Facundo y la construcción de la cultura argentina. Rosario: Beatriz Viterbo Editora, 1998.

Tacca, Oscar Ernesto. Los umbrales de Facundo: Y otros textos sarmientinos. Buenos Aires: Academia Argentina de Letras, 2000.

                            Georgette Magassy Dorn