Juan Bautista Alberdi

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Juan Bautista Alberdi

The Argentine political theorist Juan Bautista Alberdi (1810-1884) wrote extensively on his nation's political problems. His ideas were incorporated in the Constitution of 1853.

Born in Tucumán on Aug. 29, 1810, Juan Bautista Alberdi was orphaned when still a young boy. He was then sent to Buenos Aires to continue his schooling. The new and unsettling environment caused him to leave school, but a strong attachment to his studies drew him again to the classroom. He decided on a legal career and entered law school in Buenos Aires.

Alberdi's intellect was not limited to legal matters. A man of charm and musical ability, he moved in select social circles. He founded and contributed to a journal of music and wrote a piano instruction booklet. In all this activity he did not neglect his law studies and frequently authored legal works.

The most important event in his student life was his introduction into the literary salon of Marcos Sastre. Sastre sponsored a group of young intellectuals renowned in Argentine history as the "Generation of 1837." Led by the poet Esteban Echeverria and the educator Domingo Sarmiento, they devoured the latest philosophical and literary imports from France. No mere imitators, they formulated concepts which would eventually reshape Argentine life. Unfortunately their ideas incited the wrath of the dictator, Juan Manuel de Rosas, and most of them soon fled Argentina.

Alberdi joined the extensive expatriate community in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1838. This was the beginning of a 40-year exile. He drifted briefly to Europe and basked in the vibrant intellectual atmosphere of Italy and France, then left for Chile, where he expanded his reputation with incisive works on international law, as well as poetry, satire, and polemics.

Immediately upon hearing of the fall of dictator Rosas in 1852, Alberdi wrote Bases and Points of Departure for the Political Organization of the Argentine Republic. In this masterwork of political science, Alberdi carefully constructed proposals for building a democratic and federal republic, drawing ideas from Jean Jacques Rousseau, Echeverria, and the Constitution of the United States. The plans he presented were written into the Constitution of 1853.

Still Alberdi remained absent from his homeland. His personality had evidently soured in exile, and his acerbic wit and biting sarcasm did little to endear him to his fellows. Convinced of the rectitude of his own views, he found little ground for compromise or conciliation. Consequently, he gladly accepted an appointment as Argentina's roving European minister. In 1880 Alberdi returned to Argentina to serve an abbreviated legislative term but soon went again to Europe. He died in Paris on June 18, 1884.

An exile most of his adult life, Alberdi wielded his broad influence almost exclusively through his profound writing. He was steeped in philosophy, law, and political science and applied them to the special circumstances and needs of his country. The brilliance of Alberdi's work is seen in the long-lived constitution so largely inspired by him.

Further Reading

The outstanding biography of Alberdi is in Spanish: Jorge M. Mayer, Alberdi y su tiempo (1963). This may be supplemented by another work in Spanish, Pablo Rojas Paz, Alberdi, el ciudadano de la soledad (1941). José L. Romero, A History of Argentine Political Thought (1946; trans. 1963), discusses Alberdi's concepts, especially in relation to the Generation of 1837. Recommended for general background are James R. Scobie, Argentina: A City and a Nation (1964), and Henry S. Ferns, Argentina (1969). □

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