Argentina, A Brief History of 19th Century
by Heath S. Douglas
The biggest mistake one can make when studying Argentina
in the 1800s is to assume that it was a true union from independence.
The country declared itself independent of Spain in 1810, but it was
decades before there was a true unity in Argentina, and some people will
argue that unity is not complete even today. Old Argentina, or the
northwest, was not under the power of emerging Buenos Aires in the early
1800s, and sectionalism was rampant throughout the country. The mainly
rural northwest resisted all attempts by the porteños of Buenos Aires to
By 1826 the people began to realize something had to be done to
unify the country. So there was a meeting in Buenos Aires. A new
constitution was written and Bernardino Rivadavia was elected president.
The provinces took offense to this, so Rivadavia resigned and civil war
ensued from 1826-1828.
It was at this time of civil war that the most influential man in
19th century Argentine history arose, Juan Manuel de
Rosas. In 1829 he
was elected to a three year term as a federalist, meaning he was an
advocate of a government sharing power between the national and
provincial sectors, as opposed to an unitario, who would support the idea
of a strong central government. Rosas was really nothing more than a
gaucho (an Argentine cowboy). But he managed to make alliance with the
Catholic Church and even was successful in enacting laws to improve
education. Yet despite his success, he left after his term ended in 1832
to help drive out natives in the south and open up more lands for
civilization. These achievements of course made Rosas a national hero,
and all the while his wife was back in Buenos Aires stirring things up.
This would eventually give Juan Manuel de Rosas the chance to again be
the savior of Argentina. As the situation worsened in Buenos Aires, it
became ever easier for Rosas to ride back in and take power. He did this
in 1835 and was elected to a five year term as president. What he did
was establish a dictatorship. Opponents were exiled or killed, and
school children were taught of the "Great Rosas".
Rosas was constantly involved in foreign crises during his tenure.
These escapades with countries such as Bolivia and Brazil served to take
the public's eye off the prevalent domestic problems of Argentina.
Montevideo was blockaded from 1842-1851, and Britain blockaded Buenos
Aires from 1845-1847 because of disputes with Rosas.
But as discontent bubbled in the interior because of increased taxes
caused by the blockades, Rosas' hold on power became tenuous. In 1851
Justo José de Urquiza, a larger landowner from the province of Entre
Riós, cultivated alliances with anti Rosas parties from Uruguay and
Brazil and some Argentine exiles and decided to take on Rosas. There was
a battle at Monte Caseros, and Rosas was defeated. He was now forced
into exile in England. But now who would govern Argentina?
A Federalist constitution was written at Santa Fé and Urquiza was
made provisional governor. But Buenos Aires seceded and declared itself
independent and the true Argentina, led by Bartolome Mitre. Eventually,
Mitre's forces lost to Urquiza in 1859 and Buenos Aires became a part of
the Federation. Yet fighting broke out again in 1861 and Mitre won and
was elected to a six year term in 1861.
Domingo Sarmiento served as president from 1868-1874. He was very
education minded, and had written extensively on the subject while
traveling over much of the world. During his administration the
government invested heavily in education, building new schools and
improving the quality of Argentine teachers.
Julio Roca followed Sarmiento and served from 1880-1886, and he by
Juárez Celman (1886-1890). But the elections were far from open and
honest, which led to the rise of university students in politics at the
turn of the century. Out of this student movement grew the Civic Union
of Youth, which eventually split and the Radical Civic Union emerged.
Led by Hipólito Yrigoyen, this group wanted free suffrage and open and
honest elections. They allied with dissident military groups to try and
overthrow the government in 1890, 1892, and 1893, and were unsuccessful
in all three attempts. But as the century turned the Radical Civic Union
was already a very powerful element in Argentine politics.
For Further Reading:
Ferns, H.S. Argentina (1969).
Kirkpatrick, Frederick. A History of the Argentine Republic (1931).
Pendle, George. Argentina (1955).
Rennie, Ysabel F. The Argentine Republic (1945).
Rock, David . Argentina: 1516-1982 (1985).
Rudolph, James D., ed., Argentina: A Country Study (1985).
Scobie, James R. Argentina: A City and a Nation, 2nd ed. (1971).
White, John W. Argentina: The Life Study of a Nation (1942).
April 9, 1996