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Argentina to 1890 (Revised)


    Present-day Argentina was not predestined; any number of configurations were possible. It might never have become independent. Certainly the men, led by Santiago Liniers,  who resisted the British Admiral Home Riggs Popham expedition which occupied Buenos Aires in 1806 were not trying to create a nation.  The next year Liniers and his forces again had to force the British to capitulate after a second British expedition under General John Whitelocke occupied Montevideo (February-July, 1807) and attacked Buenos Aires (June-July, 1807). People in the port city (porteños) simply wanted to prevent foreign control. It was not until Napoleon Bonaparte imprisoned King Ferdinand VII and put his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne in 1808 that important Argentines seriously considered running their own affairs. Rather than obey Joseph Bonaparte and  his collaborators, a provisional junta, led by Mariano Moreno, rejected the authority of the French-controlled government on May 25, 1810 (Argentina celebrates this date as its independence date). Moreno and the junta tried but failed to gain control of Montevideo and Asunción. BA, as the city is known,  was effectively independent.

    Most Argentines lived outside BA city, however. They did not share the liberal attitudes of the small city. The geography precluded close ties in the early nineteenth century. In the old northwest, ties to Spanish society and economy in Peru were very  strong. Conservative Argentina was royalist and most people, as far as we can know, were conservative, uninterested in challenging the status quo. If they thought about such matters, they wanted to run their own affairs. Not so in Buenos Aires city which, as an Atlantic port and governmental center, was liberal. BA not only did not share the mores and desires of the provinces, it wanted to control them. It wanted all trade to pass through BA, something which would not occur without such control for BA was not a good natural port. 

So there were struggles for power in the independence period. Men fought.  In 1810 and 1811, delegates from the interior provinces gradually joined the provisional junta in Buenos Aires.  Moreno resigned and a conservative triumvirate replaced his junta. In 1812,  Manuel Belgrano, in charge of porteño forces in northwest, checked the royalist army at Tucumán and Salta but failed to take Upper Peru (Bolivia). A second triumvirate was organized at Buenos Aires as power shifted among factions. Then in 1814, an assembly of provincial representatives met in  Buenos Aires and made basic social reforms. Further, José de San Martín assumed command of the army of north. San Martín, unlike many other leaders, understood that Argentina would never be free unless the Spanish crown was driven from Chile, Bolivia, and Peru. He received little help as he assembled an army. Chilenos, fleeing defeats in their own colony, joined his army and together they would scale the Andes to defeat the Spanish.

    By 1816, few doubted that Spain could again exert control so independence was declared by the Congress of Tucumán on the 9th of July but the leaders continued to dispute who had power. Juan Martín de Pueyrredón was named Supreme Director after independence declared. In 1817, the Congress moved to BA. It drafted a centralist constitution which was overwhelmingly rejected by autonomist sentiment in the provinces. They had no intention of replacing royal control with that of city folks. As owners of big estates (estancias) with gauchos at hand, they could fight. Some were provincial political bosses (caudillos) who could commend armies more formidable than any thing BA could field. So Centralist (unitarian) authority in BA collapsed in 1820 and there was a free-for-all until Martín Rodríguez became governor for 1821-24 with Bernardino Rivadavia as his minister of government. Bernardino Rivadavia, a Buenos Aires city politician, was the first president, serving from  February 8, 1826 until July 7, 1827 when he resigned because of the complications of the war with Brazil over what became Uruguay and the armed resistance of the other provinces to control by the port city convinced him that establishing a progressive, centralized national government was impossible. The provincial caudillos cautiously watched the city folks fight. 

    Spain and Portugal had been struggling over the region now known as Uruguay since 1690; this weakness in the former Viceroyalty de le Plata encouraged the Empire of Brazil to annex it in 1821. When Uruguayans revolted in 1825, Buenos Aires supported them, declaring war on Brazil. The war dragged on until 1828 when the United Kingdom and France intervened to establish Uruguay. There was nothing any Argentine government could do.     

    In many ways, Argentina did not exist just a number of areas governed by various means who happened to be adjacent to or geographically near each other. In 1826, the Congress of provincial representatives meeting in Buenos Aires drew up another centralist constitution and elected Rivadavia as president but the constitution was rejected by the provinces and Rivadavia resigned in 1827. Civil war raged in 1828-29 until Juan Manuel Rosas emerged as the strongman. In 1829, he was elected the governor of Buenos Aires province with power over the so-called Confederación de la Río Plata. His rise to power represented the ascendancy of the commercial cattle ranchers, the estancieros, who would play the dominant role in Argentine politics until the middle of the twentieth century. See his biography on this site. By 1831, the Pact of the Littoral, signed by provinces of Buenos Aires, Entre Rios, and Santa Fé (subsequently joined by Corrientes) provided limited concept of national unity but these were the river provinces. The  important northwest and western provinces of Córdoba,  Tucumán, Salta, Catamarca, and Mendoza stayed out. 

    Juan Manuel Rosas

Click on the map to retrieve a larger one and then click on it.

    Rosas, as strong as he was, did not govern Argentina but only Buenos Aires province. He had alliances with caudillos in other provinces. Beginning in 1835,  Rosas was elected governor of BA province with supreme and absolute powers. It was a tough dictatorship with exiling, murder, and imprisonment of vocal opponents common. He made an effort to make sure that teachers taught what he and the other conservatives wanted and that books and curricula reflected conservative values and praised Rosas, lasting until his overthrow by provincial caudillos in 1852. The northern provinces unsuccessfully revolted against him in 1838. The Provincias Unidas del Río de la Plata were not united by any means.  Each local strongman resisted rule from Buenos Aires. The white areas on the map below show the area claimed by the United Provinces in 1816 but that was a fantasy. Salta is 1200 miles from Buenos Aires city, too far for political control. 

    United Provinces of the Río de la Plata, 1816

    Rosas engaged in numerous foreign ventures, particularly when he wanted to divert attention from his local troubles, but they were expensive. They  forced him to raise taxes where he could and hurt the trade of the upriver caudillos would could not ship goods because of the British and French blockade of Buenos Aires beginning in 1845. Finally fed up  in 1851. Justo José de Urquiza of Entre Rios made an alliance with the Colorado faction of Uruguay, Brazilians, and Argentine exiles to overthrow Rosas. Urquiza knew that the British and French would support him. At the Battle of Monte Caseros, Urquiza's army of 24,000 (the largest in South American history to that time) easily beat Rosas' army. The dictator went into exile in Europe. With his ouster, the liberals came to power and began converting Argentina into a modern nation.

    Justo José de Urquiza

    None of this meant that Argentina existed as a nation in 1853. Urquiza and some provincial governors agreed to meet in Santa Fé to write a national federation constitution. Urquiza was named provisional director of the federation. Buenos Aires province rebelled against Urquiza, seceded from the federation, and declared itself the independent Argentine nation. So there were two political units claiming to be Argentina just as there had been decades before. The vast region of Patagonia, parts of the west, parts of the north, and the Malvinas/Falkland Islands were part of neither. Other than the British on the Islands, no Europeans controlled these areas. "Argentina" was, at best, a dream, not a reality. Argentina got the name Argentina with the Constitution of 1853. 

    Because provincial governments were very strong whereas the national government was weak, the constitution created a federal system. Shared sovereignty was the only realistic solution. It created a president and vice-president (who had a six- year term), a senate, house of deputies, and a court system headed by a supreme court. Paraná, Entre Ríos was designated the national capital  until Buenos Aires came into the nation and then it would move. Urquiza was selected as the first president, which insured that Buenos Aires city and province would go their own way. Although the country Urquiza called itself Argentina so, too, did Buenos Aires and BA had more power. It was the outlet to the Atlantic Ocean and Europe.

    President Urquiza term faced many challenges, including wars.  His administration  improved transportation, including steamship service on the rivers. He established mail service to the central and western provinces. Roads were built. What became the Central Argentine Railway was started from Rosario to Córdoba. The first six miles were opened in 1857. In other words, his administration recognized that transportation had to be developed if the economy were to grow. Estancieros (big landowners) often resisted, especially when it meant losing even a small piece of their huge estates. The handicraft industries of the northwest provinces, the wine business of Mendoza, and the pastoral activities, however, need better and cheaper means of getting product to the Paraná River which empties into the Río de la Plata and, perhaps, to Buenos Aries. 

    Urquiza's government collected import and export taxes as its chief source of revenue; so, too, did the other Argentina, Buenos Aires. Naturally, there was conflict between Urquiza’s government and that of Buenos Aires, which was governed by the historian and general, Bartolomé Mitre. The two countries fought a tariff war which, in 1859, became a military battle. Buenos Aires lost and agreed, in 1860, to come into the federation. War between Urquiza and Mitre started again after a few months but Mitre won this time in 1861. Urquiza retired to his home in Entre Ríos province which he ruled until 18670 when he and his sons were murdered by a local political rival.

    Bartolomé Mitre

    Bartolomé Mitre (1862-68) was a statesman, a unifier, who began the process of modernizing a unified Argentina. At a conference  in Buenos Aires city, peace negotiated. Mitre was elected President in 1862 and would serve his full term. The nation's finances were brought into order. More schools were established, solidifying the decision of the elites to educate the population. The codification of the laws gave the newly-created country commonality. Trade increased , partly because the customs laws were reformed . More railroad tracks were laid. Mitre gained control over the whole country and defeated Angel Vicente Peñaloza who rebelled in 1863.  Much of his term was consumed with the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-70) when Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay fought a very bloody war against Paraguay. Paraguayans fought to the death; at least 60% died. So many Paraguayan men died that women had to share husbands. Mitre was initially the commander of the allied forces but yielded his command to a Brazilian. When Mitre's army lost the major battle of Curupaití in September, 1864, Juan Saá, the Federalist governor of San Luis, and Felipe Varela of Catamarca rebelled against him and his Liberal (unitarian) government.  They had support from the Chilean government, proclaiming that they would restore the provinces of Mendoza, San Juan, and San Luis to Chile.  When army draftees revolted in Mendoza because they refused to fight in the  Paraguayan War,  Saá and Varela came across the Andes with armies from Chile to support them. Mitre's army managed to defeat them in 1867. The West was secure.

    Domingo F. Sarmiento

    Domingo F. Sarmiento (1868-74), a noted writer who had helped overthrow Rosas, was most noted for his work building the education system but encouraged the Europeanization of the nation.  He was determined to eliminate the gaucho (cowboy) culture which disdained education, culture, and the rule of law in favor of untamed brute strength and wildness. He spent  lots of money for education to hire teachers (including foreigners in secondary and higher education), erect buildings, and buy books. and equipment. Student enrollment doubled. Public libraries were built. The first national census revealed that Argentina only had 1,737,076 in 1869; it was virtually empty. Sarmiento's government encouraged  immigration from Europe, planning to overwhelm the gauchos with Europeans. He also attracted foreign capital by making Argentina hospitable. He did encourage domestic industry, not being willing for all manufactured good to come from Europe. Gaucho culture and the federalism it represented were on the run.

    Nevertheless, federalism and the desire for local control plagued the central government which had  to contend with strong, ambitious men in the provinces. Ricardo López Jordán of Entre Rios revolted in 1870. His henchmen murdered Urquiza and he had himself elected governor. He tried to spread the revolt into neighboring provinces but was driven into Uruguay in 1871.  Then in  mid-1873,  he returned to Entre Rios and again used guerrilla tactics. Within six months, he had failed. He tried for a third time in 1876 but was captured. The central government was able to command loyalty and move its troops rapidly via the burgeoning railway network.

    One of the chief elements of this unification and enabling the national government to enforce its will on the states/provinces, was the creation of an effective national army. The Colegio Militar was established in 1870 followed by the Escuela Naval in 1872 to train and educate the officer corps. In the 1890s, there was a large-scale purchase of new German weaponry. In 1899, Argentina imported a German military mission to train staff officers. In 1900, it created the Escuela Superior de Guerra. By 1910, promotion had shifted from political favoritism to seniority and mastery of modern warfare. Promotions were decided by an all-military committee composed of commanders of army divisions and headed by the highest-ranking general. This process opened the officer corps to the middle class. Many of the newly-promoted generals were sons of immigrants. By 1916, the military was becoming a professional organization.


    Nicolás Avellaneda


    The payoff of building a strong national army was a long tome coming; when former president Mitre lost the election to  Nicolás Avellaneda (1874-1880), he believed he could revolt and take power. He lost and was imprisoned but the fact that he thought he might succeed demonstrated that regional caudillos were not quite beaten. Avellaneda was shrewd. He pardoned Mitre and appointed two Mitre men to his cabinet, thus giving the Mitre people a vested interest in his success.

     The effects of the depression which began in 1873 visited its woes on Argentina, forcing Avellaneda to take severe measures when he assumed the presidency in 1874. He cut the budget, laid off employees, and suspended the conversion of Argentine paper money into gold. He promised to honor the bonds held by foreigners even if his countrymen had to go hungry. The debt was crushing. By 1877, the crisis has passed.

    He guided a number of measures to develop the economy. He advocated getting public lands into private hands and began the Indian wars, the Conquest of the Desert, to satisfy the land hunger of cattle barons as well as to bring more land under Argentine control. His Ley Avellaneda of 1876 (an immigration law) promised land and jobs to European immigrants; the number doubled within in a few years.  He had been was Minister of Justice and Public Instruction under Sarmiento and he continued to expand the educational system. In December, 1876, the first refrigerated sip, the Le Frigorifique, arrived, starting the Trans-Atlantic meat trade. The next year, Le Paraguay, which could transport frozen meat arrived. Ever more prosperous European populations could now enjoy Argentine meat products. Demand seemed unlimited. The cattle business exploded; ranchers wanted more land on which to raise more cattle. Hence the Conquest of the Desert. Cattle had to be fed so farmers, mostly Italian,  were imported on a temporary basis. They planted wheat, which they knew, and then alfalfa before they left. The next group harvested the alfalfa for the livestock and then planted wheat. The livestock was fed and, unintentionally, Argentina became one of the world's largest wheat producers. More railroad lines were built to get the products to market. Meat packing plants, shipping facilities, and a host of other industrial activities were created and grew.

    Although dwarfed by the pastoral and agricultural activities enough industry existed to introduce important industrial institutions.  In 1877 the Club Industrial was founded seek protective tariffs for the clothing, wine, flour and other industries. Some of the most important men in the country organized the club men such as Carlos Pellegrini, Vicente Fidel López, José Hernández and Roque Sáenz Peña. Pellegrini and Sáenz Peña became presidents of the nation. The first industrial strike, led by a Frenchman and a Spaniard, was conducted by the Sociedad Tipográfica Bonaerense in 1878. It won a ten-hour day in winter and a twelve-hour day in summer, a major success.  

    Julio Roca (1880-1886) became president because he was the hero of the Conquest of the Desert. The task of dealing with the "Indian Problem," as it was called, was first given to Adolfo Alsina but he died kidney failure. Roca then received the opportunity. Alsina  planned to use the same old plans, fortifying a line between Argentina and the Indians and gradually pushing the frontier as needed overwhelming the natives with the European population. The Indians, mostly Mapuche in Patagonia under one leader, fiercely fought back. This attrition pattern was similar to that of the United States. Roca announced that he would show the United States how to do it. hanged tactics. He made a wholesale assault, killing as many as he could, taking even more captives, and pushing them south until they surrendered.  Patagonia and the Gran Chaco were brought under the control of Buenos Aires. It provided new land for ranching and settlement.  Roca was lauded and elected president. Today, his statues, like the one in  San Carlos de Bariloche, Río Negro are defaced.

     Julio Argentino Roca  

    Before becoming president in 1880, he put down the rebellion of Carlos Tejedor of Buenos Aires with the support of Mitre. The revolt convinced him to support the federalization of the city of Buenos Aires in order to get political pace. The provincial capital was moved south to La Plata. General and President Roca believed in the separation of church and state. Laws (Leyes Laicas) were enacted to create a civil register of all births, deaths and marriages. Elections were put under civil control. Primary education became public and free. The Vatican broke diplomatic relations because its power was been reduced but Roca persisted. The State spent money to foster large-scale European immigration, railway construction, and agricultural exports, becoming a very important partner in economic development. The economy and government revenue grew fast. Financial speculation and government corruption became a serious problem. Then, in May 1886, someone tried to kill him. He remained a key figure in politics. In 1886, he placed his brother-in-law, Miguel Juárez Celman into the presidency.

    Miguel Juárez Celman

     Juárez Celman, politician from Córdoba, never finished his presidency which lasted from 1886 to 1890. He did not cause the revolt of the emerging middle class but he helped cause the massive inflation that wiped out savings and impoverished many.  A member of the old landowner class, he had been chosen by the oligarchy not the voters. He was a strong advocate of separation of church and state, public works,  public education, and European immigration. He was determined to make the country, especially Buenos Aires city, very European. So he spent massive amounts on wide boulevards, sanitation, the Teatro Colón, government buildings, port improvements, and support of immigration from Europe. On the other hand, he moved to privatize existing railroads, subsidizing new lines by guaranteeing them a profit. Speculators got windfalls when the government guaranteed bonds bought with paper money with gold. As the government printed more and more paper money to pay for Juárez Celman's program, its real value declined but the government would redeem its face value for gold. Gambling spread from casinos and horseracing to the stock and bond market. Values became fictive. Inflation grew and grew. Those on wages and salaries suffered; those who could buy land cheaply with inflation money or who convert paper into gold prospered. When foreign lenders demanded gold, the air started escaping the balloon. Between 1886 and 1890, the public debt increased from 117 million to 351 million in addition to another 35 million of the floating debt payable only in gold. Over 70% of the money was owed to foreigners. The government was bankrupt.

     Argentina was politically bankrupt as well. Juárez Celman was authoritarian, intervening in the provinces to put his men in power and seeking control of the Partido Autonomista Nacional, the political party which the elites, like Roca, used to control elections. Nothing new in corrupting the political system--those who ruled had been doing it for years--but  Juárez Celman's regime was often called the unicato; he ruled as a dictator. He wasn't but he was skillful at manipulating elections or having his henchmen in the provinces manipulate elections there. When they balked, he used the national army to get his way. In rural areas and small towns, the men who met the property qualifications to vote understood that it was in their interest to vote as the local political boss instructed. The bosses counted or miscounted the votes. Men in Córdoba, Buenos Aires, Santa Fé, Mendoza, and other cities were harder control; the political rebellion of 1890 began in Buenos Aires.

    Protests against the government increased, culminating in an armed rebellion. In September, 1889, a student protest meeting in Buenos Aires saw the emergence of Unión Cívica de la Juventud. Older politicians, such as Mitre, joined the anti-government movement and the movement was renamed the Unión Cívica.  On July 26, 1890 in the Buenos Aires Artillery Park, a group of civilians, led by Leandro N. Alem, Hipólito Yrigoyen, and Bartolomé Mitre, with some military support rose against the government and demanded the resignation of Juárez Celman and his cabinet. Roca did not participate in the Revolution of the Park, but he had little love of Juárez Celman. The uprising was ill-planned and ill-conducted. The conspirators were outgunned by the military led by Vice President Carlos Pellegrini, Roque Sáenz Peña, and Nicolás Levalle; they lost in days. President Juárez Celman. Pellegrini succeeded to the presidency. 

    The old-guard faction in the Unión Cívica had rid themselves of Juarez Celman and resumed business as usual. For example, Roca became temporary president in 1895 when José Evaristo Uriburu became ill; he was elected to a second six-year term in 1898.

    Nevertheless, a new political force had come into being. Those who wanted free suffrage and honest elections created the Unión Cívica Radical. The UCR was led by Leandro Alem and his nephew, Hipólito Yrigoyen. The UCR tried revolt again in 1892 and 1893. When that tactic failed, the UCR had its supporters count blank ballots to protest electoral fraud. The powers that were not only counted those ballots but even announced their number to the public. Eventually, they would cleanse the system with the Roque  Sáenz Peña Law of 1912.

Don Mabry