Juan Bautista Alberdi, Argentine Writer and Diplomat:
One of the pre-eminent liberal thinkers of his age, Juan Bautista Alberdi (1810-1884) was instrumental in the formation of the young Republic of Argentina, both as a thinker and as the writer of much of the nation’s first constitution. Although political circumstances forced him to live much of his life in exile, he is nevertheless considered one of the most influential Argentines in history.
Alberdi was born the youngest of five children in the remote Argentine province of Tucumán: at that time it took as long as two months to reach the Buenos Aires. Orphaned by the age of ten, he was placed in the care of his brother Felipe and sent to study in Buenos Aires
at the School of Moral Sciences, where he met other Argentines who would be prominent in their nation’s future, such as Domingo Faustino Sarmiento and Bartolomé Mitre. Alberdi, always something of a rebel, dropped out of school to study music, eventually becoming a talented musician. In 1832, he began studying law, finishing in 1839 in Montevideo.
Alberdi and Rosas:
Meanwhile, the ruthless dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas had seized power in the young Republic of Argentina. This led to the clash of conservative Federalists, led by Rosas, who believed in a weak central government, and the liberal Unitarians, who believed in a constitution and a strong central government. Alberdi, a prominent Unitarian, began writing. In 1837 he wrote Fragmento preliminar al estudio del derecho (“Preliminary fragment regarding the study of law”), which argued for a malleable Constitution (Argentina had no Constitution at the time). Branded a troublemaker, Alberdi went into exile in Uruguay in 1838.
Juan Bautista Alberdi in Exile in Montevideo:
Alberdi lived in Uruguay from 1839 to 1843, publishing various works aimed at eroding support away from Rosas and his government. These ranged from satirical one-act dramas (El gigante Amapolas y sus formidables enemigos, o sea fastos dramáticos de una guerra memorable) to a collection of articles in local papers dedicated to criticising the Rosas regime. He also found time to finish his studies, earning his law degree in 1839.
After a short stay in Europe, Alberdi returned to Latin America, settling this time in Valparaiso, Chile. He quickly found work as a writer and editor at El Mercurio newspaper, where he wrote regular articles blasting the situation in Argentina. He became friendly with Manuel Bulnes, President of Chile, who offered him Chilean citizenship and a position as ambassador, both of which Alberdi politely refused. He even wrote a biography of Bulnes in 1846.
Las Bases and the Constitution :
While in Chile, Alberdi began work on the defining document of his life: Bases y puntos de partida para la organización política de la Confederación Argentina or “Bases and points of departure for the political organization of the Argentine Confederacy.” It is commonly referred to by historians as simply “Las bases.” It would eventually evolve into Argentina’s first constitution.
In 1852, Rosas was finally overthrown by Justo José de Urquiza and democracy was restored to Argentina. Alberdi sent Urquiza his bases and it was well-received. Urquiza then asked Alberdi to re-work it and make it into a constitution, which was ratified in 1853. Alberdi, named ambassador to Europe, departed in 1854: his duties included gaining formal Spanish recognition of Argentine independence, working with the Pope to name new bishops for Argentina, and convincing the European powers not to support the city of Buenos Aires, which at that time was trying to remain autonomous from the rest of the country.
The War of the Triple Alliance:
Alberdi accomplished many of his objectives, including Spanish recognition for the independence of Argentina. Although he remained friendly with Urquiza, he had fought with many of the other leaders of post-Rosas Argentina, including Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, who was president from 1868-1874, and he decided to remain in Europe. When the War of the Triple Alliance (Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil vs. Paraguay) broke out in 1864, he was totally opposed to it, saying: “All of the benefit from this war is for Brazil: all of the loss, all of the dishonor, for the Argentine Republic.”
Final Years of Juan Bautista Alberdi:
He returned to Argentina in 1878 and was elected representative from his native province of Tucamán. Although he eventually patched things up with Sarmiento, long-standing quarrels with former President Bartolomé Mitre, a one-time ally against Rosas, exasperated him and he returned to Paris, where he had spent much of his exile. He died in Paris in 1884, and in 1885 his body was returned to Buenos Aires via steamer.
Juan Bautista Alberdi is an important historical figure in Argentina. He is seen as an important thinker during the era in which much of the national character was determined, sort of like an Argentine Thomas Jefferson. His Constitution stood the test of time, providing Argentina with a good amount of stability during a time in which other Latin American nations were struggling with problems in their own constitutions. Although remembered mainly for las bases, his numerous other treatises on government and the problems faced by Argentina during this turbulent time were also very important.
Source: Sabsay, Fernando. Protagonistas de América Latina/2.Buenos Aires: Editorial El Ateneo, 2006.