Dr. Mariano Moreno (1778-1811) was an Argentine writer, lawyer, politician and journalist. During the turbulent days of the early nineteenth century in Argentina, he emerged as a leader, first in the fighting against the British and then in the movement for independence from Spain. His promising political career ended prematurely when he died at sea under suspicious circumstances: he was only 32. He is considered among the founding fathers of the Republic of Argentina.
Mariano’s father was Spanish and his mother Creole (of Spanish blood but born in Argentina). The Moreno household was a strict Catholic one: young Mariano had a very austere childhood. According to Mariano’s brother, he father would not even allow playing cards in the house, as they would be a temptation to gambling and idleness. Mariano attended the best schools and stood out as a student: the Archbishop of Buenos Aires himself funded Mariano’s studies in the seminary in present-day Sucre, Bolivia. It was there that Moreno’s brilliant intellect was first exposed to the writers of the Enlightenment.
Return to Buenos Aires:
Mariano decided to become a lawyer, and was forced to leave Bolivia in 1805 when he began denouncing the corruption of colonial officials. He returned to Buenos Aires
, by then a thriving colonial city. In 1806-1807 the British invaded Buenos Aires, taking advantage of chaos in Spain to try and snatch a lucrative colony away from their traditional rival. They underestimated the resolve of the people of Buenos Aires, however, and were driven off. Among the leaders of the resistance was Mariano Moreno.
The May Revolution:
In the chaos that followed, Moreno supported the Spanish Viceroy Baltasar Hidalgo de Cisneros de la Torre and was rewarded with a post in the colonial administration. Sensing a change in the air, he quickly turned on the Spanish and began advocating an alliance between Creoles and the British. In May of 1810 the events known as The May Revolution
took place: when all of the dust had settled, Argentina had declared itself loyal to Ferdinand VII, the crown prince, who was not actually sitting on the throne. It was a calculated act to gain independence without immediately incurring the wrath of Spain.
Moreno and Saavedra:
Around this time, Moreno made a powerful enemy: Cornelio Saavedra
, commander of the military forces in Buenos Aires and a hero of the resistance to the British invasion. Once the leaders of the city had decided to split from the Spanish, Saavedra was elected president and Moreno secretary of the ruling junta. The two men clashed over nearly everything and eventually divided the junta between Saavedristas
and liberal Morenistas
. In 1811, when Saavedra led forces north to fight royalists, Moreno had him replaced, establishing the First Triumvirate. Saavedra returned and defeated the Morenistas, regaining power.
Liberalism vs. Conservatism in 1810:
The conflict between liberals and conservatives in 1810 was different from what we know today. Moreno, with his enlightenment ideals, was in favor of a strong central government, free trade, equality and a secular education. Saavedra, on the other hand, favored a weak central government (with more power going to the provinces), active participation by the church in education and government and limited voting rights. Although Moreno died in 1811 and Saavedra in 1829, conflict between liberals and conservatives would bedevil Argentina for decades.
Moreno was short of stature and somewhat shrill. His appearance had been marred by a bout with smallpox. He married María Guadalupe Cuenca in Bolivia in 1801 and they had a son, also Mariano, in 1805. His outspoken nature made him unpopular: his denunciation of corruption in Bolivia led to his returning to Buenos Aires for his own safety. He was greatly energetic: when told that his rival had been buried at sea, Saavedra is said to have drily remarked “It would take that much water to put out that much fire.”
The Dark Side of Moreno:
Although Moreno publicly espoused enlightened ideals, some of his later writings reveal an autocratic tendency. He saw things in terms of good and evil, black and white, and was intolerant of other opinions. He felt he had been chosen by God to deliver the people of Argentina into an age of reason and enlightenment, and he would do so whether they wanted it or not. He reasoned that tactics of repression were useful, if it would lead an uneducated population to a better place. In this, Moreno was less the father of modern Argentina and more an eerie precursor of the bloody “Dirty War” fought in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Death of Moreno:
Having unsuccessfully tried to get rid of Saavedra, Moreno set sail for England on board the “Fame.” It was his intention to seek British allies who would intervene in Buenos Aires and return him to power. On March 4, he died suspiciously after taking some medicine given him by the ship’s doctor: many suspected at the time that Saavedra had ordered him killed, although it has never been proven. He was buried at sea.
Legacy of Mariano Moreno:
Today, Moreno is considered one of the more important men in the history of Argentina: he is one of the founding fathers of the nation, and schoolchildren read somewhat sanitized biographies that place emphasis on his progressive ideals and ignore his tyrannical leanings.
After his death, the split between his supporters and those of Saavedra worsened, and the Morenistas and Saavedristas eventually morphed into the Liberal Unitarian party and the Conservative Federalist party. These two parties would fight over the right to rule Argentina for decades, often resulting in bloodshed.
In some ways, Moreno died at just the right time: he was there to help his country through difficult times, and his enlightened thoughts have inspired many Argentines to cherish democracy and freedom. Yet, his troubling autocratic tendencies may have resulted in an ugly scene had he ever achieved true power for himself.
Source: Shumway, Nicolas. The Invention of Argentina. Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1991.