Life in the Argentine Republic; Or, Civilization and Barbarism

From the Spanish of Domingo F. Sarmiento, with a Biographical Sketch of the Author, by MRS. MARY MAXN. New York : Hurd and Houghton.
DOMINGO F. SARMIENTO is known to our public as the Minister to the United States from the Argentine Republic, and as the author of a Spanish life of Abraham Lincoln, heretofore noticed in these pages. Many also are aware of the cordial and intelligent interest he takes in our free-school system, and of the efforts he has made for its introduction and adoption in his own country, where, after a long life of services and sacrifices, he now occupies the first place in the popular esteem, and where the recent elections have actually placed him at the head of the state, as President. Few of our readers, however, whose curiosity has not been directed specially to him, can justly appreciate the greatness of his character and career. In any civilization these would be very remarkable : appearing as a part of the history of a Spanish-American republic, and involved with that tale of barbaric intrigue, violence, and revolution which has always greeted us in the “ latest advices from South America,” they have a value of the highest kind to the student as well as the lover of men.
In the early circumstances of Señor Sarmiento’s life there is much to remind us of Lincoln’s humble beginnings, though there is of course the ineffaceable difference between the two men of race, religion, and traditions. Lincoln doubtfully derived his origin from an unknown Quaker family of Pennsylvania : the blood of an ancient Spanish line mixed with that of a noble Arabic stirp in the veins of Sarmiento. But the parents of both were very poor ; and they were alike in their heritage of privation and hard work. The Lincolns began as pioneers : the Sarmiento-Albarracines arrived at the same condition after centuries of high station and wealth in the Old World, and some generations of adventure and impoverishment in our own hemisphere.
The story of his boyhood, as Señor Sarmiento relates it in one of his vivid and picturesque books, — half politics, half history and personal narrative,—and as Mrs. Mann transfers and compiles it in the work before us, is in all respects attractive and instructive. It depicts a family of South American pioneers struggling for bare subsistence, but cherishing their memories of the past and their vague ambition for the future, — a hard-working father resolved that his son shall be a scholar and a great man ; a mother who toils all day at her loom to help supply the necessaries of life, and still aspires for her son ; sisters who share her labors ; and the boyish hope of the house who hesitates whether to be . a soldier or a priest, who makes and worships an army of mud saints in the morning, and in the afternoon leads to the fight a battalion of clay warriors. The character of Sarmiento’s mother is portrayed by her son with touching affection, and he takes the reader’s heart, as he tells, with mingling humor and pathos, of her conscientious industry, her old-fashioned faith and prejudices, and her grief at the progress of modern ideas in her children. She was a woman, however, not only of the best heart, but of strong mind, and her son piously acknowledges her excellent influence upon his whole life. He was put to school in his fifth year, and remained at his studies till he was fifteen, the family meanwhile denying itself the aid of his services, and supporting him in the career marked out for him. His parents, his teacher, and his friends expected him to be chosen for public education among the six youth selected in those days by the Argentine government from each of its provinces ; local influences defeated this hope, and so young Domingo became a grocer’s clerk, but in the intervals of business he continued his studies, and devoured books with an inappeasable hunger. “ In the mornings after sweeping the shop, I read, and as a certain señora passed by on her way from church, and her eyes always fell day after day, month after month, upon that boy, immovable, insensible to every disturbance, his eyes fixed upon a book, one day, shaking her head, she said to her family, ‘ That lad cannot be good ; if those books were good, he would not read them so eagerly!’” It is interesting to know that tire favorite book of this young Spanish American was the “Life of Franklin,” and that in all his ambitious dreams, it was of Franklin’s fame that he was most emulous.
At sixteen he had advanced so far in his education as to be imprisoned for a political offence against one of the local despots who had already begun in the new republic to substitute their atrocities for the misgovernment of Spain. He was among the first to take arms against these on the side of liberty and civilization ; and when his party Was crushed he fled to Chili. Returning to his native state of San Juan in 1836, when twenty-five years old, he renewed his studies with the help of several languages acquired during his exile, and issued a few numbers of a newspaper, which the government presently suppressed. Of course, he was in opposition to this government ; he was imprisoned again, and his life was often in danger; but he remained four years in San Juan, expressing by every word and act his unconquerable zeal for letters and civilization, He spent the two succeeding years in Chili, where he employed himself in literature and politics, with a view to promoting friendship between the people of all the Spanish states, and in 1841 went back to his own country to participate in a revolt against Rosas the tyrant. The movement failed, and his residence in Chili was thus prolonged. He established a literary journal in Santiago, wrote schoolbooks, founded the first normal school in America, and devoted himself to elevating the intellectual and social condition of teachers in a country where a man had been sentenced, for robbing a church, “ to serve three years as a schoolmaster.” He published several works of a biographical and political nature at this time, and substituted in the schools such books as the ‘ Life of Franklin ’ for the monkish legends from which the children once learned to read. But he met with annoving opposition as a foreigner, and Chili never fully acknowledged the good he did till long after he had quitted her soil. In 1847 he set out on his travels through Europe and the United States, of which he has written a spirited and charming narrative, and which he put to the most practical use, devoting his close observation of communities and governments everywhere to the benefit of his own countrymen. In the United States he made the acquaintance of the late Horace Mann, and thoroughly studied our freeschool system, which after great difficulty he caused to be adopted in Buenos Ayres.
He helped to overthrow Rosas in 1851, but again left his country when he found that the general of the insurgents only desired to become another Rosas. He went to live in Buenos Ayres, however, in 1857, and soon re-entered the public service, on the side of liberty, education, and moderation.
He carried through the Senate a measure for building two model schools in the capital, and in 1860 there were 17,000 children receiving free instruction in the city ; he also advocated perfect religious equality, and there are now as many Protestant as Catholic churches in Buenos Ayres. Ha. ing always detested cattle-rearing as barbarizing, through the isolation and idleness in which it maintained the farmers, he procured from the government the right to survey public lands in small farms, and sell these cheaply to actual settlers ; and, in a single province, the lands once belonging to thirty-nine individuals now support a happy and industrious population of twenty thousand freeholders. These and other benevolent measures engaged his attention during intervals of revolution at Buenos Ayres, and they have never ceased to have his sympathy and co-operation during the years he has represented his country at Washington. Any book by such a man would demand attention from us ; the book which of all others seems to teach us Spanish America, which exhibits the struggles of a convulsed and unhappy state now at last entering upon a period of just and tranquil government, and which explains the causes contributing for so long a time to the misery and oppression of her people, has singular claims upon our interest. No difference of race or faith can separate our fate wholly from that of the other American republics, Self-government if good in itself is good for every people. Its failure anywhere is a blow at our prosperity; its endeavors have a perpetual hold upon our sympathies.
Sñor Sarmiento’s work was first published in Chili, in 1841 ; the French translation which attracted the flattering notice of the Parisian critics (especially those of the Revue des Deux Mondes), at the time of its publication, was printed in 1846. It merited this notice, aside from the interest of its subject, by its clear and graphic style, and its comprehensive and confident philosophy. It is the story of that strange yet logical succession of events, by which, in Buenos Ayres and the Argentine States, the cities collected within their gates the civilization of the country, and the people who dwelt without on the great plains, and isolated from all humanizing influences, lapsed into barbarism. Our author continually likens these terrible peasants to the Bedouins, whose appearance and usages when he beheld them in later years, for the first time, were familiar to him through their similarity to those of the gauchos. The gaucho never learned anything but the lasso and the knife ; with the one he ruled over his vast herds, with the other he defended himself against wild beasts, and fought out his personal feuds to the death. There was no law for him, and scarcely anything like religion ; there was no society but that of his fellow-herdsmen, when they met at the country stores which here and there dotted the plains, and supplied the few necessaries and luxuries of the barbarous inhabitants. For amusement he drank and danced, or listened to the rude songs of the cantores, — a race of minstrels, whose life and office reflected a faint and distorted image of those of the feudal troubaders, and who celebrated the deeds and characters of the gauchos. These poets had so deep a hold upon the affections of the gauchos, that they made the name of minstrel sacred, and caused even a poet from the hated aides, who once fell into their hands, to be treated with respect and tenderness. But nearly all the circumstances of the gaucho’s life fostered his savage egotism, his pride and faith in personal prowess, and his desire to excel by violence. When in an evil hour they began to talk politics at the country stores, this cruel and fearless animal was filled with the lust of rapine and dominion ; and when Facundo Quiroga, a gaucho famous throughout the plains for his strength, his courage, and his homicides, proposed an invasion of the cities, and a subversion of settled government, an irresistible force of gauchos was ready to follow him.
Señor Sarmiento tells the tale of Quiroga’s success with vivid minuteness, and presents, in a series of pictures and studies of character, an idea of one of the strangest political convulsions known to history. At this time, and at this distance from the scene of the events, the reader feels the want of some general outline of narrative, but this Mrs. Mann has supplied in a Preface to the work ; and in accepting the author’s statements, it is only necessary to account for the warmth and color with which a partisan of the cities must speak of the gauchos and their leaders. There is no reason to doubt his truth. It at once explains the character of such tyrants as Rosas of Buenos Ayres, and Lopez of Paraguay, when they are described as gaucho chiefs, the heirs of Quiroga’s system and ideas.
It is needless to follow in detail the adventures of this leader, who employed the most unscrupulous guile where force did not serve him to capture the cities. The plains triumphed through him; the towns one after another fell before him, and were desolated by the punishments he ordered, sometimes for their resistance, but often merely to strike terror into them. Men were shot by scores; women were subjected to every insult and outrage; commerce was paralyzed by exactions that took every coin from circulation, and heaped the gaming-tables with the stakes for which Quiroga and his gauchos played. Savage and treacherous caprice ruled instead of law; churches were desecrated; schools were destroyed ; whatever bore the mark of civilization or refinement was trampled under foot. The triumph of barbarism was complete.
Quiroga’s career is one of several very fully portrayed in this interesting book, and scarcely surpasses in its curious fascination that of Aldao, the monk turned gaucho leader, or that of either of Aldao’s brothers. Rosas and Lopez are introduced only incidentally, though sufficiently to identify them with the gaucho movement; but a multitude of subordinate actors in the scenes of that singular tragedy are sketched with an effect of making us know the political and social life of Spanish America as it has never appeared before in literature.