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Sarmiento, Domingo Faustino

. Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1811-1888). Argentine writer and statesman who visited Europe in 1846-1847, met several of the most important figures in French political and cultural life, and later claimed to have foreseen the Revolution of 1848.

Sarmiento was born in the isolated far western province of San Juan, just across the Andes from Chile. His formal education ended after elementary school, but he studied French on his own and devoured the few French books and periodicals available in San Juan. In 1840, amid the chaos and violence of political life in Argentina, Sarmiento's hostility to the nation's dictator, Juan Manuel de Rosas, forced him into exile in Chile. He worked as a journalist and teacher there, and in 1845 published his masterpiece, Civilizacion y Barbarie: Vida de Juan Facundo Quiroga. Facundo, as this text is known, is the most famous work of Argentine literature, and is arguably the most influential book published in Spanish in the nineteenth century. In it, Sarmiento described the life of Quiroga, an Argentine war-lord, but used that topic both to attack Rosas and to attempt to analyze the causes of the nation's violence and backwardness; that analysis drew heavily upon ideas taken from French writers and thinkers from Volney and Chateaubriand to Hugo, Leroux, and Lerminier.

The publication of Facundo in Chile led to political difficulties between that country and Rosas's Argentina, and in 1845 the Chilean government sought to ease those strains by sending Sarmiento to Europe to study educational systems there and to attract European immigration. Sarmiento described his three-year trip --to France, to Algeria and Spain, to Switzerland, Italy, and Germany, eventually to the United States--in a series of letters written to friends. Those letters were published, starting in 1849, as his Viajes--the first important travel narrative written by a Latin American.

Sarmiento arrived in Le Havre in May of 1846, writing a friend that "I have touched the soil of Europe-more precisely, I have embraced this France of all our dreams." He was profoundly moved by the great age and beauty of French architecture, but disquieted by social inequalities for which his readings had not prepared him; he described the real Europe as "a tragic mix of greatness and abject poverty, of knowledge and brutishness, the receptacle--at once sublime and filthy--of everything that both elevates and degrades mankind." Sarmiento was also deeply distressed that French foreign policy tolerated the Rosas dictatorship in Argentina, and took it as his personal mission to change French attitudes.

After a brief stay in Rouen, Sarmiento arrived in Paris. He had shipped a number of copies of Facundo to France, and confidently expected that the book would open the doors of the intellectual and literary establishment to him. The copies had never arrived, however, and Sarmiento had to push hard to make appointments with a few government officials and to get Facundo reviewed in the Revue des Deux Mondes. He endeavored to understand the intricacies of Parisian political life in 1846, but saw French politics through an Argentine lens: "Rosas = Louis Phillipe," he noted. Sarmiento managed to arrange brief meetings with Guizot and Thiers, and to attend a parliamentary debate between those two leaders. In the course of that debate, however, Sarmiento began to realize that it was a war of words, rather than ideas, between two men more eager to score debating points than to address real issues. Sarmiento left France in September of 1846, profoundly disillusioned by a nation he had once idealized. Sarmiento went on to become a major figure in Argentine politics after the fall of Rosas in 1852, and transferred his ideological and emotional allegiance to the United States. He was Argentina's ambassador to the United States from 1865 to 1868, and President from 1868 to 1874.

One of the most interesting aspects of his visit to Europe in 1846 and 1847 is his belief that his status as an outsider, a flâneur staring into the windows of European life, enabled him to foresee the events of 1848. There is evidence that he also saw those events as part of a world-wide process which included the defeat and exile of Rosas in 1852; that broad view of the American impact of 1848 has only recently begun to be explored by scholars.

In the preface to his Travels, Sarmiento stakes his claim to prescience: Today neither the external physiognomies of nations nor the physical characteristics of particular countries are suitable subjects for observation, since books have made us overwhelmingly familiar with such details. Of far greater interest, although much less easy to appraise, are the spirit which moves nations, the institutions which retard or propel their progress, those ephemeral characteristics which give a narrative all its immediate interest, and the particular style of each age. I had the good fortune--more rightly merited by a more highly-placed observer--to spend much of my travels covering ground already deeply undermined by elements of one of the most terrible convulsions that has agitated the minds of nations, a convulsion which overturned--like a sudden strike of lightning--objects and institutions which had seemed built on firm foundations. I can be proud of having felt the solid ground of ideas move beneath my feet, and of having heard deep-seated rumblings that the inhabitants of those nations could not manage to perceive. The European Revolution of 1848, which has left such a profound impression in the pages of history, caught up with me after I had returned to Chile. But from the very moment I arrived here, the friends who are around me as I write this, as well as individuals of very high rank, heard my alarming accounts of what I had seen [in Europe]--and not without visible signs of incredulity on their part. And while I did not prophesy an immediate, imminent catastrophe, which no one could have predicted, they did hear me announce that the coming crisis would be violent, and that I believed that the order of things and of institutions, an order in full force at the time I left [Europe], could not possibly continue. Since I do not want to pass myself off as a cheap prophet of things that had already happened, I here insert a fragment of a letter from one of my traveling companions in Europe, a republican de la veille [Ange de Champgobert, whom Sarmiento met in Italy]. In that letter he says: "Thanks, a thousand thanks, my dear friend, for remembering me. How great and how beautiful are the shared beliefs that preserve our friendship even at a distance of two thousands leagues. That Republic we talked about at such length in Florence and Venice a year ago, has been in existence here for four months now. Ah, you cannot imagine how astonished I felt, as I read your letter with great pleasure, to see you, in the month of July, talking about 'the Republic, the coming Republic.' Coming! But it seems we have been republicans for centuries, if we compare the history of the last four months to the utter vacuum of the last twelve years of European history." I was thus a witness, without realizing it, to the last day of a disappearing world, and I could see systems and principles, men and things that would so soon give way to one of those great syntheses which make the energy of mankind's moral feelings explode after being repressed for so long by physical force, by preoccupations and base interests. That moral energy proposes to bring man's institutions up to the level that his concepts of right and of justice have already attained.

David T. Haberly


Bunkley, Allison Williams. The Life of Sarmiento. Princeton N J: Princeton University Press, 1952.

Katra, William H. "Rereading Viajes: Race, Identity, and National Destiny." in Sarmiento: Author of a Nation, Tulio Halperín Donghi, Iván Jaksic, Gwen Kirkpatrick, and Francine Masiello, eds. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994, 73-100.

Sarmiento, Domingo Faustino. Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism, trans. Kathleen Ross Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

-----------. Travels in the United States in 1847 , ed. and trans. Michael Aaron Rockland Princeton N J: Princeton University Press, 1970.

-----------. Viajes por Europa, Africa y America, 1845-1847 . Vol. 5 of Sarmiento's Obras completas Buenos Aires: Luz del Día, 1949.

Thomson, Guy, ed. The European Revolutions of 1848 and the America London: Institute for the Study of the Americas, 2002.

Verdevoye, Paul Sarmiento, Educateur et Publiciste Paris: Centre de Recherches de l'Institut d'Études Hispaniques, 1963.

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