All Commentary
Sunday, June 1, 1986

A Reviewers Notebook: Mariano Moreno of Buenos Aires


What do we know about Latin American history? Maybe a thing or two about Simon Bolivar and San Martin, the generals who led the forces that freed much of South America from Spain in the early Nineteenth Century. Bolivar might be called the Latin George Washington, and San Martin the equivalent, say, of General Nathanael Greene. But who were the Latin American James Mad-isons, John Jays, and Alexander Hamiltons? If they left any Latin version of the Federalist Papers we in North America don’t know of it.

Ellen Garwood, the daughter of Will Clayton, the cotton broker who was primarily responsible for the Marshall Plan, has done something to dispel our general ignorance of the Latin American past in a first-rate biography of Mariano Moreno, who was Secretary of Government and of War in the 1810 revolutionary junta in Buenos Aires. Moreno, a passionate believer in free markets, had worked for free trade on behalf of the Argen tine gauchos before he himself became a revolutionary.

Ellen Garwood calls her biography The Undying Flame: Mariano Moreno of Buenos Aires (Washington, D.C.: American Studies Center, 229 pp., $14.95). It is noteworthy that Mrs. Garwood’s extensive bibliography contains the merest smattering of Anglo-Saxon names. Mariano Moreno has no entry in my Encyclopedia Britannica, which speaks of a “creole” junta in the La Plata region of Argentina. “Creole” was the accepted word for anyone of Spanish extraction who happened to be born on the American side of the Atlantic.

Moreno resented the implication that “creoles” were less deserving of high office in the colonial governments than the Spaniards who went out from Spain to enforce strict mercantilist regulations. (Gaucho hides, tallow, and meat had to be sent to Cadiz and traded for Spanish goods or Spanish coin.) But, like all the early seekers for a relaxation of the mercantilist rules that kept British ships and British goods out of Latin ports (and incidentally set things up for smugglers), Moreno was at first loath to cut completely free of the ties to Madrid.

The Latins faced a situation that was a bit different from the one confronting George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John and Samuel Adams in North America. There was the special problem of the captive King in Spain. Napoleon had taken Ferdinand VII captive. The creoles had ideas about bargaining with Ferdinand, and some of them hoped that a restoration in Spain, once Napoleon was out of the way, would let the new principles of Adam Smith take over.

Ideas of Rousseau

Moreno was the first to discard the “mask of Ferdinand” in the La Plata region. In his Gaceta, or gazette, he pushed the ideas of Rousseau, who believed in the social contract. He argued that the authority of the Monarch had been returned to the peoples of both Spain and the colonies through the captivity of Ferdinand.

“The people can,” he said, “modify or reduce . . . authority to the form most agreeable to them in the act of entrusting it to a new representative . . . the Laws of the Indies were not made for a State and already we are forming one.”

The Argentineans of the La Plata region, in response to Moreno’s urgings, opted for a constitution. His trust in the Rousseauistic “general Will” assumed a consensus throughout the whole back country of the Argentine pampas. He had gone to the university in Chuquisaca, where he took degrees in both canonical and civil law. Chuquisaca was leagues away from Buenos Aires, and Moreno was sure that the country he had passed through by foot, horseback, and coach to go to school was with him in wanting a constitution. He sent troops to the back country not as conquerors, but as persuaders.

He did, however, feel constrained to order the execution of a handful of dissenters including a former viceroy, the Frenchman Liniers. This was one of the hardest things that Moreno, a peace-loving man who had been des tined for the church before shifting to the law, ever had to do. It brought him the entirely false reputation of being a “Jacobin,” which provided a handle for those in the junta who wanted more pomp and ceremony than Moreno felt was compatible with true democracy: Eventually the junta became the creature of its president, Colonel Saavedra, who liked to ape a viceroy’s manners even though he stood by the revolution in the end. The Saavedra partisans ultimately pushed Moreno into undertaking a mission to England which was a thinly disguised way of sending him into exile. Worn out by his efforts to prepare the way for the coming of General San Martin, who put the necessary military muscle into the freeing of Argentina and Chile, Moreno fell sick at sea and had to be buried beneath the waves in his early thirties.

Moreno, on Mrs. Garwood’s showing, was a truly selfless man. He took legal cases, including one for the gauchos of the pampas, with no thought of personal emolument. He founded the Public Library of Buenos Aires. Public hygiene was one of his preoccupations: he started what became a permanent establishment for the propagation of vaccine. He ordered police patrols in dangerous vicinities, and he insisted on the elimination of potholes in the streets. He was a very practical man.

As a publisher of Rousseau’s Social Contract, Moreno eliminated the last chapter for reasons of religious scruples. He thought Rousseau had gone astray in religious matters. He seems to have been unacquainted with Rousseau’s compatriot Montesquieu. Maybe it was Moreno’s cardinal error to have gone to Rousseau for his in spiration instead of Montesquieu, who subordinated the general will to the separation of powers. There admittedly must be some consensus in government, but the gateway to tyranny is opened when there is no pro vision for vetoes and the constitutional protection of minorities.

With no checks and balances in government it is all too easy for a strong man to assume that he is the embodiment of the general will.


  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.