Domingo Faustino Sarmiento was not just the author of the famed work Facundo, but also one of Argentina’s most important writers and statesmen. He was part of the group of intellectuals called the “Generation of 1837” that advocated for freedom of speech, republicanism, and free trade, among other things.
He was born in 1811 to a religious mother and a father who’d served in the wars of independence. Their patriotism and hard work inspired him, and although he did not attend school for very long, he was an autodidact, teaching himself French. A member of the provincial legislature in the 1820s, he was forced into exile in Chile due to his antipathy towards the dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas. There he was a journalist and a teacher, and began to write. In 1845 he published Facundo (full title Civilizacion y Barbarie: Vida de Juan Facundo Quiroga). In this work, which is Argentina’s most famous, he used the story of a warlord to subtly criticize Rosas. The book was so well-known and incisive that Chile and Argentina saw difficulties arise in their diplomatic relationship. Chile sent Sarmiento to Europe to study education and ways to attract immigration to Chile. In his travels to Europe, Africa, and the United States, Sarmiento wrote many letters that were published as a travel narrative – the first written by a Latin American.
In France he admired the architecture but was distressed by social inequalities and the fact that France supported de Rosas. When he arrived in Paris he hoped that copies of Facundo would be there and that the book would be reviewed, but he had to arrange it himself since the copies never arrived. He began to try and understand Parisian politics, but left the country disillusioned by the wars of words that never seemed to be about getting things done. While there he considered his status as a flaneur as one that allowed him especial insights; he claimed to have foreseen the revolutions of 1848. Back in Argentina he entered politics in his own country. De Rosas fell in 1852 and not long after Sarmiento became the ambassador to the United States, a country he now began to revere. He traveled there in 1864 to look at its education system.
In 1868, while abroad, he was elected president of Argentina, a post that he held until 1874. He endeavored to improve education, transportation, and communication. He survived an assassination attempt. His time in office is looked on favorably now as he had progressive and humanitarian ideals, but at the time he was not particularly popular. His biographer Allison Bunkley writes that his presidency "marks the advent of the middle, or land-owning classes as the pivot power of the nation. The age of the gaucho had ended, and the age of the merchant and cattleman had begun.”
After his term as President ended, he became the General Director of Schools for the Province of Buenos Aires as well as the Senator for San Juan. He left that post to be the Interior Minister but then resigned after mounting conflict with the Governor of Buenos Aires. His last post was that of Superintendent General of Schools for the National Education Ministry. Throughout his life he continued to write extensively.
Sarmiento died in 1888 of a heart attack. He was 77 years old. He is on the 50 peso and was honored in 1943 by the creation of the Panamerican Teachers’ Day. A statue of him stands in Boston; another by Rodin is in Buenos Aires.