Sarmiento begins his work by delving into the particulars of the Argentinian landscape and its inhabitants. The land is blessed with navigable rivers but has open, desolate plains that are breeding grounds for the gauchos, wild and savage men who eschew law and order. They represent the forces of barbarism sweeping the land, eradicating the progress and civilization of the cities. These men are indolent and primitive; they care only for their horses and fighting. They hate refinement and anything European, including education. The fight with the forces of nature is what consumes them; Sarmiento acknowledges that this indelibly shapes their character.
There are many unique types in Argentina besides the gaucho: the rastreador (a track-finder), the baqueano (the topographer), the cantor (the minstrel), and the gaucho outlaw. Argentinian farmers do not fall into these categories and are hard workers with little time to waste on fighting and stealing horses. The men in the cities are civilized and devote their time to learning and industry.
Sarmiento accounts for the 1810 revolution that swept the country and brought about the Republic. There were revolutionary and conservative parties as well as the new entity of the montoneras, provincial warlike associations. As the provincial chiefs began to amass power, civilization came under threat. Many cities saw their progress fading as tyrants took over. Ignorance, poverty, and suffering became commonplace. Sarmiento articulates his desire to eradicate the forces of barbarism and restore the glory of the Argentinian city.
On this stage stepped Facundo Quiroga, the quintessential gaucho. He was born in San Juan and demonstrated his bellicosity and disdain for rules almost immediately. He did not attain much education, quarreled with his family, and left to join the military. He could not be controlled or restrained; he was bloodthirsty and rebellious. After he escaped from prison he worked his way up the ranks. He was a consummate gambler, never drank, and seemed to have an air of prophecy and destiny about him. Stories circulated about his mythic exploits.
Facundo’s first major conquest was the city of La Rioja. His time in charge was characterized by disorder, the devaluing of currency, the erosion of law and tradition, and violence.
Other cities also experienced a threat to their civilization from the gauchos and caudillos. Sarmiento describes the elegant and high-minded Cordova and the progressive and refined Buenos Ayres, ruing how the latter would be nearly destroyed by Juan Manuel de Rosas, a brutal dictator. Most of these cities featured two political parties –the Unitarios (progressive, civilized, European) and the Federals (retrogressive, native).
The Republic had a good man in Rivadavia, but he resigned after it became clear the provinces did not approve of him. Argentina began to prepare for war against Brazil in 1825 and asked the provinces for men. Facundo relished fighting but often turned against those who instructed him. At this time Rosas was burnishing his political resume.
Dorrego assumed the governorship of Buenos Ayres but was very unpopular and was eventually killed. Facundo traveled to Cordova but was defeated in the Battle of Tablada by General Paz, a man of European military training, intellect, and refinement.
Civil war filled Argentina while Facundo returned to La Rioja to rule with a brutal and iron fist. He pursued women, gambled incessantly, and capriciously executed his enemies. He tried to defeat Paz again and lost, and sought refuge in Buenos Ayres to escape his enemies. After a time he went to Mendoza and crushed that beautiful city as well.
Eventually Paz was captured and Facundo headed to San Juan. He used terror to control the populace. This is also what he did in Tucuman, a gorgeous tropical region. His efforts here quelled the impulses of progress; Sarmiento views this as a great tragedy, for it could have been such a productive region.
Chaos and division beset the Republic. Rosas continued to work his way up, eventually becoming president after machinations and manipulations. He and Facundo, who had an uneasy but peaceful relationship until then, began to war with each other. Facundo spent the last few years of his life in Buenos and began to have dark forebodings about his imminent death but refused to heed them. Santos Perez, a gaucho outlaw, killed Facundo.
Sarmiento concludes his work with a brief biography of the priest-turned-soldier Felix Aldao. Aldao discovered he loved fighting and killing more than comforting the dying; he turned fully to violence and dissolution, becoming drunken and vengeful. He joined his brothers Jose and Francisco in the civil war raging in the republic. After his brothers died he descended into possible insanity and debauchery.