The Undying Flame: Mariano Moreno of Buenos Aires, by Ellen Garwood, Washington, D.C.: American Studies Center, 227 pages, $15.00.
Americans know far too little about Latin America. As a child, I remember reading about Simon Bolivar, the liberator, who led some of the colonies in revolt against Spain. But aside from Bolivar, how many of us have even heard the names of San Martin, O'Higgins, Belgrano, or Moreno?
This is the ignorance with which I opened The Undying Flame, Ellen Garwood's biography of Mariano Moreno, the architect of Argentina's revolution against Spain. What I found was the story of a genuine hero, an advocate of reason and liberty in an age when such principles were still considered heretical.
A lawyer, originally schooled by Franciscan monks (who smuggled in free-thought books from Europe despite the Inquisition), Moreno in 1809 was hired by Argentina's ranchers to present a brief to the colonial government arguing for free trade. At the time, only trade with Spain was permitted, and with the Napoleonic wars raging, the British navy was interdicting most Spanish vessels. As a result, the ranchers had virtually no market for their hides and tallow, yet the cost of their largely imported supplies was soaring.
Support for this mercantilist policy came from the local Spanish merchants, who were charging sky-high prices for a small volume of smuggled-in goods. But Moreno's Representacion de los Hacendodos made such a persuasive case for free trade (in part by appealing to the government's self-interest in higher tariff revenues from a much larger volume of trade) that the monopoly was overturned, with highly beneficial results.
Much of Moreno's inspiration for the Representacion came from Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, a Spanish translation of which had been given to him by his friend, Manuel Belgrano—later a fellow revolutionary hero. Also influential in shaping Moreno's ideas were the writings of Rousseau, Paine, and Jefferson. In the Buenos Aires Gaceta, the newspaper he founded in 1810, Moreno reprinted portions of Jefferson's Notes on Virginia.
From these thinkers Moreno developed his philosophy of government. Sovereignty, he concluded, rests ultimately in the people, not in kings. When Ferdinand VII of Spain was captured by Napoleon's forces, Moreno saw his opportunity to undermine the concept of obedience to the crown. As a member of the Junta of Government which took over from the Spanish Viceroy in 1810, he expounded his views in a series of articles in the Gaceta. The displacement of Ferdinand, he argued, meant that the authority which had been granted him by the people no longer applied; hence, they were free to devise their own form of government. It should rely on a written constitution, with checks and balances on the use of power, he explained, rather than naively trusting in the goodness of various leaders.
Needless to say, in an age when monarchy was still the dominant order of things, blessed by the Church, these views were highly controversial. Although Moreno's influence was profound, as the principal strategist and expounder of the revolution, opposition forces remained strong even within the junta membership. Moreno resigned when the balance of forces turned against convening a constitutional convention, as he had long been urging. He was sent on a mission to London—actually into exile—and fell sick and died on the voyage, at the age of 33. Had he lived, perhaps the name Moreno would today be as well known in North America as that of Bolivar.
Garwood's well-researched biography illustrates once again the power of ideas to change the world, irrespective of borders. The ideas of (British) Adam Smith, (French) Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and (American) Thomas Jefferson inspired this brilliant young lawyer to bring freedom to his Argentinian countrymen.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Brief Review".