The expression antigua constitución was frequently used in the Hispanic world at least since the second half of the eighteenth century in a manner similar to the British use of the terms “ancient constitution” or “fundamental law.” Scarcely studied, this political concept is a key to a better understanding of the history of Spanish America during the years that followed the crisis of the monarchy—a long period of instability judged traditionally as an age of anarchy and void of any political norms. On the contrary, the new sovereign, though fragile, governments emerging after independence resorted to a hybrid and ambiguous set of rules and principles, some of them of colonial origin. Ancient statutes such as the Leyes de Indias or the more recent Real Ordenanza de Intendentes coexisted with the new legislation that intended to establish representative regimes.
This article aims to assess the validity of that ancient constitution in the political life of the provinces of Río de la Plata. Therefore, the case of facultades extraordinarias granted to governors is studied here not as the usual proof of arbitrary rule, but as a component of the antigua constitución—the classical institution of dictatorship. Concomitantly, the concept of caudillismo and the intellectual formation of government leaders are revisited. Frequently veiled to eyes in search for Latin America’s modernity, a coherent set of doctrines—most of them rooted in the Law of Nature and the Law of Nations—comes into sight as the foundations of the political life of this period.