There seems to be an upsurge of Argentine interest in the nineteenth-century caudillos. To be sure, such interest has never died, but in periods of disillusionment like the post-Perón years Argentines turn to the caudillos as heroes of braver and more exciting days, as symbols of nationalism to a people whose national pride has been bruised. Illogical, perhaps, since the caudillos usually fought nationalism in their defense of federalism, but they did defend argentinismo as they saw it and opposed everything foreign. One cannot help but reflect that Sarmiento would regard the whole concentration on these “barbarians” as a social malaise or at least escapism.
Nevertheless, each year there is an outpouring of books on the caudillos. Some attempt scholarship; some reach for a popular and uncritical audience. Jorge Newton tries to do both. Some attack the caudillos almost as Sarmiento would have done for impeding the march of civilization; some eulogize them as authentic national heroes whose barbarism was justifiable since it was in a good cause and in the proper age. Again, Newton does both, though his is a simple and superficial treatment. He is indeed a prolific writer, having produced eleven books in the last three years. Obviously they are not scholarly history, though most have a limited bibliography, along with a claim that the author had consulted unnamed archives, libraries, periodicals, and other works. In both the Güemes and the López, the bibliographies list exactly 34 items. The body of each work is studded with undocumented quotations.
While not the products of definitive historical scholarship, they are interesting and readable accounts, relatively neutral in tenor, discussing the lives and times of two men who played important roles in the first third of the nineteenth century. Güemes, born to a patrician background and natural leadership in Salta, was active primarily in the era of independence. While he sought to protect the autonomy of his native province, he was an Argentine patriot, active in the fight for independence in Upper Peru and a collaborator with the great San Martín. Newton describes him as having all the virtues and very few defects of the caudillos—a natural leader in the most genuine and noble sense of the word. Perhaps his untimely death in the wars at the age of 48 has added to or at least protected his luster.
López rose from humble background to a similar position of power in Santa Fe. From 1810 to 1818 he participated in the wars of independence and then seized control of Santa Fe, which became his base of operations for his last twenty years. He shifted allegiances often, now friend, now enemy of Francisco Ramírez, first allied to the porteños, then opposed to them. Gradually he emerged as the prime defender of federalism, but he was overshadowed by Rosas long before his death in 1838.
The publisher, Editorial Plus Ultra, has achieved its stated objective, to turn out a series of volumes on the caudillos and their era of national history, all the product of one pen and therefore of integrated interpretation. This writer would criticize the objective. The books are readable; they are reasonably impartial; and they gather together second-hand knowledge and uncritical interpretations. However, one man cannot produce definitive history on such a vast scale. The scholar must go beyond these books to find anything new about the period. The popular reader already has many books available to him in the same field.