Brevity is admirable when it is justified, but Bernardo O’Higgins deserves more detailed study than this biography has given him. To be fair, perhaps part of the difficulty is with the assignment given to the author by the publisher. Be that as it may, at least Jay Kinsbruner has provided a complete and detailed resume of O’Higgins’ career, a resume difficult to obtain from many current sources. The author has traced O’Higgins’ life from his birth in Chilian, through a brief residence in Lima, his education in Spain and England, his return to Chile, his participation in the Wars of Independence, and his administration of Chile, 1817-1823, to his exile and death in Peru. Sorting through the mountains of material concerning these events was undoubtedly a task, and the author has performed it admirably. O’Higgins’ activities during these years are clearly indicated.
As the author points out, however, his major interest is in interpretation, and questions might be raised over several of his conclusions. The brevity of the study has undoubtedly weakened his arguments, as he does not always assemble adequate evidence in support. An example is his contention that after the establishment of the Chilean junta in 1810, there were sufficient qualified persons for administration. What constitutes a qualified administrator? This question is not answered, except for a remark that Chileans had gained experience during the latter years of the colonial period in positions of the “working bureaucracy.” But aside from serving on cabildos, not many of the Chileans mentioned in the narrative seem to have had this administrative experience. Throughout the study one receives the impression, in spite of the author’s view, that Chile suffered precisely because few people had an idea of what to do or how to do it. For example, in the first Congress business was paralyzed “because neither side was all too sure how to go about running a legislature” (p. 49).
Kinsbruner also attempts to clarify the role of the landed aristocracy in Chile’s early governments and also the liberal and conservative positions. As he has indicated in this and other studies, the generally accepted idea that the landed aristocracy alone controlled Chile after independence is not accurate. The discussion of the terms “liberal and conservative,” however, becomes a bit confusing, as the author does not clearly define them. O’Higgins is called a “republican” and “liberal,” but certainly his liberalism was quite different from that of later Chilean figures whom the author calls “classical liberals.” The difference was especially notable in his attitude toward the Church.
It can be seen that this work raises many questions which need investigating. One would hope that in some future more detailed study Kinsbruner will present the evidence to support his conclusions and clarify some of the issues that he raises.