The National Constitution is 170 years old. Drafted, promulgated and sworn in 1853, it was modified several times but without substantive changes in the principles or institutional structure of the republic. Thus, it has resulted in one of the longest existing constitutions in the world.
On May 1, the Day of the National Constitution is celebrated, in commemoration of its sanction, on May 1, 1853, in the city of Santa Fe.
Because of this long-term success, we tend to overlook the moment in which it was forged and the effort of political construction that it implied, with its share of uncertainty and conflict, as well as the experimental and innovative character of the constitutional text itself. At a time when politics appears very discredited in public opinion, because it is considered far from the problems of the country, oblivious to the tribulations of the people and above all, closed in on itself, it is worth returning to that transcendent moment, in which political action was decisive in shaping the Argentine Republic.
The project to give a constitution to these territories was born with independence, but the initial attempts failed and by the mid-nineteenth century that step, which was considered an outstanding debt, had no signs of being paid. By then, Argentina had organized itself as a confederation of relatively autonomous provinces, among which Buenos Aires, led by Juan Manuel de Rosas, came to predominate over the whole.
From his position of power, Rosas opposed the dictation of a constitution, so that possibility was blocked until his fall. She was not oblivious to the constitutional question, which fueled the uprising against her led by one of her main lieutenants, the governor of Entre Ríos.
On May 1, 1851, Justo José de Urquiza announced his rebellion through a pronouncement of two points: in the first, he communicated that the people of Entre Rios summarized the powers inherent in their territorial sovereignty, previously delegated in the person of the governor of Buenos Aires. And in the second he stated that Entre Ríos remained in an attitude of understanding directly with the rest of the world, until "the national assembly of the other sister provinces has gathered, the Republic is definitively constituted."
An idea in the air
This sentence summed up his constitutional will and shows that the issue was already "up in the air." But from there to its realization a space of pure indeterminacy opened: not only did it depend on a military triumph that was not guaranteed, but even in that case, what would come next would be, at least, uncertain.
Only the province of Corrientes had joined the statement, while the others had reaffirmed their loyalty to Rosas. And while the final defeat of Buenos Aires on February 3, 1852 at the Battle of Caseros operated as an incentive for its governors to change their minds, nothing assured their loyalty to the victor.
The alignment with Urquiza was unanimous in the letter, but in practice it was much less forceful. In the aftermath of Caseros no one could anticipate how the story would go.
Aware of the relative weakness of his power on a national scale, Urquiza wasted no time and, with the advantage that military victory gave him, put his capacity for political action into play with two measures that he took immediately. On the one hand, he commissioned Bernardo de Irigoyen, a man from Buenos Aires, from a federal family and former Rosista official, to travel the country and recruit adhesions, carrying as his only weapon a credential letter from his principal.
On the other hand, counting on the provinces that he already dominated – Entre Ríos, Corrientes, Santa Fe and Buenos Aires – and were, in turn, the signatories of the Federal Pact of 1831, he gathered his representatives in the Palermo barracks.
There, they signed a protocol that recovered the principles of that pact, where the convocation of a general congress still pending had been foreseen. Thus, Urquiza legitimized his actions no longer in the force of arms but in the tradition of federalism. On April 6 he was entrusted with the management of the foreign affairs of the Confederation until the constituent assembly met.
Unlike Rosas, who had never wanted to summon her, Urquiza immediately moved in that direction. He was convinced of the need to give the Confederation an institutional organization, as were most of the political leaders who soon accompanied his project.
Just two days after the signing of the Palermo protocol, Urquiza invited the governors to attend a "National Convention" to be held in San Nicolás de los Arroyos, so that "they could all tend according to the organization of the Republic."
This speed in decision-making was crucial to ensure a first step in the direction of institutional organization. There was a favorable response from most of the provinces, which sent representatives to San Nicolás, and although the negotiation was not easy, the final project was approved unanimously.
It set the convocation of a constituent congress in Santa Fe, composed of two deputies from each province, and the appointment of Urquiza as Provisional Director of the Argentine Confederation.
The agreement that was signed there on May 31, just four months after Caseros, was an act of strong political will on the part of who then appeared as the most powerful leader in the country, and found fertile ground among local leaders who had experimented for decades with a system that theoretically assured autonomy to their provinces but in practice subordinated them to the power of the strongest.
But that favorable echo of the pact was not enough to ensure the peace necessary to take the next step, the most important: the convening of a congress to dictate a constitution. The internal panorama showed alarming symptoms of political unrest, which Urquiza sought to placate, through negotiations and pressures aimed at ensuring the calm necessary to advance in the organization project.
Thus, he was able to get the provincial governments to explicitly adhere to the agreement signed by their envoys in San Nicolás, one after another. But there was an exception: the province of Buenos Aires, where opponents and defenders of the agreement clashed in the following months, and despite the direct intervention of Urquiza who resorted to all possible means – including military deployment – to ensure the support of Buenos Aires, the rebels triumphed, the legislature formally rejected the agreement and, in September of that same year of 1852, The province was separated from the rest of the country. It was the beginning of almost a decade of formal separation and conflicts, tensions and negotiations between the now State of Buenos Aires and the Argentine Confederation.
The situation added complexity and uncertainty, but Urquiza kept going. The agreement of San Nicolás enabled the convocation of the constituent and in the months that followed the provinces were designating their two respective deputies. The names emerged from negotiations between the provincial leaders and the environment of the Provisional Director, and included a heterogeneous list of men of different generations and professions, later corroborated at the polls. In those same months, Buenos Aires deepened its rebellion and other provinces suffered their own internal disputes.
Hilda Sábato, historian. Photo: Fernando de la Orden.
Meanwhile, Santa Fe received the elected deputies and the congress opened its sessions on November 20, just 10 months after Caseros. In December, the five-member Constitutional Business Commission, later expanded, was appointed to draft the bill. Although the task was practically ready by March 1853, unsuccessful attempts to add Buenos Aires delayed the presentation until the following month.
As of April 18, plenary sessions were held every day, in order to conclude on the date suggested by Urquiza, May 1. There were few pitfalls in the debate. The majority finally voted on the bill as it stood and by 14 votes to 4 the text of the Constitution was approved. Presented to Urquiza, who at that time was in San José de Flores, in the middle of the conflict zone with the porteños, he formally promulgated it on May 25 and ordered the oath on the other great patriotic date, July 9.
The productivity of politics
Thus, in a completely different scenario from that offered by the disputes in Buenos Aires and other provinces, the National Constitution was approved, in a relatively calm climate and with remarkable speed.
A happy ending, so to speak, that never ceases to surprise, and that speaks, above all, of the productivity of politics, that is, of the capacity of human beings to act and shape the new. Nothing that happened can be explained without taking into account that decisive factor: the political will and the decision to act of those who forced the present reality to go a little further in pursuit of a transformation project.
And here it is worth mentioning first of all Urquiza, determined to institutionalize the nation. He acted with energy and skill, concentrating efforts on that objective and, mounted on his figure of victor, he took advantage of the situation not to crush the defeated or to rise to all power, but to convince, pressure, negotiate, force when necessary, in order to add allies to the constitutional cause and discourage or relegate those reluctant to it.
Hence the relative calm that prevailed in Congress, since that instance was not reached until after an arduous work of Urquiza and his collaborators to guarantee results. A high-school political engineer.
At the same time, all this would have been shipwrecked without the small group of those who devised and worked on the constitutional design – Juan B. Alberdi from the outside, José B. Gorostiaga and Juan María Gutiérrez, among others, within Congress; They concretized what until then was only an abstract ideal: a Constitution.
In that instance, innovation also predominated, with a constitutional design that, rather than regulating the present reality, proposed to shape a project for the future and represented a risky political and institutional bet, whose fate was uncertain.
Today we know that the Constitution has remained in force for 170 years, while it has been and continues to be the subject of controversy and change. Perhaps in this lies the success of this work. The normative and institutional scaffolding of firm foundations, which resulted from those few weeks of work in Santa Fe, showed at the same time a remarkable plasticity.
It is possible to associate this flexibility with the political conditions of the moment, a convulsed moment in which there was no indisputable hegemonic power. In this context, the person who embodied authority was inclined to protect the constitutional instance from internal struggles and did so by enabling a politically diverse group while committed to the institutional cause and determined to experiment with the new. This group worked with degrees of freedom that would have been unthinkable in the time of Rosas and unlikely later, when other hegemonic wills were forged.
In short, a complex web of political conditions and actions made success possible, at a very difficult time, crossed by conflict and uncertainty about the future. Perhaps it was precisely this indeterminacy that offered the opportunity to forge with relative freedom the foundational work that turned out to be the Argentine Constitution. Unlike our present mediocrity, the will and creativity displayed in 1853 demonstrated the productivity of politics.
Hilda Sábato is a historian. His latest book is Republics of the New World (Taurus).
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