Bartolomé Mitre was one of the Argentine statesmen who dominated his country’s political scene following the overthrow of Juan Manuel Ortiz de Rosas in 1852. The son of Ambrosio Mitre and Josefa Martinez, he grew up in Buenos Aires where the political life was dominated by Rosas.
Disliking the dictatorship that Rosas had established, when Mitre was 26 he began his 15-year exile, leaving Argentina for Uruguay where he took part in the defense of Montevideo against the Argentine dictator. He then went to Bolivia and Peru, returning to Uruguay, where in 1852 he led their forces in the Battle of Caseros, which led to the overthrow and flight of Rosas.
In 1853 Buenos Aires province refused to accept the new Argentine constitution which massively diminished its role in the nation’s politics, and Mitre was called upon to lead the breakaway province. Eight years later he was governor and led the Unitarists at the Battle of Pavon on September 17, 1861, when the Federalists, who wanted regional autonomy, were decisively defeated. Although few realized it at the time, it was the end of the Federalist cause.
Mitre, who became president on April 12, 1862, moved the capital back to Buenos Aires and spent the next two years ensuring that the Federalists were politically marginalized.
He extended postal and telegraph lines throughout the country with stamps being issued for the whole of Argentina rather than separate regional issues as had previously been the case. Mitre also ended most local taxes, consolidated provincial and regional debt, and established a nationwide system of courts. Immediately, the power of the Federalists had been diminished.
In December 1864 war with Paraguay broke out when the Paraguayan president, Francisco Antonio López, still believing that the Federalists would prevent Argentina playing an important role in the impending conflict, attacked the Brazilian Matto Grosso region and then marched into Argentina and captured the city of Corrientes.
However, López had miscalculated, and Mitre took charge of the Argentine forces and became a passionate advocate of continued Argentine involvement, allying his country with Brazil and the new government of Uruguay. This resulted in the war becoming known as the War of the Triple Alliance. One of Mitre’s sons, Jorge, was killed in that war.
The war dominated Argentine affairs, and Mitre used it to achieve greater national unity. It also seems certain that the war was particularly beneficial to Mitre’s supporters, some of whom amassed fortunes in war contracts.
Mitre’s political party became known as the Purveyors’ Party, as the prices for beef, leather, horses to serve as cavalry mounts, fodder, and military supplies soared. The main Federalist leader, Urquiza, was also placated by massive contracts for supplying the Argentine and the Brazilian military.
In 1868, when his term as president came to an end, Paraguay’s defeat was inevitable, even if the final victory was still two years away. The defeat of the Paraguayan forces at the Battles of Tuyuti in May 1866 and Curupayty in September, as well as the subsequent capture of the Paraguayan fort of Humaita, failed to gain Mitre much popularity in Buenos Aires.
In January 1868 Mitre stepped down as commander in chief of the Allied forces, and the post went to the Brazilian marquis (later duke) of Caxias. In the 1868 presidential elections, the Argentine population was clearly weary of the conflict and refused to support Mitre’s handpicked successor-designate in the presidential elections.
However, Mitre was elected to the senate and in 1874 ran again for the presidency. On losing, Mitre tried to lead a rebellion, which quickly petered out. In 1891 he again contested the presidency, but withdrew before the final election. In his old age, Mitre was regularly seen around Buenos Aires, and when he died on January 19, 1906, he was acclaimed as one of the great men in Argentine politics.
The newspaper La Nacion ran a full-page obituary on the day after he died and another on the following day. He was buried in Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires. He was featured on a 1935 postage stamp and again in 2006 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his death.
As well as being a politician, Mitre was also a great scholar. He translated Dante’s Divine Comedy into Spanish and was the author of many books. He wrote poetry and detailed biographies of both independence heroes Manuel Belgrano and San Martín.
An avid reader and book collector, a contemporary painting of his bedroom by Pierre Calmettes shows many books open around the room. Mitre’s library of 20,000 books has been augmented since his death by an additional 50,000 volumes, making it one of the most important in Argentina. Known as the America Library, the vast majority of the books are concerned with the Americas, or printed in the Americas.
It is open to the public and contains many rare works in Spanish and English, as well as a map collection, rows of bound periodicals, and a coin collection. In addition, there is a historical archive of 48,000 documents covering 19th-century Argentine history.
The library is housed in Mitre’s old house, now the Mitre Museum, where the room in which Mitre met Urquiza and Derqui on the ground floor has been recreated. On the upper floor, Mitre’s bedroom, bathroom, and adjoining study have all been faithfully preserved with a photograph of the former president’s wife above the bed, flanked by those of his sons Jorge and Adolfo.
Entry to the museum is two pesos—the two peso note having Mitre on one side, and his residence—the museum—on the other. One of Mitre’s sons, Emilio became an engineer and politician, another son, Bartolomé Mitre y Vedia, was a well-known writer.